Pt. 3—Should Christians Forgive Unconditionally? Repentance Precedes Forgiveness

Posted: October 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

As we continue to unpack unconditional versus conditional forgiveness we must remember that the Bible is the standard for evaluating points of theology. No theological position should be held if it isn’t found to be what the Bible teaches. With that caveat stated I want to continue to unpack the issue by looking at the order in which forgiveness and repentance are found in Scripture.

In the initial post five points were given as to why I currently hold a conditional forgiveness position. That is, I believe we forgive those who sin against us only when they repent. In Pt. 2 I argued that since we are called to forgive “just as” God has forgiven us, and God forgives only when sinners repent, we should follow his example. This leads to the second reason I hold this position:

Forgiveness Is Never Spoken Of As Preceding Repentance.

Where in the Bible does forgiveness precede repentance? In my reading of the Bible, I can’t find it. Repentance explicitly precedes forgiveness when it comes to God’s forgiveness of human beings (2 Chron. 7:14; Matthew 13:15; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19). Furthermore, this idea is explicitly stated in reference to human forgiveness in Luke 17:3–4.

“3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The same idea seems implicit in 2 Corinthians 2:6­–11. In that text the Corinthians are exhorted to forgive the person who had evidently been under church discipline. This suggests that the congregation had not yet granted forgiveness.

“6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”

In my reading of the text Paul gives no hint that he is upset with the Corinthians for not already granting forgiveness to the offender. Indeed, the book of 2 Corinthians is traditionally understood in mostly positive terms. That is, Paul is happy to have reported to him that the Corinthians have heeded some of Paul’s rebuke. Given that Paul is calling for them to turn and now forgive the sinner, it seems the sinner is feeling appropriate sorrow (2:7) which produces repentance (cf. 7:9–11). This suggests that Paul believed, at least in this instance, that repentance preceded forgiveness.

There is a clear pattern of repentance preceding both God’s and human forgiveness. I am suggesting that this should govern the way we pattern our granting of forgiveness today.

There are a couple of stories in the Bible that are raised as challenges to what I’m advocating. First, when Jesus is on the cross he cries out and asks the Father to forgive his murderers (Luke 23:34). Second, as Stephen is stoned to death he asks the Father not to “hold this sin against [the murderers]” (Acts 7:60). Are these instances of forgiveness preceding repentance? I do not think so. Instead, Jesus and Stephen harbored no feelings of bitterness and anger. This is evident as they ask God to forgive. Yet they knew forgiveness would only happen if the murderers repented. We do not read in the text that Jesus and Stephen granted forgiveness of the offense. Chris Brauns states the issue succinctly:

…Christians are always required to have an attitude of forgiveness. Just as the Lord prayed on the Cross that his murderers would be forgiven, so we should pray for those who persecute us.

However, forgiveness doesn’t happen until the other party is repentant. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he wasn’t granting absolution. Unless those who crucified Him repented and accepted God’s grace, then they weren’t forgiven.[1]

The requests of Jesus and Stephen raises an important point. In overcoming anger, wrath, etc. they were modeling what Christians should do! Yet, as we shall show, overcoming personal anger, bitterness, wrath, malice, and other sinful emotions, is not to be equated with the idea of forgiveness. More on this point in the next post.

For now, I am arguing that we forgive “just as” God has forgiven us in Christ. That happens only after we repent. This position aligns with the consistent biblical pattern of repentance preceding forgiveness.

[1] http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/04/07/unpacking-forgiveness/

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Comments
  1. […] conditional forgiveness. So far I have argued that (1) we forgive as God forgives (Eph. 4:32); (2) repentance consistently precedes forgiveness in the Bible; and (3) forgiveness is an interpersonal […]

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