Should we forgive someone if he doesn’t repent?

“Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother should sin, rebuke him; and if he should repent, forgive him. And if he should sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times should return to thee, saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4)

As we can’t have God’s forgiveness unless we repent, therefore some have thought that God’s forgiveness is conditional; the same people think our forgiveness, unlike God’s forgiveness, should be unconditional… An example of this inexact understanding is found here.

Is God’s Grace conditional upon a positive response from us? Did He wait for us to repent and be righteous so that He may afterwards send His Son for our Salvation?… No: “but God commends his love to us, in that, we being still sinners, Christ has died for us.” (Romans 5:8) This text shows that forgiveness is in the very nature of God’s love towards sinners; He offered His forgiveness to all sinners unconditionally by sending His Son who, I remind you, is God’s Grace, God’s Gift to us according to John 3:16 (He is whom God GAVE — and “gave” is about “gift”). Why did I say that He offered His forgiveness by sending His Son? Because God’s Word teaches us that forgiveness of sins is the very essence of what our redemption is: “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14) In Christ, the forgiveness of sins is offered to all humanity: “and he is the propitiation for our sins; but not for ours alone, but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
But although forgiveness is in the very nature of God’s love towards sinners and His offer of this forgiveness is unconditional to all humans, and yet having this forgiveness is not unconditional; it is conditional upon faith, i.e. upon real repentance. We can’t be forgiven unless we repent and believe in Christ. We do not have the forgiveness of God unless we receive it by faith, i.e. by repenting from our sins and turning to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Brief: our repentance does not deserve or generate God’s forgiveness, but it receives it.
God unconditionally offers His forgiveness to unrepentant sinners by leading them to repentance by His goodness and patience: “or despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads thee to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) This goodness and patience of God in Jesus Christ is actually His unconditional offer of forgiveness, because forgiveness is in the nature of His love towards sinners. Note that God is not passive in His forgiving attitude; He did and does many gracious works to accomplish this forgiveness in the lives of sinners: He leads them to repentance.
Once a person is His child in Jesus Christ, then he is a justified sinner, a saint; he is totally forgiven once for all (justified), and he is clean once for all, as he has the new nature, the repentant nature. This child of God is led by the Spirit; he walks in repentance; his life is a pattern of repentance, so God keeps cleansing his feet and keeps forgiving him his sins as he confesses them as a child and not as a stranger or a slave. The details of this are found in our article A true Christian is a saint — Perfection in Christ. To safeguard this walk in practical righteousness, God keeps disciplining His children, and this fatherly discipline is actually His forgiving active attitude towards His children. Read more about this in the article God disciplines His children.
So God’s unconditional forgiveness towards the whole world is seen in His goodness and patience that lead them to repentance, and God’s unconditional forgiveness towards His children is seen in His patient discipline that keeps them in the way of repentance, the way of holiness. For unrepentant sinners, experiencing this forgiveness (i.e. Salvation) is conditional upon repentant faith, and for the children of God, experiencing each day’s cleansing and forgiveness is also conditional upon repentant confession of sins, although the final once-for-all received forgiveness is never lost: the children of God are clean once for all, therefore they keep seeking the cleansing of their feet each day.
Thus God freely offers His forgiveness to all sinners, but He is not reconciled with all sinners; He is only reconciled with those who repent and believe the Gospel, because God cannot be in a relationship with sin or sinners. We should be holy in order to be in relationship with God, and this holiness is only possible in Christ by faith alone. Nothing we may do can reconcile us with God, because we are sinners, dead in our sins. So although God offers His forgiveness to all sinners, but He is not reconciled with any sinner unless he repents and believes the Gospel. Reconciliation with God is conditional upon faith; in other terms, justification is conditional upon faith. God will not look to you as righteous and will not have a personal relationship with you unless you have repented.

Now, just as the Father is, so also are the children. The Word says: “Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love” (Ephesians 5:1-2). We are to be imitators of God in His holiness and love: “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Peter 1:15). Just as forgiveness is in the very nature of God’s love, so also forgiveness is in the very nature of the love of His children. The Law of God expresses how His Nature is, and it’s not mere rules given to us so that we may keep them as slaves. The principles of God’s Law show how the nature of God’s children is. The Law says the following about the forgiving nature of the love of God’s children: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt earnestly rebuke thy neighbour, lest thou bear sin on account of him. Thou shalt not avenge thyself, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am Jehovah.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) This passage says that I should not hate my brother or neighbor in my heart. The self-righteous asks: “Who is my brother or neighbor?” The Lord answers that we should love even our enemies. So my brother is every human being. This passage says that I should have an unconditional forgiving attitude all the time towards all humans, even my enemies, because I should love them and not hate them. I should not avenge myself; I should not bear a grudge against anyone, but I should love them all as myself. This is how our offer of forgiveness should be unconditional to all humans, just like God’s offer of forgiveness is unconditional. We have been offered forgiveness unconditionally, so we also should offer forgiveness unconditionally. When my brother sins against me, I should not wait for him to come and ask for forgiveness in order to have a forgiving attitude towards him.
But I can’t be reconciled with him unless he repents. Although forgiveness is in the very nature of our love to all humans and our offer of this forgiveness is unconditional to those who sin against us, and yet having this forgiveness is not unconditional; it is conditional upon repentance. The one who sins against us cannot have our forgiveness practically unless he asks for it, because otherwise we will not be reconciled with each other, although I am ready to forgive. This is just the same as it is with sinners who refuse to ask for God’s forgiveness. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt earnestly rebuke thy neighbour, lest thou bear sin on account of him.” (Leviticus 19:17); “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother should sin, rebuke him; and if he should repent, forgive him. And if he should sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times should return to thee, saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) As you see, the Lord clearly said “if he should repent” and if he says “I repent”. NOWHERE in the Bible it is said that we should forgive anyone in a reconciling way if they don’t repent. The passages where repentance is not explicitly mentioned have parallel passages in other places in the Bible that clarify that our forgiveness is conditional upon repentance; and of course those parallel passages do not contradict each other, because God’s Word is perfect. Although our offer and attitude of forgiveness are unconditional like God’s offer of forgiveness, but in order to have or experience our forgiveness, the offender should repent.
This in no way justifies a passive attitude from our side towards those who sin against us, because such a passive attitude is the worst kind of unforgivingness! If we really love our neighbor and we have a forgiving attitude towards him, we will do as God did with us, sinners: we will seek reconciliation with him by rebuking him in a godly way. Those who do not have a forgiving attitude do not seek reconciliation, so they don’t rebuke their neighbor in a godly way. Rebuking the one who has sinned means you’re offering him your forgiveness; or else you would not rebuke him and you would let him continue in his sin. This latter attitude is an attitude of real hatred and unforgivingness, and yet many people call it “goodness”… As we read both in the Law and in the words of our Lord, it is hatred NOT to rebuke our neighbor when he sins against us. True love is a forgiving love, so love seeks reconciliation. Love seeks to forgive. So we should not be passive, but we should love the offender by rebuking him. Our unconditional offer of forgiveness is in this rebuke. Our true love is in this rebuke. As we rebuke our neighbor lovingly, we are leading him to repentance so that he may receive our forgiveness and thus we be able to be reconciled with each other. Just as God offers His forgiveness to unrepentant sinners by leading them to repentance by His goodness and patience, we also should be good toward those who sin against us, thus offering them our forgiveness. But many people have a very wrong definition for goodness towards sinners: they think goodness and patience should be passive, and that we should not rebuke the sinner and we should not tell him the truth so that he may repent. Such people have a wrong kind of forgiveness which is a self-righteous forgiveness, a psychological self-fulfillment while they sit in their houses doing nothing biblically positive. This is not how God’s goodness and patience are, as we have seen. God’s Spirit convicts sinners of sin and leads them to repentance. The same should be done by us — but on the human level — when we see our brother sinning in general or sinning against us. Whether our brother sins against us or we see our brother sinning in general and not necessarily against us, we should patiently rebuke him and lead him to the way of righteousness with loving exhortations according to God’s Word: “My brethren, if any one among you err from the truth, and one bring him back, let him know that he that brings back a sinner from [the] error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20); “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt earnestly rebuke thy neighbour, lest thou bear sin on account of him.” (Leviticus 19:17); “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother should sin, rebuke him; and if he should repent, forgive him. And if he should sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times should return to thee, saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) So our forgiving attitude is not passive and is not conditional upon the repentance of the offender; we take the step towards reconciliation by rebuking our brother or by preaching the Gospel. It is only in the cross that we have the way of reconciliation both with God and with our neighbor.
When my brother comes and says “I repent”, as the Lord explained, I should forgive him, even if that happens again and again! The Lord keeps forgiving us, although we are never perfect on this earth and we sin again and again and we turn again and again and we ask for God’s forgiveness; and He forgives us, His children in Christ. God’s children should be like God. We should be patient, and we should keep forgiving. Anyone who doesn’t have this loving and forgiving attitude is not born of God, i.e. he is not saved. We should beware so that we may not deceive ourselves: “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in the darkness until now.” (1 John 2:9) Anyone who does not have this active attitude of forgiveness is not forgiven by God: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35) This unconditional forgiveness should be real, from our heart. Of course, a true believer may struggle against the sin of unforgivingness, but he repents of it and it doesn’t become the pattern of his life; the pattern of his life is a pattern of forgiveness and of righteousness. Unconditional forgiveness is in the very nature of our love. But this love does not rejoice in unrighteousness (see 1 Corinthians 13:6), therefore reconciliation with the offender is not possible unless he repents. I seek this reconciliation by seeking peace with everyone as much as it depends on me: “Pursue peace with all” (Hebrews 12:14); “if possible, as far as depends on you, living in peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). Just like God, the true believer will not be in a brotherly relationship with sinners who refuse to repent; the Apostles clearly told us not to be in such a brotherly and approving relationship with unrepentant sinners, but to keep away from them and even to deliver them to Satan (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6). This is not an unforgiving attitude, but this is the way we should actively lead sinners to repentance so that they may receive our forgiveness and the forgiveness of God.

All this has been shown practically by our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus is God incarnate. In Him we have seen how God would be as a human, the perfect Man. The Lord showed us how our forgiveness should be unconditional like God’s forgiveness as He showed us practically how God’s offer of forgiveness is unconditional: when a paralytic was brought to Him, even when the paralytic had not asked for God’s forgiveness, the Lord told him “Be of good courage, child; thy sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2) Note it well: He said “Be of good courage” and then added “thy sins are forgiven”! It is the unconditional and free offer of God’s forgiveness that would create and nourish real faith and repentance in that paralytic. Maybe the paralytic only believed in Jesus as a great prophet, just like the blind man of John 9 (see John 9:17), but the forgiveness that Jesus offered freely and authoritatively would make him believe in Jesus as God incarnate, just as it happened with the blind man in John 9 (see John 9:35-38). This faith in Jesus as God incarnate is true faith, and this kind of real faith and repentance is only created and nourished by God’s Grace, God’s Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s blood. The Lord also showed us practically how the perfect Man forgives and how we should have an active attitude of forgiveness; He taught us this as He kept rebuking sinners, especially the Pharisees whom He even called “brood of vipers” (see Matthew 23:33)… This was true love, as He wanted to lead them to repentance. And on the cross, He expressed unconditional love and forgiveness as He asked the Father to forgive His enemies among whom were also the Pharisees; He asked for this forgiveness even when none of them was asking for it: “And Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) As you see, the Lord did not wait for them to repent in order to ask the Father to forgive them, because the offer of forgiveness is unconditional. But this in no way means that all those who stood there were forgiven their sins, because not all of them repented. And in fact, there is nothing in Christ’s prayer that means that He was asking forgiveness for them regardless of whether they would repent or not. People misunderstand His prayer on the cross. Jesus’ prayer was in FULL agreement with the teaching of the Bible: He was praying that those who were crucifying Him may repent and thus be forgiven! In other words, Jesus was asking the Father: Give them repentance, so that they may receive Your forgiveness. We usually tell people who are NOT believers: “May God have mercy on you”. Does this mean that we are wishing that God may have mercy on them without repentance? NO! We are wishing that God may give them repentance by His mercy, and that they may receive that mercy by faith! When we say: “God bless you!”, we don’t think that God may bless anyone by any means but by the Gospel! So we are wishing that he will repent and receive the Gospel so that he may be blessed! This is how Christ’s unconditional forgiveness was active and not passive: He asked the Father to forgive His enemies, i.e. to lead them to repentance, just as it was explained above. The Lord was not contradicting the truth of 1 John 5:16: “If any one see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life, for those that do not sin unto death. There is a sin to death: I do not say of that that he should make a request.” (1 John 5:16) God will not answer a prayer in which we ask Him to forgive sinners even if they don’t repent, because that contradicts His Holiness; the only way to justify the sinner without God being unrighteous or unjust is through faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 3:26). And just as the Lord Himself did, His disciple Stephen also did: he rebuked the Jews for their stubbornness in refusing to repent, and then asked God to forgive them; and this was his active unconditional attitude of forgiveness: “And they stoned Stephen, praying, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And kneeling down, he cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And having said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60) That sin, and all sins, were not forgiven to all those who were stoning Stephen, but we’re sure that at least one of those who were present received this forgiveness after he repented: that one was Paul who was the leader of the witnesses of the stoning (see Acts 7:58). Look how blessed was the active unconditional forgiving attitude of Stephen! We should do like him.

Thus we see that our forgiveness is not different in principle from God’s forgiveness: both are unconditionally offered, and both are experienced conditionally upon receiving such forgiveness. But although the principle is the same, and yet God’s forgiveness is unique in its kind. Only God can forgive sins authoritatively. This is why the Jews were angry that Jesus forgave sins authoritatively, and accused Him of claiming to be God (although that was not a legitimate accusation, because He is actually God). God’s forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of the Judge, while our forgiveness is the forgiveness of a sinner who received forgiveness himself and who should forgive his brothers. God knows the hearts, so it’s not enough that we say “I repent” in order to be forgiven by Him, while we don’t know the hearts, so we should not judge and we should forgive our brother each time he says “I repent”. God is the Judge, we are not. And as God is the only authoritative forgiver of sins, so even if my brother did not forgive me, I am still forgiven if God has forgiven me. After all, when we sin, we actually sin against God, and against Him only (see Psalm Psalm 51:4 and Genesis 39:9). Only God can forgive as Judge; we forgive as forgiven sinners, reflecting God’s Glory in this world as His saints by His Grace.

Grace be with you!
Disciple of Jesus Christ


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