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Forgiveness—Is Repentance Necessary for Us to Forgive ?

C. S. Lewis said, “Forgiveness is the only Christian value more unpopular than celibacy. It is unnatural because our natural tendency is to seek satisfaction from retaliation and revenge. Nevertheless, there is only one way to live free of bitterness and anger—to live a lifestyle of forgiveness.”

Before we consider the argument, it is necessary to draw the distinction between the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness of man. Only God can forgive sins, therefore our forgiveness of others is different and of a lesser quality. We are sinners forgiving sinners. When we forgive someone, it does not make them or declare them righteous or not guilty so they might be saved. God accomplishes that forgiveness through the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. He actually paid the due penalty for sin which is death. We can never do that. Our forgiveness is only choosing to “let it go”, release it, forget about it, and live in a state of peace with the perpetrator. Like the guy in the parable of Matt. 18:23, where the master chose not to collect a debt. It is letting go of a grievance.

The Question Argued

Should we withhold forgiveness from those who won’t ask for it, are not sorry about it, refuse to admit it, or may even be proud of it, or worst of all may still be offending you?
Should we require people to confess their wrongdoing and show signs of repentance before we forgive them?

The argument against forgiveness without repentance:

1. Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents forgive him”. This text makes it clear that forgiveness is conditional on repentance.

2. 1 John 1:9, :If we confess our sins…”. Our receiving forgiveness from God is conditional on our confession of sin.
3. Matt. 18:15-17, this passage on church discipline is clear there is no forgiveness or restoration w/o repentance.
4. Ephesians 4:32, “Forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave you”. We model our forgiveness on how God forgave us. God’s forgiveness is conditioned on us demonstrating belief and repentance.
5. Matt. 18:21-35, In the parable of the unforgiving servant, forgiveness was conditional on his coming to the master to ask forgiveness.

6. If God forgives w/o repentance, then we have “universalism” where everyone is forgiven and in a state of grace.
7. Why would anyone repent if they can get forgiveness w/o it?

The Argument for Forgiveness in Spite of No Repentance:

1: There are many examples in the Bible of God asking His people to forgive w/o repentance. Consider Hosea who bought back his unfaithful wife in spite of her sin. God used that as an example of His unconditional love—“Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.” Hosea 3:1-2
2. Christ taught that our response to others should not be conditioned by how they treat us. “Love your enemies…pray for those who hate you” Matt.5:44
3. Matt. 6:12, the Lord’s prayer does not contain any conditions to forgiving others or any exceptions.
4. Luke 15:20, In the parable of the prodigal son, the father did not wait for repentance, but was out watching for the son and embraced him before he could say or do anything.
5. Luke 23:34, Jesus’ words from the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do” demonstrate an attitude of forgiveness towards unrepentant sinners.
6. Matt. 18:21, Peter had a desire to limit forgiveness, but Jesus taught unlimited forgiveness.
7. As limited human beings, we are unable to recognize true repentance. We can’t read minds or know motives.
8. The mystery of God’s calling us to salvation reminds us that we are saved by a gracious act of God taken before we repent
9. The argument for not forgiving because of church discipline (#3 above) does not apply because it is a corporate issue aimed at restoring the believer and preserving the unity of the church. It involves objective known public type sins such as adultery and theft.

The Overriding Principle of Love

Jesus commanded his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you”. Ephesians 5:1-2 tells us, “walk in love, just as Christ loved you and gave Himself up for us”, and Romans 5:5 says, “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts”. This godly love rises above differences or faults or debts. The commands to love transform us from fighters to peacemakers. The greatest evidence of the love of Christ in us is undeserved forgiveness. We have been given the stewardship of the ministry of reconciliation, and we are now ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor.5:19-20). This principle overrules retribution. The world is at war, but the church is supposed to take Christ’s message of reconciliation to the world. Our transformation from selfish sinners to followers of Christ should prepare us to pursue restoration of broken human relationships. By restoration I don’t mean you have to be their best friend or invite them over, or lend them money. Hebrews 12:14 and Romans 12:18 give us God’s expectations, “Pursue peace with all men”, and “so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men”
I have actually experienced this. From time to time men from the past who have offended me in some way will wander into one of my Bible studies. Amazingly enough my past resentment will be overruled by a stronger desire to lead them to Christ. I become much more interested in peace and being an ambassador for Christ than any kind of retribution.

Restoration of the Relationship
We must forgive but restoration may be impossible or depend on restitution. As Philip Yancey said, “The Pope may forgive his assassin but not ask for his release from prison. You can forgive Germany, but put restrictions on their army. You can forgive a child abuser but keep him away from children, forgive someone’s debt but loan them no more money. The key is having peace between you. Be a peacemaker (Matt.5:9). So long as it is up to you, have peace with all.

Only God can righteously act as judge. Our sin nature makes it impossible for us to exercise righteous discernment. We can’t offer a person the judicial forgiveness that is only God’s to give. Therefore, the word forgiveness is used in different ways—in a moral or judicial sense, only God can forgive. What we are called to do in passages like Colossians 3:13 and Eph.4:31-32, is to let go of bitterness, resentment , and revenge. Our forgiveness is an attitude. It is a freedom for us from resentment. It is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. This loving and releasing of anger does not take responsibility for restoring the relationship because that’s impossible if a person is unrepentant. Neither is the person absolved from taking responsibility or making restitution. It does mean that by attitude and lifestyle I am not resenting him or plotting revenge. Our hope is that since Jesus died for us while we were still sinners (Rom.5:8), and this eventually caused us to repent; our opponent will also respond to us.

Next week we will explore the “how to” problem of forgiveness. The power of anger and resentment is so strong, we often can’t let it go. It keeps plaguing our minds, holding us prisoner even if we long to escape through forgiveness. What do we do if we want to forgive, but find it difficult to perform?

Charlie Taylor

Picture of About the Author: Charlie Taylor
About the Author: Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor grew up in Dallas, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas Business School and went into the commercial real estate business for about twenty years before enrolling in and graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary with honors.

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