I was surprised to be asked by Moody Radio to debate another pastor on the topic of Unconditional Forgiveness. Is it biblical or not? The debate was last Saturday. You can listen to the podcast by clicking this link.
What is Unconditional Forgiveness?
Unconditional forgiveness is the belief that God calls us to forgive people whether they change their behavior or not. There are plenty of scriptures to support this. I’ve listed a few of them below. But there are some people who believe we should only forgive people if they repent, that is, ask for forgiveness and change their behavior. They say that God requires repentance, and so we should too.
The strongest case for this view is from something Jesus said:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Luke 17:3,4
If you read Luke 17 in its most literal sense, you might conclude that Jesus is saying the opposite as well, “If they don’t repent then don’t forgive them.” But it doesn’t say that. In fact, in context, Jesus is teaching on Forgiveness 101, entry level forgiveness. His disciples can’t believe you should forgive people for an offense, even if they repent. Their reply to Jesus was, “Increase our faith!” In other words, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Little did they know that Jesus would call them to even deeper forgiveness. He would call them to forgive, not only people who repented, but people who did not.
…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Luke 6:28-31
Forgiveness 201 is when you choose to not retaliate. You give up the right to get even. The Bible calls this “mercy.” There are two Greek words that speak to this: aphiemi and apoluo. Look them up. They mean to release, pardon, separate or divorce. The idea being that you let go of what you were previously attached to, that is, retaliation. No conditions are implied here.
Forgiveness 301 is when you give to people what they don’t deserve. This is called, “blessing.” This idea is rooted in the word charizomai. It’s the word for “grace” that Christians like to use so much. It means to give freely. To give without reserve. That sounds pretty unconditional to me. This is the word used in Ephesians 4:30:
Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other just as God in Christ has forgiven you.
How has Christ forgiven us? Paul stated this throughout his letter to the Ephesians. But he states it explicitly here:
…in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,… Ephesians 3:13-15
What drew us to God? Jesus’ sacrifice and his setting aside the law (or conditions) of God that condemned us. His love was shown first. In the same way, we are called to forgive others without condition.
Forgiveness is NOT:
Just to be clear, forgiveness is NOT:
- Forgetting. You forgive what you CAN’T forget.
- Excusing. You only forgive what you have accused someone of doing.
- Trusting. You can forgive immediately. Trust takes time.
- Reunion. This can only happen when trust is restored.
- An Emotion. It’s the refusal to retaliate and/or the willingness to bless.
What’s Wrong with Conditional Forgiveness?
A big downside to thinking that forgiveness is conditional (beyond the fact that I don’t see the Bible supporting it) is that, knowing humanity, we will always find a reason to NOT forgive, right? We will always think that someone hasn’t repented enough, thereby justifying our not forgiving. How convenient. How human. We are called to something higher.
Plus, conditional forgiveness encourages us to carry lists against all the people that have offended us over the years. Rather than being seen as a gracious child of God, people avoid us for being a rigid legalist who carries grudges.
It’s worth studying on your own. Here are a few scripture to look up:
- Matthew 5:43-47
- Luke 6:32-36
- Romans 12:17-20
My book STUCK deals with the power of unconditional forgiveness and how it empowers you to live a new life, as well as the person you forgive.
Welsh poet and priest, George Herbert, said: Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet, which still clings fast to the heel that crushed it.
This is a beautiful image of unconditional forgiveness. The fragrance stays with the person no matter what they do, and it’s a constant reminder of God’s love for them.
Please share this with someone who is struggling with an offense.