Is Forgiveness Unconditional?
God’s love is unconditional but does the Bible teach God’s forgiveness is unconditional? I write with some trepidation of being misunderstood. God’s grace and forgiveness is at the very core of His character. It seems current advice or sermons on forgiveness are directed toward victims and the guilty are neither admitting nor confessing their sins. Doesn’t it take two to tango for there to be genuine forgiveness?
God always forgives those who seek His forgiveness. But, passages such as Joshua 24:19-20 say God sometimes is not forgiving: “…He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins.” The good news is the Israelites did repent of ways harmful to themselves and others and God forgave them. [vs.23-24] Matthew 6:14 says God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon giving forgiveness: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Luke 17:3-4 states forgiveness is for those that admit wrongdoing and seek forgiveness. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them. If they sin against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
One is hard press to find any biblical passage which indicates God forgives those who don’t repent, or that God commands His followers to forgive those who don’t seek forgiveness. It is almost nonsensical to consider forgiveness if it is not being sought. Easy forgiveness may not encourage necessary change by the sinner, who continues to prey on other victims. Matthew 18 advices when a brother or sister sins against us: “Go and point out the fault…if they will not listen, take one or two others along with you… If they refuse to listen, treat them as you would a pagan or tax collector.” This passage doesn’t say to go ahead and forgive your brother or sister in Christ anyway. One might ask Why would God ask us to do something He doesn’t Himself – forgive the unrepentant?
What about Jesus’ and Stephens’ forgiveness of their persecutors? Acts 7: 59 says: “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” Jesus said in Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing….” These were extraordinary circumstances as both were preparing to enter God’s presence. They were forgiving spiritual blindness, which their persecutors neither confessed nor recognized. Some behaviors seem less willful and more due to spiritual ignorance at times. This is not the case of parents who abuse their children and deny any wrongdoing or individuals such as Hitler who killed simply because of the family you were born into.
The guilty must recognize how their selfishness is ruining their lives and lives of others. Starting a confession with “I acted this way because…” is not a confession. The Christian victim may be haunted with thoughts whether they must forgive their violator, sometimes at the urging of others, even though the violator doesn’t seek forgiveness. The challenge for victims, when forgiveness is not sought, may not be to focus on forgiveness. The Bible doesn’t say God forgives always or advise Christians must forgive after no longer fellowshipping with their siblings in Christ. (i.e. Matt 18:15-20) The challenge is to not take revenge. God is better able to handle revenge without being vindictive. We must not allow bitterness to rule or interfere with life on a daily basis. It serves no purpose to allow another person’s sins to continue to hold one hostage.
It can be a personal choice whether one chooses to forgive an unrepentant person or not. It can be understood reconciliation is not possible until the guilty party seeks forgiveness by repenting. I simply believe the guilty must understand the severity of their actions and necessary changes for current and future relationships.
Christians are encouraged to forgive those who genuinely regret their actions. Who of us has not sinned? Reconciliation is not possible without forgiveness. It is the very heart of the gospel and essence of God. People often only experience what God is like when they are forgiven though undeserving. One cannot always earn forgiveness. One cannot payback what they have taken from someone (i.e. childhood with appropriate parental love, sexual oneness in marriage). Forgiveness may not be instant. Genuineness is proven by actions as well as words. Christians don’t forgive because others deserve it; Christians forgive because God forgives us. We certainly did nothing to earn or deserve His grace, but confession is an integral aspect of how we receive God’s grace.