Do I Forgive the Unrepentant Offender?

Today my wife and I were getting in our 30 minutes of walking on a beautiful day here when a student stopped me and asked a question about forgiveness. His question was theoretical—he didn’t have a particular person in mind, but he asked whether Christians need to forgive someone that has not admitted their sin.

Forgiveness and Biblical Counseling go together like peanut butter and jelly. Of course, it’s been decades since I enjoyed that sandwich combination, but I hear people still like them. You can’t think of peanut butter without jelly and it’s the same with forgiveness and Biblical counseling. If I want to get onto a profitable rabbit trail in any of my counseling classes, I just have to present some question about forgiveness and the entire hour will be gone quickly. The question this student asked me is a frequent one, and good people take opposite positions on it.[1]Jay Adams in From Forgiven to Forgiving, says that forgiveness is only transactional as does Chris Brauns in his more recent book, Unpacking Forgiveness. John MacArthur in his book, The Freedom and … Continue reading

There are lots of passages on forgiveness in the New Testament that are relevant to this question, but first a definition. When I talk about forgiveness I mean a promise not to talk about his sin to his face, not to talk about it behind his back, and not to think on it.

Those that see conditionality as important to forgiveness can point to Eph 4:32.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV)

What does it mean to forgive as God forgives us? God certainly never forgives a person that doesn’t admit their sin; therefore, we shouldn’t forgive someone that doesn’t admit his sin—he doesn’t ask for forgiveness. You can add to this argument Luke 17:3-4 where Christ 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.” (ESV)

These two passages seem to indicate that forgiveness is not offered to an unrepentant offender, and those that believe this consider horizontal forgiveness (person to person) to be a transaction. If the offender doesn’t repent, the transaction of forgiveness cannot be completed. I don’t argue that ideally forgiveness should be a transaction between offender and offended, but the question is how does the offended respond when the offender doesn’t repent and the transaction cannot be completed? Luke 17:3 seems clear—if the offender just says he’s repentant (seven times in a day would indicate that probably the first time at least he wasn’t repentant), then you are supposed to forgive him. And it seems clear that the offender stating his repentance is required.

However, Eph 4:32 is not as helpful to their position as those that see forgiveness as a transaction seem to believe. Eph 4:22-24 talks about sanctification as putting off and putting on with renewed thinking and then the following verses give examples of what that looks like. So, put off lying and put on speaking the truth. Why? Because we are members of the same body. By verse 31 we have a list of sins that should no longer characterize us. We should be putting them off. Verse 32 then tells us what we should put on as corresponding virtues. The emphasis of Eph 4:32 is not on how stingy we can be with our forgiveness, but how generous we should be. As John MacArthur says,

“To make conditionality the gist of Christlike forgiving seems to miss the whole point of what Scripture is saying. When Scripture instructs us to forgive in the manner we have been forgiven, what is in view is not the idea of withholding forgiveness until the offender expresses repentance.” And, “The attitude of the forgiver is where the focus of Scripture lies, not the terms of forgiveness.”[2] John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 118, 119.

I agree and I would add the entire story of Mt 18:21-35. Christ’s response to Peter’s question in that passage is that Peter isn’t being nearly generous enough with his forgiveness if he’s refusing to forgive after 7 offenses. That’s being a stingy accountant, not a generous forgiver. And notice that Peter’s question doesn’t assume that the person you are forgiving is even asking for it. They might not be admitting their sin 7 times in the day, but Christians reflect on God’s great forgiveness of them and forgive others. They realize that compared to their sins against God, any, ANY sin against them is small and should be easy to forgive. The emphasis is on being generous with our forgiveness.

Sometimes forgiveness is transactional (ideally) but it’s always attitudinal. Sometimes it can only be attitudinal when the offender refuses to repent. I should work towards having an attitude of forgiveness toward my offenders whether they admit their sin or not.

Something Luke records in his gospel is important.

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Luke 6:27–29 (ESV)

Imagine a person that is hated, cursed, abused, punched, and stolen from, and all by the same person. How does a Christian respond to that? They love them. And in this passage love looks a lot like not holding their sin against their enemy, doesn’t it? I mean you’re blessing them, praying for them, and giving them your tunic. That sounds a lot like an attitude of forgiveness.

We can actually see this attitudinal forgiveness demonstrated by Jesus on the cross. When they reached Calvary and Jesus was crucified, Luke records Jesus saying,

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34a (ESV)

Was Jesus actually forgiving the sin of people that hadn’t repented? No. Christ was praying that they would be brought about to a position of repentance. Christ was not forgiving their sins, but He was demonstrating a forgiving attitude, an attitude that longs to complete the transaction if repentance is offered.

Does a Christian need to forgive someone that has not admitted their sin? They need to have an attitude of forgiveness while they pray for the offender to repent so that the transaction of forgiveness can be completed. But if the offender never repents, the Christian can follow the example of Jesus and maintain a forgiving attitude towards those that have sinned against him. From the offender’s perspective, it’s indistinguishable from transactional forgiveness. In other words the offended Christian can forgive him.


1 Jay Adams in From Forgiven to Forgiving, says that forgiveness is only transactional as does Chris Brauns in his more recent book, Unpacking Forgiveness. John MacArthur in his book, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, says forgiveness is conditional sometimes and unconditional other times.
2 John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 118, 119.

Lost then Found

There’s a story to this picture. This past weekend we were driving to see our son in Colorado when we pulled off the interstate for a minute. My wife was sleeping, and my daughter was driving when we were in the middle of nowhere in Northeastern Colorado. The exits on that stretch of interstate are about 10 miles apart. It’s a desolate area. It was one stop on a long, 11-hour drive. We arrived at our hotel that night and while we were getting our luggage my wife told me she could only find one shoe. I had noticed her shoes when I got out earlier in our journey, but I thought I was careful; however, one shoe was missing. Laura walked to our room with only one shoe on—she really did! I was sorry, but there was nothing I could do. They weren’t expensive, but they were new shoes.  

We had a great weekend, dropped our daughter at the airport, our son back at school, and we hit the road. My daughter told us that she thought we were about 2:20 from our hotel when we stopped. Our hotel was south of Denver so Laura plugged in the address and tried to figure out what exit we might have stopped at. She offered to drive and we arrived at the exit where she thought we might find her shoe. We pulled off the road and there was her shoe, sparkling in the sunlight. We were both so thrilled—my wife because her detective work paid off and me because the shoe I accidentally kicked out of the minivan was found undamaged. Some lost things are found.

I’ve been thinking a little about finding things that are lost. My son texted me this week that he needed his social security card. I went to the place in the house where I keep them, and it wasn’t there. I found passports, birth certificates, and other social security cards, but not his. Laura and I looked all around in every place we could imagine, and we never found it. Some lost things are never found.

My wife’s shoe did nothing to be found. It was in exactly the same spot as when it fell out of the car three days previous. And I know my son’s social security card hasn’t done anything to be found because we haven’t found it!

Every person alive today was lost; some have been found. But if you were found, it’s all because of Christ. You did nothing to be found.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Luke 19:10 (ESV)

I’m glad Jesus sought me and saved me. I’m glad salvation doesn’t depend upon me. If it did, I’d still be lost—like my son’s social security card.

Union with Christ 2–Implications

It’s beneficial to discuss the theology of our union with Christ as we’ve already done, but sometimes we struggle to understand the implications of this doctrine. Your counselees will probably need help to see how applicable it is to their lives. Our union with Christ is not just a theoretical doctrine. It has real application for you and your counselees.

Union with Christ Affects Our Identity

I think this is especially powerful. Our world finds their identities in many things. The LGBTQ+ movement finds its identity in its behavior, and if you reject the behavior, they feel you are rejecting them. If your identity is as a homosexual, then it’s going to feel personal when someone claims the Bible calls that behavior sin. That’s because your identity is very personal.

Many things we choose for our identity can be distractions from what our identity ought to be. I am a parent, but I shouldn’t find my identity in that. If I do, it could distract me from pursuing Christ. It could keep me from having the marriage I should have.

Other things can weigh us down if they become our identities. Your identity isn’t found in your past failures. That’s not how God sees you. He sees you as righteous because of your union with Christ. Maybe you see yourself as…

  • A failed parent
  • An ex-adulterer
  • A former drunk
  • A failure at marriage
  • A failure as a son or daughter
  • An embarrassment to your family

But none of those are how God looks at His children. He sees you as righteous and only has love for you. Why? Because of your union with Christ.

Romans 8:1 (ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Because of this judicial union with Christ, we have a right standing before the law. We have the righteousness of God’s own Son. You need to cast off those identities you have that weigh you down or distract you from following Christ. You are in Christ and He is in you.

You might wear a lot of identities in your life: son, daughter, student, athlete, employee, spouse, parent, grandparent, and others. None of those are your true identity. Those other identities can be stripped away. They can change. They can actually be disappointments. You are in Christ and He is in you. That’s your identity.

Your identity isn’t your gender, your shame, your hobby, your talent, your personality, or anything else we use to scratch out a significant identity. You are in union with Christ. Your identity is found in Him.

And since that’s because of grace—you didn’t earn it; you also cannot lose it. God gave you that identity, and He won’t take it back.

Union with Christ Affects Our Fellowship with Christ

I think this is unexpected, and I like this truth about our union with Christ.

Matthew 18:20 (ESV) For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Matthew 28:20 (ESV) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
1 Corinthians 1:9 (ESV) God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Understanding our union with Christ has a very personal application. Your fellowship with Jesus depends on it. It’s guaranteed by it.

1 John 1:6–7, 9 (ESV) If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Yes, walking in the light will increase our fellowship with each other (1:7), but if verse 6 means anything—and even the entire passage (1:5-2:2)—then we can have greater or lesser fellowship with God.

Union with Christ brings about a fellowship of Christ with the believer, –Christ takes part in all the labors, temptations, and sufferings of his people; a fellowship of the believer with Christ, –so that Christ’s whole experience on earth is in some measure reproduced in him; a fellowship of all believers with one another, –furnishing a basis for the spiritual unity of Christ’s people on earth, and for the eternal communion of heaven. [1]Augustus Strong, 806

“Christ takes part in all the labors, temptations, and sufferings of his people….” What a tremendous comfort. We might say it this way, “Jesus is with you.” No matter what your circumstances are union with Christ means that He’s with you.

Union with Christ Affects Our Growth

Romans 6:11–14, 19 (ESV) So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

Why are we dead to sin as 6:11 says? Because we died with Christ (Rom 6:6). How could we have possibly died with him? It must be through our union with Christ. And having died with Christ, we are no longer enslaved to sin. Sin cannot dominate us anymore! We used to grow in lawlessness, but now we can grow in holiness.

It’s only through Christ that we can bear fruit. It’s not by muscling up our own willpower to defeat sin. We learn this in John 15. You cannot grow on your own. You cannot bear good fruit on your own. You can because of Christ.

John 15:4–5 (ESV) Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Union with Christ is what allows us to bear fruit. We live in Christ’s strength. You have no ability through your willpower or innate ability to change yourself in a way that pleases God. You cannot produce good fruit outside of Christ. Christ in you and you in Christ—that’s our union with Christ.

Union with Christ secures to the believer the continuously transforming, assimilating power of Christ’s life, –first, for the soul; secondly, for the body, –consecrating it in the present, and in the future raising it up in the likeness of Christ’s glorified body. This continuous influence, so far as it is exerted in the present life, we call Sanctification, the human side of which is Perseverance. [2]Augustus Strong, 805

Don’t believe me or Augustus Strong? Look at these passages.

Galatians 2:20 (ESV) I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Romans 15:18 (ESV) For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed,
Philippians 4:13 (ESV) I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

This is where we get practical help to live a life that glorifies God. All of us know how we should live. Our union with Christ means that we can live the way we should.

Your sanctification will not rise and fall on your spiritual abilities. Yes, you need to work, but you grow because of Christ. Abiding in Him is the power source for growth.

Identity, fellowship, and growth are three practical implications of our union with Christ.


1 Augustus Strong, 806
2 Augustus Strong, 805