There is a debate going on. No surprise there. But this one is more low key than ESS or DACA and without the vitriolic comment threads. It’s in response to the question of whether we should forgive someone who does not ask for our forgiveness, or does not show repentance in the asking.
The reasoning goes like this. Some will point to Jesus’ statement in Luke 17:4-5. Twice Jesus says, “If your brother repents, forgive him.” “See,” they will point out, “forgiveness is contingent upon repentance.” For them, to forgive without repentance is to make light of sin, and more seriously, make light of sin’s offense against God. We do not want to be enablers of sin. At the very least, granting forgiveness is conditional to being asked for it.
The other side insists that forgiveness is an expression of love, and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We don’t hold a grudge against ourselves (Lev. 19:18), do we? The apparel of unity laid out for us by our Lord in Colossians 3:12-17 speaks to forgiving one another. Forgiveness is not an accessory to be put on or to leave in the wardrobe. It belongs to the uniform of those chosen of God, holy and dearly loved by Him. Sin is not to find neither toehold nor traction in relationships. Forgiveness gives it neither.
Which side is right? My opinion is that both are or, maybe better, could be. Neither needs to give an inch in its core convictions. We are to take sin seriously and hold reconciliation at a premium. We are also to put on love, a characteristic of which is keeping no record of wrongs. Both positions have biblical warrant.
The issue is not either-or. Rather, the merits and principles of each position need to be brought to bear for the peace our Lord Jesus desires. That means that each situation will be governed by the concerns of both positions, perhaps at different stages, worked out in different ways, all in humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit, all toward a common goal.
The gospel always inclines us to forgiveness. The backdrop of the servant released from massive debt in Jesus’ parable of Matthew 18 looms large for every believer. It says to every one us, “such were you.” It colors our existence and informs our relationships. The floodwaters of God’s grace of forgiveness to us overflow their banks in our forgiveness of others.
In a passage that helps us to understand what it means for God’s church to be a house of prayer (Mark 11:12-25), Jesus describes the character of that prayer. “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” (Mark 11:25). Prayer to God issues from a heart reconciled to Him and takes into account the peace desired by Him.
It seems that Jesus is advocating in Mark for a forgiving spirit to be steadily at work, even when someone has not requested our forgiveness or has rejected our peacemaking efforts, even when what we consider sufficient repentance has not been expressed.
When we stand praying and forgive someone who has wronged us, we take it upon ourselves to undertake the heart work of forgiveness. When the wrongs we have forgiven others resurface uninvited in our minds, we must cry out to our God: “I do forgive; help me in my unforgiveness.”
The grace of the gospel comes to our hearts as a healing balm. It prevents us from allowing a root of bitterness to spring up to defile not only the one harboring it but to defile the many. Our bitterness of spirit infects our relationships and interactions, and can even color our world. Bitterness is a bane of Beelzebub.
Forgiveness is not only an action or an interaction, it is a gospel disposition.
Stan Gale is a pastor in the PCA and is the author of several books, including Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel.”