Thinking about forgiveness over the past few weeks has been really good for me. I began this series wanting to examine my belief that forgiveness is unconditional. I think I’m prepared to change my position. I’d like to suggest that forgiveness is both conditional and unconditional. Since that’s hardly clear, let me try to put it differently: The offended party must unconditionally move toward forgiveness, but forgiveness can only be fully completed once repentance has taken place.
Clear as mud?
For today let me unpack the last part of this sentence: forgiveness can only be fully completed once repentance has taken place.
Pay attention to yourselves! 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. (Luke 17:3-4)
Other passages emphasize the importance of forgiveness, but don’t include the conditional clause “if he repents.” But perhaps it’s assumed there. Is it possible that complete forgiveness cannot take place if the offender doesn’t repent? This would create a parallel between our being forgiven by God, which happens after repentance, and our forgiving others.
I believe that forgiveness always has in view reconciliation, and reconciliation is always two-sided. So if there is not a repentance corresponding to a forgiveness, then very often there is an impossibility of reconciliation. I think that whatever we think about forgiveness, forgiveness is a component to what is a larger picture, and the larger picture is reconciliation. And reconciliation is necessarily two-sided.
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.
Tomorrow: I’ll talk about the ways that forgiveness is unconditional. In short, I’ll argue that even if the other party does not repent, we must move toward forgiveness, even if it won’t be completed. In other words, there must be a readiness to forgive.