Should forgiveness be conditional on repentance, or unconditionally given to all?
The article on ‘Healing for victims’ on page 5 of Crosstalk issue 20 answered the question of whether forgiveness should be given to all unconditionally, or only on the condition of repentance. Space did not allow for a more thorough discussion of that topic, so a link was put in the article to this webpage.
A thorough and relatively academic discussion of the matter is available here: Forgiveness paper (updated 21/10/14)
The summary conclusions at the end of the paper are reproduced below.
Summary of paper
The subject of forgiveness is often debated. In particular, the question as to whether Christians should forgive everyone unconditionally as in Matthew 6:12-15 and Mark 11:25, or should they forgive only under the condition of repentance by the offender, as in Matthew 18:15-20 and Luke 17:3–4. This is not merely an academic theological debate, since lack of forgiveness is well known to affect mental health, and can result in deep-seated bitterness, either through inability to forgive, or under the guise of ‘being biblical’.
The Greek words used which are translated forgive/forgiveness in the passages considered all simply mean to ‘let go’ or ‘release’. Forgiveness is not equivalent to reconciliation, although it is a step in the process that hopefully leads to that reconciliation.
In the debate on whether forgiveness ought to be (i) conditional on repentance, or (ii) unconditional and not requiring repentance, proponents of each view can find Bible verses which support their view on the one hand, and reinterpret verses of the alternate view to suit their own perspective on the other hand. The conditional repentance view reinterprets verses which seem to promote unconditional forgiveness, to understand them to be conditional even when they are clearly not conditional. The view that does not require repentance before forgiving others reinterprets verses which clearly teach that forgiveness should be conditional to mean that they should be understood as being unconditional. Neither view deals with its opposing texts in a satisfactory manner. Neither view is satisfactory on its own.
However, by examining the contexts of both sets of verses, it can be shown that where the New Testament teaches that forgiveness should be conditional on repentance, that this is exclusively within the context of church, and for the good of those within church overall. That is, sin within church ought not to be passed over, or let go. It ought to be challenged and corrected, to maintain the holiness and unity of fellowship in the Lord. If repentance is not forthcoming, such people ought to be excluded from fellowship, until such time as they repent. Believers have a responsibility to bring wandering brothers and sisters back to the flock, just like the shepherd does to his sheep. This is the responsibility of church, corporately. At the same time, within this context, teaching in Matthew 18:15-22 and Luke 17:3–4 on how many times one ought to forgive another tackle the separate and personal response by those offended to the command to forgive others in church. The initial context in Matthew 18:15-22 and Luke 17:3–4 is corporate forgiveness within church; the secondary context is how the individual in that context must be prepared to forgive repeatedly at a personal level, regardless of whether the offender repents or not.
In a different context, passages like Matthew 6:12-15 and Mark 11:25 which promote unconditional forgiveness can be seen to be applicable to believers at a personal level, regardless of whether they relate to those in Christ’s Church or unbelievers in the world at large. Personal forgiveness relates to Christian character, not corporate church discipline. At the same time, unconditional forgiveness at a personal level is compatible with conditional forgiveness at a corporate church level. If believers do not forgive unconditionally at a personal level, this affects their individual relationship with God. If church does not maintain the condition of repentance before forgiving those who sin, this allows sin to grow unchecked within the fellowship of God’s people.
Other Bible passages which have been interpreted as promoting that forgiveness should be conditional on repentance, such as Ephesians 4:32, can be seen to be interpreted in ways which are either compatible with, or outside the scope of, the passages of direct concern.
Further, believers can forgive unconditionally, because matters of justice are already in God’s hands – all sin is ultimately transgression of ‘his’ moral law (the Ten Commandments). The condition for mankind to receive forgiveness from God’s eternal judgment is repentance with faith, based on Jesus atoning death on the cross for sin. There is no such judgment applicable from one person to another, so repentance from one person to another is not a fundamental requirement of forgiveness.
Forgiveness at an individual level, and giving or withholding forgiveness in a church context, are both generally independent of the workings of the law of the land, although there may be occasions where the church discipline process will require matters to be also addressed by the civil authorities.
In terms of healing, then, there is no biblical barrier, such as lack of repentance, to believers experiencing the freedom and release that comes from forgiving others at a personal individual level, regardless of whether the offence was within the context of a church fellowship or not. There are many believers who have accumulated unforgiveness under the assumption that they are doing what is biblical, for whom it is hoped they can experience the release and freedom that forgiveness brings.
For everyone, hopefully forgiving others will result in healing and freedom from additional pain on top of the original offence. For those who can’t forgive naturally, it is hoped that they will be able to find faith in Jesus Christ, so that they will have the power to forgive others.
But most of all, it is hoped that everyone will find the joy and peace which comes from receiving forgiveness from God, through faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning suffering, death and resurrection to life.