Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 18:21-35 Luke 17:4
21. Then Peter approaching him said, Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times? 22. Jesus saith to him, I say not to thee till seven times, but till seventy times seven. 23. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is compared to a king, who wished to make a reckoning with his servants. 24. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents. 25. But as he was unable to pay, his master commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26. And that servant falling down, entreated him, saying, Master, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27. And his master, pitying that servant, forgave him, and acquitted him of the debt. 28. But that servant, having gone out, found one of his fellow-servants, who owed him a hundred pence: and laying hands on him, saying, Pay me what thou owest. 29. And his fellow-servant, fallind down, entreated him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30. But he would not, but went out, and threw him into prison, till he should pay the debt. 31. And when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were deeply grieved, and came, and related to their master all that had been done. 32. Then his master called him, and said to him, Wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou didst implore me: 33. Oughtest not thou also to pity thy fellow-servant, even as I pitied thee? 34. And his master, being enraged, delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that he owed him. 35. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts their offenses.
4. And if seven times in a day he shall offend against thee, and seven times in a day he shall turn to thee, saying, I repent, forgive him.
Matthew 18:21. Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me? Peter made this objection according to the natural feelings and disposition of the flesh. It is natural to all men to wish to be forgiven; and, therefore, if any man does not immediately obtain forgiveness, he complains that he is treated with sternness and cruelty. But those who demand to be treated gently are far from being equally gentle towards others; and therefore, when our Lord exhorted his disciples to meekness, this doubt occurred to Peter: “If we be so strongly disposed to grant forgiveness, what will be the consequence, but that our lenity shall be an inducement to offend?” 571 He asks, therefore, if it be proper frequently to forgive offenders; for, since the number seven is taken for a large number, the force of the adverb, (ἑπτάκις) seven times, is the same as if he had said, “How long, Lord, dost thou wish that offenders be received into favor? for it is unreasonable, and by no means advantageous, that they should, in every case, find us willing to be reconciled.” But Christ is so far from yielding to this objection, that he expressly declares that there ought to be no limit to forgiving; 572 for he did not intend to lay down a fixed number, but rather to enjoin us never to become wearied.
Luke differs somewhat from Matthew; for he states the command of Christ to be simply, that we should be prepared to forgive seven times; but the meaning is the same, that we ought to be ready and prepared to grant forgiveness not once or twice, but as often as the sinner shall repent There is only this difference between them, that, according to Matthew, our Lord, in reproving Peter for taking too limited a view, employs hyperbolically a larger number, which of itself is sufficient to point out the substance of what is intended. For when Peter asked if he should forgive seven times, it was not because he did not choose to go any farther, but, by presenting the appearance of a great absurdity, to withdraw Christ from his opinion, as I have lately hinted. So then he who shall be prepared to forgive seven times will be willing to be reconciled as far as to the seventieth offense.
But the words of Luke give rise to another question; for Christ does not order us to grant forgiveness, till the offender turn to us and give evidence of repentance. 573 I reply, there are two ways in which offenses are forgiven. If a man shall do me an injury, and I, laying aside the desire of revenge, do not cease to love him, but even repay kindness in place of injury, though I entertain an unfavorable opinion of him, as he deserves, still I am said to forgive him. For when God commands us to wish well to our enemies, He does not therefore demand that we approve in them what He condemns, but only desires that our minds shall be purified from all hatred. In this kind of pardon, so far are we from having any right to wait till he who has offended shall return of his own accord to be reconciled to us, that we ought to love those who deliberately provoke us, who spurn reconciliation, and add to the load of former offenses. A second kind of forgiving is, when we receive a brother into favor, so as to think favorably respecting him, and to be convinced that the remembrance of his offense is blotted out in the sight of God. And this is what I have formerly remarked, that in this passage Christ does not speak only of injuries which have been done to us, but of every kind of offenses; for he desires that, by our compassion, we shall raise up those who have fallen. 574 This doctrine is very necessary, because naturally almost all of us are peevish beyond measure; and Satan, under the pretense of severity, drives us to cruel rigor, so that wretched men, to whom pardon is refused, are swallowed up by grief and despair.
But here another question arises. As soon as a man by words makes profession of repentance, are we bound to believe him? Were this done, we must of necessity go willingly and knowingly into mistake; for where will be discretion, if any man may freely impose on us, even to the hundredth offense? I answer, first, the discourse relates here to daily faults, in which every man, even the best, needs forgiveness. 575 Since, then, amidst such infirmity of the flesh, our road is so slippery, and snares and attacks so numerous what will be the consequence if, at the second or third fall, the hope of forgiveness is cut off? We must add, secondly, that Christ does not deprive believers of the exercise of judgment, so as to yield a foolish readiness of belief to every slight expression, but only desires us to be so candid and merciful, as to stretch out the hand to offenders, provided there be evidence that they are sincerely dissatisfied with their sins. For repentance is a sacred thing, and therefore needs careful examination; but as soon as the offender gives probable evidence of conversion, Christ desires that he shall be admitted to reconciliation, lest, on being repulsed, he lose courage and fall back.
Thirdly, It must be observed that, when any man, through his light and unsteady behavior, has exposed himself to suspicion, we may grant pardon when he asks it, and yet may do so in such a manner as to watch over his conduct for the future, that our forbearance and meekness, which proceed from the Spirit of Christ, may not become the subject of his ridicule. For we must observe the design of our Lord himself, that we ought, by our gentleness, to assist those who have fallen to rise again. And certainly we ought to imitate the goodness of our heavenly Father, who meets sinners at a distance to invite them to salvation. Besides, as repentance is a wonderful work of the Spirit, and is the creation of the new man, if we despise it, we offer an insult to God himself.
23. The kingdom of heaven is compared. As it is difficult to bend us to mercy, and as we are quickly seized with weariness, particularly when we have to bear with many faults of brethren, our Lord confirms this doctrine by a most appropriate parable, the substance of which is, that those who will not yield to pardon the faults of brethren judge very ill for themselves, and subject themselves to a very hard and severe law; for they will find God to be equally stern and inexorable towards themselves. There are three parts in which the resemblance mainly consists; for the master is contrasted with the servant, the large sum of money with small or ordinary sums, and extraordinary kindness with extreme cruelty. By attending to these three points, it will be easy to ascertain Christ’s meaning; for what are we, if we are compared with God? And how large is the sum which every one of us owes to God? Lastly, how inconsiderable are the offenses, with which brethren are chargeable towards us, if we take into account our obligation to God? How ill then does that man deserve the compassion of God, who, though oppressed with an immense load, implacably refuses to forgive even the smallest offenses to men like himself? So far as regards the words, the kingdom of heaven here denotes the spiritual condition of the Church; as if Christ had said, that the state of matters between God and men, in regard to the soul and the nature of spiritual life, is the same as between an ordinary or earthly master and his servants, in regard to money and the affairs of the present life.
25. His master ordered him to be sold. It would be an idle exercise of ingenuity to examine here every minute clause. For God does not always display severity at first, till, constrained to pray, we implore pardon, but rather meets us with undeserved goodness. But Christ only shows what will become of us, if God shall treat us with the utmost severity; and again, if He shall choose to demand from us what we owe, how necessary it is for us to betake ourselves to prayer, because this is the only refuge that remains for transgressors. We must also attend to the wide difference of the sums; for, since one talent is worth more than a hundred pence, what proportion will a hundred pence bear to ten thousand talents?
31. When his fellow-servants saw what was done. Though we ought not to search for mystery in these words — because they contain nothing but what nature teaches, and what we learn by daily experience — we ought to know that the men who live among us will be so many witnesses against us before God; for it is impossible but that cruelty shall excite in them displeasure and hatred, more especially, since every man is afraid that what he sees done to others will fall upon his own head. As to the clause which immediately follows, it is foolish to inquire how God punishes those sins 576 which he has already forgiven; for the simple meaning is this: though he offers mercy to all, yet severe creditors, from whom no forgiveness can be obtained, are unworthy of enjoying it.
34. Delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that he owed. The Papists are very ridiculous in endeavoring to light the fire of purgatory by the word till; for it is certain that Christ here points out not temporal death, by which the judgment of God may be satisfied, but eternal death.
“Incitera les autres a mal faire, et a nous offenser;” — “shall induce others to do ill, and to offend us.”
“Mais tant s’en faut que Christ ait esgard a ceste objection pour lascher quelque chose de son dire, que mesmes il dit notamment et expressement que sans fin ne terme on doit tousiours pardonner;” — “but so far was Christ from paying regard to that objection, to extenuate any thing that he had said, that he even says plainly and expressly, that without end or limit we must always forgive.”
In the French copy he adds: — “Car il semble par ce moyen qu’il commande aux siens de tenir leur coeur contre les pervers, et leur refuser pardon;” — “for it appears in this way that he commands his followers to shut their heart against the obstinate, and to refuse them pardon.”
“Ceux qui sont cheus et ont failli;” — “those who are fallen and have transgressed.”
“Esquelles les plus parfaits mesmes ont besoin d’estre supportez, et qu’on leur pardonner;” — “which even the most perfect need to be borne with and forgiven.”
“Comment il est possible que Dieu punisse;” — “how it is possible for God to punish.”