While an accurate understanding of forgiveness can be discerned by studying the vocabulary found in Scripture, in another sense it takes sixty-six chapters to plumb the depths of forgiveness. Even then, we cannot fully comprehend it because we will grow in our understanding and appreciation as we study God’s Word and seek His wisdom for its application. One of the questions that relates to forgiving another has to do with the place of repentance as a requisite for granting that forgiveness.
“IF HE REPENTS, FORGIVE HIM.”
Is hearing an expression of repentance by the offending party necessary for the granting of forgiveness by the one wronged? Can a debt of sin be canceled apart from recognition of some degree of remorse on the part of the offender? Should it be?
A pastor friend was wronged by another pastor, totally blindsided and slandered. My friend intended to pursue conciliatory efforts with the offending pastor but said this: “I forgive him and I pray that he will one day repent.” Is my friend putting the cart before the horse by forgiving without first hearing an expression of repentance and, in so doing, cheapening grace?
We want to form our opinions from the Word of God. 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). Is our Lord laying out a requirement that we discern repentance before granting forgiveness?
It is safe to say 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 weight before a holy God. It also admits not only the wrong but acknowledges a degree of personal responsibility for the wrong and laments over it.
But is Jesus saying that we need to hear the actual words, “I repent,” or does He mean that we must always endeavor to somehow discern or elicit contrition before granting pardon? Or could it be that our Lord is not speaking of repentance so much as He is of return? The brother who was adversarial and moving away is now conciliatory to some degree and moving toward even if he has not fully acknowledged his sin. 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 our Lord’s instruction is grasping 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 in Luke 17, how would the earnestness of that expression of repentance be determined?
We can envision a scenario wherein we impose our own standard for a person’s expression of repentance and determine that it doesn’t quite measure up. We may well be inclined to put up hoops for them to jump through or impose arbitrary measures to test the repentance. Such an approach flies in the face of how God granted forgiveness to us.
On top of that, the time frame that Jesus lays out—seven times in one day—speaks against the authenticity of the repentance. Usually we know someone is truly repentant if there is a change in behavior that bears witness to a change of mind. Conduct validates contrition. But if someone repeats an offense seven times in one day, that suggests the repentance is not real. Yet Jesus says that forgiveness is mandated if the person repents. There seems to be more going on here than hearing the word “repent” or attempting to evaluate the authenticity or earnestness of the repentance.
“INCREASE OUR FAITH!”
Perhaps it is the disciples’ response that gives us the best bearings for understanding our Lord’s teaching. They don’t ask for more specifics about repentance or question Him about a threshold before forgiveness is granted. Luke goes on: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ ” (Luke 17:5). In effect, they are saying that such continual 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 courage: “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).
Supporting this conclusion are the opening words of Jesus’ address to His disciples: “Pay attention to yourselves!” (Luke 17:3). Not pay attention to your brother, so much as 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 apart from 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).
Certainly, repentance is desired and to be pursued, as expressed by my pastor friend who said, “I forgive him and I pray that he will one day repent.” That pursuit can be with the person in terms of Matthew 18 and in prayer with God who alone can change the heart. For our part, though, we should be eager to forgive even before signs of repentance are forthcoming. Our private inclination should be to let go and to give grace. When and if we are given the opportunity in person, we should be ready to extend the forgiveness we have already fostered in our hearts. Freely we have received, freely we are to forgive. Forgiveness is the ready disposition of the heart of one forgiven.
Dr. Stanley D. Gale is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and author of several books, including Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel. This article originally appeared in the October 12, 2022 issue of Tabletalk online magazine.