The men of our church, Christ Presbyterian Church, meet every other Saturday morning to discuss various biblical and theological topics. A couple of weeks ago we were discussing the biblical topic of forgiveness with guidance from a lecture by the late Dr. R.C Sproul, Dealing with Difficult Problems: Forgiveness. As always it was a wonderful time of studying what God’s word says on the topic as well as the fellowship thereafter.
Most of our discussion centered on whether a Christian should always forgive even when the offender has not repented or apologized for his or her sin. In other words, is it unchristian to not forgive an unrepentant offender? As you might have guessed there were two major positions that the men took. Some argued that as Christians we should always forgive unilaterally (without repentance from the offender). Two passages of Scripture were quoted to support this position. Luke 23:34 in which Jesus Christ prays that the Father would forgive those who are crucifying him, and Acts 7:60 in which Stephen prays a similar prayer for those stoning him to death.
The other men however argued that while Christians can choose to forgive unilaterally the Bible does not command us to do so. A Christian can choose not to forgive until the offender is repentant. A good example is God the Father himself who forgives a sinner only when the sinner has repented of his sin. Also, Luke 17:3 underscores repentance as a necessary condition for forgiveness, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”
I hold to the latter position. However, I need to give two clarifying points. First, there cannot be any debate that the Lord requires Christians to be forgiving people because Christians are forgiven people. The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) clearly drives this point home. So, when an offense is committed against a Christian and the offender comes to ask for forgiveness a Christian has no any other option but to forgive. Second, I also believe in the wisdom of Proverbs 19:11 in which God’s word encourages us to overlook an offense.
However, in cases where it is impossible to overlook an offense the Christian does not have to forgive if the offender is unrepentant. Now this begs the question: if the Christian withholds forgiveness from unrepentant offender won’t he or she be creating a fertile ground for bitterness in his or her own heart which God’s word forbids in Hebrews 12:15? To guard against resentment toward unrepentant offender the Christian needs to observe two steps in forgiveness. Ken Sande discusses these steps in his book, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. The first step is having an attitude of forgiveness and the second is granting forgiveness.
Having an attitude of forgiveness means by God’s grace you seek to maintain a loving and merciful attitude toward someone who has offended you. You choose not dwell on the hurtful incident or seek vengeance or retribution in thought, word, or action. Instead, you pray for the other person and stand ready at any moment to pursue complete reconciliation as soon as he or she repents. This attitude protects the Christian from bitterness and resentment, even if the other person takes long time to repent. The second step of granting actual forgiveness will, of course, require repentance as I have already pointed out.
As to the gracious act of Jesus (Luke 23:34) and Stephen, (Acts 7:60) it is worth noting that both Jesus and Stephen prayed to God the Father that the Father should forgive the people. It was not Jesus or Stephen himself who granted the forgiveness. Similarly, I believe that we should pray that the Lord would enable us to love those who have offended us and also that the Lord may grant them godly sorrow over their sin and a true repentant heart.