Forgiveness is a vital Christian attribute. It is the mechanism whereby we enter into a vertical relationship with God. We come to realize we have offended God and come to understand our need to repent. Upon the basis of that repentance we begin the first step to being reconciled to God.
As glorious and cherished the concept of forgiveness is it is seldom properly understood by most Evangelicals. You ask the average Evangelicals when they should forgive someone and you will get some interesting replies. Many will be well-intended but most will fall short and actually cause more potential harm (more on the potential harm later).
Most believers fail to understand the nuanced difference between the requirement to always display love and the proper conditions to grant forgiveness. All one has to do is look at how forgiveness is transacted between God and man. It is helpful to look at the scripture from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Forgiveness is ALWAYS contingent upon repentance. Remember I mentioned the issue of how we first enter into a relationship with God. That relationship is only possible when we first express sorrow for our sin which has placed us at enmity with God. God will never forgives us for our sin UNLESS we first express sorrow. That is the vertical (between God and man) dimension and what we see modeled in the vertical (aka the heavenward view) we do well to implement in the horizontal (earthward view) dimension.
As I said earlier we are always expected to display love to our neighbor, no matter the state of our relationship. Just as once we enter into a covenant relationship with God we correctly understand God will always love us. A friend of mine once told me, “There is nothing I can do to make God love me more and there is nothing I can do to make God love me less.” Our expectation that we have God love, without exception, is totally biblical. Yet, it should be equally clear God will NOT forgive us if we do not believe expressly ask for that forgiveness, even after being justified through the atoning work of Jesus Christ at the cross. This forgiveness applies only to our santification, never our justification.
Let me make it explicitly clear, I am to ALWAYS love my neighbor, without exception. A didactic (passage intended to teach a principle to be implemented) passage like Luke 17:3 perfectly illustrates this principle. Luke writes, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”
Much more can be said about the nuggets that can be gleaned from this passage but suffice to say it should be clear forgiveness only follows AFTER repentance is offered. Let’s land this plane and discuss briefly with why this understanding is important. Many believers mistakenly believe they are advancing the kingdom by expressing forgiveness even if the “offending party” never expresses repentance.
Just think about it, what responsible parent would “forgive” their petulant child who refuses to acknowledge their error or misbehavior. The responsible parent will always love their child but the responsible parent will never forgive i.e., have peace with their child until that child acknowledges their mistake.
It is equally important to emphasize that believers must always stand ready to forgive their transgressors. There can be no question about that need but it is unbiblical to forgive your neighbor if they do not express repentance. It does not help your neighbor and it does not glorify God.
Remember, love at all time without exception, as Paul says in Romans 13 “owe no one anything, except to love each other.”
Forgiveness only when repentance has been expressed.