“Take heed to yourselves. 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.” (Luke 17:3–4, NKJV)
While an understanding of forgiveness can be reduced to a word or two, in another sense it takes sixty-six chapters to fathom. Even then we cannot fully comprehend it—we will always be growing in our understanding and appreciation as we study God’s Word and seek His wisdom for its application. The Bible addresses many complexities related to forgiveness.
Repentance Before Forgiveness?
One often-discussed issue is the relationship of repentance to forgiveness. Is an expression of repentance by the offending party necessary for the granting of forgiveness by the one wronged? Can a debt of sin be cancelled apart from recognition of some degree of repentance on the part of the offender? Should it be?
A pastor friend of mine was wronged by another pastor, totally blindsided and slandered. My friend intended to pursue conciliation with the offending pastor but said this: “I forgive him and I pray that he will one day repent.” Is that biblical? The question is whether it is appropriate for forgiveness to be extended without a transaction where an apology is offered and forgiveness is sought. Is my friend putting the cart before the horse to forgive without first hearing an expression of repentance and, in so doing, cheapening grace?
A key passage to consider is found in Luke’s Gospel: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3–4).
That passage makes clear that repentance is always to be desired when it comes to ownership of sin. All sin is first and foremost against God. Repentance accords sin its gravitas before a holy God. In addition, it admits not only the wrong but also a degree of responsibility for the wrong and laments over it. So the ideal situation is always for the sinner to seek forgiveness with a heart of true repentance.
The difficulty arises when he or she does not truly repent and ask for forgiveness (or is unable to do so, perhaps, because of death or other circumstances). For us to say “I won’t ever forgive them unless they ask for it” is problematic in several ways. Most of all, it doesn’t reflect the attitude of forgiveness and love we should have toward everyone, even our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48, Rom. 12:14-21). Even if we cannot complete a transaction of forgiveness like Luke 17 describes, we should still have that attitude toward those who have wronged us. And that was the kind of attitude my pastor friend was exhibiting when he said, “I forgive him and I pray that he will one day repent.” That frame of mind is an important part of biblical forgiveness, and so is the willingness to pursue repentance and reconciliation with the offender, “if possible” (Rom. 12:18). That pursuit can and should be with the person in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17 and in prayer with God, who alone can change the heart.
For our part, though, we should be eager to forgive. Our inward inclination should be to let go and to give grace. If and when we are given the opportunity to extend forgiveness in person, we should be ready to express the forgiveness we have already fostered in our hearts. Freely we have received, freely we are to forgive. Forgiveness is the disposition of the heart of one forgiven.
- What dangers are there in demanding repentance before forgiving someone?
- What benefits are there in hearing an expression of repentance when forgiving someone?
Father, I know the inclinations of my heart to justify myself, to judge myself more leniently and others more severely. Grant me an eagerness to forgive as I have been forgiven by You, to draw from the bottomless well of Your grace that I might refresh others with the living waters of Your Spirit. Keep me from the wiles of the evil one to make myself as God.
For more on forgiveness as a basic doctrine of the Christian faith, see The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. For more on the perspective and practice of forgiveness see Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.