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.
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.”
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.