September 21, 2020

On Repentance and Forgiveness

forgiveness.jpgA friend called me the other day for some pastoral advice. A co-worker was making the case that, as a Christian, he was not obligated to forgive a person who doesn’t repent. In other words, repentance is the condition on which we forgive those who have wronged us. And, of course, she had a verse.

Luke 17:3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

So, let’s talk about the subject of forgiveness.

To be a Christian is to adopt a general attitude of forgiveness toward all people in all circumstances. General. That means that when we look at any person we are…

1) Aware that Christ’s mediation covers their sins.
2) Aware that Jesus would grant them forgiveness.
3) Aware that we are, in every way, to imitate the forgiveness of Jesus in our relationships.

If we are following Jesus through this world, every situation we meet is one where forgiveness is normal. There’s no need to get very technical about it. If you were hanging out with Jesus, you’d hear forgiveness announced all the time. While I am not Jesus, I relate to every person through him, his cross and through his forgiveness.

In particular relationships and situations, however, repentance is an issue in actually experiencing and enjoying the fullness of forgiveness. The extent to which this is a factor varies greatly depending on the situation.

For example, suppose a fellow staff member says something hurtful to me about my preaching. As a follower of Jesus, I forgive them, and I do not require an apology to me in order to eat lunch with them again. I take my hurt and I give it to Jesus, and I move on.

But let’s assume that fellow staff member borrows my car to go into town, puts a major scratch on the door, and refuses to pay damages. I have a general attitude and disposition to forgive this person, but until specific repentance and restitution happens, that forgiveness won’t be experienced or enjoyed. The problem isn’t Jesus, or me, or the severity of what happened. It’s the place of specific repentance in a relationship. In some ways, it’s going to affect our relationship.

So, let’s assume a husband is unfaithful. If he is repentant, I believe he should be forgiven. But that specific sin has multiple dimensions of repentance that will need to be addressed over time, and likely in counseling, before the forgiveness “flows” into every aspect of that relationship and cleans away the poison and the wreckage.

(BTW- helping people know how to repent is a very important pastoral skill, right along with teaching people how to forgive. One thing about where I serve: we get lots of practice at both. That’s a good thing about community.)

Another example: Ted Haggqard’s church should forgive him, even before he asked. But their relationship with him is going to be affected by the depth of the wound to the relationship (some things are never restored and shouldn’t be) and his repentance will have much to do with whatever kind of future relationship occurs. If he, for example, takes a “quick fix/big testimony” approach, I don’t think it will be helpful, and I would doubt that much true enjoyment of forgiveness will flow.

Another factor that I want to mention is the extent to which we are “enforcers” of the requirement to repent. If someone on the net lies about me, I will write them and ask for specific repentance. And if you tell me, in general, that I need to repent of my unkindness in a blog post, I won’t say it’s not your place. But we aren’t all deputized to require specific repentance as if we were the party sinned against.

I can tell my adulterous friend to repent, but I am not in the same place as his wife and kids. This is a good word to remember when you are tempted to make other people’s business too much your own. And it is one of the things that comes with being part of a community where we are “one body.” We have the responsibility of being more active in helping one another repent and find forgiveness. If we are an “elder” in that community, the responsibility increases, as does the importance of being like Christ.

What about the person who won’t repent? I can still forgive them as Christ would. I can offer forgiveness and embody it. But without specific repentance, that forgiveness will be unilateral. Remember Paul’s words?

2 Corinthians 5:18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

God comes to us with all forgiveness in himself, but the appeal to us is to be reconciled. Unilateral reconciliation of the unrepentant is a far different thing than true reconciliation. Getting that forgiveness out of the heart of a gracious God/person and into the world where we live depends on a person’s willingness to accept that forgiveness.

There’s more to say on this subject. Perhaps another post.


  1. Michael,

    Have you read Volf’s book, Free of Charge? I found it quite helpful on this topic.

    Here are a couple of quotations:

    “When we need to forgive, most of us, perhaps unconsciously, feel entitled to draw a circle around the scope of forgiveness. We should forgive some, maybe even most, wrongdoings, but certainly not all.”
    Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, p. 178

    “Repentance is important, even indispensable, and it is indispensable because forgiveness is an event between people, not just an individual’s change of feelings, attitudes, or actions. Instead of being a condition of forgiveness, however, repentance is its necessary consequence.”
    Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, p. 183


  2. William Willimon in his excellent book “Thank God It’s Friday; Encountering the Seven Last Words” makes the argument based on Jesus words from the cross “Forgive them for they know not what they do” that forgiveness from God ALWAYS comes before repentance; before we even are aware that we need forgiveness.

    So, why should it be any different for our extension of forgiveness to others???

  3. We are called to love our enemies, but not on the precondition that they become our friends.

    We are called upon to turn the other cheek, but not on the precondition that the slapper repent.

    For God, forgiveness and repentance are two sides of the same coin the God flipped. He forgives us, and he has caused us to repent by the inworking of his Holy Spirit (monergism related).

    We have no ability to affect the souls of other people – we can’t indwell them and make them repent. But we are to forgive – and forgiveness does not require repentance on our part.

    But, I am sure, it does require us to call for a person to repent.

  4. This post addresses a topic I’ve wondered about, and you clear up the matter very well. Forgiving others is essential for our relationship with God – and our forgiveness, regardless of the repentance of those who’ve wronged us, is necessary all by itself. Our relationship with other people is another matter: we begin with forgiveness, but without their repentance we may not be able to restore the relationship on our own. Taking that first step is up to us, though.

  5. michael, i just loved the picture connected with your topic. it meant a lot to me. thank you for this gift.

  6. Sadielouwho says

    Thanks for helping me log on!
    I wanted to say that this So, let’s assume a husband is unfaithful. If he is repentant, I believe he should be forgiven. But that specific sin has multiple dimensions of repentance that will need to be addressed over time, and likely in counseling, before the forgiveness “flows” into every aspect of that relationship and cleans away the poison and the wreckage.

    Is exactly how it works. To be perfectly honest with a bunch of strangers, I had an internet flirting problem. While I was unfaithful, in a physical sense, my husband felt just as betrayed on an emotional level.
    He forgave me, but the trust in the marriage took years. We had a good Christian councelor because frankly, we needed moderation.
    Thank you for this post–it was valuable to have some forgiveness issue reaffirmed.