Does forgiveness require repentance?

The answer to this question, I believe, is both yes and no.  Forgiveness can be given, but not received.  It can be done by one party, without the other even being aware.  Of course, at it’s best, forgiveness is when both parties involved have come to an understanding that brings about reconciliation.  However, this requires copious amounts of humility between the two sides, so is difficult to attain.  Repentance, meaning the turning away from apparent wrongdoing with effort to make it right, is one aspect that can make forgiveness of another a smoother transition; but, again, the level of humility and self awareness must be high in the person who’s convicted of their sin and to maintain this change for the better way consistently.

One distinction must be made between the forgiveness we receive from God, in Christ (vertical), known as justification (a single event) and also His grace in the forgiveness of our perpetual sins, and then the forgiveness between man (horizontal).  Justification itself doesn’t have repentance as a prerequisite, but our sins committed towards Him (which all are ultimately against Him) do require our conviction of them (through the Holy Spirit) and, in turn, our effort to repent of them as many times as necessary.  It is this distinction that causes me to waiver between the yes and no answer to whether forgiveness requires repentance.

On one hand, God does require us to repent of our trespasses, but not to the extent that He won’t grant us forgiveness if we don’t due to the fact that we, as His elect, are given unhindered access to heaven.  But this doesn’t imply that as we live our lives, we aren’t driven to repent and turn to His laws and ways.  This is the sanctification process.  On the other hand, we also commit sins against others and that is the direction this post is attempting to quantify.  When we lie to, intentionally abuse, or defy another it is the command to love one another that we are breaking.  They’re spelled out for us in the last six of the Ten Commandments, namely when we commit adultery, steal, lie, covet, dishonor our parents, and/or kill.  These failures to uphold God’s call to love eachother are daily struggles that any and all interpersonal relations contain, in one way or another.

So back to the question posed; can we forgive another for their trespass against us when they won’t admit to their wrongdoing by repenting?  Yes, but only because we’re commanded to do so.  Jesus gives us this expectation in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) and expounds on it in the following verses (6:14-15), “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  There is no mention of repentance as a step to forgiveness in those verses, so we are to forgive regardless of the circumstances, if only to give honor and thanks to God for His forgiveness of our debts.

And no, based on Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3-4, “So watch yourselves.  If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (emphasis mine).  This implies that there should be repentance as a precursor to giving forgiveness to another, never withholding forgiveness as many times as needed, but I have to leave room for other versions of interpretation of these verses.  Perhaps, Jesus could’ve meant that when, and if, another does ask for forgiveness (which obviously implies that they’re at least minutely repentant if they’re approaching the situation in this manner), we are to forgive repeatedly, without requiring any more from them.

Repentance is not to be confused with the type of penance that Catholicism teaches.  However, forgiveness is not to be confused with reconciliation or restoration of a damaged relationship due to sins committed.  We can forgive, without fully reconciling the relationship or restoring it to the position it held before the wrongdoing occurred.  Of course, depending on the severity of the trespass, reconciliation is a God honoring goal, especially when we consider that our relationship with God is fully reconciled, fully restored in Christ, regardless of the severity or number of offenses we commit against Him (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

In the recent past, I sought biblical answers on whether to pursue peace with a brother in Christ who has been consistently unrepentant in several relationships.  The following verses guided me to seek reconciliation with him, regardless of his hardness of heart, because my heart and actions are ultimately accountable to God: Matthew 5:23-24, Romans 12:18, Ephesians 4:3, 2 Peter 1:5-9.  This gentleman remains unrepentant to this day, but I remind myself to forgive him each time (which has far surpassed 77 times!) I dwell, with frustration, on how a man of my age, who professes Christ as his Savior, preaches sound doctrine from the pulpit, and reads the same Bible I do, cannot see clearly enough to connect the dots between forgiveness and repentance.  Let us not hold back forgiveness of those who don’t have the clarity of Scripture on their heart, but continue to pray for them to see their trespasses and come to repentance before God, foremost, and eventually seek reconciliation in humility with those they’ve sinned against.  And also, ask the Spirit of God to enlighten our hearts to do the same towards others that we’ve sinned against.  There is freedom in forgiveness, regardless of the circumstantial evidences, and to stay in the bondage of pride and arrogance isn’t how we stand before God in justification, nor should it be so as we live amongst others.

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