Debating forgiveness: must a person admit wrongdoing before being forgiven?

Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!
Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!

I was traveling outside the country when this debate came out, so I couldn’t blog about it right away. I’ve now listened to it three times. I liked it so much that I even ordered Chris’ book for Dina. She has listened to the debate, and is currently split between the two debaters. I am in firm agreement with the pastor Chris.

Here’s a link to the debate page on Moody Bible Institute’s “Up For Debate” program with Julie Roys. (H/T Kris)


Should Christians Forgive No Matter What?

Should Christians forgive someone even if he’s not sorry?  Or does true forgiveness require repentance and a desire to reconcile?  This Saturday, on Up For Debate, Julie Roys will explore this issue with Chris Brauns, a pastor who believes forgiveness requires repentance, and Remy Diederich who believes it does not.

Although I disagree with Remy, I only disagree with him about whether the guilty person must admit guilt and feel remorse and make restitution (depending on the severity of the offense). I agree with him on other things like no revenge, attitude of love, expressing willingness to forgive and be reconciled, etc. I also disagree with Remy on “forgiving God”, which I think is just crazy, because when God is engineering a person’s salvation, he never fails. I think that God is the Great General, and his strategies never fail to achieve the outcomes he desires (while still respecting free will). Whatever suffering or inadequacy or longing that you experience as a Christian is not some sort of mistake, horrible as it may be for you at the time. God is not your cosmic butler, although a lot of people these days seem to think that he is, and then they get disappointed.

Anyway, please listen to that debate and comment on it about who you think is right. I think my view (and Chris’ view) is in the minority in the church, because the church is so utterly dominated by feelings and radical feminism. I think my view (and Chris’ view) is the masculine view – the view that upholds moral standards, sets moral boundaries and defends the rightness of making moral judgments.

Below, I have pasted in some of my other thoughts on forgiveness from a previous post.

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.

13 thoughts on “Debating forgiveness: must a person admit wrongdoing before being forgiven?”

  1. My stance is,admittedly, arrived at not by looking at Scripture (and so I don’t know what Scripture says) but admitting to what I know about myself after 38 years. I know this about myself: If you (the proverbial ‘you’ not the Wintery Knight!) wrong me badly, I cannot forgive you unless and until you acknowledge and repent of it by means of a sincere apology. However, if you apologize sincerely, I possess the spiritual gift of being able to forgive and wipe the slate clean completely. I cannot hold a grudge after a sincere apology. Now, is that what Scripture teaches is the right thing? Am I instead still obliged to forgive the unrepentant? I don’t know. All I know is that I can hate completely, but I can also forgive completely. Whether that is a half sin, or a justified stance, I cannot say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think remorse and an apology is good enough for slight offenses, but restitution is good in cases where it can mitigate the damage. E.g. pay for the repairs to the car you borrowed and trashed! (Not you) I think forgive completely is the right view if the person does the right repentance. Christianity is a religion where the wrong parties (and Wronged Party) can be counted on to want to forgive.


      1. Yes, I can appreciate the obligation of financial restitution for clearly identifiable economic losses. However, I am less certain of economic restitution for mental/emotional harm. A couple of people in my past have caused me vast emotional suffering, from whom I want no money, but from whom a sincere apology would be priceless and compel me to complete forgiveness. I believe that ability to forgive is not because of some personal virtue; rather it is a beautiful gift from God – but it is conditional on the sincere desire of the wrongdoer to be forgiven.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Whatever ability I may have to forgive would not come from me. It would be a supernatural gift of Grace.


  2. I’m going to ignore Chris and Remy for a bit and define some terms:

    Forgive: literally letting go (of a debt). That debt could be an apology, sincere or not, that I feel might be owed to me. It does not mean overlooking consequences or ignoring consequences or being wise. I.e., I can forgive someone who stole stuff while coming over to my house, but it doesn’t mean that I will continue to invite that person into my house. If I ordered something from someone, and the other party committed mail fraud, I can forgive the person, and I will most likely not do business with the guilty party, although I may look into whether to prosecute the person as well. This can look like “letting go of negative emotions” or “not continuing to rehearse the misdeed(s) in my mind” or “not being historical (continuing to bring up the past)”.

    Reconciliation: repairing / restoring a damaged relationship.

    Now, I see there are two texts that you didn’t factor in as well, and these are very important in terms of Christian forgiveness:

    Matthew 18:21-35 (the parable of the unmerciful servant) and Matthew 6:9-15 (“The Lord’s Prayer”). The unmerciful servant is great for teaching as the verb for forgiving (aphiemi) is the same as “letting go of a debt,” which is the context of that parable. The unmerciful servant incurred a debt, a humongous debt. Ten billion dollars worth of debt. An unfathomable debt. (I mean, even if you bought 10 luxury yachts a day, every day, for ten years…) This is the kind of debt that say, Enron incurred by stealing from its employees. Huge debt. And the unmerciful servant wants to work it off. The king merely forgives the debt.

    The other servant owed him 100 days’ of labor, a hundred denarii. It’s not a paltry sum. Four months of salary. One thing that makes this parable appealing is that Jesus doesn’t minimize the other person’s debt: yes, the hurts and problems that people do to each other are real. But yet Jesus observes that in light of the mercy we’ve received, we ought to forgive each other.

    Another key for forgiveness is that the primary person that it benefits is the person forgiving. The forgiver does not have to spend lots of mental energy and anguish continuing to rehearse the misdeeds. There may be even health benefits mentioned by these links:

    I can forgive without reconciling. However, I can’t reconcile without forgiving.

    Reconciliation does take forgiveness and apologies and so on.

    Forgiving does not imply there are no consequences. For instance, hypothetically, in a moment of weakness, a husband slept with another man’s wife. For all of the spouses involved, sure, they can forgive the guilty individuals — but the spouses would be wise to insist that the guilty parties not spend time with each other or cut off the relationship or to limit their time and so on.

    A rape victim might forgive her rapist, but it does not mean she should not testify against him. Forgiveness doesn’t mean being stupid/unwise: like agreeing to meet him in a private place by herself.

    Joseph (the one in Genesis) is a fascinating study in forgiveness and reconciliation. His very two acts are not thoughtless or haphazard (returning their silver in Genesis 42 and putting his own chalice in Benjamin’s bag in Genesis 44). You’ll remember that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery — profiting in greed from his demise. Plus he needed to know whether the brothers would endanger the last of Rachel’s sons and whether they learned from breaking their father’s heart the first time.

    So Joseph returned their silver. The brothers could have gone on their way and Joseph would have his answer. But instead, they came back with double — to be completely fair. They passed the first test.

    Then Joseph had his chalice put in Benjamin’s bag, and upon catching them, said “he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent.” Interestingly, it was not the oldest three brothers (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi) who was the spokesperson for the family both to Jacob (Genesis 43:1-10) and to Joseph (Genesis 44:14ff). It was Judah, the fourth born.

    Judah, of course, offers to take the place of Benjamin and in doing so, passes Joseph’s second test — and arguably establishes himself as a “type” for Jesus.

    The tests were for reconciliation. IMHO, Joseph already forgave his brothers in allowing them to purchase grain.


    1. This is a great comment, shows you have really thought about it, and tried to respect what the Bible teaches.

      “Forgiving does not imply there are no consequences. For instance, hypothetically, in a moment of weakness, a husband slept with another man’s wife. For all of the spouses involved, sure, they can forgive the guilty individuals — but the spouses would be wise to insist that the guilty parties not spend time with each other or cut off the relationship or to limit their time and so on.”

      On the one hand I agree that there could be consequences after forgiveness, on the other hand, part of me just really wants to give that other person the gift of forgiving like God forgives, i.e. – it never happened. I agree that that might be a bridge too far in your adultery example.


      1. Yes, in terms of adultery, the Bible is pretty clear and realistic that trust can be broken so far that divorce is allowable. But this is a consequence of the sin.
        I got to know one of my neighbors (before he passed away). He considered himself at best, a cultural Christian and not a real one i.e., Jesus was not his Lord and Savior until a pivotal point in his life. In his early 40’s, his first wife, also not a Christian, left him for her high school sweetheart. That left him in primary charge of their three boys (two of them were teenage). What could he do? He pleaded with her to no avail. He could only pray. This difficult time actually caused him to become a Christian.
        Over time, he forgave her, meaning he held no negative feelings about her; he was able to be amicable and civil and communicate as necessary. He did not continue to harangue her or remind her of her decision. However, he recognized the reality of the situation (she divorced my neighbor and married her high school sweetheart) and was able to move on with his life. He was able to talk about her without any spite or enmity. Obviously he was not able to fully reconcile with her (or even return to being married to her).


  3. I agree, no forgiveness without repentance. That is the clear scriptural model. Of course that doesn’t mean we hold onto bitterness, etc.. We have to let that part go for our own spiritual well being.


  4. Thank you refreshing my mind and spirit. I appreciate the confirmation the masculine view of forgiveness is in the minority. We have been drinking from the well of Christian psychotherapy, which makes forgiveness an individual matter for the sake of mental health.


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