The Bible speaks a great deal about forgiveness, both God’s forgiveness of sinful human beings and the forgiveness that human beings should have for each other. But they are not two separate, unrelated issues of forgiveness; rather, they are vitally linked. Intimacy with God and day-to-day cleansing are dependent on our forgiveness of others (Matthew 6:12), and our forgiveness of others is to be patterned on and an example of God’s forgiveness of us (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). So, this question is an important one.
We need to make an effort to understand God’s forgiveness of us if we are going to forgive others in a way that reflects God’s forgiveness. Sadly, in recent decades the word forgiveness has taken on a connotation of “psychological freedom” instead of freedom from sin, and this has brought some confusion about the whole concept of what it means to forgive.
It is true that the forgiveness God extends to us is conditional upon our confession of sin and repentance. Confession involves agreeing with God about our sin, and repentance requires a change of mind concerning the wrong attitude or action and a change in behavior that evinces a genuine willingness to forsake the sin. Sin remains unforgiven unless it is confessed and repented of (see 1 John 1:9; Acts 20:21). While this might seem a difficult condition for forgiveness, it is also a great blessing and promise. Confession of sin is not an act of self-condemnation but of seeking God’s provision of the remedy for sin in forgiveness through Christ.
God’s requirement that we confess and repent of sin does not mean God is unwilling or unready to forgive. He has done everything on His part to facilitate forgiveness for us. His heart is willing, not wanting anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), and He has gone to the most extreme lengths imaginable to provide the means by which He can forgive us. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, God freely offers us that forgiveness.
Scripture says to forgive others as we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32) and love one another as we are loved (John 13:34). We should be willing and ready to extend forgiveness to anyone who comes to us confessing his sin and repenting (Matthew 6:14–15; 18:23–35; Ephesians 4:31–32; Colossians 3:13). Not only is this an obligation, but it should be our delight. If we are truly thankful for our own forgiveness, we should have no hesitancy in granting forgiveness to a repentant offender, even if he wrongs us and repents again and again. After all, we, too, sin again and again, and we are thankful that God forgives us when we come to Him with a true repentant heart of confession.
That brings us to the question at hand: should we forgive a person who does not confess his sin and is not repentant? To answer this properly, the term forgiveness needs some explaining. First, what forgiveness is not:
Forgiveness is not the same as forbearance. To forbear is to patiently endure a provocation, overlook a slight, or maintain self-control in the face of frustration. Forbearance causes us to weigh someone’s sinful action or attitude with love, wisdom, and discernment and choose not to respond. Scripture uses various words for this quality: patience, longsuffering, endurance, and, of course, forbearance (see Proverbs 12:16; 19:11; 1 Peter 4:8).
Forgiveness is also not forgetting. God does not suffer from amnesia about our sin. He remembers very clearly; however, it is not a remembering to condemn us (Romans 8:1). King David’s adultery and Abraham’s lying—these sins are recorded for all time in Scripture. God obviously did not “forget” about them.
Forgiveness is not an elimination of all consequences. Even when we are forgiven by Christ, we may still suffer the natural consequences of our sin (Proverbs 6:27) or face the discipline of a loving Heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:5–6).
Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a commitment to pardon the offender. Feelings may or may not accompany forgiveness. Feelings of bitterness against a person may fade with time without any forgiveness being extended.
Forgiveness is not the private, solitary act of an individual heart. In other words, forgiveness involves at least two people. This is where confession and repentance come in. Forgiveness is not only about what happens within the offended person’s heart; it is a transaction between two people.
Forgiveness is not selfish; it is not motivated by self-interest. We do not seek to forgive for our own sakes or to relieve ourselves from stress. We forgive out of love of God, love of neighbors, and gratefulness for our own forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not the automatic restoration of trust. It is wrong to think that forgiving an abusive spouse today means the separation should end tomorrow. Scripture gives us many reasons to distrust those who have proved themselves untrustworthy (see Luke 16:10–12). Rebuilding trust can only begin after a process of reconciliation involving true forgiveness—which, of course, involves confession and repentance.
Also, importantly, forgiveness offered and available is not the same as forgiveness given, received, and transacted. This is where the word forgiveness on its own with no qualifier is often used differently from, and beyond, how God’s Word uses it. We tend to call the attitude of forgiveness—being willing to forgive—“forgiveness,” just the same as the actual transaction of true forgiveness. That is, in popular thinking, as long as a person is open to granting forgiveness, he has already forgiven. But this broad definition of forgiveness short-circuits the process of confession and repentance. Forgiveness offered and forgiveness received are entirely different, and we don’t help ourselves by using a catch-all word for both.
If this is what forgiveness is not, then what is it? An excellent definition of forgiveness is found in the book Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns:
God’s forgiveness: A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.
General human forgiveness: A commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated. (Crossway Books, 2008, p. 55).
Biblically, full forgiveness is not just something that the offended person offers; it requires that the offender receives it, bringing reconciliation to the relationship. First John 1:9 shows that the process of forgiveness is primarily to free the sinner; forgiveness ends the rejection, thus reconciling the relationship. This is why we must be willing to forgive others—if we aren’t willing to forgive, we refuse to allow others to enjoy what God has blessed us with. Modern pop psychology has wrongly taught that “forgiveness” is one-sided, that reconciliation is unnecessary, and that the purpose of this unilateral forgiveness is to free the offended person of feelings of bitterness.
While we must not harbor bitterness in our hearts (Hebrews 12:15) or repay evil for evil (1 Peter 3:9), we should make sure we follow God’s lead and not extend forgiveness to the unrepentant. In short, we should withhold forgiveness from those who do not confess and repent; at the same time, we should extend the offer of forgiveness and maintain an attitude of readiness to forgive.
Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, illustrates the principle of forgiveness. Echoing Jesus’ words from the cross, Stephen prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60; cf. Luke 23:34). These words show a definite willingness to forgive, but they do not indicate a completed transaction of forgiveness. Stephen simply prayed that God would forgive his murderers. Stephen held no bitterness, and, when and if his murderers repented, he wished them to be forgiven—what a wonderful example of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
The Bible commands the counter-intuitive action of feeding our enemy when he is hungry (Romans 12:20). There is nothing to say we must automatically forgive our enemies (or trust them); rather, we are to love them and work for their good.
If “forgiveness” is given prematurely without the prerequisites of confession and repentance, then the truth has not been dealt with openly by both parties. If the offender doesn’t acknowledge his sin, then he really does not understand what it means to be forgiven. In the long run, bypassing confession or repentance doesn’t help the offender to understand the significance of sin, and it precludes a sense of justice, causing the offended person to battle even more against bitterness.
Here are some key guidelines for godly forgiveness:
- acknowledge the fact of evil (Romans 12:9)
- leave vengeance to the Lord (verse 19)
- leave no room for bitterness, revenge, grudges, or retaliation
- have a heart ready to forgive at a moment’s notice
- trust God to give you the ability to overcome evil with good, even to love and feed an enemy (verses 20–21)
- remember that God has instituted governing authorities, and part of their God-given role is to be “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). One reason you don’t have to avenge yourself is that God has authorized government to provide justice.