Unconditional forgiveness… or not?

l went to a seminar on forgiveness during Soul Survivor, and it is one that has left me with a lot to think about. The workshop was presented by a bible college lecturer for whom I have great respect. He put forward the idea that we should not dispense forgiveness so freely that it's meaning is lost. Perhaps he was warning against the same fate faced by love – almost void of meaning in our society as it is liberally splashed on everything, from sex, cars, jobs to ice-cream.

He went on to suggest that forgiveness should occur in the context of repentance. As Christians the forgiveness (and love) that has been lavished on us came at incredible cost, yet it is freely given. And yes, our forgiveness is appropriated in the context of repentance. But is that the case in our daily run of the mill dolling out of forgiveness? Is that the case when we choose to forgive those who have hurt us deeply? A person with a counselling background commented that there is no guarantee that the offending party will repent, but withholding forgiveness can be be emotionally and psychologically detrimental to the person who has been wronged. A good point. Another person refers to Jesus telling the disciple to forgive "seventy times seven", with the implication that there should be no strings attached. Repentance not required. My contribution to the session was that the fruit of forgiveness is reconciliation. This is clear in our relationship with God. We are forgiven in order that we are restored to relationship with Him. I think that in human terms, reconciliation is also the ultimate outcome of exercising forgiveness. It has the dual purpose of restoring us to the recipient of the forgiveness, and also restores us to God (Mark 11:25 speaks of the need for forgiveness before coming to God in prayer).

I looked up the context of the "seventy times seven" in Matthew 18:21-35. It is very pertinent to this discussion, but possibly in a different way to what was intended by the person at the seminar. Jesus explains his answer with a story about forgiveness. The man who was forgiven in the story by the king (aka God) asked for mercy concerning his debt, and received forgiveness. The slate was wiped clean. The forgiven man failed to act in this manner towards a servant with a much smaller debt, who likewise pleaded for mercy. The forgiven man did not exercise mercy, and was called to account by the king. The man had to repay his debt. We know the story. I have only retold it to highlight one point – both the man who was forgiven by the king and later his servant – asked for mercy. They pleaded to work something out. The king was going to make the man pay his debt, but changed his mind because he asked for mercy. It was not just lavished upon him uninvited.

In Luke 17:3-4 Jesus teaches his disciples again on forgiveness. He commanded them to rebuke a sinning believer, and forgive him when he repents. I quote: "Even if he wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, forgive him". Again, it seems that seeking forgiveness / repenting is part of the equation.

I know that there are times when the wronging party will not repent, or even acknowledge that anything inappropriate has occurred. They may be incapable – e.g deceased. Unforgiveness is a weight for the one who harbours it, and freedom is found when the wronging party is released from the debt. However, perhaps this necessary process is not forgiveness in its purest form, but somewhere lower down on the continuum.

This post is already long, so these thoughts will do for now.


4 thoughts on “Unconditional forgiveness… or not?

  1. And sometimes a person struggles with forgiving another for a long, long time, and reaches a point where they know they have finally arrived, through prayer, and thought. A change can occur in the one being forgiven, because they were held in that un-forgiveness. Still, where more than one is involved, the person who has never acknowledged any fault, continues on, without ever knowing they need to say “sorry”, too. I think that, in those situations, the issues needing multiple forgiveness, are not resolved. Unfinished forgiveness business needs work. This work is hard. Any thoughts?

  2. It does little good to argue about whether forgiveness should be “conditional” or “unconditional” because these words themselves can be understood in so many different ways. Answers to such questions will probably not make us more forgiving. Even our best efforts at forgiveness will remain imperfect and incomplete. But forgiveness creates more forgiveness, and new opportunities for forgiveness will always present themselves. What’s important is that we start forgiving, in any way we can.–>

  3. What about Mark 11:25-
    “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”

    Putting that together with Matt 18 and Luke 11 It seems that those two passages in Matt and Luke do not teach that forgiveness necessitates repentance… They are saying exactly what they are saying… “EVERY TIME someone asks you for forgiveness, forgive”. They are not saying “forgive ONLY if someone asks for forgiveness”.

    I think forgiveness is unconditional, in that you can cancel debt or pardon or “leave behind” bitterness. You do not hold it against the wrong party. However, that does not necessarily mean broken relationship is restored – that would take repentance.

  4. I agree – broken relationships are restored through the combination of forgiveness and repentance, and in my personal life I have on more than one occasion forgiven a person for significant wrong on their part toward me without their request. I wonder though, if the asking for forgiveness (as referred to in the passages you mentioned) is actually an act of repentance – even if only an introductory one – therefore not necessarily negating a relationship between forgiveness and repentance. Thanks for your comments Stephen.

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