Does the Bible say that you should forgive someone who does not repent?

Kevin Lewis, a professor of Theology and Law at the conservative Biola University, was asked this question:

Recently, I was reading Dr. Kenneth Bailey’s “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” (IVP press 2008). When commenting on Matthew 6:12-13, he writes,

“It is a common human assumption that the violator of the rights of others must ask for forgiveness before the wronged party can be expected to accept the apology and grant forgiveness…But Jesus here asks the person wronged to forgive the one responsible for the wrongdoing when when there is no confession of guilt… There is a voice from the cross that echoes across history to all saying ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Neither Pilate nor the high priest nor the centurion offered any apology to Jesus, yet he prayed for divine forgiveness…(p.125)”

And here’s his response in full, copied with permission from his Facebook note:

Regarding Bailey’s comments on Matthew 6:12, he errs by not considering the theological context of this statement and fails to consider any implied biblical conditions for forgiveness inherent in the statement. The text simply does not mean what he says it means. He is reading too much into the statement.
Bailey states, “Jesus here asks the person wronged to forgive the one responsible for the wrongdoing when there is no confession of guilt…”

Bailey errs. Here, Jesus is giving a model for prayer commensurate with the way His Kingdom works. Jesus teaches them to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This is a statement of the objective, “forgiveness,” without a discussion of any express or implied conditions to accomplish the objective. It is also a statement of the proper attitude of the Christian, that is, that we must have a demeanor of being willing to forgive, just as God was willing to forgive us. Bailey’s assertion that there is no “confession of guilt” or repentance is merely an unwarranted assumption.

Moreover, the use of “as” (Grk. hos) in the passage introduces a comparison between the way we forgive and the way God forgives. This comparative phraseology is employed elsewhere on the subject of forgiveness. For example, Ephesians 4:32 states that we should be “forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven” us. Here, the comparative “just as” (Grk. kathos) is employed and indicates our forgiveness is to be just like God’s forgiveness of us, which flows from a loving disposition. So in the same manner that God forgives, we must forgive. We are to be “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1). See also Matthew 5:48 and Luke 6:36 for exhortations to imitate God.

To ascertain whether the Scriptures describe any conditions for forgiveness, one must search elsewhere in the Scriptures for comment. This is the nature of systematic theology. We need to examine what the entire Bible says on a given topic, such as forgiveness. And the Bible contains ample support for the notion that there are conditions for forgiveness.

First, regarding God and His forgiveness, it is undisputed in orthodox Christian theology that God does not forgive everyone. The doctrine of Hell is a sufficient proof of the lack of universal forgiveness by God.

Next, it is clear that God does not forgive without repentance. This doctrine is taught in a number of texts. For example, in Luke 13:3 Jesus says, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In Mark 1:15 John the Baptist commands that we must “repent and believe the Gospel.” The connection between repentance and forgiveness of sins (i.e. “salvation”) is seen throughout the Scriptures. For example, in Acts 2:38 repentance is directly connected as a condition for the remission of sins. For additional examples of this connection see Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 3:19; 8:22; 17:30-31; Romans 2:4-5; II Corinthians 7:10; II Tim. 2:25-26.

So since we are to be imitators of God and forgive in the same way God forgives, we would expect the Scriptures to be consistent, stating that the condition of repentance is required to be fulfilled before believers are required to forgive each other’s sins. It does.

Jesus stated in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Here, the meaning is clear. The word “if” (Grk. ean) introduces the condition for a rebuke and for granting forgiveness. If (subjunctive) a person sins, we must (imperative) rebuke him, and if (subjunctive) he repents, we must (imperative) forgive him. This is as clear a statement as you will find on the subject. Forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance—and this is one of the same criteria that God requires before He forgives sin.

This principle of permitting believers to withhold forgiveness unless the condition of repentance is satisfied is also explicitly seen in Matthew 18:15-17. Compared with the Luke 17:3 text above, the situation is the same. If a brother sins, reprove him; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. Here, the word “reprove” is used rather than “rebuke” and the word “listen” is employed rather than “repent,” but the meaning is virtually identical to Luke 17:3. What we see in Matthew 18 is an escalation of the issue and the result if the person fails to repent (i.e. “listen”). If the person fails to repent, we are to shun him in all appropriate ways (v. 17).

These passages in Luke and Matthew give us the connection between sin, rebuke, repentance and forgiveness. Other biblical texts that merely mention “forgiveness” as a concept or an objective do not necessarily proffer every aspect of the doctrine of forgiveness. As such, they must be read in light of the clear conditions expressed in other passages.

Finally, I would make the case that it is harmful to a person to forgive him without requiring repentance. As seen above, the Bible is clear that sin requires a rebuke. Ignoring sin teaches sinners that sin does not bring consequences. This is harmful to their souls. Continuing to have the benefit of a righteous relationship with another and yet remain in sin against that person results in fostering a habituation of sinful inclinations in their soul, which God says brings about suffering and death.

Moreover, since the ultimate purpose of forgiveness is reconciliation, it is meaningless and harmful to forgive when no reconciliation may be had with the sinner. We cannot “walk together” in a biblical manner in righteous peace when the unrepentant sinner walks in unrighteousness. Necessarily, there is a conflict and a want of shalom. Their soul is headed in a different direction than the believer’s soul; they are walking away from God and we cannot have fellowship with darkness. God has no intimate fellowship with unrepentant people, and that is the model for Christians as well (See Matt. 18).

Regarding personal anger issues commonly raised by Christian psychologists, these types of psychologists unbiblically make unconditional forgiveness a part of therapy. By contrast, however, if a counselee will not forgive after the offending party has truly repented, the counselee sins, and this kind of unforgiveness may be one of the causes of his or her problems. But this is a separate issue from universal and unconditional forgiveness raised above.

Human beings in the image of God may be angry in appropriate ways (Eph.4:26, 31). There is a time to love and a time to hate (Ecclesiastes 3:8). The notion that Christians cannot ever hate, be angry, or lack forgiveness is an unbiblical concept. God Himself is eternally angry with sin, but He is certainly not a psychological basket case. He loves, hates, and is angry in appropriate ways. Our task as believers is to imitate this. Be angry with and hate sin appropriately (Rom. 12:9) and love what good appropriately. For example, righteous anger can evolve beyond the biblical limits to become malice, slander, and bitterness while, to give another example, an appropriate love of food can evolve beyond the biblical limits into gluttony.

Psychological problems arise from many issues other than lack of forgiveness. For example, a lack of trust in God that He has a particular instance of evil under His sovereign control can cause undue anxiety in one’s life. Also, if a counselee’s self worth is grounded in the shifting sand of how others treat him (i.e., badly) rather than being grounded in the fact that he is a divine image bearer and inherently valuable no matter how badly anyone treats him, he will likely fall into anxiety, depression, and other sorts of psychological maladies. Changing the biblical doctrine of forgiveness will not truly help a counselee. It only makes it worse.

Soli Deo Gloria

I agree with Kevin, and I think it is a helpful tool for people to insist on seeing some sort of repentance and restitution from someone who wrongs you before you trust them again. If they are not even sorry for what they’ve done, and they refuse to explain why what they did is wrong, then they can’t be forgiven, and you can’t trust them again.

I think this is the key passage – 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.”

That’s Jesus speaking, there.

Also, I was having a debate with someone who disagrees with all this, and while debating with her, I thought of another example.

Luke 18:9-14:

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 

10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 

11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 

12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 

13 But the tax collector,standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 

14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So again, no forgiveness without repentance.

Forgiveness is what happens when someone who is sinned against treats the sinner as if he had never sinned. It is not on the balance sheet. It is not brought to mind. It is not held against them in the future. The forgiver trusts the sinner again as if the previous sin had never happened.

In divine (vertical) forgiveness, there is no forgiveness without repentance. There are Bible verses above to show that.

My argument is twofold. First, there is a clear teaching of Jesus explaining the sequence of sin and forgiveness. Repentance precedes forgiveness, between humans (Luke 17:3). The verses cited by the forgive without repentance crowd don’t show the mechanics of how to forgive, they are making the point that if you want God to forgive you, you should forgive others. The parable in Luke 18:9-14 affirms this again – repentance always precedes forgiveness.

Second, we have an obligation to imitate God, and that means imitating the way he forgives those who sin against him. When I raise that with the unconditional forgiveness crowd, they want to insist that there is a difference, that the word “forgive” means different things. I’m not convinced.

Finally, I do think that forgiving someone is obligatory if they sincerely repent, and even if they screw up again and again. So long as the repentance is sincere, (like if there is restitution and a genuine effort to show an understanding how the sin affected the wronged party in writing), then forgiveness should be automatic. Depending on how bad the sin is, there maybe be more to do than just say “I’m sorry”. If the repentance is genuine, then I think the person who is sinned against must forgive, if they expect to be forgiven by God for the things they repent of.

UPDATE: Alan E. Kurschner comments (below) and I reproduce it here:

Hi Wintery,

Thanks for your article. I have a couple of comments.

Luke 23:34a is often a trump card for the unconditional forgiveness crowd. However, there is serious textual doubt to its originality. I will have a forthcoming journal article on this textual variant, but you can read a synopsis of the argument that I made here:

http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2013/03/16/from-the-lips-of-jesus-or-a-scribal-hand-father-forgive-them-for-they-do-not-know-what-they-are-doing-2/

I do not know if Lewis is aware of this textual variant. I would encourage him to look into it.

Second, on Matt 6:15, this is what I have to say. Notice the then-clause: “neither will your Father forgive your sins.” This would require universalism on the Father’s part according to the unconditional interpretation given the first half: “But if you do not forgive others their sins.” Since everyone has wronged the Father is the Father required to forgive everyone even if they are not seeking forgiveness?

I hope that helps,

Alan K.

18 thoughts on “Does the Bible say that you should forgive someone who does not repent?”

  1. Holding on to anger and bitterness is antipathy to one who is redeemed, because you have been redeemed. However, there is a price for redemption. Romans 12:1-2 tells us that price. Ergo; there is no forgiveness for anyone unless there is repentance, yet we cannot hold on to anger in our hearts (Eph 4:26) against those who trespass against us.

    While we must hate sin, in all it’s forms, that abhorrence, when it turns to anger, is no longer about “us” but rather about “me” which is where sin waits. (Proverbs 16:18)

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  2. Hi Wintery,

    Thanks for your article. I have a couple of comments.

    Luke 23:34a is often a trump card for the unconditional forgiveness crowd. However, there is serious textual doubt to its originality. I will have a forthcoming journal article on this textual variant, but you can read a synopsis of the argument that I made here:

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2013/03/16/from-the-lips-of-jesus-or-a-scribal-hand-father-forgive-them-for-they-do-not-know-what-they-are-doing-2/

    I do not know if Lewis is aware of this textual variant. I would encourage him to look into it.

    Second, on Matt 6:15, this is what I have to say. Notice the then-clause: “neither will your Father forgive your sins.” This would require universalism on the Father’s part according to the unconditional interpretation given the first half: “But if you do not forgive others their sins.” Since everyone has wronged the Father is the Father required to forgive everyone even if they are not seeking forgiveness?

    I hope that helps,

    Alan K.

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    1. Oh my gosh! One of the Triablogue bloggers sent me that and I used it in our Facebook discussion on this, which is up to over 50 comments, now. Thank you so much for commenting. Do you have your PhD in Greek now, or still working on it?

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      1. Hi tiera,

        Not sure if you read my article, but here is my conclusion in my article on my evaluation:

        In my estimation, given the judgment of the weight of both the external and internal support [internal support was not covered in this blog post], it is reasonable to place about a 75-90% degree of probability that the longer reading is a scribal insertion early into the transmission history. The attestation among text-types and the diverse early geographical witnesses and their genealogical weight strengthens the probability of the shorter reading being primary. Whereas the longer reading is attested primarily early on in only the Western text. Not to mention the nature of the Western texts often introduces traditional readings. Extra-biblical Jesus-logia in the first couple of centuries would explain the addition of the words. And this would be consistent with the tendency of the early church to add logia than to omit it.

        And in this case, if the numerical motivation theory is correct [see again here], it was first introduced most likely into a gospel harmony or some form of collection of sayings that were harmonized before it entered an actual place in Luke. Concerning the argument that this reading was excised early because of anti-Judaic bias, in this particular variant, it is not a sufficiently cogent reason as explained.

        Up until the second century, the shorter reading was read widely. It was until sometime during the second century, probably the middle to the late part, that the longer reading was added and from then eventually found its way into all the text-types and the majority textual history thereafter.

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  3. I think the problem with this whole discussion is that the terms are poorly defined. Repentance is more than just coming up to someone and telling them you are sorry. It’s to have that change of mind that goes from being God’s enemy to being his child. God forgives everyone who has that Spirit worked change of relationship even when they cannot enumerate all of their sins. So also when we are talking about our friends there are many sins that we simply forgive because we understand that they are sins of weakness. (I.e. they come from a lack of understanding or inability) When needed of course we talk about it and build up a relationship not because they are seeking forgiveness but because they already have it. Now if something is done to break that relationship if they intentionally do something to hurt me then forgiveness must be sought before the relationship can be repaired. If someone with whom I have no relationship does sins against me then I have a lot to figure out about how to approach it.

    Further the term forgiveness could use some clarification as well. We must forgive everyone in that we give up our right to get revenge. Vengeance is God’s alone. That doesn’t however mean that we must pronounce forgiveness on them. At the same time we may have to warn them that God has not forgiven their sins and their real problem is with him. Further just because you’ve forgiven someone it does mean that your relationship will continue in the same path it had been on. A guy may forgive his girlfriend for cheating on him when she repents, but still break up with her because he realizes that he could not love her as Christ loves the Church. That would not be sinful.

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  4. Of course, the one sin that cannot be forgiven is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. According to no less than Augustine, the concept means that the one sin that cannot be forgiven is impenitence. I believe that Thomas Aquinas makes the same point. Perhaps, this will add to the points already made in the discussion.

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  5. Thanks for this post.

    This answers the burning question my wife and I have struggled with in our posts, past.

    This is my comment on my wife’s post;

    ********************************
    Forgiveness is very difficult! Especially when people seem to keep hurting you purposefully.

    We all are forgiven, IF we accept God’s UNDESERVED mercy and grace! Oh…. it is undeserved!!!

    I believe that their are people in all of our lives, who regularly make it their mission, to remind us of our baggage. I like to think of them as being minions of Satan at those times. Maybe completely unknowingly. Human fraility.

    Yet the truth is God has already forgiven us our sins, the very sins they are UNWILLING to forgive us of. And for that, they are in need of God’s forgiveness…… WHEW…… Amazingly God, perhaps, already has, but certainly will, if they seek it.

    How can we do any less! To be certain, I have done the same to someone else, either knowingly or unaware. I certainly want God’s forgiveness, and wish for those, whomever I have harmed, could forgive me as well.

    I need God’s forgiveness and man’s forgiveness, and to forgive other’s even when THEY DON’T deserve it is to share the INCREDIBLE GIFT OF GOD (His unmerited love) we all can receive. What a privilege to share that with another, accepted by them or not!

    Our Heavenly Father wants us to overcome this Cosmic Bullying, just like we want our kids to overcome bullying, and our parents wanted us to overcome our bullies. We couldn’t do it on our own strength as children, but with our father’s help and the help of others it became possible.

    God knows how hard forgiving the cosmic bullies can be. He doesn’t expect it to be done on our own…….

    “24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
    25 And when the disciples heard it, they were astonished exceedingly, saying, Who then can be saved?
    26 And Jesus looking upon them said to them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”

    ~Matthew 19:24-26

    Ponder this as you deal with Cosmic Bullies; What have you done to deserve forgiveness?

    ***********

    Now having read this post I see a difference in forgiveness and what I see as ‘unmerited love”. These folks that don’t ever seek forgiveness or repent of their sin against us and God, are hurting folks, and often lost.

    I believe we need to for our own soul’s health, find love in our hearts for them, unmerited as it is. Though this is not forgiveness it would bloom into that the moment they repented and asked for it.

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  6. Forgiveness between persons is one of those things that for some reason is rarely talked about from a biblical and theological perspective. So seeing it discussed here is encouraging to me. There is much I agree with in the above arguments. That said, I would like to share some thoughts pushing back at some points.
    Regarding God’s forgiveness being a pattern for ours, while I wholeheartedly agree that in general, God’s forgiveness is the pattern for our forgiveness of others, there are some very important differences to keep in mind. First, the Bible makes it clear that God alone has the power and authority to forgive. When we talk about horizontal (person to person) forgiveness, we need to keep in mind that on our own we have neither the power nor the authority to forgive anyone of anything. If God’s forgiveness is not powering our forgiveness, our forgiveness is futile (Genesis 50:17-19, Exodus 23:21, 1 Samuel 15:25, Matthew 6:12, 14-15, 18:21, 35, Mark. 11:25, Luke. 6:37, 7:47, 11:4, 17:3-4, John 20:23, 2 Corinthians 2:7-10, Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13).
    While I agree that repentance and forgiveness are clearly connected. I think the insistence that Scripture always requires repentance before forgiveness is not a tenable position. Take for example the story of the paralytic lowered through the ceiling in Mark 2:1-12. The man does not even speak. Jesus looks at him and declares in verse 5, Son, your sins are forgiven. So here we have an instance that turns the expected model on its head. While repentance is indisputably required for the offender to benefit from forgiveness, forgiveness can be offered first. For it may become the occasion that brings about repentance (see Luke 19:1-10).
    I would also submit that this is how God’s forgiveness works towards us. Scriptures that come to mind are:
    • Romans 5:6-8. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
    • Ephesians 1:4-6. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
    • 1 John 4:10. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
    These Scriptures to me clearly teach the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement towards the elect. They also teach that Christ’s atonement was seen by God the Father as effective before we were born. From the point of view of the Father, there was never a time when the elect were not looked at with grace and seen as forgiven. True, the sinner will not realize any benefit until he or she comes to faith and repents. But I submit that God is not angry with the elect for their sin until they are converted and repent. God’s wrath towards the elect was assuaged at the cross. If we would forgive one another as God forgives us, then we join God in choosing to look at the offender through the cross, knowing that they will not benefit from it until they repent.
    That leads to an interesting question: can you forgive someone whom the Father is not looking at through the cross, or, can you forgive someone God has not forgiven (even if they do confess and ask for forgiveness)? The Bible does not speak of horizontal forgiveness between persons where vertical forgiveness (God’s forgiveness) does not exist. This seems to be the clear deduction of passages such as 1 Samuel 15:26, Psalm 51:4, Jeremiah 11:14, 14:11-12, John 17:12 and Romans 14:23. In these passages, forgiveness is not possible because the forgiveness of God is not extended to the offending persons. This point is however debated. Time does not permit me to say more than I already have.
    I agree that the Christian can justly be angry citing the same scriptures Lewis has. Yet, I think summarizing Ephesians 4:26-27, “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold, as we “may be angry in appropriate ways,” seems to oversimplify and significantly tone down the warning of the verse. We are not to hold on to anger (as this verse says), neither are we to be quick to anger (James 1:19) nor easily angered (1 Corinthians 13:5). And James says in 1:20 that we should be very wary of rationalizing our anger, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Anger is like a gun. Everyone has a right to own one, and there are times when it is lawful to use one. But when you forget to treat it like the deadly weapon it is you can get into trouble quick.
    The reason God is not a “basket case” while forgiving some and staying justly angry at others, is because He has the right, authority, and power to both forgive fully and punish justly. We do not. The parallel between us and God breaks down here.
    Not only that, we are not always able to confront our offender or to hear their repentance whereas God always does. In such cases are we just to stay angry and never have the opportunity to have the benefits of forgiveness? Forgiveness benefits the forgiver as well as the offender. God is propitiated for the sins of His people in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Our anger and hurt is also answered in the cross—and nowhere else. When we are angry at the offense of a brother or sister, we must look to God’s judgment of it at the cross of Christ for the relief of it.
    This does not negate the responsibility of the offender to repent, not one bit. Does my letting go of my anger because of the cross teach the offender that he can get away with it? I think that argument succumbs to the straw man fallacy. The assumption seems to be that forgiveness = reconciliation, therefore the relationship should continue as it was once I forgive the unrepentant offender. That is not true. Forgiveness makes reconciliation possible but it may take a different form. Forgiveness clears the way for trust to be rebuilt, but it does not restore it. A wife for instance may forgive her abusing husband when he asks for forgiveness but then get a restraining order so that he cannot beat her again.

    Grace,

    Dan

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  7. This is a very interesting article indeed. I have one question, though. We are told to forgive if the one who sinned repents. What happens if they claim to be repenting, say they are sorry, claim they have changed their mind about the sin, etc., and the one who was sinned against senses a lack of genuineness? Where do they go from there? The one who sinned may argue that they really are repentant, but the perception of the one sinned against is that the comments aren’t genuine? (Or there is a pattern of the person saying what others want to hear to manipulate or get back in someone’s good graces, for example).

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