We have been considering the question of whether we can or should forgive in the absence of repentance by the guilty party. We began by looking at whether we forgive in exactly the same way that God does, and then turned to consider the question in light of a series of pastoral issues. With this post and the next, we will conclude by addressing the really big question in all this—not what we do, but what God does. Is God’s forgiveness of us dependent upon our repentance?
Let’s run with the ‘yes’ case. God cannot, or should not, forgive when we do not repent. Well then, can we be in relationship with God and yet unforgiven? Hopefully, we’ll all agree that no, we can’t. God does not tolerate sin, and would have no fellowship with an unforgiven (and hence unrighteous) man or woman.
Well then, what happens with the uncountable sins we commit as we live life even after we become Christians? Do we drop out of a saved status with each sin we commit, and then as we repent and receive forgiveness, do we move back to a saved status—a never-ending cycle of apostasy and conversion? What happens if we die with some sins unrepented of? As God only forgives repented sins, I think such a scenario must be close to a nightmare.
If we say that God forgives each specific sin only when that specific sin has been specifically repented of, then we are well on our way for the need for something like Purgatory, and the need for a specialist confessor in a confessional-like situation who can walk us through our lives since our last session and identify each and every sin of omission and commission (good luck with that) so that each can be properly repented of. Heaven help (and I say that with all seriousness) the believer who commits even one sin and never realizes it in order to be able to repent of it properly.
To such an argument, I am sure someone will argue that God does not need us to repent of our sins, but of sin. We don’t need to repent of each individual act of wrongdoing, but of the basic attitude of rebellion and unbelief against God that stands behind and produces the various acts we commit. So when it comes to God and us, one covers all. The first repentance we do when we turn to God covers all declensions from a repentant life as long as we don’t deliberately revoke that primordial repentance. (For the record, I think that this theory, despite how regularly it is wheeled out in various contexts, is for the birds. Repentance in the Bible has to do both with sin and sins. Zacchaeus’ repentance in Luke 19:1-10 is clearly aimed both at his specific actions against other people as well as the underlying attitudes and pattern of life. But once again, we’ll let things stand for the sake of the argument.)
I’m not sure how such a theory, even if true, really helps the problem. If we forgive in the same way God forgives us, then we have two options, much as we had in the previous post. What kind of repentance does the person who sins against us have to offer to justify our forgiveness of them? I don’t mean repentance for their specific sins against us, but for their underlying sin. So what sort of underlying sin do they need to repent of?
If it is their sin in the absolute sense that they have to repent of for us to forgive them, then we are again in the position where we have to forgive Christians and cannot forgive non-Christians. Christians have already repented of ‘capital S’ Sin and have been forgiven. That repentance covers any ‘small s’ sins they commit—of which their offence against us is merely one item in that set. God forgives them for that sin they commit against us because they have repented of their rebellion against him. So if we forgive just as God does, then we need to forgive them irrespective of whether or not they repent of their sins against us. And we cannot forgive the non-Christian of their sins against us, even if they repent of them. They have not repented of their ‘capital S’ Sin, so God has not forgiven their sins. And as we mimic God, we cannot forgive them either. So, let’s agree that this isn’t a good solution.
But let’s say that it isn’t sin in the absolute sense that needs to be repented of, but the attitude that stands behind the acts. God forgives sins when the attitude of rejection against him is repented of, and does not require repentance for each individual sin. In the same way, it could be argued, we don’t need repentance for specific sins against us, but only for the basic stance of rejection of us. So once we are in a right relationship with God, we can’t lose a right relationship with God unless we apostatize. Similarly, then, where we already have a relationship with someone, there is no need for them to repent of any particular sin they commit against us—as long as they don’t deliberately seek to sever the relationship itself. In other words, no specific sin needs to be repented of by anyone in relationship with us, short of a complete rejection of us or attempted murder. Even adultery does not require repentance for those who do believe that marriage cannot be dissolved by anything other than death, because on that view, adultery is not an act that repudiates the marriage, merely a sin within it. So even adultery must be forgiven without repentance. Anything short of complete and absolute rejection (our analogy for apostasy) should be forgiven without repentance. Such a position has the distinction of combining almost every complaint people have against the idea of forgiving without repentance with every problem I’ve raised against the alternative. So it isn’t a great way forward either.
That leaves three bad options: God requires repentance for every sin, or we only forgive Christians and do that without repentance for their sins against us, or we forgive every sin against us without repentance unless it is a total attack on the relationship itself. However, all this so far is merely waddling in the toddler pool. The real problem is that to make God’s forgiveness conditional on our repentance is to utterly and completely deny justification by grace through faith alone (or, given the name of this blog, sola fide). It is to that issue that we’ll turn in our final post.
(Read part 8.)
Since this series was written a particularly excellent long article on the topic was published in the inaugural edition of The Catechist by Chew Chern. It is well worth checking out. Chern takes the reader on a different guided tour over different theological issues, and arrives at a location comparable to that argued in this series, but possibly distinct from it at some key points. For those who like something more integrated than the way I tend to blog, the article has the added advantage that it explicitly engages with several different scriptural passages at some length as it proceeds and is self-contained in a single article.