Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). That’s 490 times. Of course, in keeping with the parabolic or symbolic nature of most of Jesus’ teachings, He was not really setting a number for how many times you should forgive someone. He meant that Christians need to be always willing to forgive their brothers and sisters when they are wronged by them and ask for forgiveness.
Notice the use of the word “brother,” however. This is not the same as the word “neighbor,” and definitely not “enemy.” Jesus teaches His disciples to relate to all three categories in different ways.
The Biblical words “brother” and “sister” imply that they are real Christians—that is—in the New Testament sense, saints (Colossians 1:2, KJV). Going on to perfection, but not having yet attained it (Hebrews 6:1; Philippians 3:12). These are people who are serious, Bible obeying Christians; repentant, godly Christians. Not “perfect,” but Christians who are devout and hence children of God, and part of the body of Christ, the family of God (Galatians 3:26).
“Neighbor” does not imply a born again, saved Christian. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)—notice, to Jesus the Samaritans were not saved. He once said, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know” (John 4:22). Nevertheless, as an object lesson, Jesus used a Samaritan in His story to illustrate the good work of hospitality and charity to a “neighbor”: to a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39).
“Enemy” is another category of persons that Jesus addressed. These are obviously not born again, saved Christians either…at least in the eyes of Christ. These are adversarial, satanically inspired, mean-spirited people who are Hell-bent on destroying real Christians, ruining their lives, and their godly influence in the world. They are thorns in the flesh, tempters, and basically just, well, enemies of Christ, the Gospel, and true Christian disciples (Philippians 3:18; Colossians 1:21). Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
When Jesus was walking the earth, His most notable enemies were the Pharisees. How did He treat them? With love, with patience:–there were occasions that He even ate with them when invited to do so (Luke 7:36; 11:38). When they asked Him embarrassing and tricky questions in front of His crowds, He dealt with them wisely and patiently, and with love; but He also rebuked them for their evil (Luke 20:19-26). No doubt, in His private times, He probably prayed that their blind eyes would be opened, that their hearts be filled with the Holy Spirit and bring them to repent, and that they would follow Him (Luke 6:12). But eventually His patience wore out with the Pharisees. On many occasions, the Pharisees were blatantly hardhearted and impenitent; and Jesus escaped from them, never to visit them again (John 10:39). And finally, just before the cross, He called down seven harsh woes and judgments on the Pharisees (Matthew 23).
In today’s church I personally believe that traditional pastoral ministry has been discarded for the new Rick Warren model—aka the “seeker-sensitive” pastor idea. There are many things that I could go into detail about this. But I think John MacArthur is upholding the traditional Protestant vision of the pastor. You can study that in-depth some time. See John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel, Pastoral Ministry, and Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry. But how that bears on our present subject is this: most Protestant PASTORS ARE NOT PREACHING RIGHTEOUSNESS in their Sunday sermons; and as a result, most church goers are not being fed the holy Word of God in the way they should, and their spiritual eyes are blind. “Blind leaders of the blind” are abounding in the pulpits these days (Matthew 15:14). There is a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11), because these people’s hearts have grown dull (Matthew 13:15).
The social implications of this are devastating. Gay marriage in the churches is increasing every year; the divorce rate is now 50% among church goers; and also, a great majority of Christians, at least of the liberal church going class, advocate abortion under some circumstances. But these are just political and civic issues. The more particular Biblical virtues are also being either ignored or distorted. One of these virtues is forgiveness.
I believe that forgiveness is supposed to be shown to brothers and sisters and Christ to an unlimited extent, because they are walking in “evangelical repentance,” or continual repentance, “bearing fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8), which is not only the most central aspect of moral Christian living, but opens the door to living in a clear conscience before God (Acts 24:16), and doing good works (Matthew 25:31-46). The “seventy times seven” teaching of Christ (Matthew 18:22)—the doctrine of unlimited forgiveness—is only intended to be offered to brothers and sisters in Christ. As Peter said, “How many times should I forgive my brother?” And Jesus answered that question. Nowhere in the Bible is unlimited forgiveness taught by Jesus or any apostle other than in application to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlimited forgiveness is definitely not to be extended to pagan neighbors or to abusive enemies of Christians.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown comments on Matthew 18:22: “So long as it shall be needed and sought: you are never to come to the point of refusing forgiveness sincerely asked (See on Luke 17:3-4).” Key word: sincerely. Luke 17:3-4: “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” Notice: abusive people never GENUINELY ask for forgiveness, with a sincerely repentant heart, multiple times a day, planning on CHANGING THEIR WAYS. They only “apologize” in one, little small manner, and that with very much self-justification, and excuses: and that, only after you may have rebuked them for their evil conduct! The apologies never arise spontaneously from their hearts, because they are not sincerely sensitive or loving towards you. Jesus, therefore, in teaching “seventy times seven” forgiveness, is only applying it to the body of Christ, comprised of imperfect, yet genuinely repentant people. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown comments on Luke 17:4: this is “not a lower measure of the forgiving spirit than the ‘seventy times seven’ enjoined on Peter, which was occasioned by his asking if he was to stop at seven times. “No,” is the virtual answer, “though it come to seventy times that number, if only he ask forgiveness in sincerity.”
Pagan neighbors and enemies might be difficult to identify for some people, because so many church goers have been taught to “judge not lest you be judged” towards everyone in society (Matthew 7:1), including non-Christians. How much more non-judgmental and “loving” do you think Christians are expected to be, towards all fellow church goers? But this is a distortion of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.
This distortion becomes especially relevant to clear up when a Christian is maybe confronted repeatedly by an abusive person. Verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse is also very common today. And it is a shocking truth that many church goers fall into the category of impenitent verbal and emotional abusers. Physical abusers are easy to identify, because they leave black eyes and marks on their victims. It’s not so easy to identify someone who is verbally abusive. It’s much easier for these people to play a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde game of “two-face,” because they can hold their tongue in public gatherings, but around certain victims in a closed setting, they can unleash a torrent of verbal vomit. These people, even if they “go to church” are in no way born again Christians, especially if they are making no visible attempt at changing their abusive habit.
I simply don’t believe that Jesus advocates emotional or verbal abuse. Jesus wants us to forgive our brothers in the Lord. But when people are persistently abusive, I think it would be better to treat them as Christ treated His enemies: love them, pray for them, judge them, and escape from them!! It does not matter if an individual like this is a family member or not! It should not matter to those who, with Christ, can say, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Don’t let yourself be guilted by abusive people into offering them unlimited forgiveness; they have no Biblical right to make such pleas!
However, if you find your heart remembering emotional wounds from certain people, whom you have hopefully removed from your life, due to their unchanging abuse, a prayer that a godly man taught me helps:
Lord, I thank You that you have forgiven my sins.
Now, I forgive this person again.
And, I pray that You would give them more of Your Holy Spirit.
 Most Bible commentators, past and present, teach that Matthew 7:1-5 is only teaching against hypocrites judging people by their own hypocritical standards. Verse 5 especially establishes the doctrine of righteous judgment—or the validity of making right and proper judgments after having repented from that particular sin yourself; and especially after having repented from sins greater in severity than the lesser sins you are judging as wrong in other people. Jesus and the apostles nowhere preach the “non-judgmentalism” so popular in today’s churches. I believe the non-judgmental idea is an outgrowth of antinomianism (anti-law-of-God-ism).