Reader’s Question: Does the Bible teach that Christians should forgive the unrepentant?
Christians are commanded to forgive because they worship the God who forgives. In Matthew 6:15, we read: ‘… if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’.
But are Christians required to forgive those who have wronged them even if the offenders remain unrepentant? What, if any, is the relationship between forgiveness and repentance?
Christians are divided on this issue. Some Christian writers, like R. T. Kendall, believe that forgiveness should be given unconditionally, even to offenders who are not repentant and who continue in their offense.
However, the majority of Christian theologians and spiritual writers maintain that forgiveness should only be extended to offenders who are truly repentant. Based on passages like Ephesians 4:32, where Paul exhorts his readers to forgive ‘one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, they maintain that we should forgive as God forgives (See also Colossians 3:13).
There are numerous passages in the NT that underscore that forgiveness is premised on repentance. For example, in Luke 17:3 we read these words of Jesus: ‘Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him’.
In this passage, the subjunctive ‘if’ (Greek: ean) sets the condition for forgiveness. This passage therefore clearly teaches that forgiveness should always be conditioned upon repentance.
Matthew 18:15-17 helps us to look at this issue from another angle. Here Jesus gives specific instructions on how to deal with a member of the community (suggested by the descriptor ‘brother’) who has sinned.
Several attempts must be made to convince the person of his sin, but if all these attempts fail and the offender refuses to listen and repent, ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (v 17).
In Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community, ‘Gentile’ denotes ‘heathen’. ‘Tax collector’ is here used as a derogatory term since the Jews despise people in this profession. Commenting on the force of Jesus’ injunction, Donald Hagner writes: ‘Thus the unrepentant offender is not simply put out of the community but categorized as among the worst sort of persons’.
This passage again stresses that forgiveness is only offered to the repentant sinner.
Christians who maintain that forgiveness is not dependent on repentance but must be extended unconditionally to the offender often point to Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Kendall, for instance, argues that Jesus asked God to forgive the people who crucified him without expecting them to first repent of their wrongdoings. Of Jesus’ executioners Kendall writes: ‘There was not only an utter absence of repentance, but also total contempt’.
Jesus’ prayer should not be understood as an anomalous departure from the general biblical principle that forgiveness must be preceded by repentance. As the NT scholar Noval Gledenhuys has shown, Jesus’ prayer demonstrates his ‘earnest longing that his persecutors should be given another chance to repent before otherwise inevitable judgement is executed on their sins!’
Jesus is the very embodiment of that unconditional love that the Bible calls agape, a love that is extended even to one’s enemies. It was this agapic love that compelled Jesus to pray for his torturers and executioners (Cf., Matthew 5:44).
The Dutch NT scholar William Hendricksen paraphrases Jesus’ prayer thus: ‘In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully’.
Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, emulated his Lord when he prayed ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ just before he died at the hands of his persecutors (Acts 7:60).
Jesus’ prayer therefore does not breach the principle that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Rather it shows his magnanimity and willingness to forgive his executioners.
The prayer therefore teaches us that Christians must be always willing to forgive their offenders when they repent. This brings us back to the Lucan passage discussed above. Luke 17:4 reads: ‘and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent”, you must forgive him’. To love with agapic love is to be always willing to forgive.
In doing so, we are imaging our gracious God, who is always willing to forgive us of our sins when we confess them in penitence (1 John 1:9).
However, to offer forgiveness without repentance is to cheapen grace itself, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has perceptively pointed out when he wrote: ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance’. Unconditional forgiveness also devalues the theological and spiritual significance of repentance.
The advocates of unconditional forgiveness often argue that if we refuse to forgive the offender unless he repents, we will be weighed down with hatred and mired in bitterness. While this can certainly be true for some people, it is not necessarily the case.
Christians are called to love everyone (even their enemies) unconditionally regardless of whether they express remorse for their wrongdoing. It is possible to love someone in the biblical sense (i.e., with agapic love), with a love that is never resentful (1 Corinthians 13:5), even when an unsettled issue continues to persist.
The ultimate goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, the healing of relationship. This is just not possible if there is no repentance on the part of the wrongdoer, that is, if the offender denies that he has committed an offense or if he does not show remorse.