Is forgiveness unconditional? No, not if you are keeping with the actual teaching of Scripture. The Bible neither presents to us a picture of forgiveness as unconditional nor does it call us to such a thing. And, yes, I realize that what I have just written goes completely against what is often taught.
First, let’s talk about what unconditional forgiveness means. The concept of an unconditional forgiveness is not found in Scripture, but is, rather, a product of modern psychology. The call is for you, if you have been hurt by another, not to allow that hurt to dominate you. So, you, by an internal act of your will, choose to forgive rather than to be eaten up with a desire for revenge. This choice on your part is not at all necessary for you to communicate to another. It is simply what you do, unilaterally, internally, in order to live in a state of mental health.
Often, in this discussion, proponents of an unconditional, unilateral forgiveness will cite Scripture verses that threaten the judgment of God on those who will not forgive. One such example is the parable of the unforgiving servant at the end of Matthew 18. There we see that a man unwilling to forgive another is in danger of hell itself.
Matthew 18:35 – “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
On the surface, this looks to uphold the idea of internal, unilateral, unconditional forgiveness. But, let’s go deeper into Scripture to think this through. Another commonly repeated phrase in Scripture is that we are called to forgive others as the Lord forgave us .
Ephesians 4:32 – Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Colossians 3:13 – bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
How are we forgiven by God? Is our forgiveness something God just does, unconditionally, unilaterally, with no requirement on the part of the one forgiven? No, it is not. Christ commands that we repent and believe to be saved; that is how we are forgiven. No person is going to be saved without a willingness to confess their sin, turn from their sin, and seek the grace of God through the finished work of Christ. The only sins that God forgives are those covered by the blood of Christ. The way that we have that blood applied to our lives is by God’s grace, yes, but through saving faith. Faith and repentance come before the process of our forgiveness is completed.
But even if this picture does not work for you, consider the Matthew passage in its context. Yes, at the end of the chapter, Jesus commanded that we forgive our brother from our heart if we do not want God to judge us. But in the very same context, just a couple paragraphs earlier, Jesus made it clear that forgiveness is not automatic and unilateral.
Matthew 18:15-17 – 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Note that, in this passage, Jesus did not command immediate, internal, unilateral, unconditional forgiveness. Instead, he commanded a process of confrontation seeking repentance that could then lead to restoration. Jesus did not say, “If your brother sins against you, just forgive.” Instead, Jesus said to go, confront him, and seek reconciliation. If he will not repent, Jesus does not say to just forgive in your heart anyway. Instead, Jesus says to bring witnesses to help resolve the issue. Jesus even points to formal church discipline and the removal of an unrepentant sinner from the fellowship. This is not unconditional forgiveness by any measure.
When we think of forgiveness, I believe that there is a wisdom in us thinking of forgiveness from two dimensions—I’ll call them vertical and horizontal. The vertical dimension is how I think of another person between myself and the Lord. As I stand before God, I know that I too am a sinner. I know that I have done things to offend an infinitely holy God. Thus, I am more guilty before God of sin than any other person is guilty before me. And thus, before the Lord, I can declare a willingness to extend forgiveness to one who has hurt me. Before the Lord, I can declare that I am not better than the one who has hurt me. And before the Lord, I can make a decision to not allow myself to be eaten up with a desire for personal retribution or revenge. I can know that the just and sovereign God will handle all rightly by the time eternity arrives.
But, on the horizontal dimension, between myself and the one who has wronged me, I do not, in a situation of a significant wrong, simply declare them forgiven. That is not God’s command. Instead, I show them where I have been hurt. I tell them that I am willing to forgive. But that forgiveness, the transaction that puts the situation to rest and restores our relationship, is based on their willingness to repent—owning responsibility for their wrong and desiring to turn from it. No, we dare not require perfect repentance on another person’s behalf. After all, how perfect is your own repentance before the Lord? But we do not magnify the gospel at all if we grant forgiveness to one who refuses to admit a wrong, who refuses to turn from a wrong, and who would willingly continue to do that wrong.
In truth, forgiveness is a complicated issue. I happily recommend to people that they read Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns in order to dig in here. But for our purposes today, I simply want to remind us that biblical forgiveness is far greater than unconditional. Biblical forgiveness is you extending an offer of grace to me because you have been forgiven by Christ. Biblical forgiveness is not you automatically ignoring my sin. Instead, biblical forgiveness is you helping me to become more like Christ as I repent of my wrong and turn from it. Biblical forgiveness is you restoring our relationship because you have, upon my repentance, chosen to put away your right to seek revenge. Biblical forgiveness looks like the gospel.