By Ron Norman

The topic of forgiveness is of fundamental importance to all Christians because it relates to our relationship with God and with our fellow man. Theologically there are two main views. Conditional forgiveness is defined as that forgiveness which is only granted when the offending party shows remorse, repents and asks for forgiveness. Unconditional forgiveness is forgiveness which is granted to the offender without the requirement of prerequisite repentance.

Chris Braun’s definition is helpful:

“Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated”.

He includes reconciliation in his definition, but my focus will be on the commitment to pardon.

The forgiveness that is in view in this definition is that which relates to serious offences and is not to be confused with our responsibility to be forbearing when dealing with minor offences. The great Reformed theologian John Murray summarised this truth as follows:

“Forgiveness is a definite act performed by us on the fulfilment of certain conditions. Forgiveness is something actively administered on the repentance of the person who is to be forgiven. We greatly impoverish ourselves and impair the relations that we should sustain with our brethren when we fail to appreciate what is involved in forgiveness.”

It is also a given that the model for our forgiveness of others, is God’s forgiveness of us, and we should follow His example (Col. 3:13, Eph. 4:32). God’s forgiveness is only granted when confession and repentance are forthcoming (1 John 1:9), and presumably our forgiveness of others should follow suit.

There are two levels of forgiveness. The first is forgiveness granted for minor offences. Such forgiveness – probably better called forbearance or overlooking – is granted without any repentance being required of the offender (Prov. 19:11). The second is forgiveness for a serious offence, which is only granted if repentance of the offender is forthcoming (Matt.18:15-35, Luke 17:3, 4, 1 John 1:9). Whether an offence is serious or minor is a judgment that must be made by the one who is offended. Counsel and Biblical references can be sought to help the offended person make this judgment. Withholding forgiveness for serious offences does not automatically create bitterness in the one offended and can be an act of love, aimed at encouraging the offending person to come to repentance.

Chris Braun states “the notion of automatic, unconditional forgiveness itself fosters bitterness”. Furthermore, “we are created with a standard of justice written on our hearts. When we forgive someone who is not repentant, we are acting in a way that is unjust and unloving. Deep down we are saying that forgiveness must sometimes happen at the expense of justice.” This is not talking about revenge but a flouting of the divine principle of justice.

So how are we to view the basis for God’s forgiveness? Ultimately the basis for God’s forgiveness of us is the finished work of Christ, paying the penalty for our sin and graciously granting us faith and repentance. But God has made forgiveness contingent upon repentance as a second cause, and its focus is the glory of God and our joy (Westminster Confession of Faith, 5:2).

In a sermon on Matthew 6:7-15, John Piper pointed out: “One last observation remains: forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person. In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3,4, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him and if he repents forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day and returns to you seven times, saying ‘I repent’, forgive him.” So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance. But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matt. 18:17), we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27). The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.”

John MacArthur argues that for minor matters there are times when forgiveness is unilaterally and unconditionally granted. But MacArthur also states: “It is obvious from Scripture that sometimes forgiveness must be conditional. There are times when it is necessary to confront an offender. In such cases, unconditional forgiveness is not an option. These generally involve more serious sins, not petty or picayune complaints, but soul-threatening sins or transgressions that endanger the fellowship of saints.”

Ken Sande agrees that there are times when minor offences should be overlooked, (unconditionally forgiven), but he also emphasises the need for repentance for serious offences before forgiveness can be granted. He helpfully describes forgiveness as a two-stage process: “When an offence is too serious to overlook and the offender has not yet repented, you may need to approach forgiveness as a two-stage process. The first stage requires having an attitude of forgiveness and the second, granting forgiveness. Having an attitude of forgiveness is unconditional and is a commitment you make to God. By His grace, you seek to maintain a loving and merciful attitude toward someone who has offended you. Granting forgiveness is conditional on the repentance of the offender and takes place between you and that person when there has been a serious offence, it would not be appropriate to make the promises of forgiveness until the offender has repented.”

The promises of forgiveness to which Sande refers are:
1. I will not dwell on this incident.
2. I will not bring this incident up and use it against you.
3. I will not talk to others about this incident.
4. I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.
(Matt. 6:12, 1Cor.13:5, Eph.4:32.)
These promises can only be made in good conscience and according to the Biblical mandate when repentance has occurred. R.C. Sproul too writes: “God does not forgive us unilaterally; He requires repentance.” So God’s forgiveness is conditional upon repentance and He cannot show mercy to sinners at the expense of His holy justice. 

If we apply the hermeneutic principle that we should allow Scripture to interpret Scripture and that Scripture cannot contradict itself, then with reference to Luke 17:3,4 and Mark 11:25, can we not say that when forgiveness is mentioned in Scripture, prerequisite repentance is implied? Could repentance be required by Christ for forgiveness in one text and not in another?

The teaching of unconditional forgiveness places an enormous and unbiblical burden on the backs of Christians in requiring them to be more forgiving and more gracious than God Himself. While we are commanded by Christ to love our enemies in Matthew 5:44, He does not tell us that we are to forgive them unconditionally. In fact, forgiveness is not mentioned at all. In 1 Corinthians 13, where God spells out what love does and does not do, forgiveness is also not mentioned. Cheap (unconditional), forgiveness is not love. We are to have a forgiving spirit towards our enemies. We are to love them, pray for them, seek their good, care for them, be ready to forgive them and not be bitter towards them or hold a grudge for their actions. But we must not tread underfoot the justice of God.

Ron Norman is an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Australia