A couple of days ago, I pitched this question to folks on Twitter and Facebook. The disagreements on the issue of forgiveness is not one that is divided between conservatives and liberals but between conservatives and conservatives. Since forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith and that we are to forgive as God has forgiven us in Christ (Eph. 4:32), then it is important that understand why and how we should forgive one another.
The fundamental issue is whether forgiveness is unconditional (not dependent upon the repentance of the offender) or conditional (granted only when the offender has repented and asked for it). Both camps would argue that repentance is necessary for reconciliation between the offender and offended parties, but those in the unconditional camp would argue that repentance is not required for forgiveness. In order, then, it would look something like this:
Sin/Offense –> Forgiveness –>Repentance –> Reconciliation (Unconditional)
Sin/Offense –> Repentance –> Forgiveness –> Reconciliation (Conditional)
As you can see, the key issue is the role that repentance plays in differentiating granting forgiveness and actual reconciliation between two people. Let me attempt to provide the case for each position, as best I can understand them.
The Case for Unconditional Forgiveness
Unconditional forgiveness argues that forgiveness should not be contingent upon the obedience of another person (i.e., their repentance). If Christ commands us to forgive, is it a tenable practice then to make our ability to follow through on that command based on the follow through of someone else’s repentance? The clearest text which speaks to this is Mark 11:25 which says
“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
It appears that there are no conditions placed on this command to forgive; on the contrary, it is “anything” against “anyone.” The concluding words of Jesus are reflected also after the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus said:
“ . . . but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15).
Clearly, there is a direct correlation to forgiving others and the Father’s forgiveness. The condition (if) relates to the follower of Christ, and the (then) consequence relates to God.
Perhaps the strongest case for unconditional forgiveness is Jesus on the cross when he cried, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus is praying for the forgiveness of His offenders and executors. What His prayer effectual and unconditional? Jesus’ forgiving of these people does not have to be salvific in nature, leading to reconciliation with God. Therefore, could it not mean that Jesus is forgiving them of the immediate, specific actions they partook in putting Him on the cross? If so, then could that granting of forgiveness be an example of unconditional forgiveness from man-to-man perspective?
The Case for Conditional Forgiveness
Conditional forgiveness argues that granting forgiveness must be conditional upon repentance because this is the way God forgives us in Christ. Not everyone is forgiven of their sin and therefore reconciled with God (i.e., universalism); only those who repent and believe in Jesus are forgiven of their sin. If we are to forgive others as God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13), then our forgiveness on a horizontal level must mirror God’s forgiveness on a vertical level.
The key text in the Gospels used for conditional forgiveness is Luke 17:3-4 which says:
“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Here we see the preceding act of repentance leading to the call of forgiveness. Similarly, 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This confession is to say the same thing about your sin as God does, which is an expression of repentance.
Conditional forgiveness argues three other aspects, namely: 1. Christians should always love their enemies and have a gracious disposition, offering forgiveness to the offender (but granting only when he or she repents); 2. Forgiveness is always connected to reconciliation; and 3. While forgiveness is granted to the repentant, a sense of God’s justice and righteousness must factor into the equation where vengeance and judgment is left to God for the unrepentant.
While I lean strongly in the conditional forgiveness camp, I still am unsatisfied with the how the texts for unconditional forgiveness are answered. Furthermore, the one text used for conditional forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4) speaks directly to those who repent but says nothing about those who do not repent. In other words, it is hard to make a case for a position based on what the text does not say(!). Regarding reconciliation always being connected to forgiveness, how is that case made for Mark 11:25 and Matt. 6:15? It seems that an unwillingness to grant unconditional forgiveness perpetuates disobedience upon the former verse and prohibits our heavenly Father’s grant forgiveness to us. Am I missing it here?
A leading question for advocates of the unconditional forgiveness has been, “What’s the difference between offering forgiveness and granting forgiveness?” I think this is a valid question. The Greek word most often used for forgiveness is aphiemi which means “to let go, to send away, to release” and is often symbolized in the canceling of debts. What every Christian should do when they are offended is to let go of their sense of getting back, of a vindictive spirit, or taking vengeance upon the one who has offended them. We are also to send away any spirit of bitterness, wrath, or unforgiveness as well. While we are to release ourselves from taking the matter into our own hands, this does not necessarily mean that we should release the offender from the offense when there is no repentance. One can genuinely offer forgiveness out of a gracious disposition of seeking the welfare of the offender through repentance while releasing them (granting forgiveness) until they have asked for it and expressed repentance.
I am far from figuring this one out (as you can see), and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. I am inclined toward the conditional forgiveness because of the call to “gospel” one another and encourage repentance and faith from humble hearts seeking to honor God. Forgiving others as God has forgiven us is a sacrificial love offended party to absorb the payment for the offender and expressing genuine concern for their eternal welfare with an understanding of forgiveness that takes into account the justice and righteousness of God. To the unbelieving offender, I want to pursue them, taking the initiative as the offended party to demonstrate the love of Christ by calling them to Christ, explaining how the wrath of God’s judgment against sinners who repent and believe is absorbed in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. As one who has been a great offender of God by deeds springing from a wicked heart, I feel that the canceling of my 10,000 talents has given me the inspiration for a lifetime to take those who owe me 100 denarii to find their greater debts canceled in the blood-stained cross of Calvary.