Exploring Forgiveness and Repentance

I’ve been writing a little recently about forgiveness. It arises out of our recent studies from the Sermon on the Mount. It also relates to some other things I have written recently about our pastoral responsibilities to victims of abuse and to those accused. So, I was interested to see the other day that my friend Steve Kneale has also been thinking about this subject.

Steve argues here and here that true forgiveness requires repentance.  My aim here is not to debate Steve as I suspect that our pastoral counsel would not differ much but rather it has encouraged me to keep exploring the subject of forgiveness a little bit further.

The main place we meet forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount is in the Lord’s prayer where we are taught to pray

“and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[1]

Forgiveness here is associated with the release from a debt or obligation. Indeed, an underlying theme in the Sermon on the Mount is to do with grace and generosity of spirit so that we keep a loose grip on things but a tight grip on Christ.  If we hold lightly to things then we won’t hold tightly to another’s obligation to us and hold it over them.  There is therefore a specific application here to how believers deal with loans and gifts.

Generosity of spirit is seen in not seeking retaliation but rather in going the extra mile. It is worth remembering that when Jesus tells his followers to forgo the law of retaliation (an eye for an eye), he isn’t overturning some legalistic, blood thirsty rule but a law that was meant to encourage proportionate justice.  A believer can forgo their entitlement to personal justice. They can do that without repentance being present.

However, look again at The Sermon and the refrain that we wish to be forgiven as we forgive, that we should judge by the standard we wish to be treated by and that we should do to others as we wish would be done to us.

You will notice there that there is a level of conditionality it forgiveness. It is not expressed in terms of repentance towards the offended party or creditor but in terms of a pay it forward attitude, do we treat others with the same mercy that we are treated. The famous example of this involves a ma who owed the king billions and was forgiven his debt. He however was owed a few pounds and failed to forgive that. In the parable, the king reverses his decision to show mercy.

Why is this condition in place? Well partly, I think it is to do with whether or not we have truly grasped and learnt to trust in the grace of God. The person who knows he is forgiven and that the heavenly father provides all he needs does not need to pursue after others to collect in the debt.  I want to suggest also that this supports Steve’s argument. You see, how do you know if I’ve repented? Is it when I say sorry? No, properly speaking it is when there is evidence of a change in my behaviour. When I forgive others, I am showing that I am also repentant of my own wrong doing.

I therefore can see no Biblical problem with me choosing to forgive someone their debt or offence to me, with our without repentance. That is primarily about my decision not to hold onto or pursue an issue. However, I would suggest that it is difficult to enjoy the benefits of forgiveness without repentance.


[1] Matthew 6:12.

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