A common notion many Christians hold is that if someone wrongs us, we are only obliged to forgive if they first repent and seek forgiveness. The entire basis for this is that God only forgives when the transgressor seeks repentance and forgiveness. However, we must remember that we are not God. I find this notion an inappropriate view regarding human forgiveness towards others, and here’s why.

First, this concept doesn’t appear within Scripture. Rather, Jesus urged that when a person was praying, they ought to forgive anyone who’s wronged them so that God may forgive the one praying also (Mark 11:25–26). No condition of the guilty party’s penitent heart is attached to this command. Furthermore, Colossians 3:13 seems to urge us to forgive as Christ forgave. I recall Jesus upon the cross asking God to not hold the sin against those who put Him on the cross. They hadn’t sought this forgiveness, but Christ wanted them to have it for the reason that leads me to my second point.

If we only forgive when one asks our forgiveness, we live a life void of grace. Grace is a vital factor in forgiveness. We may rightly say that grace is a gift to us that’s not deserved, and while we access that grace through various means defined by God, He has already taken the step of making it available to us. Were we to adopt measures to obtain His grace without His having offered it, it would mean nothing. Grace saves us through faith, and we must remember that grace came first (Ephesians 2:8). If I am content to hold on to another’s wrong, then I neglect that God will forgive me the same way I forgive others.

Third, we assume that the wrongdoer knows they’ve done wrong. There are many times that people have erred against another without realizing it. I’d dare say that we have unintentionally sinned against God in the same way. If I’m to receive God’s forgiveness for everything I’ve done wrong, I’d have to be aware of it to some degree. However, God in His goodness forgives us of even those sins we may be unaware of having done. This is why we generalize in prayer, “forgive us our sins.” There are some we know we’ve done, and some we presume we may not be able to recall. We rely on God’s goodness to forgive even those we may be unaware we’ve committed, so we must act the same towards others.

Must Repentance Come Before Forgiveness?

7 thoughts on “Must Repentance Come Before Forgiveness?

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I agree with you but have struggled to put it into words in a clear manner. I have tried to help people realize that the Bible never tells us that we have a right to hold a grudge.

  2. Not looking to stir up trouble, but I do think this is a discussion worth having. I disagree with the points above and will do my best to explain biblically as to why. Here goes:

    To your first point that the idea of requiring repentance come before forgiveness not being in Scripture (regarding forgiveness from man to man) this is simply not true. In Rev. 2:20 the word translated “tolerate” in the ESV is our greek word for forgiveness (apheimi). Jesus held it against them that they were forgiving an unrepentant Jezebel. One could also make the argument that the Corinthians were scolded for their forgiveness of an unrepentant man in 1 Cor. 5. Also, we must remember for passages like Mark 11:25-26 there are passages like Luke 17:3-4 (forgiveness contingent only on repentance). These are not at odd with each other, and need to be studied together.

    Second, is it not graceful to extend forgiveness? God does not lack grace when it asks for repentance. His grace is seen in that He sent His Son to die so that one can easily be forgiven. As to your last sentence is the second point “If I am content to hold on to another’s wrong, then I neglect that God will forgive me the same way I forgive others.” I’ll comment on that in my closing.

    Third, we should never presume someone has done wrong, but that doesn’t mean we should just outright forgive them. We are called to go to someone and explain the wrong (Mt. 18). Yes God forgives us of the unknown, unnamed wrongs, but that is also contingent on our walking in the light (1 John 1:9). A life of repentance is one that is forgiven.

    There were two comments made, the one quoted above in my 3rd paragraph and the one made in your first paragraph (“we are not God”). I’ll address the “we are not God” one first. For the longest time I said the same. God doesn’t forgive without repentance, but I’m not God and I shouldn’t do the same. Yet, we are repeatedly asked to become like God. Why would we think, “I’m not God so I’m going to not do what I can to become like Him in this area.” Because we’re not God we should decide for ourselves how to forgive others? Doesn’t seem right to me.

    As to the comment about being content to hold on to another’s wrong. I think this is where we get tripped up today. Forgiveness and grudge-holding are two different ideas to the Greeks (in the sense that the word for forgiveness has nothing to do with grudge-holding). We’ve merged these ideas as one in our culture. I can both not forgive someone for their sin and be respectful, and pleasant towards them without wishing any ill-will. These concepts are not at odds with one another. According to Thayers (my BDAG is unavailable to me at the moment) the word for forgiveness means to “release” or “pardon” and is typically a word used in regards to sin.

    I don’t believe that I have the right to release someone from sins that God has not released them of and I think the passage in Rev. 2 and I Cor. 5 help to show that. That being said, I also do not have the right to treat someone who is unrepentant in their sin wrongfully and I am required to go to them, explain the wrong, and make forgiveness as available as possible. Using God as the example here, He went 99% of the way in making forgiveness possible. He did all the heavy lifting (as should we) and asks for repentance. Once there is repentance it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, you’re forgiven. We need to go that 99% of the way.

    To summarize, we’re not God, but we are called to become like Him. We seek to emulate His practices. We do not hold grudges (the Bible does not speak to grudge holding specifically to my knowledge), by which I mean treat harshly and harbor negative thoughts toward someone. We should always be hopeful in prayer for their change of heart and that they’d repent. By forgiving someone without alerting them to the need of repentance we’re short-changing them the necessity of them coming to God. I don’t want someone to feel comfortable in their wrong action because I’ve forgiven them only for them to find out later that God has not forgiven them.

    Again, this wasn’t written to stir up trouble (you know me well enough to know that, but other readers may not), but to stir up discussion. At the end of the day, this may just be splitting hairs to a degree. If the author wasn’t you (someone who enjoys study such as this) I probably wouldn’t be commenting. Looking forward to any follow up comments on the matter.

    • Jack, I take your comments in the spirit you intend them and ask you accept my reply in the same spirit.

      To reply to your first point, your first two examples from Revelation and 1 Corinthians were churches tolerating sin rather than one individual having sinned against another, which was the focus of my article. Your passage from Luke 17 is more appropriate to the one-on-one scenario; however, it’s necessary that the one wronged rebukes the sinner, something which pragmatically hardly takes place. Rather, people allow their animosity to stew and hold their grudge. One might also reason that from 1 Corinthians 13 that an attribute of being loving towards our brethren means being forgiving as an expression of kindness, and that if we were to hold one’s sin against them that we could become “puffed up” and think ourselves morally superior which avails to no good. If we’re also to hold one’s sin, how might we avoid bitterness (Ephesians 4:31)? Yet, as you say, Luke is valuable to this point.

      Your second point was unconcluded in its paragraph, but your third paragraph wherein you mention “outright forgiveness” is another matter. If the wrong is legitimately a wrong as God would see it, I’d agree with you. However, when people refuse to forgive others it rarely has anything to do with God’s justice and more to do with one’s having their feelings hurt or upset by a choice made or word spoken. Otherwise, I agree with you.

      As to your “we’re not God” comments, my focus on this statement is that unlike God, I am tempted, sin, and mess up. While called to be like God, that doesn’t negate the fact that my flesh is at war with my spirit, so when I presume to act as God does in this right, I feel as if I’ve neglected my own sinfulness and acting superior to others in some way. God is spirit, and He took on flesh in Jesus, but even in flesh Christ didn’t sin. This is the determining factor in my saying that we’re not God, though we strive to be. No one can argue with the fact that our flesh causes us to be ungodly, and as one who is tempted and has sinned, I feel it more humble to look upon an erring brother with compassion while realizing that I too have sinned (cf. Galatians 6:1).

      Your remarks about holding one’s sin and grudge holding are an important distinction which often goes unmade. I agree with your point here, but also urge that it you recall that it isn’t us alone who hold one’s sins against them in Rev. 2 and 1 Cor. 5, this is the responsibility of the body and not simply one Christian from that body.

      Your comments on not treating harshly and thinking negatively were more of what I had in mind. While you may be exceptionally spiritual in this regard, understand that many Christians have yet to arrive at where you are here and cannot but help wanting to treat harshly another who they feel has wronged them and may even think negatively about them. This post was written more with that group in mind and not the preacher.

      Peace.

      • I think we probably agree with each other more than it looks at the surface. In fact, your reply shows me that we’re thinking of the subject in light of two different audiences. In an ideal world where people are seeking God’s justice and are pointing out to others their wrongdoing. That’s more what I had in mind in my response. A majority of the time people are probably doing more like what you described, looking to hold forgiveness over one’s head, etc.

        Appreciate the discussion on the subject. It’s one I spent a lot of time on studying in the past as a result of a specific experience in my life. I believed I have handled it in such a way that I described, informing of sin, making the forgiveness available, not being puffed up, holding no ill-will or bad intentions towards them, treating them with great respect, and trying to show the need for repentance. That being said, the majority of people don’t do things that way. I think your article is well-suited overall to that audience, I just didn’t have that one in mind in my reply.

        Thanks for the reply and article! Always enjoy your content.

  3. Let me suggest another verse to consider. “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). I appreciate the discussion between Steven and Jack (I had Steven as a student once upon a time but have never had the privilege of meeting Jack). There is a lot to consider on both sides of this and both make some very good points. I see this type of thing most often in personal relationships. Someone has been wronged or perhaps just perceives that they have been wronged. They get angry, end a relationship with someone they’ve known for a long time, and become bitter. If there truly has been an offense committed, it would be very difficult to fully restore the relationship without repentance. At the same time, bitterness and resentment are twin poisons that will destroy one’s spiritual life and their physical health. If the offending party refuses to repent and acknowledge the wrong, the offended party must find, with God’s help, the ability to move on, let go of bitterness and resentment. I would also add this thought. In a lot of cases actual sin is involved and, in order to be forgiven by God, the offending party must repent; more importantly than being reconciled to me, they need to be reconciled to God. Having said all of that, I pray that I can have the attitude of Stephen in Acts 7:60.

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