Forgive If He (or She) Repents
So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Luke 17:3-4 NIV
Forgiveness is a controversial subject in today’s psychologized world. You would not think it would be, but it is. Two views of forgiveness are predominant: therapeutic or biblical.
The modern therapeutic approach states that we are obligated to forgive even if the person who wounded us shows no remorse over their actions. It is said that as Christians, we must automatically forgive every offense. Modern psychology says that forgiveness is about releasing the anger caused by the unjust action, letting go of the resentment caused by the emotional pain, and eliminating the desire for tit-for-tat retribution. Forgiveness is privatized and personalized. Forgiveness is about resolving our internal conflicts and dealing with our negative feelings over others’ hurtful actions.
The biblical view of forgiveness is different. Yes, we should maintain an attitude of forgiveness no matter who it is or what they have done and we should give to God our pain and disappointment. But primarily, forgiveness is about two parties. Forgiveness is about releasing the debt caused by others’ sinful actions. The Bible speaks of sin creating a debt and a forgiveness which releases that individual from that specific debt (Matt 6:12). Forgiveness given is dependent on repentance offered. Forgiveness is not just about me and my feelings, but it is also about the offending party’s relationship with God and their acceptance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Forgiving in this privatized, automatic kind of way has become far less than what the Gospel requires . . . . Automatic forgiveness packs unforgiveness. It redefines forgiveness as far less than what it means biblically. It hardens hearts with bitterness, isolation, and pessimism. In contrast, conditional forgiveness centers on the Cross. It offers the Gospel to all, recognizes that because of Christ any offender can be forgiven, believes that all relationships can be redeemed, and rests knowing that justice will be served.
Chris Brauns, “Packing Forgiveness” reformation21 website (August 2009).
Biblical forgiveness is a conditional: forgiveness is released dependent on true repentance (Luke 17:3-4). Christians are called to forgive others as God has forgiven us (Matt 6:12; Eph. 4:32). By example, God forgives those who confess their sins and repent of their actions (1 John 1:9). The forgiveness of God is not unconditional: God requires faith and repentance. Like God, we should be ready to offer forgiveness to all, yet also require genuine remorse and a change in behavior. Therefore, we should only forgive those who truly repent and look to the Cross for grace and help in their time of moral failure (cf. Psalm 51:4).
One last observation remains: forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person.
In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3-4, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.
But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matthew 18:17), we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).
The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.
John Piper, “As We Forgive Our Debtors” Desiring God website.
Modern psychology defines forgiveness narrowly as the personal release of anger and resentment. However, Biblical teaching combines both a heart of forgiveness with the release of the debt of sin. Biblical forgiveness is public between two or more persons and is released under the shadow of the Cross.
Grudge-bearing and a clenched-fist refusal to grant forgiveness to the repentant knows nothing of the mercy and grace of God in the gospel and has no acceptable place in the household of God. Likewise, profligate forgiveness without repentance knows little of the gravity of sin’s offense to God and the eternal anguish Christ suffered on account of sin and must be purged from Christ’s people.
We debase the cross of Christ by petty refusal to forgive the sins of those who repent, but we also debase and cheapen the death of of Christ by unprincipled granting of forgiveness to individuals who remain unrepentant for sins they have committed against us. We prize the cross and live out the gospel when we bestow forgiveness of sins only to those who confess and repent and when we do not diminish the grace of forgiveness by granting it to the unrepentant but instead beckon them to repent lest they perish.
A. B. Caneday, “A Biblical Primer and Grammar on the Forgiveness of Sin”
Conclusion: As Christians, we should always have an attitude of forgiveness, but having this attitude this does not mean that we automatically forgive (i.e., release the debt of sin). The release of forgiveness is dependent on true repentance.