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.

Alan E. Kurschner adds one final point about the unconditional forgiveness view. He argues that there is serious textual doubt about the originality of Luke 23:34a, a text used by the pro-unconditional-forgiveness crowd.He has a journal article coming out on it, but a synopsis of his argument is here.

He also wrote this in a comment on this blog:

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?

So I think the case for the forgiveness being conditional on repentance is pretty strong, especially when serious harm has been caused.

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

  1. I think much of the conflict here arises because some people are perceiving forgiveness in a legal way, as justice and redemption in this world. From a purely spiritual perspective however, we forgive for our own selves, not for the benefit of the wrong doer. It is because we deserve to live in peace that we forgive, attempt to empathize, and eventually let it go. In that context forgiveness is about setting ourselves free, not somebody else. They can go right on walking in condemnation if they like, but if you can forgive then you aren’t carrying any of their burden with you. Holding onto unforgiveness is like lugging around a bag of rocks, it weighs you down. Forgiveness is like handing that burden back to the one it belongs to.


    1. Please re-read this well-written article, especially the part about well-meaning Christians psychologists saying essentially what you said; God bless.


  2. In order to repent (within a Christian context), one must know that sin exists in the first place, and ultimately to be able to discern (by the Power of the Holy Spirit) truth – of both the propositional and moral kinds. So, IMO, this is a fundamental way in which cheap grace Christians err: they believe that because they have been forgiven of their sins (true), there are no more sins to discern (false). Then, when you call them out on improper discernment, they claim you are a Pharisee, intolerant, hateful, whatever.

    But, as your blog points out, WK, it is not at all hateful (toward) people to call out sins (hate the sin). I think the cheap grace “gospel” is no good news at all: it cries out “We are forgiven!” and then throws away the Standard by which it is determined from WHAT we are forgiven in the first place and through WHOM salvation and sanctification is achieved in the second.


    1. I’m concerned about two cases:
      1) person A does something horrible to person B, then thinks they can get forgiveness just by saying I’m sorry.
      2) person A does something horrible to person B, and person B “forgives” them when person A doesn’t even repent of it.

      Neither case is real forgiveness.


  3. Interesting you wrote about this today WK as this week I heard a sermon on the radio from James McDonald on the topic. (Part 1). He is in the liberal forgiveness camp, but I must say that I agree with him regarding how this forgiveness works out. He doesn’t think we are instructed to ‘horizontally’ forgive someone who hasn’t asked for forgiveness but believes we are required to forgive in our hearts vertically and give up the right for payment / retribution for the hurt done to us.

    Forgiveness is more a work we do to extricate from our hearts those things that if allowed to fester can give Satan a hold while grieving the Holy Spirit. It is worth the listen as I can think in my own life where letting these things go and giving them to God through the type of forgiveness he teaches on in that sermon would have been quite healthy. It doesn’t involved going to the person who hurt you and saying “I forgive you” but it would require you to forgive if they do come and repent now or in the future (which I think you would agree with).


    1. I think it’s simpler to define the “work we do to extricate from our hearts those things that … give Satan a hold” as “love”. When we love, we can live without holding a grudge or wishing that person harm, and with a willingness to forgive the person who wronged us if they repent. We’re commanded to love our enemies, and told that love keeps no record of wrongs. It’s obvious from scripture that God loves everyone, and that He reserves forgiveness for those who repent. While love and forgiveness are related, love is higher, and is the primary way we should imitate God. If we love well, of course we will forgive the repentant. If we think we will have trouble forgiving even the repentant, then we need to reassess/restore our love for that person (it helps to remember how unlovable we were when Christ still came to die for us).

      This article helped me to clarify my thinking on this topic:


        1. We agree about forgiveness being conditioned on repentance. Do you agree that we should love (keep no record of wrongs, be patient and kind, be willing to sacrifice for the ultimate well-being of that person) even the unrepentant and our enemies?

          I get the sense from your post where you might disagree with the “keeps no record of wrongs” part. I’m not sure how much Paul meant that as “fully trusts as if sin never occurred”, but I do think being trapped in bitterness and grudges over someone’s sin would demonstrate a love problem.


          1. I do agree with on the love, but not on the keeping no record of wrongs, because then the person just keeps doing the same thing over and over. For me forgiveness means fully trust as if sin never occurred. I forgive really easily though!!


  4. There is an important point that seems to have been missed: are we talking about forgiving our Christian brethren or those are not of our faith? I would contend there is a decided difference in the approach of forgiveness depending on the salvation position of the accused. If it is the latter, then “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” is certainly acceptable practice for us to emulate. If it is the former, then I would agree with what has been detailed in the above discussion. How can we expect a person without the enlightenment of the Spirit to even be aware of their sin?


  5. Upon further reflection of my agreement with Dr. Lewis’ assertions, I must recant in part. Lewis states, “First, regarding God and His forgiveness, it is undisputed in orthodox Christian theology that God does not forgive everyone.” Forgiveness is available to every one before they repent. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12 ESV). The act of forgiveness is demonstration of unconditional love; to demand repentance prior to an act of forgiveness is definitively conditional.


    1. Well, I think then your view is universalism and that would make you a non-Christian. Forgiveness in orthdodox Christianity is based on repentance. But if you don’t believe the Bible, then yes, forgiveness is unconditional. I know a lot of people who are more guided by their emotions than the Bible who think this.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Universal, unilateral forgiveness would fit hand-in-hand with the feminization of the church, since the female mind has a harder time with accountability. Add in some christofeminism, and now we’re really not allowed to hold anyone to account, ever.

    In the christofeminist mindset, the only real sinner is the person who hesitates to forgive, and the offender is hustled right into the cheap-grace tent even as they offend.

    By the way, the Lord forgives for OUR benefit. God does not need to forgive as a form of holy anger-management, or as some sort of heavenly self-therapy.

    Forgiveness is FOR THE OFFENDER. If God forgives for our benefit, then we forgive offenders for their benefit.

    With regard to the “keep no record of wrongs”, it should follow logically that this is referring to previously forgiven wrongs.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post. Strong agree that offering forgiveness without repentance contributes to and enables sin. If a person is aware of their sins but still unrepentant then they are guilty of the ultimate sin of Pride, by assuming that they and not God get to determine the boundaries of morality. There is nothing loving about allowing a fellow Christian to remain in this position.

    Certainly Christians shouldn’t seek revenge or brood over grudges, but that’s not the same thing as offering forgiveness and wiping the slate clean.

    The solace of Christianity is that forgiveness is automatic given sincere repentance, even for severe sins, but there’s a huge difference between that and a lukewarm, “tolerant” go-along-to-get-along attitude. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector beautifully illustrates that a sinner who would be raised up should first humble himself before God.

    Liked by 1 person

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