Is it unbiblical to forgive the unrepentant?

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Posted by Doug Showalter on December 17, 1997 at 13:25:39:

Some Christians believe that forgiving people when they don't repent is unbiblical, and that such forgiveness wrongly portrays the forgiver as being greater than God, whose forgiveness requires a person's repentance. I disagree with this view, and would maintain the following points:

1. Perhaps the highest example of forgiving Christians have to emulate, is the example of Jesus on the cross, saying "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." [Luke 23:34] Clearly, this forgiveness was NOT dependant on the prior repentance of those responsible for Jesus' crucifixion.

2. In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus is, at times, seen forgiving people without the prior condition that they repent. Two examples of this are: the paralyzed man lowered down through a roof by his friends [Mark 2:1-12], and the woman caught in adultery. [John 7:53-8:11] In these stories the initiative of Jesus' forgiveness is primary. If the individuals repented, it likely came as a response to Jesus' prior forgiveness.

3. Even Jesus' "Parable of the Prodigal Son" [Luke 15:11-32] does not make forgiveness absolutely dependent on prior repentance. The Father saw his returning son in the distance. Then, filled with compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him [v. 20], even before his son had a chance to explain why he was coming home. For all the Father knew, he could have been coming home to get more money to spend. At that point, the Father didn't know his son's thoughts, but he took the initiative of forgiving him anyway.

4. Several teachings in the New Testament do not mention repentance as a condition of our forgiving. For example, as Jesus taught: "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against ANYONE [emphasis mine]; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses." [Mark 11:25] Another example is Colossians 3:13.

Luke 17:1-4 does mention repentance as a condition of forgiving. But here, as I interpret it, it is meant as a sufficient condition, not a necessary condition. In other words, one should forgive when repentance is present. However, this does not preclude forgiveness from taking place under other circumstances--(i.e.) when repentance is not present.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" [Matthew 5:44,46] It seems a contradiction of this to suggest that Christians should always withhold their forgiveness until their enemies repent. Such an idea goes directly against my understanding of Jesus' ministry of love. To withhold forgiveness unless there is repentance strikes me as another form of the "eye for an eye" theme--tit for tat.

5. To be practical for a moment, let's ask what happens if Christians refuse to forgive until repentance is forthcoming? If all Christians lived by that standard many vicious cycles of hatred and violence would never see an end. The Hatfields and McCoy's of our world would never stop feuding.

To break such bitter cycles, it's often necessary for someone to take the first step of forgiving the unrepentant. In fact, that first step can set up the climate which eventually leads to the sincere repentance of those who are in the wrong.

And I would ask, isn't taking such a first step of forgiving, precisely what God did for us, when God took the initiative of sending us his beloved son Jesus, to save us from our sins? I think the Apostle Paul put it well: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." [Romans 5:8]

6. It has been said that God only forgives those who repent. That statement begs to be clarified. As it stands, it sometimes has been interpreted in a way which turns God's free grace into a "work" we must earn, and which fails to appreciate the spontaneous, loving, agape nature of our God--for whom ALL things are possible.

Here's another way to think about this statement. It is in God's nature to be forgiving. And God can forgive us spontaneously, even before we repent. However, we are unable to receive that forgiveness and be reconciled with God until we are truly penitent. Our failure to repent is a great barrier to all reconciliation.

In my view, we Christians are called to imitate God's behavior. We are called to be loving and forgiving like God. Like God, we also can [and perhaps often should] take the first step of forgiving those who do not repent. But [also like God] even though we forgive another person in our heart, true reconciliation with that person is not possible until that person sincerely repents.

Here's an important example. Consider the present Pope. Apparently, his would-be assassin in prison was not repentant. Nevertheless, the Pope even went to that man's jail cell to forgive him. By forgiving, the Pope opened the way in his own heart for reconciliation. But ultimately, that reconciliation will not happen unless his would-be assassin repents and wants it. The Pope opened a door. But the man in prison still must walk through that door on his own. Forgiving takes one. However, reconciliation, which is the much desired outcome of forgiving for Christians, always takes two!

And so I think it is with God and us. God is always loving and forgiving. But we are not always accepting of that love and forgiveness. Expressing this in poetic terms, the author of the fourth Gospel wrote, "...the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light..." [John 3:19]

I hope these thoughts are helpful to anyone struggling with this important question of Christian faith and life. Doug Showalter

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