Why forgiveness must be unconditional, not conditional

Should I always forgive someone who has harmed or hurt me or should I only forgive if the person repents? I have friends who have been harmed in many ways. One friend recalls how an overzealous corporal humiliated him in the army in front of others. Another friend remembers the pain of a close friend taking advantage of her. Another friend recollects the enormous betrayal of an unfaithful spouse. My counsel to all of them has been to forgive the offender, to release the debt of hurt and pain, and to trust God to ultimately correct all wrongs. Sometimes the offender has repented in other cases not.

Forgiveness, of course, does not mean that we minimize the offense against us or condone the offense. It also doesn’t mean we don’t act to protect ourselves from the offender in the future. Forgiveness simply means we choose to release the person’s debt against us. We know that this is only “horizontal” forgiveness between people and only God can truly forgive sin because all sin is ultimately against God (“vertical forgiveness”).

Proponents of conditional forgiveness would argue that we are only mandated to forgive those who repent or apologize to us, and to “offer forgiveness” to those who don’t. Is this right? I don’t think so.

Wrong comparison

One of the key verse in the conditional forgiveness’ arsenal is Ephesians 4:32, “…forgiving one another as God forgave you…”. The argument goes like this: God only forgives us when we repent. God’s forgiveness has conditions. Therefore we only forgive those who repent.

This interpretation misses the point of the passage. The apostle Paul is not alluding to our repentance, but to God’s graciousness – and calling us to extend that same graceful forgiveness to others. In the very next verse, Paul can say, “be imitators of God…and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” How did God in Christ love us? Romans 5:8 says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still (unrepentant) sinners, Christ died for us”.

Ephesians as a whole speaks of God’s undeserved forgiveness and love, not primarily to our repentance.

Argument from silence

Another key passage for the conditional guys is Luke 17:3-4, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

I would argue that this passage speaks to reconciliation among church members (v3 “If your brother sins…”, cf. the parallel passage in Matthew 18) and therefore it is not helpful to build a doctrine of forgiveness on this verse. If there is to be reconciliation, the offender definitely needs to repent. But what if there is no repentance? Does this verse imply that if there is no repentance, we should not forgive? Again I would argue that the overwhelming teaching of the New Testament is that forgiveness should be extended even to the unrepentant. In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus says we should forgive seventy-seven times with no mention of repentance. (Matthew 18:21)

Overwhelming evidence

In Matthew 18 Jesus tells a story of a king who decides to settle accounts and balance his books with his subjects. Verse 24 says, “as he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.” The disciples listening to this story must have got a huge shock at this point. A talent was the highest denomination of currency. 1 talent equaled 20 years’ salary for the average labourer. This man owed the king about R100 million in today’s terms. There was no chance of paying it back. In those days families could be sold into slavery to repay debts and the king could have demanded that. Although the king would never recoup all his debts at least he would get back something. The man is heading for slavery, but he pleads for patience and mercy and verse 27 says, “The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.”

The king, and this part must have shocked the disciples even more, has pity and compassion and astonishingly releases the servant from his entire debt just like that! The king cancelled the debt, removed the burden and released the man from his obligation.

Remember his parable is actually about the kingdom of heaven (v23). The king is God. We are that man and we all have a monstrous debt that we owe God. Every time we sin against God, rebel against his rightful rule over our life, transgress his commands and overstep his boundaries we increase our debt. God is perfect and demands perfection if we are to be fit for him and be members of his Kingdom. Far from being perfect, we have a huge, condemning debt that we cannot repay.

But, verse 26-27 says, “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.”

When the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and we throw ourselves on the mercy of the King, he is merciful and forgives us of our sin; the King cancels the debt we owe him and frees us from that great unpayable burden. The debt for our sins has been paid for us by Jesus’ death.

You may be upset and offended at the sin of someone else. Can you imagine how much your sin and rebellion has offended and hurt our holy, perfect Creator God who sustains our every breath and gives us life? Yet, God has forgiven us. The reason we forgive is because God has forgiven us.

But there is a sting in the tale, “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow–servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow–servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back’ “. But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. (v28-30)

The first thing the servant did after leaving the king’s presence was to search out a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of his original debt and violently demanded repayment. His first inclination should have been to forgive his fellow servant because he had been forgiven; but he refused to forgive.

Are you tempted to be like that? I think this is what conditional repentance promotes – an unwillingness to forgive. Similarly, we may think, “You did that terrible thing to me. You must pay back what you owe me!”

“When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy (undeserved kindness) on your fellow–servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (v31-34)

The clincher is verse 35, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Jesus is saying that if you are a Christian and understand how much you have offended God; and comprehend the enormity of your sin; and realize that your debt has been cancelled and your sin forgiven; then you will be able to and indeed be compelled to forgive others who have sinned against you. Forgiveness won’t necessarily be easy.  It might take a while and you may need some help.

But if you refuse to forgive and harbor years of animosity, if you hold on to your hurt and treasure your pain, you have may have never been forgiven yourself.

I’m not saying that forgiveness is easy, or that we must perfectly forgive others all at once, or that we won’t sometimes harbor unforgiveness; but we will work on our forgiveness and ask God to help us.

I refer you also to the parable of the Good Samaritan (mercy to “enemies”), Jesus’ model prayer for Christians (“forgives ours sins as we forgive those who sin against us”) or Jesus’ prayer of the cross (“Father, forgive them”).

Unhelpful terms

The conditional forgiveness proponents say that Jesus never forgave the soldiers on the cross, but that he “offered forgiveness” to them. We, they contend, should also “offer forgiveness” to all or have an “attitude of forgiveness” to all, but only forgive those who repent. I consider these terms to be very unhelpful, even unbiblical, as the Bible teaches us actually forgive, just as God has actually forgiven us.

Pastoral implications

The teaching of conditional forgiveness may unwittingly cause many Christians continued pain and grief as they carry unforgiven hurts and debts. Reconciliation needs another’s repentance. Forgiveness only needs God’s grace.

I would value your thoughts and comments as I think through this issue.

Here is a fuller treatment on the weaknesses of conditional forgiveness.

Matthias Media has helpful articles here and here.