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

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

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 some of his response copied with permission from his Facebook note:

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).

[…]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.

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.

Alan E. Kurschner 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.

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

  1. Yes and the Lords prayer fits in here also. We have to repent before forgiveness but God forgives us over and over throughout our lives. Confession is something we keep doing.

  2. Hear Jesus in Mark 11:25 (NIV):

    25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” So should we disobey our Lord because someone else has not repented of what we believe to be sin?

    1. This verses uses the word forgive, but it does not explain the mechanics of it like the other longer passages in the original post. What this verse means is that if the person repents, then forgiveness should be automatic. This verses doesn’t say, “even if the don’t repent”. But the other passages clearly teach forgiveness is conditional on repentance – they are more clear about the sequence of events.

      1. I started reading this blog recently and I thought I’d weigh in on a topic I find very interesting and important. This post was very thought provoking for me because of my commitments to correctly interpreting scripture and submitting to its teachings. But with all due respect, I have to disagree with you because of this verse. Mark 11:25 is very clear. I suggest you read it again:

        …if you hold ANYTHING against ANYONE, FORGIVE THEM…

        Unconditional. Does this contradict the conditional statement in Luke 17:3? Of course not! In one verse Jesus commands us to forgive anyone who has wronged us, and in the other to forgive anyone who has wronged us and repented. He doesn’t say that we should ONLY forgive those who repent, but I take these commands together as saying we should ESPECIALLY forgive those who repent. In other words, to withhold forgiveness from someone who has repented is a greater sin than withholding it from someone who hasn’t.

        I also disagree with you that forgiveness is what happens when someone who is sinned against treats the sinner as if they had never sinned. That cannot rightly happen until full restoration occurs, of which forgiveness is only a part. I think a good minimal definition of forgiveness is not seeking for the sinner to be punished. Romans 12:19 is also worth considering:

        Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

        It’s not our job to seek the punishment of someone who has personally wronged us (or forgive sins not committed against us), that’s God’s prerogative.

  3. I do disagree that repentance (which is clearly so necessary for salvation and holiness) is conditional for your enemy whether they are repentant or not. We must remember the words of our Lord- “forgive them, for they know not what they do…” and “love your enemy…”- this applies to all of God’s children whether repentant or not. Remember also the Apostle to the gentiles, our brother Paul (a horrible sinner redeemed by Christ) who penned these words of God through the power of the Holy Spirit:

    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.15 fRejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 gLive in harmony with one another. hDo not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.8 iNever be wise in your own sight. 17 jRepay no one evil for evil, but kgive thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, llive peaceably with all. 19 Beloved,mnever avenge yourselves, but leave it9 to the wrath of God, for it is written, n“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, o“if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    You must not forget the justice of God and be willing to allow His justice to take care of your injustices. Withholding forgiveness to a nonbeliever puts you in the position of being able to say: “no you are not truly repentant- I withhold forgiveness from you”. Who are you to dispense with the justice and mercy of God.

    The case should be made that without trust in God’s judgment and mercy forgiveness, humanly speaking is impossible. With God: if we confes our sins to Him and repent, He is just and right to forgive regardless of the opinions of men. With men: we forgive, again relying upon the Justice of God and not of men. No inconsistency here, both propositions are rooted in the Justice and mercy of God.

  4. As in most things, there is a lot of Scripture quoting by commenters advocating a specific view and completely ignoring verses that contradict those views (many of these verses are in this very post).
    You aren’t making your point by buckling down on verses you feel agree with you but not engaging at all with verses that seem to contradict.
    These verses should not be ignored. They are not contradictory but complementary to give a more precise view. In this sense, I think Lewis and WK give a much more balanced view that accounts for all the verses.
    There’s just too many verses where we’re told to withhold forgiveness and rebuke those that deserve it to think it is off limits for us to do so.

  5. Sorry, WK, you have not cited a Scripture that says, “If your sinning brother does not repent, then you should not forgive him,” or any statement to that effect. You have argued this thesis by way of analogy with how God deals with unrepentant sinners.

    But analogy arguments are always risky, because in every analogy there are some points of similarity between cases and some points of difference between cases. The word “forgive” may mean the same between God and us, but the difference IMHO is between God and us in our very different relationships to the unrepentant sinner. God is his infinitely loving, truthful and holy creator and judge; I am not. God meets out holy, just judgement and vengeance on him (Rom. 12:19); I do not. God knows perfectly what is actually holy and just; I do not. Hence, I need to trust God’s sovereignty on that score; as I cannot trust my own. So I can forgive him, i.e., declare that he owes me nothing; even though he owes God the actual holy just penalty for his sin against me and God (if indeed it actually was a sin in God’s perfect eyes).

    Hence, Jesus’ instruction in Mark 11:25 makes good sense all by itself (without some added explanation to save a doctrine) “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” IMHO we should not disobey our Lord because someone else has not repented of what we believe to be sin. We could be wrong in some cases when we think someone else has sinned against us. We need humility about such cases.

  6. Winterey Knight, I agree that the Bible does not teach unconditional forgiveness. I have one question and one comment to that end.

    Question: The one verse that is always difficult to reconcile with this view is Jesus’ forgiveness of His executioners and mockers on the cross. They were not asking for forgiveness, but He prayed for their forgiveness, and we would normally conclude that the Father answered Jesus’ prayers. What do you make of that passage? How do you fit it with the other passages you quoted? I have yet to read a really good explanation.

    Comment: I think the difficulty for some on this issue is that they have come to equate “forgiveness” with an emotional release (because it’s often preached that way, even turning forgiveness into a self-serving act). It’s believed that if you haven’t forgiven someone that did you wrong, that this means you must have feelings of ill-will toward them, hate them, be bitter at them, or something similar. I think this is a mistake. Forgiveness means the person is no longer held responsible for their moral crime. The fruit of forgiveness is not happy emotions, but a reconciled relationship. One can have an emotional release prior to forgiveness. A Christian can love their offender, pray for blessings, and lack any feelings of ill-will toward them without forgiving them. The actual act of forgiveness is just the act of saying “I will no longer hold you responsible for this act” and a declaration in action that that the relationship is restored.

    1. Yes, jasondulle, I agree that “The actual act of forgiveness is just the act of saying ‘I will no longer hold you responsible for this act’ and a declaration in action that that the relationship is restored” but would add ‘from my side’. I cannot control the other person’s side of the relationship. Hence, I cannot control the achievement of full reconciliation, between him/her & me, though that would always be my goal & wish. Nor can I declare that the other person’s sin is now covered by Christ’s blood if he/she has not repented to God and asked for Christ’s atonement. Hence, my forgiveness and God’s forgiveness are two distinct transactions. Hence, I consider the no-forgiveness-without-full-reconciliation standard an impossible and counter-productive norm in many cases. E.g., a daughter who has been sexually abused by her father when she was a child can and should forgive her father before he dies, whether or not he ever repents of that child’s sexual abuse. God will deal with the father’s sin appropriately. The daughter need not demand that they be reconciled before she offers her forgiveness. She can control her hate & bitterness over the sexual abuse she experienced. She cannot control her father’s dealing with that issue. In this way she follows Jesus’ instruction in Mark 11:25. Also, she follows the example of Jesus’ forgiveness of His executioners and mockers on the cross and does not need to cut that text out of the Bible to save a theory. The implications of this issue are many and wide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s