Since forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith and that we are to forgive as God has forgiven us in Christ, then it is important that understand why and how we should forgive one another.
The fundamental issue is whether forgiveness is unconditional (not dependent upon the repentance of the offender) or conditional (granted only when the offender has repented and asked for it).
Both camps would argue that repentance is necessary for reconciliation between the offender and offended parties, but those in the unconditional camp would argue that repentance is not required for forgiveness. The key issue is the role that repentance plays in differentiating granting forgiveness and actual reconciliation between two people. Let me attempt to provide the case for each position, as best I can understand them.
The Case for Unconditional Forgiveness
Unconditional forgiveness argues that forgiveness should not be contingent upon the obedience of another person (i.e., their repentance). If Christ commands us to forgive, is it a tenable practice then to make our ability to follow through on that command based on the follow through of someone else’s repentance? The clearest text which speaks to this is Mark 11:25, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
It appears that there are no conditions placed on this command to forgive; on the contrary, it is “anything” against “anyone.” The concluding words of Jesus are reflected also after the Lord’s Prayer, “… but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Perhaps the strongest case for unconditional forgiveness is Jesus on the cross when he cried, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus is praying for the forgiveness of His offenders and executors. What His prayer effectual and unconditional? Jesus’ forgiving of these people does not have to be salvific in nature, leading to reconciliation with God. Therefore, could it not mean that Jesus is forgiving them of the immediate, specific actions they partook in putting Him on the cross? If so, then could that granting of forgiveness be an example of unconditional forgiveness from man-to-man perspective?
The Case for Conditional Forgiveness
Conditional forgiveness argues that granting forgiveness must be conditional upon repentance because this is the way God forgives us in Christ. Not everyone is forgiven of their sin and therefore reconciled with God; only those who repent and believe in Jesus are forgiven of their sin. If we are to forgive others as God has forgiven us, then our forgiveness on a horizontal level must mirror God’s forgiveness on a vertical level.
Scripture dictates in Luke, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Similarly, 1 John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This confession is to say the same thing about your sin as God does, which is an expression of repentance.
Conditional forgiveness argues three other aspects, namely:
1. Christians should always love their enemies and have a gracious disposition, offering forgiveness to the offender (but granting only when he or she repents);
2. Forgiveness is always connected to reconciliation; and
3. While forgiveness is granted to the repentant, a sense of God’s justice and righteousness must factor into the equation where vengeance and judgment is left to God for the unrepentant.
A leading question for advocates of the unconditional forgiveness has been, “What’s the difference between offering forgiveness and granting forgiveness?” I think this is a valid question. The Greek word most often used for forgiveness is aphiemi which means “to let go, to send away, to release” and is often symbolized in the canceling of debts.
What every Christian should do when they are offended is to let go of their sense of getting back, of a vindictive spirit, or taking vengeance upon the one who has offended them. We are also to send away any spirit of bitterness, wrath or unforgiveness as well. While we are to release ourselves from taking the matter into our own hands, this does not necessarily mean that we should release the offender from the offense when there is no repentance.
One can genuinely offer forgiveness out of a gracious disposition of seeking the welfare of the offender through repentance while releasing them (granting forgiveness) until they have asked for it and expressed repentance.
I am far from figuring this one out (as you can see), and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. I am inclined toward the unconditional forgiveness because God has called upon us to love one another and to forgive our trespasses through prayer and acts of compassion. When praying, I tend to ask for the forgiveness of my sins towards God and people. Then I ask God for people to forgive my sins. Forgiving others as God has forgiven us is a sacrificial love offended party to absorb the payment for the offender and expressing genuine concern for their eternal welfare with an understanding of forgiveness that takes into account the justice and righteousness of God.