Some say yes, that you should forgive those who do not ask forgiveness. Others say no, that the person should not be forgiven until they repent and then you can forgive them.
Those that say you should forgive an unrepentant person use verses like Colossians 3:13 that say,
“Bear with each other and forgive
whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Or they use Luke 23:34, when Jesus was dying on the cross and he said,
“Father, forgive them
for they know not what they do…”
Or, Acts 7:60, where Steven was being stoned by the Jews and he cried out
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them”
and as he had said this, he fell asleep [died]. -Acts 7:60
On April 18, 2007, there were three Christian Protestants that were cruelly assassinated in the city of Malatya, Turkey, by young men who were members of the Islamic Foundation Ihlas of Malatya. One of those assassinated was German. In this terrible crime, the wife of one of those assassinated named Susanna Geske said, “as a Christian, I forgive the assassins.” (1)
On the other hand, there are those that don’t believe the person that doesn’t ask for forgiveness should be forgiven. But, after they do confess the sin, and have a change of heart and show a true repentance, then they are to be forgiven. According to them a Christian should forgive when a confession is made: Matthew 6:12, 14; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13, and Acts 17:30.
The word “forgive” en the Greek is άφεσς meaning “release, forgiveness, pardon of sins of letting them go as if they hadn’t been committed”. It also implies “to omit or let go a debt, i.e. to remit or forgive”. The Greek word χαριζόμενοι means “to show one’s self gracious, grant forgiveness, bestow”. Forgiveness presupposes guilt and with guilt comes moral consequences and responsibility.
There are instances of forgiveness in the Bible:
- Esau forgives Jacob – Gen. 33:1-17.
- Joseph forgives his brothers – Gen. 45:1-15.
- Moses forgives the people of Israel – Exodus 32:11-14, 30-33.
- Moses forgives his sister Miriam – Numbers 12:11-13.
- David forgives Absalom – 2 Samuel 14:21, 33.
- David forgives Shimei – 2 Samuel 19:18-23.
- Salomon forgives Adonijah – 1 Kings 1:52.
- Paul and the church in Corinth forgive a brother who sins – 2 Corinthians 2:5-11. (2)
In Genesis 33:1-17 we see Esau’s forgiveness of Jacob prompted by Jacob’s recognition of guilt and his humility and good will.
One of the verses used is Matthew 18:15-17. Here it states,
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Now looking at these verses, several things come into view:
- This is a sin that the brother has committed. As Christians we could say, well this is a sin but it really isn’t that big – like making one sin “mortal” while the other sin is “venial”. But here we see the word “sin” and it doesn’t say if it is big or little. But it obviously must be big to have it affect the brother so much.
In Exodus 20:1-17 we see some major sins that God hates. In this list we find things like worshiping idols, murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting. And then in Mark 12:30-31 it says, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’. And the second (commandment) is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” So sinning would be not loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and not loving your neighbor as yourself. This would be sin!
- Forgiving sin is a judicious matter. It involves a situation where one person does something wrong and has a debt to be paid. The relationship is broken and it needs to be restored. Restoration means fixing something broken. Matthew 18:15-17 gives the steps in fixing a relationship broken by sin. By following what Matthew 18:15-17 says the debt owed should be taken care of.
In the Old Testament when a crime was committed a price had to be paid. For different crimes there were different fines.
- For committing adultery the fine was death (Leviticus 20:10).
- For committing a homosexual sin of one man having sex with another man, the fine was death (Leviticus 20:13).
- You were not to steal (Exodus 20:15; Leviticus 19:11; Deuteronomy 5:19) and if you did the fine would be what is found in Exodus 22:1 that states, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”
When we sinned against God, as non-believers, there was a debt to be paid. This doctrine is called Soteriology and states the following: God, being Just (Deuteronomy 32:4), demands that blood be paid for the sin (Hebrews 9:22).
Sin can be defined as something that is contrary to God’s nature and character. It is his opposite.
- Sin is disobeying God – Romans 5:19; Joshua 23:6; Psalms 119:45; Ephesians 6:6; John 4:34; 1 Peter 1:14; John 8:51; 1 John 2:17; 1 Samuel 15:22.
- Sin is knowing the right thing to do and not doing it – James 4:17.
- Sin is seen in the following infractions: injustice, fornication, being perverse, full of envy, homicidal activity, being argumentative, deceitful, detractor, gossip, haters of God, perverse, proud, inventors of evil, disloyal, without natural affection, without mercy, and ruthless – Romans 1:29- 31.
- Sin is disobeying God – Exodus 10:28.
- Sin is not obeying God’s law – Romanos 7:7; Exodus 20.
- Everything that does not come from faith is sin – Romans 14:23.
- Sin comes from our evil desires – James 1:14.
- All wrongdoing is sin – 1 John 5:17.
Justice. In His “just-ness” (Deuteronomy 32:4), God demands blood be paid for sin (Hebrews 9:22):
- The blood to pay for the sin debt has to be perfect because God is perfect and has no sin (1 Peter 1:15; Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:18-19, 2:22-23).
- Jesus paid for the sin and paid the debt with his own blood (Matthew 1:21; Hebrews 9:28, 10:10, 19; Acts 10:39-43; Ephesians1:7; 2:8-9; 1 John 1:7).
- Because of Jesus paying the price, the debt has been canceled. A debt in the Old Testament and New Testament was a very important issue that it had to be paid (Deuteronomy 24:15-15, Matthew 18:27-32; Romans 13:8). The debt had to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:2, Matthew 18:23-27).
- Those believing by faith in Jesus Christ and what he did for them by paying the price for their sins are declared “righteous” (Romans 3:21-24; Philippians 3:8 – 9).
- Jesus paid the debt and his blood covers the sins of the past, present and future (Acts 10:43; Romans 6:1-10; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:2; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 Corinthians 5: 18 – 19; 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 10:11 – 14. Ephesians 4:32 says that Christ forgave, which in the Greek is “echaristo” (“forgave” is in the aorist and means “once for all time, not needing to be repeated”).
These verses, Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:28- 30, and Luke 12:10, list one sin that will not be forgiven by God. It says in verse 31, “And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Now then if that is true, then in Acts 7:60 and Luke 23:34 where Jesus was hanging on the cross and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” — the sin of blasphemy was not being forgiven.
And in Matthew 18:15-17 we see the sin is committed by a “brother”. In Acts 7:60 and Luke 23:34 obviously those sins were not committed by a “brother”, but rather by “enemies”. The same is true with Susanna Geske. The assassin wasn’t her “brother” (nor a Christian).
We as Christians are commanded to love (John 13:34 – 35). We are to even love our enemies and pray for them (John 15:12 – 13; Luke 6:27). The word “love” in the Greek is “agape” which means “to do what is justly right”.
Now there is a belief that the blood that Jesus shed does not cover for present and future sins and these verses are used to support this belief:
- Matthew 6:14 – 15, which says, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”.
- Matthew 18:23 – 35, which Jesus said at the close of the parable, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
- Mark 11: 25 – 26, which says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.”
- Luke 6: 37, which says, “Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Now with these four passages one can conclude that they imply forgiveness to the one who never repents or confesses anything is wrong. But this is not the case! Repentance is a condition in order to be forgiven.
Let us consider Matthew 18:23- 35 where the whole parable is not given. It briefly states that a King wanted to settle his accounts with his servants. And one of the servants owed him 10 thousand talents which were about several million dollars in 1978 (according to the New International Version footnote). This servant fell on his knees (repentance) and asked the King to be patient with him and he would pay back everything he owed.
Then this servant found another of his servants who owed him a hundred dinarrii (a few dollars) and he grabbed him and chocked him and this servant repented and said on his knees “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back”. But instead of being gracious, he refused and had this man thrown into prison until he could pay back the debt.
And when the King found out about this, he was very angry and that is why Jesus concludes stating in verse 26, “if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.” So we see that confession and repentance came first, and forgiveness comes after. “A person who seeks forgiveness but does not forgive others hardly knows what he is asking for and is not worthy of it”. (3)
And this being the interpretation, these 4 verses do not conclude that sin is not forgiven in the present nor the future. As Ephesians 4:32 states, Jesus forgave “once for all time”.
So we see now that we have been forgiven for our sins in the past, in the present and the future. But then we must by faith believe that Jesus paid for our sin and receive Him as our Savior (John 3:14 – 17; 5:24; 6:29, 47: 11:25 – 26; 20:31; Acts 16:31; Ephesians 2:8 – 9; John 1:12; 14:16; Acts 4:12; and 1 Timothy 2: 5 – 6). Then this debt that we have is paid for. Once this takes place we are declared “righteous” (Romans 3:21-24; Philippians 3:8 – 9).
And we must forgive others in the same way we were forgiven (Matthew 6:12, 14; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; Acts 17:30). In the case of Colossians 3:13 it says, “Bear with each other [Christian brothers, not non-Christians] and forgive whatever grievances you may have against each other. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
The word here, “forgive”, in the Greek is χαριζόμενοι and can be found in Ephesians 4:31-32 as well which states,
Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger,
brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
Be kind and compassionate to one another,
forgiving the other
just as in Christ God forgave you.
– Ephesians 4:31-32
We are to forgive the same way as we were forgiven. We first had to repent of our sin, which Luke 24:47 states clearly: there is repentance followed by forgiveness. We were forgiven by confessing our sin first and repenting of it and then receiving forgiveness by being declared righteous (Romans 10:9; Exodus 10:127 – 19; Proverbs 28:13; Mark 1:5; and Luke 5:8; 15:18).
Repentance and Forgiveness
Now there are passages of Scripture that fail to specify repentance as a ground for forgiveness. These are the following examples: Psalms 65:3; 85:2; 86:5; 103:3, 10; Isaiah 46:12; Jeremiah 31:31-34; 33:1-18; Ezekiel 36:16-38; Micah 7:18-20; Acts 13:38; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 2:13; 1 John 2:2. (4)
But in other passages it is clearly presented the repentance precedes forgiveness: Leviticus 26:14-45; 1 Kings 8:46-50; 2 Chronicles 7:14; 30:18; Psalms 32:3-5; 51; Isaiah 1:27; 55:6; 59-61; Jeremiah 18:7-11; 26:3; Lamentations 3:42; Ezekiel 18:31; Zechariah 1:3; Malachi 3:7; Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 5:31; 8:22; 1 John 1:9. (5) The omission found in the first section may be due to the fact that it was understood that repentance took place before forgiveness was granted.
The other verses regarding repentance are 2 Chronicles 7:14; Proverbs 28:13; Acts 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9; Matthew 3:1 -2; and Acts 3:19. Repentance comes before forgiveness. Confession of sin and repentance is necessary to be forgiven and declared righteous or “fixed”. In Acts 17:30 God commands repentance and in 2 Peter 3:6 He desires that all repent. So the argument that no repentance is necessary does not make sense according to the Bible. But once the repentance transpires, the Christian should forgive! He should not let the “debt owed” cause him “bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” which could happen!
Emil Brunner also emphasized the need of repentance as a condition of forgiveness in his book, The Divine-Human Encounter, on pages 98 and 149. Those that were in agreement with his position were: Rudolf Bultmann, Frederick C. Grant, H.R. Mackintosh, Ernest F. Scott, Vincent Taylor, and Benjamin B. Warfield, as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. XV). (6)
Now as to being free from the clutches of anger and resentment and hostility when someone hurts you, I think that it can be dealt with by “loving” the person and “heaping coals” upon their head (Rom. 12:20). And you could call it “forgiving a person” in that you hold no debt against that person. But there still is a debt, and it still has to be paid, and it still needs to be confessed in order to be “forgiven”.
So you should love the person (agape) but you should not let what they did control you. You should be “free” from its control over you. And just follow through with Matthew 18:15-20. But he must forgive without measure (Matthew 18:21- 22).
And as a Christian, with a repentant heart and attitude, they would want to make restitution for what they did wrong. Numbers 5:7 talks about what full-restitution is. Zacchaeus made full restitution in Luke 19:8 when as a tax collector he said that he would give half of his possession to the poor “and if I cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” That is true repentance! But in any case, Christians are commanded to forgive those who repent.
So in conclusion we could say that “forgiving sin without requiring repentance would be like condoning sin or being indifferent to it”. (7) If a Christian Brother will not repent and have a change of heart regarding the sin that has broken the relationship, then forgiving him for it is not biblical.
We have seen in Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60 that a non-Christian was forgiven, but for a Christian we do not see that in Scripture. So what a Christian should do in the case of his brother sinning against him but not confessing it or even repenting of it, would be to love the one who has caused him pain (John 13:34-35) and try to “heap coals” upon their head.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you love one another.”
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you,
live at peace with everyone. 19
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,
for it is written: “It is mine to avenge;
I will repay,”[d] says the Lord.
20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(2) The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, Zondervan Pub., 1975.
Disclaimer: The view of the author does not necessarily represent the position of this website.