Theology in 3D

To Forgive, or Not to Forgive? (Part 1)

Layton Talbert | February 21, 2024

As a Christian, am I obligated to forgive everyone who sins against me? Do I forgive only if the offender asks me to? What do I do if the offender never asks forgiveness?

All this came up while my daughter was counseling at a Christian camp one summer. One of her campers (“Anna”) asked her whether she was obligated to forgive her father for being verbally abusive to her, even if he never apologized for his behavior. Someone else had told her that she needed to, and she wanted to know if that was right.

So what do you do if a fellow Christian publicly (or privately) insults you, or libels you, or cheats you? What if a drunk driver kills your 16-year-old child or sibling? What do you tell “Anna” when she asks if she is supposed to forgive her father for being verbally abusive? (Aside: Fathers, God help you if you saddle your child with that wicked burden.)

The NT has a lot to say on the subject of forgiveness. The word shows up about 65 times in the NT. What may be surprising is what it does . . . and does not . . . say. Let’s start with where the Scripture is clear and with what all believers should agree on.

The first word on forgiveness in the NT is folded into Jesus’ prayer model: Forgive us our trespasses (Matt 6:12). His initial point is that we need to ask God to forgive us. This first step to forgiveness is called confession and repentance (cf. Prov 28:13). But it doesn’t stop there: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. That’s a sobering standard. But Jesus takes it a step further when he zeroes in on that specific part of the prayer and applies it: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses (Matt 6:14–15). God will forgive you (when you ask him to) if you forgive others (when they ask you to). Forgiveness is serious business. According to Jesus, if I withhold it from others when they ask me for it, God withholds it from me when I ask him for it. This passage suggests a first biblical norm regarding forgiveness.

Principle 1: Whenever the offender genuinely confesses and asks forgiveness, I am obligated to grant it fully and freely.

Peter asked how often he should be willing to forgive someone who sins against him: Until seven times? (Matt 18:21). Jesus replaces that with his own number (seventy times seven) that implies a virtually limitless obligation to one’s willingness to forgive someone who genuinely asks for it. Then he tells a story about forgiveness (note Matt 18:27, 32) that concludes (Matt 18:35) with the same warning as in Matthew 6: God’s forgiveness of you (when you ask) hinges on your forgiveness of others (when they ask). Matthew 6 and 18 imply that forgiveness requires repentance; Jesus teaches us to ask for, not assume, the Father’s forgiveness. But Luke 17:3–4 makes it explicit: If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times in a day returns saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.

Other passages also make repentance an explicit condition for forgiveness (Acts 5:31, 8:22; Jas 5:15–16), but usually the linkage is implied in the context. For Paul to demand that the Corinthians confront and disfellowship an immoral member of their assembly (1 Cor 5:3–5), then turn around and urge them to forgive and receive him (2 Cor 2:7, 10), clearly implies that the offender had repented.

Ephesians 4:32 exhorts believers to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. What’s the rationale? Just as God in Christ forgave you. How did that happen? You repented. No one is forgiven by God in Christ apart from repenting. The same link between forgiveness and repentance is implied in the sister passage (Col 3:13).

The connection between confession and forgiveness is not limited to just our initial experience of salvation. In our daily relationship to God, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. On what condition? If we confess our sins (1 John 1:9).

So, as a believer I am obligated to forgive anyone who asks me to. That’s not always easy. But nothing in the NT’s teaching on forgiveness could be clearer. It is repeatedly demanded by Scripture, exemplified by God, and presented as the condition on which our own confession of sin receives God’s forgiveness. There is no wiggle-room here.

At the same time, some equally biblical caveats are in order. That’s the next post.

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