From time to time I will post short forays into commonly misunderstood biblical topics to hopefully help fellow believers think through some of these commonly misunderstood biblical topics. The next one will be the even more misunderstood topic of biblical forgiveness.
The Bible never states anywhere that in the “human dimension” one individual is expected and certainly not required to forgive another “unless and until” the offender repents yet people continue to teach and claim the Bible requires us to forgive someone even when that person does not express repentance.
Yes, the Bible does indeed teaches Jesus Christ implored the Father to “forgive them for they know not what they do” but the careful exegete also knows the ONLY manner in which the Father can EVER forgive someone would be for God the Father to take the initiative as all humanity, born after Adam, comes into time and space in bondage to sin.
This is the quintessential example of the lack of critical thinking so prevalent in the Church and the failure to appreciate the vital necessity of precision of language. If you are keen to note precision you would have noted I qualified my assertion in the first paragraph with the words “human dimension.”
In the horizontal plane (aka human dimension, where we live and exist) repentance “always” precedes forgiveness: (man to man)
In the vertical plane (man to God and God to man), as a result of the Fall, all of Adam’s posterity are born into sin (see Psalm 51). Reading Romans 8 we understand unredeemed humanity can do nothing pleasing to God. Why? As mentioned previously because of original sin which every human born after the Fall inherit from Adam.
This is the context in which God the Son could rightly ask God The Father to forgive them for they know not what they do because they did not know what they were doing because they were blinded by their bondage to sin.
Another problem is most professing Evangelicals do not demonstrate any knowledge of “didactic” passages which informs the reader they are being commanded to do something as opposed to a non-didactic passage which simply informs the reader what has happened.
Another way to understand this principle is there are descriptive truths (non-didactic) and there are prescriptive truths (didactic). Didactic passages are also known as teaching passages.
The pertinent passages regarding forgiveness would be Luke 17:1-4 and 1 John 1:9, both didactic passages. By the way, the biblical passage which records Jesus Christ imploring the Father to forgive them (Luke 23:34) is, guess what, “not” a didactic passage.
The historian Luke only records the event found in Luke 23. This is what we call a descriptive truth, not a prescriptive one. Hence, the reader is not commanded to do anything in this case.
I am always surprised by people’s initial response whenever I bring up this topic. Their instant reaction is I am easing the Biblical ethos when actually I am raising the bar if I am ever given the chance to fully press my case which I am seldom able to do because of their instant rejection of my proposition.
You see the Bible commands us to owe no man anything but love (Romans 13:8) so regardless if our offender seeks our forgiveness, guess what? You got it! Regardless of what transpires in our relationship we “always” owe our brethren love.
Let me use the vertical dimension between God and a person who is in a covenant relationship with God as my example. After initial salvation, where God has taken the initiative and regenerated the believer, the believers lives in what theologian term as “sanctification.” It is the sanctification dimension that is in view when one reads 1 John 1:9 as the careful Bible exegete understand the rules of Biblical interpretation.
1 John is an Epistle. Epistles are written primarily, if not, exclusively to people who are already in the covenant family, so the Epistles are not evangelistic in nature. So when we read “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9) we are to understand this is forgiveness, not of initial sin, but forgiveness that governs our covenant fellowship with God, i.e., sanctification.
Thus, the offer of forgiveness to maintain our fellowship with God is conditional. Thus, the term “if! Yet, all during this process one thing God will “never” withhold is His love. So while the believer may be out of fellowship with God he is “never” outside of the covenant family. All one has to do is remember the glorious promise Paul proclaims in Romans 8:
Romans 8:31-36 ESV
 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died-more than that, who was raised-who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
What a glorious source of security! There is nothing that can take place in time and space that will negate God’s love for His people. Yet, we can cause a breach in the sanctification phase of our salvation, but our justification is sealed until the day of Christ and insoluble.
Hopefully you can see the parallel. We will ALWAYS owe our offender our love, that is unconditional. Remember we are commanded to love with “agape” type love.
So when my brother offends and refuses to repent he has caused a breach in our relationship and that breach is broken unless and until he repents Yet, all the while I owe him love.
For sake of brevity let me give a short real life example. I had a brother who continually “exploded with anger” towards me for no good reason. Each time I forgave him until he did it for the last time and there was no repentance. Since there was no repentance I broke off “fellowship” with him. Previously we would often go to lunch. We would often text one another and discuss the things of God so I thought we had a genuine growing friendship developing.
Tragically all of that ended because of his conduct. Now, while the fellowship ended (regrettably) my love for him never did (humanely speaking as I was not perfect).
Later on my brother became gravely ill. My heart went out to him and I committed myself to being the best Christian brother a Christian brother could be expected to be when another brother is going through the crucible.
So, remember while forgiveness, both horizontally as well as vertically, is conditional we will always expected to display love.
That is by no means easy to navigate. Regardless of the fellowship I owe every man love. Fellowship would free me to go to a ball game, share a meal, take a trip or any other myriad of social activities. Love towards another human being is not required by any of these activities. So while I should withhold “friendship” that is associated with fellowship I can never withhold “agape” type love to any person.
Thus, if my brother, mentioned earlier, had of ever had a real need then I would have been biblically obligated to meet that need as I had opportunity James 4:17, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
As always, let me know what you think. Until then, keep your hands to the plow and seek to serve for an Audience of One.
With fear and trembling
Ricky Kyles DEd.Min