Must People Repent Before I Forgive?
There’s a good deal of confusion out there and some pretty prominent church leaders disagree. Writer and preacher, Tim Challies, is one. After admitting he shouldn’t be dogmatic, he proceeds to argue that forgiveness is conditional for God and for us. We shouldn’t forgive, he insists, until an offender has repented. Other fruits or “proofs” of repentance are also usually in view: such as contrition, confession, promises, restitution and accountability. https://www.challies.com/articles/is-forgiveness-conditional-or-unconditional/
This topic matters not only for emotional reasons. After all, truly forgiving is a painful and costly act. And it’s unnatural. Our flesh wires us for justice and retaliation, not forgiveness. But it is also an ethical and practical issue. Forgiveness is an often repeated commandment. And like love and mercy, it is a virtue God himself exhibits and urges us to emulate as his followers. “Forgive as God in Christ has forgiven you,” Paul writes (Col. 3:13b; Eph. 4:32b). So, I need to have particular people in view and so should you.
Jesus had particular people in view too. Remember the woman caught in adultery? The religious leaders wanted “justice” and accountability. Instead Jesus holds them, the offended, accountable. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…” (Jn. 8:7). Isn’t he is telling them to be grateful their own sins are forgiven? Isn’t he is essentially applying “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”? Isn’t Jesus requiring them to forgive without setting any conditions for the woman to meet?
Remarkably, instead Jesus defends her. Without a confession or any other “proof” of repentance, he declares that he does not condemn her, nor will he allow anyone else to do so. When he sends her off with “go and sin no more”, it’s not a condition for mercy but a consequence of it. She is given opportunity and empowerment to change, not a requirement for forgiveness to fulfill.
It’s no wonder that the major N.T. passages on forgiveness like Mt. 6, Lk. 6, Col. 3 and Eph. 4 always focus on the one offended and are virtually silent about anything an offender must do. Preconditions aren’t identified. That idea is erroneously brought in from other passages. While repentance and such is healthy and necessary for reconciliation between parties, it is always the potential result of forgiveness and not the requirement for it. The command to forgive is unconditional and aimed at the heart of the offended. How are followers of Jesus to respond when wounded?
Consider other individuals Jesus had in view. In the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee in Luke 18, it is the latter, the offended, who is called out as exalting himself and needing to be humbled. All the tax collector does is ask for mercy, yet he goes home justified by Jesus. We hear nothing about conditions to be met beforehand or even afterwards. It would be healthy and godly if he sought reconciliation with those he defrauded, but the story is silent about that. Whether he did or not, the Pharisee was responsible for his inability to forgive and show mercy.
Jesus taught the same principle in other parables. In the prodigal son story, the Father embraces and restores the unworthy son in spite of his self-serving motives for returning home, and before he can offer his misguided and offensive repentance speech. The older son, as a co-offended, is livid that his brother has not paid his debts and refuses to release him. That son is the one parable holds accountable: and it is for not forgiving. Jesus’ intention was that those in the audience would look at their own hearts (Lk. 15:1-3).
In the story of the unforgiving servant (Mt. 18:21ff.), Jesus similarly singles out the offended. The parable answers Peter’s befuddled question (or perhaps protest) about how many times we must forgive an offender. I get it. At what point should I doubt sincerity? When am I just being a doormat? Aren’t I enabling sin? Shouldn’t I be responsible to prevent further offenses? Peter stretched mercy as far as he could imagine: “OK, maybe I could cover sin and release someone seven times. Is that enough?”
Jesus’ response is startling. Not only does he say 77 times, a Hebraic way of expressing perfection, but then he illustrates it with a convicting parable. He tells the story of a great king (who represents God) who was owed a debt that probably equaled about twenty years wages for ten thousand laborers (ESV footnote on vs. 24). The king could have justly sold him into slavery. Although it would only recover a tiny piece of the debt, at least he’d have some satisfaction. Knowing this, the servant offers a lame promise instead of repayment or repentance. He makes a ridiculously insolent claim that he will pay him back. He doesn’t even have the sense to ask for mercy and forgiveness. Rather, he adds this further offense. Yet, the king releases him and forgives the debt “out of pity” (vs. 27). Seriously?
It doesn’t end there though. Still aiming at the heart of the offended, Jesus continues by relaying how that servant then turned around and not only refused to forgive someone for far less but punished him instead. Peter and the rest of us are meant to walk away realizing that we are that man. He was forgiven much but loved little, a similar point that Jesus also makes in the story of the sinful woman and Simon in Lk. 7.
How about the woman at the well (Jn. 4)? Jesus pursues her with loving kindness before she shows any signs of repentance. Although he reminds her of her sin and need for a savior, he points her not to preconditions but to his provisions as the Living Water.
Jesus also unconditionally pursues Zacchaeus, the tax collector and sinner, in Luke 19. Jesus’ acceptance and honor leads him to repentance and a promise to repay what he’s stolen four-fold. That’s a response to Jesus’ unmerited acceptance, not a cause for it. The story closes with Jesus reminding us that the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. Lost people like Zacchaeus can’t give evidence of being found until after they’re found.
I find Jesus’ forgiveness and restoration of Peter after his denial especially stunning (Jn. 21:15-25). Peter betrayed him three times and Jesus graciously gives him three opportunities to find healing. His failure and this scene couldn’t be more public. The disciples were present and it was recorded for all of history. If Peter were to become the key leader of the church, wouldn’t this be the greatest chance to push for his repentance? Wouldn’t that be in his, the church’s and God’s best interest?
I might have said, “Peter, if you love me, confess three ways you hurt me.” Or, “Recite three promises that reassure me you’ll never to do it again.” Or, “Name three people who will hold you accountable.” There must have been so many who were holding Peter’s sin against him or else would. This was Jesus’ opportunity to demonstrate how all who felt offended should act.
What Jesus does instead is not only a portrait of the glory of forgiveness, but the virtues it creates. What we witness are the qualities that flow from a merciful and forgiving heart: compassion, tender-heartedness, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col. 3:12; Eph. 4:32a). Instead of focusing on his sin, Jesus draws out his love three times: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs.”
What? There could not be a more serious disqualifier for leadership than what Peter had done. Yet, in the previous chapters, Jesus had already been the substitutionary atonement for Peter’s sins and ours. He had already been resurrected, sealing his victory over sin and death. More on this next time, but his accomplishments were not a response to Peter or anyone else’s “offerings”, including repentance. Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter’s sins was purely gracious and not of works of any kind or else he could boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
This scene was not just for Peter but those present and readers ever since. It was for the church that Peter would lead. It is model for all of us who feel betrayed or offended. What is the church to do with sin? How are we to respond to offenses?
Paul is another example, as is David among others. In fact, Paul cites David to define the core of forgiveness: “Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sins.” (Rom. 4:6-8).
If I, as the offended, make repentance or anything else a condition for forgiveness, then I am counting an offender’s sins and refusing to cover them. I am holding their offenses against them. And I am requiring works or offerings from them. In effect, I am demanding a payment. While repentance and its fruits are healthy and required for reconciliation between parties, it is unbiblical and a refusal to follow Jesus’ model to place any conditions on forgiveness. As we’ll see next time, I must forgive not because of something an offender must do, but only because of what Jesus has done.
Bless you, Lord, for you don’t even count my failures to forgive against me! You cover me even when I refuse to cover others as I would have them cover me. Please change my heart.