Jesus often taught on the importance of forgiveness in his personal ministry. Following his model prayer in which He mentions forgiveness as an important petition to the Father, He said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if, you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:12,14,15) Some of our Lord’s parables emphasized the importance of forgiveness. (cf. Matt. 18:21-35) Jesus also exemplified the spirit of forgiveness, even toward those who crucified Him. Some of the most memorable words of the Bible are, “Father, for-give them, for they know not what they do”. (Luke 23:34) What an example for all of us! We hear Stephen, the first Christian martyr, utter similar words in Acts 7:60. Before God will forgive us, we must be willing to forgive others.
God’s forgiveness depends upon our repentance. In Luke’s account of the Great Commission, repentance comes before the remission of sins. (Luke 24:47) Likewise, on the day of Pentecost, Peter’s reply to those who asked what they must do were told to “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.” (Acts 2:38) Since some of them had been guilty of crucifying the Lord fifty days earlier, the implication is that the Lord’s prayer from the cross was answered after they repented. What good would it have done them had God forgiven them without expecting repentance on their part? The same is true in our relationship with Him. Is God unloving when He expects repentance? Is He unmerciful when He makes forgiveness conditional? Certainly not. It is for our good that we repent.
Does God expect us to forgive one another whether repentance is evident or not? Some seem to think He does. But what did Jesus say? “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you , saying I repent, you shall forgive him.” (Luke 17:3,4) Jesus gave the above guideline for exercising forgiveness toward one another. We cannot ignore it. It is based on the condition God has specified.
Certainly, we should never withhold, or desire to withhold, forgiveness toward anyone. But if we forgive others when they show no remorse, nor any sign of repentance, we do them a disservice, as well as violate the Lord’s injunction. How much better it would be to react to them in a way as to bring them to repentance (a change of mind). Feeding one’s enemy can do this. (Rom. 12:20) Blessing those who curse you and do-ing good to those who hate you can do this. (Matt. 5:44) It may take some time; we may have to swallow our pride; we may suffer further abuse, but his soul is worth the effort in the long run. Forgiving him, with-out requiring change on his part, is foreign to the whole of the biblical message.