Those Who Are Forgiven Much, Love Much

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.

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3 Three-Word Phrases I Tell My Kids

Parents are always communicating with their children. A touch of restraint on the arm, an encouraging word after school, or a hug before bed all convey important truths. From the casual smile across the dinner table to the tear-filled conversation before bed, every exchange with my kids is an opportunity.

For Christian parents, one goal must shape every interaction: to help our children grow in their knowledge and love of God. We want them to believe and embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ!

There are on-ramps to discuss the gospel in many of our conversations with our children. And many of these conversations with my kids can start with these three-word phrases.

“I love you”

I grew up in a home where I never questioned my parents’ love. My mother and father both told me (and showed me) that they loved me on a regular basis. I thank God for this—I now realize how much security and stability this gave me.

Children first learn what love is from their parents. So parents must communicate love to their children in a way that is not dependent on performance. My kids should not only know they are loved when they score a soccer goal, when they bring home a good report card, or when their painting wins a local prize.

If parents are teaching their children about real love—and ultimately about God’s love—they will remind their children of their love in good times and bad, during times of correction and praise. Every instance of instruction is an opportunity.

Parents must tell their children “I love you,” and they must say it in a way that is full of grace.

“Please forgive me”

Any two people living in close proximity will sin against each other. Often. This is a sad fact of our fractured world.

Before children turn two or three, parents must think about discipline. They will have hard talks during which they help their children confess their sins to God and others. But one of the most powerful conversations a parent can have with their children is when the shoe is on the other foot.

I have needed to seek forgiveness from my kids many times. I have yelled at them in anger and impatience, I have joked at their expense, I have been deliberately unkind as a form of retaliation. This is, sadly, only a partial list.

My confession to my kids is both necessary, because God commands it of me (James 5:16), and important, because it teaches them vital truths about being a Christian.

In my confession, I teach my children about sin. We are all sinners; we will not lay aside these selfish hearts as we age like some pair of toddler pajamas. And sin has consequences. Because sin offends God, we must confess our sin to Him. When we sin against others, we must seek reconciliation.

I try not to make excuses when I confess my sin to my children. I acknowledge the ways I have hurt them and express my sadness and regret for my actions. We discuss Jesus’s work on the cross for me: I can be sure God has forgiven me because Jesus died, was buried, and rose. And then I ask them to forgive me, explaining that they will bear a cost in forgiving me (not holding a grudge, not retaliating, not bringing the incident up as a weapon in the future). There is always a cost to forgiveness.

We talk and then we pray. We hug. I hope this practice creates a culture of humility, short accounts, and eager reconciliation in my family that my children will remember and take with them. What better way to get to the heart of Christianity than to forgive each other and treasure the work of Jesus together!

“God loves you”

This wonderful truth is the foundation of all gospel hope, and we must say it often to ourselves and everyone around us. God really does love you (1 John 4:10)!

God’s love is the foundation for all our belief and the proper motivation for our obedience. When children ask why our family goes to church, there’s an enormous difference between an answer that describes our duty and an answer like this: “God loves us and wants us to worship him” (see Romans 12:1).

When I remind my kids of God’s love, this provokes all kinds of related questions.

How does He show us His love? How can we know His love? Why does He love us? How do we experience His love? Where do we learn about His love? How should we respond to His love?

These are questions of discipleship—both ours and our children’s! They naturally lead to conversations about the cross, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, spiritual disciplines, and the local church.

Parents are long-term disciplers of their children, so we should seek out these conversations, even when our kids respond with questions that are difficult or unrelated.

Conversations Matter

Parents aim to surround their children with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our time, our actions, our sacrifices, and our priorities all speak loudly to those nearby.

Our conversations matter most of all. And big conversations—conversations of eternal importance—can begin with these smallest of phrases.

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3 Essential Words to Say to Your Child

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I slid behind the wheel and felt the familiar pang of spiritual conviction. As we began the short trip to school, I tried to ignore the tap on my shoulder, but I knew what I had to do.

Just twenty minutes earlier, I yelled at my children. This was not a loving, firm correction, but an explosion. They disobeyed, and I lashed out at them, trying to provoke feelings of guilt and shame and smallness. It was terrible and embarrassing. I needed to come clean.

I confessed my sin and asked my daughter for forgiveness, which she gave gladly. Her grace pointed me to the very goodness of God I needed to remember.

The following hours were busy, filled with meetings, classes, advising, and grading. And yet, that four-minute conversation was the most important part of my day.

Seek Their Forgiveness

For their spiritual health and yours, your children need to hear you say those three little words: Please forgive me.

I’ve resisted this, and you have too. I have thought my sin was not that bad, or it wasn’t the right time, or they didn’t notice. If we’re honest, it’s easy to find reasons not to confess your sins to your child. You’re big, they’re small, and they’re not the boss of you.

But these conversations are crucial, both for your child’s spiritual development and for the health of your relationship with them. They’re one of the best ways to spotlight Jesus and glory in the gospel. Each talk may be uncomfortable, but there are at least five reasons we should ask for forgiveness from our children.

  1. Because God commands it. In the Bible, God urges reconciliation and harmony in relationships. We are to forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven us (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13). Real forgiveness presupposes confession from the guilty party, so when you sin against someone else, you should ask for their forgiveness.1 This includes your children.
  2. Because obedience is for everyone. Parents make and enforce the rules at home, so children usually know their offenses. But they see your sin too, especially when you sin against them. Through confession you underline that you are not above the law. God’s standard applies to you, and you don’t measure up. Admitting your sin gives you the chance, as a fellow sinner, to point to Christ.
  3. Because it teaches them how to forgive and seek forgiveness. Give your children a model for these conversations. Confess your sins specifically, without excuses. Describe the pain you have caused. Express your grief over your sin and the relational rift you’ve created. Ask them to forgive you, and thank them when they do.
  4. Because it teaches them grace. You don’t deserve your child’s forgiveness, much less God’s. Remind your child that God forgives his enemies: us!
  5. Because it points to Jesus. God didn’t forgive by putting our sins off to the side; he faced them. He is enraged against sin, but Jesus felt God’s fury in our place. Forgiveness, even the peer-to-peer kind, is costly (see Matt 18), and talking about this cost naturally turns to the gospel.

The Importance of the Heart

When you talk to your children about sin—whether theirs or yours—emphasize the heart. Give your children categories and language to describe the most important part of their relationship to God.

For example, I yelled because I was angry. But I was angry because my child’s disobedience upset my comfort and peace. I reacted in a sinful way because my happiness was more important than honoring God and caring for my children.

Conclusion

Enlist your spouse in your efforts to keep short accounts with your children. They have a better sense of when you need to confess than you do, and they can see your relationships more objectively.

As these conversations become more a part of your family life, your children will trust you more. Hopefully, they will come to a greater awareness of their own sin and the forgiveness and grace that God offers. This is the great aim of parenting.


  1. For much more on this line of thinking regarding forgiveness, check out Unpacking Forgiveness (affiliate link). 

Photo Credit: sarahbernier3140, public domain