I preached a sermon on forgiveness from Luke 17:1-10 and received the following question afterward and thought the answer might be helpful to others.
I have heard it taught that if a person does not seek forgiveness (repent) that we are not required to forgive, do you agree with this? Can a person refuse to forgive and not harbor sinful bitterness? Does the picture of salvation requiring repentance before forgiveness apply or is it different and not applicable?
Good question. And an obvious one that comes up as you carry the discussion of forgiveness forward. It is also a topic that I feared many people overcomplicate. Some want to have a simplistic view of forgiveness that doesn’t take people’s actions and consequences for those actions seriously, but others want to reduce the definition of forgiveness by coming up with technical arguments as a justification to harbor unforgiveness. Neither approach adequately deals with the biblical data.
Full Circle Forgiveness
The text I was dealing with recently offers a picture of what I would call complete or full circle forgiveness, which ends in reconciliation. In other words, sin is committed and confronted, repentance is offered, and forgiveness is granted. The text tells us that this should happen even if the sin and repentance happens seven times in a day. There is no limit. So, full circle forgiveness that brings about relational reconciliation is only possible in response to repentance.
Nevertheless, things are not always so simple and tidy. Beyond the scope of the text I preached on that day, we must also have an answer to the situation of how to respond to a person who refuses to recognize what they have done wrong, and who is refusing to repent and not seeking forgiveness. Does forgiveness make sense in such a situation? How do we follow Christ in that sort of painful situation? We cannot control the other persons behavior and actions, but we are responsible for our actions and reactions.
Half Circle Forgiveness
In that situation, forgiving an unrepentant person doesn’t look exactly the same as the forgiveness of a repentant person because it does not reach its ultimate goal. At best, in this kind of situation we have what I would call incomplete or half circle forgiveness. It does not end in reconciliation because of the sin of the person who refuses to repent. But even when a person refuses to repent we are commanded to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and we must do good to those who hate us (Matt 5:11, Luke 6:27, 35, Rom 12:14).
When a person who wronged us does not repent with confession, seeking forgiveness and turning from sin to Christ, he or she cuts off the full circle of forgiveness. Nevertheless, we can still lay down our desire for retribution and animosity. We can hand over our anger and ill will to God who alone has the ultimate right of vengeance (Lev 19:18, Heb 10:30). The follower of Christ can seek to do good and bless those who sin against us, but his or her willing-to-forgive heart cannot alone complete the circle of forgiveness and bring about reconciliation and relational intimacy.
Thus, we are always called to be those who forgive in the most important sense of not wanting to exact personal retribution or payback for the debt or wrong done to us. Though we know that God will judge and that it is right for the community to offer consequences for actions (congregational and civil if applicable), we are personally called to forgive from the heart while acknowledging that our actions cannot bring about reconciliation.
In John Calvin’s commentary on Luke 17, he explains differing senses of what it means for Christians to forgive. Calvin argues that half circle forgiveness (my descriptor, not his) is something believers are always called to do. But the more limited sense of forgiveness calls believers to acknowledge forgiveness to the offender only when he or she repents, gladly receiving them personally into your relational favor and bringing about the ultimate full circle goal of forgiveness—reconciliation.
“There are two ways in which offenses are forgiven. If a man shall do me an injury, and I, laying aside the desire of revenge, do not cease to love him, but even repay kindness in place of injury, though I entertain an unfavorable opinion of him, as he deserves, still I am said to forgive him. For when God commands us to wish well to our enemies, He does not therefore demand that we approve in them what He condemns, but only desires that our minds shall be purified from all hatred. In this kind of pardon, so far are we from having any right to wait till he who has offended shall return of his own accord to be reconciled to us, that we ought to love those who deliberately provoke us, who spurn reconciliation, and add to the load of former offenses.
A second kind of forgiving is, when we receive a brother into favor, so as to think favorably respecting him, and to be convinced that the remembrance of his offense is blotted out in the sight of God. And this is what I have formerly remarked, that in this passage Christ does not speak only of injuries which have been done to us, but of every kind of offenses; for he desires that, by our compassion, we shall raise up those who have fallen.
This doctrine is very necessary, because naturally almost all of us are peevish beyond measure; and Satan, under the pretense of severity, drives us to cruel rigor, so that wretched men, to whom pardon is refused, are swallowed up by grief and despair.”
The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness
I think Calvin is correct. Forgiveness has reconciliation as its ultimate goal, but that does not mean that the definition of ‘forgive’ should be collapsed exclusively into what reconciliation is. Nor is it biblically defensible that we are forbidden to forgive, in any sense, if repentance has not happened. A frequent Greek word for ‘forgive,’ apheimi, means a releasing, as in the releasing of a debt for which we desire to seek repayment. We can and should do that personally, no matter the response of the offender, acknowledging that the ultimate authority to judge belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus places enormous emphasis on horizontal (human to human) forgiveness. In The Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin explains the forgiveness that we offer those who sin against us in relation to gospel reconciliation,
“We petition that forgiveness come to us, ‘as we forgive our debtors’ Arguing that forgiveness can only take place where there is repentance is logically inconsistent with the command to overcome evil by blessing by doing good to and loving our enemies. Also, it does not rightly reckon with God’s patience, graciously overlooking for a time our sin, which provided us with the opportunity to repent: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4). The believer should personally choose to forgive those who sin against them because we are fellow sinners and what we should want most for the offender is gospel repentance and forgiveness, not personal retribution. The willingness to do so out of gospel love often paves the path for genuine repentance.
Arguing that forgiveness can only take place where there is repentance is logically inconsistent with the command to overcome evil by blessing by doing good to and loving our enemies. Also, it does not rightly reckon with God’s patience, graciously overlooking for a time our sin, which provided us with the opportunity to repent: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4). The believer should personally choose to forgive those who sin against them because we are fellow sinners and what we should want most for the offender is gospel repentance and forgiveness, not personal retribution. The willingness to do so out of gospel love often paves the path for genuine repentance.
Another way of putting it is that forgiveness must always be offered but is only applied when the offending party repents. This mirrors the gospel where the offer of forgiveness is given to all, but only those who repent and receive it are actually forgiven.
This was very helpful with the circle metaphor. Just yesterday a situation with a relative came almost full circle but I don’t think she completely understands what she did wrong. If I attempt to explain it even more then I risk the gains we’ve made though we aren’t completely reconciled. I pray that the reconciliation that has been regained will earn the trust to bring this full circle.
The impasse was most resolved when my wife was able to share her perspective so enlisting a third party to help with the reconciliation after you’ve done your part of forgiveness can be very helpful.
In your opinion, how does 1 Corinthians 5; especially verses 11 & 13 fit into what you posit here? How does Matthew 18:17? How does Titus 3:10? I’d appreciate your thoughts as I’m trying to think through these issues. Blessings…
Great question! I’m going to answer with another short post because it is Such a helpful in clarifying question. Thanks for engaging.
[…] recently posted an article “Should we only forgive those who repent?” The article stimulated some helpful discussion and I thought my answer to the following question […]
I have heard RC Sproul on Renewing Your Mind teach that we are not required to forgive those who do not ask. When it comes to forgiveness in the sense of full restoration for those who refuse to repent, I agree with this. In fact, it should be pushed further by saying that we “cannot.” This would maintain the biblical requirements for church discipline.
A problem arises however when he (Sproul) goes on to say that we “may” forgive them if we wish to follow in our Lord’s footsteps (as He forgave his executioners who did not ask, for they knew not what they were doing), but that we are not required to. This is where it turns into a convoluted mess.
He is now confusing the necessary distinctions that you have set forth and coming dangerously close to granting animosity. Although, today’s church is in desperate need of disciplining its deserving members, I believe Sproul’s teaching could be counterproductive to this need (although not intentional). In order to maintain the biblical requirements of church discipline, we are not necessarily at liberty to grant the kind of forgiveness that Jesus did. It’s also important to remember that Jesus’ executioners were ignorant of their sin.
I believe if church discipline is to be restored to the church, that it will only be accomplished through the understanding that church discipline involves love and compassion on all levels and from within all the necessary distinctions of forgiveness. This is especially true in churches that are presently entertaining liberal notions. Of course, this would not be to capitulate but to show a more excellent way.
I’ve seen two memes today on forgiveness and one was quite lame. I took the opportunity to share this article on those for a much deeper understanding of the subject, yours. 🙂
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Pastor Prince, this is very well reasoned. Many thanks for your writing ministry and pastoral insights. You are serving the church well!
How do you think the rest of Romans 2 applies here, that, though God is kind and loving, that kindness and love are storing up wrath against those who fail to repent. God’s kindness and love are genuine, but so is the wrath being stored up. Is there an analogous position in human-human interactions? Yes, we are called to show kindness to our enemies. But, if they remain unrepentant, what of the wrath that they are storing up?
This rather obviously points to Romans 12:19-20. It’s not really our wrath to give, but God’s wrath. But, even there, part of the motivation for our turning it over to God is that the kindness would “heaps burning coals” on the heads of our enemies. That doesn’t sound like a very loving, forgiving motivation for kindness. But, it’s the motivation that the apostle offers.
Thanks much Greg! That means a great deal coming from you!
Exactly right that vengeance is the Lord’s not ours but he does provide congregational discipline and civil authorities to act against those who persist in rebellion (see my follow up post).
I would recommend you read puritan Thomas Watson on the matter:
“Question: When do we forgive others?
Answer: When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.” (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 581)
“We are not bound to trust an enemy; but we are bound to forgive him.” (Body of Divinity, p. 581)
I agree that we’re not to seek vengeance personally. The confusing thing though is that Paul seems to be encouraging the “heap burning coals on his head” attitude. A surface reading suggests that rather than rebuking an attitude of vengeance, Paul channels the attitude into faith in God’s justice and (practically) causing discomfort to your enemy through kindness. That’s very different than typical evangelical views on human forgiveness.
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I do not see the problem you do. I think the Romans 12 section you mentioned perfectly coheres with my position. I would see it as a go-to text if I were explaining how horizontal forgiveness works.
Ralph Martin’s commentary is helpful:
“In the last section of this paragraph (17–21), Paul calls believers to demonstrate sincere love (9) towards those who oppose them. Echoing again the teaching of Jesus (Mt. 5:38–42; cf. 1 Thes. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9), Paul forbids retaliation (17a; cf. v 19a). In its place, he urges a positive response: Be careful to do what is right (lit. ‘good things’; cf. 12:2b) in the eyes of everybody. Specifically, the Christian should seek to maintain peaceful relationships with everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike (cf. Pr. 3:4; 2 Cor. 8:21). Nevertheless, Paul recognizes that our freedom to do so will be limited by the attitudes of others and by our need not to compromise our Christian integrity. Peace with others should never be purchased at the price of our Christian convictions and witness. Thus he adds the qualification as far as it depends on you.
Paul adds to his second prohibition (19a) an explanation of why such retaliation is unnecessary. We are to remember that we serve a sovereign and just God, a God who has promised to avenge the wrongs of those who are ill-treated in this world (Dt. 32:35). We should, therefore, not feel it necessary to take on ourselves the role of avenger, but rather leave room for God’s wrath. (The Greek does not make clear that the wrath is God’s, but this is certainly Paul’s meaning.) Paul quotes Pr. 25:21–22 to reinforce his plea not to take vengeance. Again, as in v 17, the point is that Christians should substitute for vengeance the doing of good to our enemies. Through such kindness to our enemy, we will heap burning coals on his head. This could be a reference to future divine punishment: if the enemy is not moved to repentance by our good deeds, our kindly actions will render God’s wrath all the worse. But the fact that it is we, by our good deeds, who bring the burning coals on the enemy suggests rather that Paul is holding out to us the hope that our kindness will stimulate shame and repentance in the enemy. V 21—Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good—is a fitting conclusion to this section (17–21) and, indirectly, to all of vs 3–20.”
Carson, D. A., France, R. T., Motyer, J. A., & Wenham, G. J. (Eds.). (1994). New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., pp. 1151–1152). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
Or Royce Gordon Gruenler’s commentary:
Since the context of Paul’s exhortation (12:17–21) indicates an absolutely upright intention in not returning evil for evil, but in doing “what is right,” and living at peace with everyone as far as it is possible, it is out of the question to interpret the metaphor of burning coals as a sly way of really getting even with an enemy, for that would be to allow evil to overcome the Christian, when in fact the believer is to manifest Christ-like hospitality toward an enemy in hope that divine grace working through the believer will win him over as a friend and thereby overcome evil with good (v. 21). It must be pointed out, however, that as was the case with Jesus in his ministry, one cannot take Christian hospitality for granted, for if willfully refused it will bring the wrath of God, who “will repay” (v. 19; Deut. 32:35; cf. Lev. 19:18), for the gracious disposability of Christ and his followers does not cancel out the righteous wrath of God but offers a way by which one may escape it. Yet in keeping with Jesus’ emphasis and that of Romans 1:16–17 Paul consistently urges his Christian readers to concentrate on being servants of Christ and the gospel for the salvation and welfare of others, not on standing in judgment of them. God alone has the proper perspective to do the perfectly right thing in such cases.
Elwell, W. A. (1995). Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, Ro 12:14). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Or Grant Osbourne’s commentary:
But things are different now because of the advent of Christ. Instead of vengeance, we must leave room for God’s wrath (literally, “give place to wrath,” certainly God’s in this context). The wrath of God has been discussed in 1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; and 9:22; in most passages it refers to the last judgment, but here it is the ongoing justice of God bringing retribution for the suffering of his people. Once again, the already-not yet tension of the book is operative. God will choose the appropriate time for wrath to take place, whether now, later or at the final judgment.
To prove the point, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 (neither MT or LXX but possibly another Greek text similar to the Targumim; so Wilckens 1982; Moo 1996), It is mine to avenge; I will repay. We must free ourselves from bitterness and find the strength to forgive those who do not deserve forgiveness. Only God has the right to avenge wrongs, and only he can do it perfectly. This is one of the most difficult quandaries a believer faces. The person deserves judgment, but to “repay … evil for evil” (v. 17) will render us no better than the one who so deeply hurt us. The answer is right here—leave the vengeance to God.
Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 339). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4
Thanks so much for interacting on this topic.
“Forgive, as you hope to be forgiven. Heap coals of fire on the head of your foe by your kindness to him.”
Morning and Evening
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