Over the past year or so, I have found myself in several discussions where the question will be posed, "What is forgiveness?" The individual who initially raised the question will then proceed to demonstrate that forgiveness is not required of a Christian until repentance occurs first. The reasoning goes like this: The Bible says we are to extend forgiveness to others, just as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). This naturally inspires a follow-up question, How has God forgiven us? The response is, He forgives us when we repent. Of course, we should always be ready and willing to forgive, but we do not actually extend forgiveness until the other party repents. We don't hold a grudge against that person, but that is not the same thing as forgiveness. Only when true repentance takes place can true forgiveness really happen.
If you have ever been exposed to this definition of forgiveness, please know that this is not biblical.
First, the reasoning of "how has God forgiven me?" has already presented itself as flawed the moment we attempt to answer the question with "when". When and how address two completely separate issues. When addresses the issue of timing -- the sequencing or the order in which a thing occurs. How addresses the means by which an action is accomplished. To answer "How does God forgive me?" with, "When I repent" is to evade the real question being asked. Even if this were an appropriate response, it would still be incorrect from a reformed perspective. According to reformed theology, we do not initiate anything. God forgave us first. He did not wait for us to repent. The Bible says Christ died for us while we were yet his enemies (Romans 5:8). We respond as a result of irresistible grace. So in response to the question of when does God forgive, it's not when I repent. It has already happened before I've even realized that I sinned.
So on to the real question: How does God forgive? Let's look at the verse that sparked the question in the first place:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:23).
According to the context, we are clearly told how God forgives: with kindness and tenderheartedness. This is how we forgive someone. We love them. We are not angry, or judgmental, or rude (see 1 Corinthians 13). The context of this passage tells us we are to forgive in a loving manner. There are no exceptions.
But what about those scriptures that seem to say that we are not to forgive unless someone first repents? For instance:
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, (Luke 17:3).
It certainly does appear that we are only to forgive on the condition that the other person repents first. But remember, the chapters and verses are not inspired. They are not Scripture. Only the words are inspired. In order to understand what the Lord is saying, you must read His complete thought:
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him. (Luke 17:3-4).
Now we all know that someone who is going to repeat a sin seven times in one day and just arbitrarily says, "I repent" is not very repentant at all! But what Jesus is saying here is, "Whether the person is repentant or not, you have two choices: forgive, or forgive." It's not so much a conditional as it is a command. Forgiveness is not optional.
So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness means you relieve the other person of a debt -- they no longer owe you anything to compensate you for the damage they did. You do not become angry with the sinner any more. You do not continually play the scene over and over in your head. You do not hold it against the person. We are to forgive as God forgives: completely. The Bible says, "as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." We are to remove that sin from our memory as well. This can be very difficult when the person continues to sin against us. This is one of the reasons I believe we are told to avoid people who do not repent. Their repetitive sinful actions against us will eventually wear us down and drain us of our love for them. It is markedly more difficult to forgive a person when the wound is fresh. By separating from a person who will not repent, we are protecting that person from sinning against us further. We are also protecting that person from our own anger and unforgiveness.
This is especially applicable when the offender has committed an unusually heinous sin. The final objection to forgiveness is presented along these lines. For example, what if the person sexually abused you as a child? What if they never said they were sorry? What does God expect of you in a case like this?
Well, here are your choices, according to the Bible: 1) Forgive that person; or 2) Forgive that person. The severity of the sin does not matter. You are commanded to forgive. Situations like this make it very, very tempting to justify unforgiveness by manipulating the Scriptures so that they read the way we want them to read: "If he repents, then forgive him." We may even say, "How can God expect me to forgive this person when his sin is so great?" There is nothing people have done to you that you haven't done to God one hundred times worse.
Let's put this into perspective. Whatever that person did to you, they sinned against another sinner. But you sinned against a Holy God. Which sin is worse? If I step on a bug, it will go completely unnoticed. If I kill a dog, I may have some explaining to do. If I kill a homeless man, I'll probably be prosecuted for it. If I kill the President of the United States, I'll get locked up for a long time. Reader, you killed Jesus Christ. What do you think He'll say when you look Him in the eye one day and tell Him you couldn't forgive that other person because they _________ (fill in the blank)?
There is nothing people have done to you that you haven't done to God one hundred times worse. God forgave you. So you should forgive your brother, just as God forgave you.
Is there someone in your life that you have not forgiven? Consider your choices as outlined in Luke 17:3-4. You can forgive, or you can forgive. You have no other options. If you haven't forgiven someone, remember, unforgiveness is a sin in itself. You may have some repenting of your own to do.