Forgiveness and repentance (part 1): A survey of the landscape

Many moons ago, my wife wrote a post on forgiveness. One of the issues that it raised for people was whether forgiveness could take place in the absence of repentance by the offender. My dear wife kindly semi-promised people that I would one day blog on the topic :). So here we are, with a series of posts designed to unpick why I am convinced that forgiveness must take place in the absence of repentance and that this issue goes to the heart of a Reformed understanding of the biblical gospel.

Let’s begin by reviewing the concerns people raised over the course of last year about the prospect that we should forgive someone when they haven’t repented. These are great points that deserve careful consideration. We’ll begin with the comments that ensued from Jen’s post and conclude with a post by a fellow Sola Panellist.

The superb Simone Richardson observed,

I love Jennie’s article, and feel what she’s saying, but how much is forgiveness possible when there’s no repentance? In the case of someone who, in their very essence, hurts us—someone who is perhaps clueless about the extent of the damage they have done and continue to do—if this person has not repented (expressed responsibility, sorrow and a desire to change), maybe forgiveness is not something that is possible. I’m wondering if we need to look for other biblical instructions for dealing with such a situation. A few ideas: turning the other cheek, loving enemies, praying for those who persecute you, forbearance, getting rid of bitter and angry thoughts, leaving vengeance to God …

Such things are not all that different to forgiveness, but they are things that are achievable from one end. If the other person hasn’t repented, a real reconciliation and restoration of the relationship that forgiveness implies can’t happen.

Simone’s comment has the kind of qualities that makes her blog worth a regular read. In a few words she captures the experience of dealing with unrepentance and crystallizes the key issue: can there be forgiveness without reconciliation between the two parties? Forgiveness and reconciliation are so linked that one cannot exist without the other.

The noble Ian Carmichael brought out another angle:

Also, in the situation where the person is wronging you in an ongoing way, [Ken] Sande [author of The Peacemaker: A biblical guide to resolving personal conflict] helpfully points out that to keep forgiving that person may be not be the right thing to do for their sake. (Actually, if it is an ongoing wrong, you can’t really make those four promises. You are really ‘overlooking’ the wrong, rather than ‘forgiving’.) In other words, quite often it is important to challenge the behaviour for the good of the other person (both for the sake of their godliness and the sake of their relationships with others). This then paves the way for repentance and forgiveness to follow.

It’s a view that the good-hearted David Juniper summarized well as

… there will be times when we MUST NOT forgive, just as God does not forgive us until we repent.

Here again, key issues are presented efficiently. If we forgive someone before they repent, then we may well prevent reconciliation from taking place, because we will not address the issue of the wrong that they have done to us. Indeed, one can even say that we are obligated to not forgive—withholding forgiveness until repentance takes place, just as God “does not forgive us until we repent”. Forgiveness must only take place once repentance is present—both for us and for God.

This position was given support by the sterling Sandy Grant in his post on the book Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns:

Its critical insight is that despite what so many blithely claim, forgiveness is not unconditional! Brauns begins with this simple but profound principle: “God expects believers to forgive others in the way that he forgave them” (p. 44).

For example, Colossians 3:13 speaks of “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (my emphasis). Furthermore, God does not forgive us without our repentance (e.g. Acts 20:21).

Likewise, human forgiveness is not automatic. The key verse here is Luke 17:3: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (NIV, my emphasis). So we do not offer ‘cheap grace’ to people who refuse to acknowledge sin. Of course, we may still act in loving and kind ways towards them, though they be our enemies. Yet we are not obliged to pretend all is okay.

Again, we have the key issues presented forcefully and clearly: forgiveness without repentance is not what God offers us; we are to forgive other people like God has forgiven us; and forgiving without repentance is cheap grace that papers over genuine problems and sin.

As this little survey should make clear, the issues surrounding the question of whether or not we forgive other people based on their repentance are very serious. They touch on the gospel, our relationship with God and perennial pastoral issues. They shape our relationships with each other and our relationship with God. Over the course of the various posts in this group of interlinked series, I am going to try and show why I disagree with the above arguments, and why I think the Bible teaches that repentance is not the basis of forgiveness—either for us or for God. We’ll look first at the connection between God’s forgiveness and ours, move on to the pastoral dimension in our dealings with one another, and finally, turn to the question of whether God’s forgiveness is linked to our repentance.

(Read part 2.)

2 thoughts on “Forgiveness and repentance (part 1): A survey of the landscape

  1. Hi Chris Braun,

    Great to have you along.  I am looking forward to anything you’d like to contribute to the discussion over the next couple of weeks.

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