As a Bible teacher, I’ve heard this question many times: can a person actually forgive if the offender is not repentant? Should Sally wait for her husband to meekly ask for forgiveness before she forgives him? Can Ben go ahead and extend forgiveness to his boss who repeatedly disrespects him and often abuses his time and talent?
Does Jesus forgive only when a person repents?
Forgiveness differs from reconciliation. We sometimes confuse the two.
For instance, from the cross Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” His statement did not result in reconciliation, but it did reveal His compassionate and forgiving heart towards His most bitter enemies.
Jesus also taught an assertive forgiveness. Check out Mark 11.25:
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.”
Jesus does not command us to hunt down our brother and demand an apology first. Just forgive. How? In this context, it seems we should have a heart–an attitude–of forgiveness. It’s not necessarily saying the words, “I forgive you,” to the person, but it’s a willingness to absorb the cost and the hurt, put it away, and let it go. Isn’t that what God does for us?
Also consider Luke 15.20 in the parable of the prodigal son:
“So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
The father didn’t ask for a full confession. In fact, he acted so quickly the son didn’t have time to speak before his dad was crushing him in an embrace and kissing his face. He then tried to tell his dad how he would pay him back and how he didn’t deserve to be called a son, but again the father cut him off, reinstated him as a son, and totally accepted him back. Obviously, the father forgave his son even before his son demonstrated repentance!
Reconciliation is only possible when both parties act properly–one repents and the other forgives. Sometimes one person repents but the one who was wronged will not forgive. No reconciliation. In other cases, one person forgives from the heart but the other refuses to apologize and repent. No reconciliation.
But notice that forgiveness is not necessarily dependent upon the other person’s repentance. God expects us to forgive those who sin against us. Period. Just how we can do that is a subject for another article, but suffice it to say it’s simply not possible to forgive completely without an internal power that most humans don’t possess.
So don’t wait for your brother or sister to come crawling, contrite and crushed. They may never repent. God wants you to always have a heart of forgiveness, ready to accept back the moment your brother heads your way.
It’s difficult, yes. But it’s so freeing! Discipline yourself to forgive.