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.

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

  1. Regarding, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” I think this is not relevant in this discussion. This was spoken of the soldiers who were merely carrying out the death sentence in complete ignorance of who Jesus was or even if He was guilty. If it is guilt, then it is at least of a different category from the guilt of the religious leaders and shouting rabble that urged Pilot to execute Him. I think sin is not just about the consequences of one’s actions, but the knowledge and intent as well. Jesus is said to preside over the final judgment. I think this is a peek into the objective and nuanced justice that He will apply.

    I think one problem is that many people conflate two issues here. One is actual forgiveness, which clearly seems to require repentance, and the other is the idea of letting go of anger and hatred that can result from being sinned against. The latter concept has legitimacy, but doesn’t really have a clearly defined name and is often just called “forgiveness” in our secular culture, which has a way of muddling all morally laden language. Sometimes repentance and true forgiveness are not even available, due to death or lost contact, and yet we still have to engage in some type of psychological reconciliation in our own minds for the sake of peace. In this event, we must let go of our claim to righteous indignation knowing that all sin is ultimately a violation of God’s law, and it is His prerogative to resolve it. God is the actual aggrieved party and we simply suffer the consequences of sin, so to speak. As David acknowledged regarding Bathsheba and her husband (Psalm 51), “Against You, You alone, have I sinned.”

    This brings up another question. Only God can offer forgiveness of sin in a meaningful sense. Just as we cannot forgive someone if they are not actually sorry, can we even offer true absolution for someone’s sin if they *only* apologize to us? Mustn’t they also repent to God? Further, mustn’t they repent to the true God of whom they believe to hold account of *all* sin and of whom they require the reconciliation that can only be found in Jesus? There is a deeper question here of what our forgiveness does. Clearly we are meant to practice it, just as God does to us, and it is a sign of our comprehension of our own sin and God’s mercy upon us when we do so. It is unclear, however, what metaphysical effect that our forgiveness has upon unbelievers. Is it merely a sign and symbol to them of what Christianity is all about, or is there some deeper sense (hinted at in John 20:23) in which what we, as believers, forgive in them will not be held to their account in the final judgment? That would certainly put our mercy, or lack of it, into a fearsome context.

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    1. “One is actual forgiveness, which clearly seems to require repentance, and the other is the idea of letting go of anger and hatred that can result from being sinned against.”

      I disagree. The aggrieved party may (or may not) consider repentance in determining whether to forgive, but repentance alone is insufficient. Christianity is not a works-based salvation.

      Real forgiveness is the release of a debt owed (sin) by the aggrieved party. It is a pardon. This necessarily includes the release of anger and hatred because you no longer have a right to those things. Conversely, you can’t release your anger and hatred if you don’t release the debt owed. If you hold something… anything… against someone, you have not forgiven them (released them from their debt), but merely reduced their debt.

      “Mustn’t they also repent to God?”

      Yes, this is an absolutely essential point! We must often (but not always) forgive others even if they do not repent because God is the judge. Now, there are some cases where we are the judge (such as parent to child) and we cannot forgive.

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      1. Correction:

        I meant to remove the line “Conversely, you can’t release your anger and hatred if you don’t release the debt owed.” This contradicts what I was saying. It is possible to release your anger and hatred while still demanding other satisfaction for the debt. This is only a reduction of debt, not a pardon or complete forgiveness.

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  2. What is often forgotten is that the OT required there to be repentance when ever a worshipper offered a sacrifice to God. Then the worshipper had to pay his hand on the offering, in acknowledgement that his sins were being taken by the sacrifice for sin.
    This symbolic act cannot happen unless there is repentance.
    The disciples and early Jewish church had had this drummed into them.
    They didn’t explain this to non Jewish believers.

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  3. Although we are not required to forgive those who do not repent, I think that sometimes it is beneficial to us if we do forgive them, especially if they have done us serious harm. If we do not forgive them, we run the very real risk of harboring thoughts of hate, harm, and retribution against them. by forgiving them we nip those potential problems at the root. I think it is also important to remember that by forgiving them we are not automatically bound to restore them to friendship or renew some kind of relationship with them. By way of example, our daughter has done us great harm, including trying to poison us at one point in an attempt to gain possession of our home. While we have forgiven her completely, and while we do love her, our forgiveness is not unconditional. We realize she poses a very real danger to us, and that any relationship with her whatsoever would be not only toxic, but dangerous as well. But we have forgiven her and as a result we are free to pray sincerely for her salvation — both for her soul and from her very toxic life style; but, we will not have any contact with her whatsoever. Yes, this angers her and she uses that anger to justify her continued attacks against us and her continued irrational hatred of us; but there is nothing we can do to change any of that. We can only rely on the Lord to heal us and her in His time, in the manner of His choosing, according to His plan, for His glory.

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  4. Forgiveness that leads to giving a person a position of power or authority over us is not mandated in the Bible. Also even in a marriage it explains to not be unequally yoked.

    It is good to be around positive influences on our lives.

    If someone wrongs us it is good to pray to allow God to remove the effects of bitterness because it will impact a spiritual life.

    But I agree we don’t have to give access to allow people to keep harming or abusing us just because people that are a narcissist or carry any other unrepentant negative trait refuses to move on in God.

    Nor does a spouse have to forgive a serial cheater. If you are not a minor prophet out to show how God can forgive a stiff necked people like Israel you don’t need to keep bringing that spouse back home

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  5. Wintery Knight,
    Thanks for the interesting piece. We serious Lutherans (the Bible-believing-kind) would say that this is an issue where it really comes down to the individual circumstances one is dealing with, where one must properly divide law and gospel (see C.F.W. Walther, the Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel).
    While I think that your reasoning is pretty sound, and for the most part makes sense as regards practical circumstances, one issue is that even if repentance needs to be present for their to be real faith which receives God’s word, the Bible also speaks of God “granting repentance”.
    So what about the fact that Christ dies for us, winning salvation for us, while we are still sinners? Or that, as 2 Cor. 5 says, He was reconciling Himself to us in His death? Just because He is reconciled with us does not mean that we are reconciled to Him… if we think we don’t need forgiveness, and hence salvation, from sin, death, and the devil.
    +Nathan

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    1. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real world consequences.

      Forgiveness is more about letting go of retribution and debts. See all the parables. (The man who had his debts forgiven by the king but wanted money from a servant).

      That’s different than let’s say, a person who offends you in a way where it would be better to cut ties with them.

      For instance, a cheating spouse. Staying with one is incredibly foolish. Most men who write about forgiving their spouses did so out of weakness and insecurity.

      Or someone who doesn’t pay you back (forgive but don’t loan to them again).

      Too often Christians muddle practical issues with salvation. That’s why all these women think they are great wife material despite the fact they have a very promiscuous past.

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      1. Agree regarding practicality vs salvation.

        Repentance is a requirement, but forgiveness (and thus salvation) isn’t dependent on it. If you died in the commission of a sin, you wouldn’t have time to repent. Does this mean you are not saved? Of course not. All have sinned and fall short. This is why our forgiveness is not dependent on works.

        The Bible’s notion of sin is a debt owed someone. If someone sins against you, then they have a debt to you. You can, at your own discretion, forgive that debt or not. You can forgive it if they don’t repent and you can refuse to forgive it if they do repent. It is the latter case that the Bible harshly condemns

        The choice is yours to forgive or not, but the Bible warns that God will hold you to the same standard that you hold others to. This is the sobering thought that frames my thoughts on the issue.

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  6. A fundamental consideration in regard to understanding the application of “forgiveness” is to delineate between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, the comprehension of this is helped by understanding aphesis (forgiveness to eternal salvation) by God, compared to charizomai, apoluo and aphieme, which are forgiveness largely applied by man but do not grant eternal salvation whether applied by God or man.

    On the basis of what I believe God instructs from the scriptures, I disagree with the perception that forgiveness by man should only be to repentant persons, I also believe the scriptures teache of various levels of sin and it’s subsequent impact on self and others and how to deal with it. The penalty applied to King David even after God’s forgiveness, is an example of forgiveness with discipline. Forgiveness doesn’t always include withholding penalty.

    https://rememberthebereans.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/forgiveness/

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