Conditional Forgiveness

Many assume that Jesus commands his followers to blindly forgive, freely forget whatever offense might have occurred, and unconditionally reconcile even with those who show no signs of remorse for what they have done to hurt or offend us. That is not what Jesus said…

Read: Luke 17

“If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive.”   (Luke 17:3, NLT)

There are two extremes when it comes to forgiveness: On the one hand, we fail to practice it far too often. We conveniently and creatively bypass Scripture’s teaching on this matter so easily that it must grieve the Father’s heart. And this unwillingness to extend forgiveness is such a huge problem in the family of God today, since Jesus tied our forgiveness of others to the Father’s forgiveness of us.

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 5:14-15, NLT)

An unfortunately large number of “believers” will be surprised when they stand before the Great Forgiver and he informs them that the pardon of transgressions they hoped for had been held up because of their own unwillingness to let go of anger, bitterness, resentment, and hurt long enough to extend the hand of reconciliation to someone who had offended them. Jesus is pretty clear about the matter: You don’t forgive others, God can’t forgive you! For that reason, if you are like me, you need to practice forgiveness early and often.

On the other hand, we fail to properly understand forgiveness far too often. That is an extreme as well.  Many assume that Jesus is commanding his followers to blindly forgive, freely forget whatever offense might have occurred, and unconditionally reconcile even with those who show no signs of remorse for what they have done to hurt or offend us.  That is not what Jesus said.

Did you notice a very big condition that Jesus attached to this forgiveness directive?  “If” a brother sins, “then” when there is repentance, forgive him.  We need to be ready to forgive, willing to forgive, generous in forgiving—even if it is seven times for the same thing in the same day, we are called to forgive offenses (Luke 17:4, NLT)—but only if there is repentance.

God himself doesn’t dole out forgiveness unconditionally.  He is willing to, but his hands are tied if the offender doesn’t acknowledge their sin, feel authentic contrition in their heart, and offer the fruit of repentance (a change of mind and a change of direction) in their behavior. (Matthew 3:8, NLT, Acts 2:38, NLT)
To forgive, forget and reconcile with an unrepentant person is to go beyond what God, himself does. Now in that, there is yet another extreme into which Christians can fall:  Withholding forgiveness until proper repentance is expressed for every little thing that rubs them the wrong way.  My advice to you, if you are guilty of that:  Don’t be ridiculous.  Not everything that gets under your skin falls into the category of a moral offense—so grow some thicker skin and exercise a lot of grace, my friend!

Jesus is calling his followers to a balanced understanding and a generous commitment to the practice of forgiveness.  It is the lifeblood of his kingdom, and when it flows rightly and freely from your life, it is your calling card into the throne room of your gracious and forgiving Father.

What If God Took Over?
Who do you need for forgive?  I think you know what to do!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “Conditional Forgiveness

  1. First I want to say thank you for your blog posts! I read them often, although this is my first time commenting.

    I definitely track with most of this, but it seems extremely dangerous to recommend forgiveness ONLY in the case that someone repents. Much is made of the phrase "if there is repentance" in Luke 17:3, but I see no such caveat in the Matthew passage (actually 6:14-15). I think we must look to the example of Jesus, such as when he asked God to forgive the men participating in His death UNconditionally, without first waiting for them to repent (Luke 23).

    It's important to evaluate things (especially concerning salvation/eternity) by asking the 'what if this is wrong?' question. What if we're supposed to forgive others ONLY conditionally, but we instead forgive UNconditionally? If that were the case, we would exceed the law and be safe. Conversely, what if we are supposed to forgive UNconditionally, yet forgive ONLY conditionally? In that case we would fall short of God's command and, in light of Matthew 6, likely be in eternal danger. To forgive unconditionally is CLEARLY the safer alternative, as it is the only option which will satisfy both scenarios.

    It seems a shaky proposition to propose that it is possible to forgive more than God, which is what the post seems to suggest ("God himself doesn’t dole out forgiveness unconditionally."). Perhaps it is that God has already forgiven, but it simply does us no good until we receive it and apply it to our lives?

    Forgiveness only requires action by one party, although reconciliation requires action by both/all. I'd certainly agree that the premise of the conditional should be applied to reconciliation, as relationship cannot be restored without repentance. However, to apply it to forgiveness may be stretching it dangerously far.

    On a more personal note, I've experienced the power of forgiving others who have never (as far as I know) repented. Unforgiveness festers in the soul and is among the most powerful forces the enemy uses to keep me from the abundant life that God holds out for me (and others). The peace of unconditionally forgiving those who have wronged me (or you) simply must be lived to be understood.

    I've heard it said that 'forgiving others is unlocking a prison door and setting free the captive, only to realize that the prisoner was us.'

    "Unconditionally reconcile"?

    "Freely forget" and "blindly forgive"?
    My heart longs for that to be possible!

    So what can be done?

    I will forgive with my eyes wide open, praying that the memory of every hurt fades quickly in His time.
    I will pray that one day, the many who have wronged me will join in the effort to restore our damaged relationship(s).
    I will seek forgiveness for the many times I have hurt others, both with them and God.

    • Thanks for your well thought out response. You have given a great deal for us all to think about–in a very gracious way. Forgiveness seems to be the first step that God requires us to make. Reconciliation and restoration, in many cases, seem to be dependent the response of the other person.

  2. This blog is silly Do you really think Jesus' words before the cross, in Matthew 5:14-15 are intended for the New Covenant believer? If you do, I have some oceanfront property in Wyoming to sell you … Gang, the cross changed the playing field. Jesus didn't die for every sin but unforgiveness! He has forgiven all past, present and future sins, even the sin of holding grudges. We forgive others now because it's our nature (II Peter 1:4) to forgive, and because we have been forgiven much. To suggest that Jesus will withhold forgiveness from us because we may be holding a grudge is just bad theology. What Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 4:14-15 was law-based, as he was speaking PRIOR to the cross, to unregenerate Jews who thought they were pretty good. Jesus was holding the bar up, showing them how far from the mark they were. The Sermon on the Mount is NOT for New Covenant believers to try to live up to—-the point of the SOM is that we CANNOT live up to it. That's why we need(ed) a savior. Let's rightly divide the word, and not put others in bondage with false teaching.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts–although they're a bit on the graceless side. So what you are suggesting is that the Sermon on the Mount is irrelevant for new covenant believers? We are to forget the Lord's Prayer…we're not really the salt of the earth and the light of the world after all…this whole business about seeking first the kingdom isn't for us after all? Hmmm! I couldn't disagree more. I think Jesus meant what he said and said what he meant when he talked about un-forgiveness blocking the flow of the Father's grace toward his children. How he will handle that with those who will not forgive is beyond my understanding, but it sounds like it is a pretty serious thing.

  3. When we talk about Christian forgiveness, it is on two entirely different dimensions that we are speaking of. They do somehow melt together, though. Firstly, there is the personal forgiveness of transgressions committed against us, or those things which have offend us, personal or otherwise, even though they may or may not be actual moral transgressions. These affect our relationships with others, as well as our relationship with God. Then there is God’s forgiveness. This is harder to grasp. We still have the attitude of the Pharisees, who said: “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Yet this is the most important level of forgiveness in our Christian walk. Our mission is to preach and to forgive men of their sins, reconciling them to God. “Whoever’s sins you remit, they are remitted; and whoever’s you retain, they are retained.”

    One might note that while it is our moral imperative to keep past hurts from festering in our hearts (which may easily become hate) by forgiving from our hearts, but it is our choice whether or not to remit, forgive, people’s sins against God. Freely we have been given.

    We should all remember that God is the God of recompense. Angels may testify that every sin should receive its due. That is even pleasing enough to us. We want others to get their just desserts. Yet God says our ways are not equal. He will reward our ways upon us! Only he can do this. Only he truly knows us. We may think we know others, and what is in their hearts, but we do not. We do not even know ourselves. Even Satan, himself, who has more insight than we do into our lives, does not know. If he did, he would not have unsuccessfully attempted to provoke either Job or Jesus Christ into sinful acts.

    God is the God of recompense. If a man turns from his evil ways, and does those things which are lawful and right, then he shall live. This means he has entered into life, which was the promise of the law, fulfilled in Christ Jesus. His old ways are dead. God will give him in accordance with his new ways. The old shall not be remembered, as they died and were buried with Christ. But blessed is the man whom his lord shall find him so doing when he returns. For all shall be repaid according to their own ways. This is the blessing and the curse.

    Because of this law, if we truly forgive others in our hearts of all their transgressions against us, God must also forgive us of our sins against him. As are all absolutes, this is impossible for us to actually do. So we fall in the gray zone. As we forgive others, we shall be forgiven. But if you do not forgive others, God cannot forgive you! This is because your way is unforgiveness.

    So while we practice some level of discernment in remitting sins, yet turning no one aside, let us practice continual forgiveness from our hearts, as much as every person is able, lest sin fester in those open wounds and produce fruit for which we shall be recompensed. Hatred is only anger kept.

    • A word here about anger, bitterness and resentment. These are normal human emotions, as normal as happiness and joy. Expressing them is also normal. Our emotions are not necessarily a barometer of our emotional and spiritual health. Spiritual healing is a life long thing. The goal is not to squelch all anger and resentment but to embrace them and learn from them. One may have anger and commit sin. Another may have anger and grow by it. Forgiveness is not the antidote for what ails you. People will use words like forgiveness, acceptance, reconciliation and cloud them all together. In this context acceptance is accepting that which you can not change. Reconciliation is healing of relationship. And forgiveness requires repentance. When we broaden the meaning of forgiveness we weaken its meaning. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that the only way to heal from anger and bitterness is by forgiving. Suppose a tree falls on your car while driving in a storm and your wife or husband is killed and you are overcome with anger and bitterness because of your loss. Are you required to forgive the tree for the sin that it committed against you?