“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him,
that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25, NKJV)
Only True Repentance?
When someone does ask us for forgiveness, is Jesus saying that we need to hear the actual words “I repent” or discern remorse? Or could it be that our Lord is not speaking of contrition so much as He is of return? The brother who was adversarial and moving away is now conciliatory to some degree and moving toward. In this case, repentance would refer to a turnaround by the offender and the one offended would acknowledge that and receive the offending party rather than rejecting him.
Part of the challenge in nailing down what Jesus is saying is the biblical nature of repentance. What is it and how is it measured? Repentance has three elements: sorrow, change of mind, and new obedience. Ideally, the sorrow is a godly sorrow that grieves because of sin against God and neighbor, the change of mind is one that conforms to the assessment of God’s Word, and the new obedience is the heart-driven fruit of that change of mind. But in the scenario Jesus gives, how would the earnestness of that expression of repentance be evaluated? When determining whether to grant forgiveness, we may wrongly conclude that someone is “not repentant enough.” We may well be inclined to put up hoops for them to jump through or impose arbitrary measures to test the repentance. But such an approach flies in the face of how God granted forgiveness to us.
On top of that, the time frame Jesus lays out—seven times in one day—speaks against the idea of judging the authenticity of repentance. Usually we know someone is truly repentant if there is a change in behavior that bears witness to a change of mind. Even contrition is not the telling factor, but rather conduct. So if someone repeats the offense seven times in one day, that suggests the repentance is not real. Yet Jesus says forgiveness is mandated if others merely say “I repent.” If they express repentance, we should freely express forgiveness without testing or knowing what is in their hearts. This only makes sense when we understand that we should always have an attitude of forgiveness and love to those who have wronged us, and we should be eager to express forgiveness to them when they ask, even if that happens repeatedly.
If that seems impossible to you, you’re not alone. Notice the disciples’ response to Jesus’ teaching. They don’t ask for more specifics about repentance or question Him about a threshold before forgiveness is granted: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5). In effect they are saying such forgiveness is not natural for them. They are not sufficient for the task. They need to look to God for His help to demonstrate such extravagant grace. Jesus goes on to encourage them in that faith, giving them hope and encouragement: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6).
Notice also the opening words of Jesus’ address to His disciples: “Pay attention to yourselves!” (Luke 17:3). Not pay attention to your brother, but pay attention to yourself in the matter of multiple offenses against you. Focus on your responsibility. Keep your bearings about how you have been forgiven. Jesus emphasizes this personal responsibility apart from transaction and repentance when He says: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
As those forgiven by God, indwelt by the Spirit, and taught of Christ, we are competent to cancel. Our God has given us all we need to know peace and to be peacemakers.
- In calling me to forgive as I have been forgiven, what about my attitude is God calling me to pay attention?
- What hope does God offer me to pursue the forgiveness He wants of me?
My Father in heaven, hallowed by Your Name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give me this day my daily bread. Forgive me my sin as I forgive those who have sinned against me. Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from the evil one.
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.