Of all the devastating interactions in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees, this one has to be near the top of the list:
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. (Luke 7:47)
The Pharisee and the Sinful Woman
The context of that quote is Luke 7:36–50, a fairly familiar story. Briefly: Jesus is invited to dine at the home of a Pharisee, and as they are reclining at the table a “woman of the city” approaches Jesus, washing his feet with her tears and anointing them with expensive ointment. The Pharisee is horrified that Jesus would allow such a sinful woman to touch him.
Jesus knows the Pharisee’s scorn and tells him how the woman’s hospitality has exceeded his own (the Pharisee’s). Jesus tells a story about a moneylender cancelling two debts, one ten times as large as the other. Which debtor will love him more? The one with the larger debt.
Then Jesus speaks verse 47 (quoted above) to the Pharisee and turns to the woman and repeats, “Your sins are forgiven.” The implication for the Pharisee is clear to the reader—his sins are not forgiven.
But there is (to me) a natural question that flows out of the logic of this passage. If those who are forgiven much, love much, and if we want to grow in our love for God, should we also focus on how much we have been forgiven? If so, wouldn’t that involve dwelling on our sin?
Forgiveness and Forgetfulness
There’s an impulse among modern Christians to forget our sin after we know our forgiveness from God is secure. We know the mental and spiritual anguish that can be stoked by focusing on our failures. And we’ve heard the forgive and forget mantra enough that forgetting is an essential part of forgiving and being forgiven.
What is forgiveness between people? There’s a good illustration in Matthew 18:21–35, where Jesus again uses the analogy of a debt. When we forgive others, we absorb the debt caused by their sin against us so that they do not have to pay it. Among other things, this means that we will no longer hold that sin against them. We don’t need to pretend it didn’t happen, as there may be necessary consequences to sins, but we won’t extract any personal retribution. (I use the phrase “personal retribution” here in contrast to legal notions of justice that forgiveness does not erase.)
We can be sure that God acts this way toward us when he forgives us. He does not remind us of our sin nor use the memory of our past to harm us. (You may protest that Hebrews 8:12 says that God “…will remember their sins no more.” I think John Piper is correct when he reads that as God will not call to mind our sins in a punishing, vindictive way.)
We do have examples in Scripture, however, where Paul reminds fellow Christians of their sinful past. Here are two examples.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9–11)
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:11–13)
In both of these situations, Paul notes what these people once were. But he does not stop there. He also reminds them what is now true of them.
Recall Sin and Grace
Putting this together, it seems like we should recall what we were, but that we should also remember what we are. We are sinners, but we are washed and justified. We are loved and forgiven. We were without hope and without God, but now we have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Over time, we will grow in our understanding of how much we have been forgiven. We will see more of our sin, and we will see our current and former sin in greater, darker depth. This is part of developing and changing as a Christian.
How Much We’ve Been Forgiven
Returning to my question following the story of the Pharisee and the sinful woman, here’s the lesson. If we want to grow in our love for the Lord, we should focus on how much we’ve been forgiven.
This means recalling our sin, but never without also recalling God’s gracious forgiveness of that sin and our permanent standing with him as beloved children.