A discussion of church discipline must recognize two errors often made in the interpretation of Matthew 18:15–20. First, we err if we divorce the church’s authority from its biblical basis, since this inevitably exalts church tradition above Scripture and binds people to confess many unbiblical doctrines. Yet as the Westminster Confession of Faith aptly states, church authority is inseparable from the Word of God, which alone binds the conscience absolutely (1.10). Scripture, and the events it records, establishes the church; therefore, Scripture stands in authority over the church. Church decisions bind only when they are biblical; to violate God’s Word for tradition’s sake is evil (Matt. 15:1–9).
The second error thinks 18:20 guarantees Jesus’ approval of anything two or more believers agree upon in prayer. However, the verse’s context refutes this view. Indeed, Jesus is present when believers congregate, but verse 20 promises that He backs up the church’s authority when it makes decisions in accord with the Bible, not that He will do whatever a group of Christians asks of Him.
Forgiveness and the restoration of relationship is the goal of discipline — from the first step to the last step of excommunication. Peter understands this partly; he will forgive a person up to seven times, more than the three times the rabbis prescribe in his day (v. 21). That Peter’s comprehension is incomplete is revealed in the Savior’s command to forgive “seventy times seven” (v. 22). According to some Reformed New Testament scholars Jesus really says, “seventy-seven times,” but the precise number is unimportant. Either way, as seen in the parable that follows, Christ is actually teaching that forgiveness must be unlimited.
Ten thousand talents is upwards of a trillion dollars in modern currency. It is an amount the servant could never repay; only by the king’s grace can this debt be canceled (vv. 23–27). As imitators of the true King, we, the recipients of grace, must show mercy, for Jesus will condemn all who are unmerciful toward their debtors (vv. 28–35). Believers, collectively as the church and individually, must always forgive penitent people. How can we possibly be Christians if we, whose unpayable debt has been erased, refuse to pardon those who have wronged us?
It is not as if unforgiving people lose their salvation, Matthew Henry says, for “those who do not forgive their brother’s trespasses, did never truly repent of their own, and therefore that which is taken away is only what they seemed to have.” Henry also gives a great principle for the Christian life: “God multiplies his pardons, and so should we. We should make it our constant practice to forgive injuries, and should accustom ourselves to it until it becomes habitual.”
For further study:
The Bible in a year: