The Tragedy of Mercilessness: Matthew 18:35

tragedy of mercilessness (2)

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e) Matt 18:35: Jesus immediately made the meaning of this parable in Matt 18:21–35 clear to Peter by providing its application (Cf. Matt 13:1–2, 10–11).

Christ concluded by saying, “This also my heavenly Father shall do to you, if each of you will not forgive their brother [or sister] from your hearts.”

At last, Jesus confirmed that the king in the parable represents the Lord.[1]

The Greek construction of “will not forgive” (mē aphēte) forms a strong negation, indicating an unwillingness to extend forgiveness to another person.[2]

It does not mean that we struggle to quench bitterness and find ourselves repeatedly needing to forgive the offender for the same incident. The phrase “from your hearts” refers to sincerity, rather than merely saying that we forgive someone.[3]

As Christians, God has absolved the enormous debt of our sin (Col 2:13–14). Surely, we can extend that same mercy to people whose transgressions against us trifle in comparison,[4] especially when they express repentance.[5]

Experiencing the mercy and grace of God transforms our hearts. Thus, we can extend to others what we have already received (Luke 7:36–50).[6]



God exempts none of us from the command to reflect divine forgiveness.[7] Mercy received reproduces mercy.[8]

A refusal to forgive someone who expresses repentance casts doubt upon our citizenship in the kingdom of God.[9]

Those who do not know God’s forgiveness can imitate his disciples on a superficial level. However, their words and actions will ultimately reveal their true allegiance (Matt 12:33–37; Matt 15:18–19).

People who hold onto bitterness like a treasure will experience eternal damnation,[10] for God will not forgive the unforgiving (Matt 7:1–5; James 2:13; Rev 20:11–15).[11]



As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

No one should be surprised that they cannot come to believe so long as, in deliberate disobedience, they flee or reject some aspect of Jesus’s commandment. You do not want to subject some sinful passion, an enmity, a hope, your life plans, or your reason to Jesus’s commandment?

Do not be surprised that you do not receive the Holy Spirit, that you cannot pray, that your prayer for faith remains empty!

Instead, go and be reconciled with your sister or brother; let go of the sin which keeps you captive; and you will be able to believe again!

If you reject God’s commanding word, you will not receive God’s gracious word. How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point? The disobedient cannot believe.[12]



Particularly where trauma has occurred, the concept of extending forgiveness contains some pitfalls.

Finding a wise counselor, taking time to process the wounds, and even medical intervention may be required to experience healing and gain the ability to forgive the offender.[13]

In such cases, no one should be pressured to forgive.[14]

Where abuse has occurred, real change requires a long-term process, even with third party intervention.[15]

We must recognize that abusers often appear genuinely repentant and promise to change. However, this does not last (Prov 19:19).[16]

God never calls us to passively accept violence perpetrated against us.[17]

Therefore, we must not counsel the recipients of abuse to simply accept an apology and give the perpetrator another chance.

Abusers will often portray themselves as the true victims. Such advice can be equivalent to a death warrant.[18]



The Presbyterian Church of America, a conservative evangelical denomination, published the following official statement on this topic:

The Committee believes that when there are words and actions on the part of one spouse that threaten the life of the other spouse and/or children, that the one(s) threatened should be counseled by the [elders], or representative thereof, to remove themselves from the threatening situation and the abuser should be urged to seek counsel. Such a procedure will protect those threatened.

When the abuser does not cease these words and actions, the Session (elders) should investigate whether these words and actions are in effect breaking the one-flesh relationship by “hating” the abused spouse and not “nourishing and cherishing” this one (Eph 5:28–29).

In counseling the abuser, the reality of his Christian faith should be ascertained [1 Cor 6:9–10 includes the term “abusive person” (loidoros)].

When it is determined by the [elders] that the abuser does not appear to them to be Christian and the abuse continues, the Pauline teaching about an unbeliever leaving a believer should be applied [1 Cor 7:15].[19]



Forgiveness does not consist of denying, pardoning, or condoning the sin of another. It may neither result in reconciliation nor in forgetting the offense.[20]

God does not expect us to restore a toxic relationship.[21]

Nevertheless, only by releasing grudges can a victim sever harmful emotional ties to the offender. We must confess and forsake hatred more for our own sakes than for the benefit of those who sin against us.[22]

Fostering bitterness has the same effect as drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.[23]

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Read Matt 18:35. Why can people who refuse to forgive those who repent expect a destiny like that of the evil slave? What does forgiveness look like? How should we counsel people in abusive relationships? Based upon this parable, what can we deduce about Lamech’s fate (Gen 4:23–24)?






Go to Chapter 3: Calling on the Name of the Lord (Genesis 4:25–26)

[Related posts include A Lesson on Forgiveness (Matt 18:21–22); A King Settling Accounts (Matt 18:23–27); Astounding Hypocrisy (Matt 18:28–30); Having Mercy on our Fellow Debtors (Matt 18:31–34); Lamech’s Ode to Himself (Gen 4:23–24); God Hates Violence (Mal 2:13–16); Dissolution of Marriage (1 Cor 7:15–16); Sacrificial Love (Eph 5:25–30); and Our Certificate of Debt (Col 2:13–14)]

[Click here to go to Chapter 2: The Descent of Humanity (Genesis 4:17–24); or to Women and Marriage throughout Redemptive History]


[1]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 540.

[2]Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, 3rd Ed., 314.

[3]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 540.

[4]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 703.

[5]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 540–1.

[6]Wilkins, Matthew, 625.

[7]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 703.

[8]Wilkins, Matthew, 629.

[9]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 541.

[10]Wilkins, Matthew, 625.

[11]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 708.

[12]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (ed. Martin Kuske, et al.; vol. 4 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), 66.

[13]Jeffrey M. Brandsma, “Forgiveness,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling, 2nd Ed. (BEPC) (ed. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), 468–71, 470.

[14]Walter Elwell, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 2 Vols. (BEB) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 87.

[15]Paul Hegstrom, Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them: Breaking the Cycle of Physical and Emotional Abuse, Rev. Ed. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 2004), 131.

[16]Detective Sgt Donald Stewart, Refuge: A Pathway Out of Domestic Violence and Abuse (Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 2004), 44–5.

[17]Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb, Is It My Fault? Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence (Chicago: Moody, 2014), 128.

[18]Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck, eds., Women, Abuse, and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 234.

[19]20th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, “Report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Divorce and Remarriage (1992), 290–1, Http://

[20]Brandsma, “Forgiveness,” BEPC, 468.

[21]Hegstrom, Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them: Breaking the Cycle of Physical and Emotional Abuse, Rev. Ed., 104.

[22]Dr. Henry Cloud, Changes That Heal: How to Understand Your Past to Ensure a Healthier Future (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 257.

[23] This concept is attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous.