When Repentance Does Not Precede Forgiveness

Christians have a strong desire (and conviction) to display grace and mercy to everyone–regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. I know that often our convictions don’t match our conduct, but the same could be said of anyone, both Christian and non-Christian. Nonetheless, as Christians, it is our most basic and fundamental conviction–the core of our faith–that we display the same love which Christ has displayed to us (Col 3:13). We know it’s wrong to condemn others, for we’ve been shown an immeasurable amount of grace from God. We believe God sent Christ, not to condemn, but to save (Jn 3:16-17). And so, we desire to live our lives in much the same way. It is our basic, core conviction.

downloadBut one of the troubling trends I have noticed in both my own life and in the life of others is that we’ve grown confused about grace and forgiveness, especially when it comes to how they relate to repentance. I remember hearing a story about a pastor who had preached a timely sermon on divorce and separation. His basic emphasis was that divorce and separation was damaging and harmful to couples and families, and that we ought to do everything in our power to maintain healthy marriages. (Who could argue against that fact?) But when the pastor finished his sermon, as he was standing among his people at the end of the service, he noticed a woman who seemed to have been emotionally impacted by his sermon. Apparently, it was written all over her face. So, he walked up to her and asked how she was doing. She responded by saying, “I’m good, and thank you so very much for your sermon this morning. I really needed to hear that.”

“That’s great,” the pastor said. “Tell me, what did you take from the message?” 

“Well,” she said, “I recently separated from my husband, but now I know I need to go back to him and completely reconcile.”

I recall the pastor saying how he could sense in his spirit that something was not quite right about this whole conversation, so he queried a bit more. “So, why did you leave your husband?”

Her response was shocking: “I left my husband because he was sexually abusing my kids, but because of your sermon, I now realize that I need to go back to him.” As you can imagine, the pastor was floored, and told her that maybe this wouldn’t be such a good idea!

This story illustrates exactly what I’ve observed. Many good-hearted Christians have the wrong assumption that they must accept people back without repentance. Like this young mother, we have grown to feel this is our “Christian duty” to grant forgiveness to an offender without every requiring Godly sorrow on their part. After all, we say, forgiveness is free, right?

Well, no. In fact, this understanding of “forgiveness” is neither biblical nor loving. 

Biblically, forgiveness does not come without repentance. Though it happens every day in a watered-down version of the Gospel, it has nothing to do with biblical Christianity. In Scripture, repentance is constantly associated with forgiveness and inclusion back into fellowship with God and others (Matt 3:2; Luke 13:3; Luke 15:10; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 20:21; Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 7:10). For example, Luke 17:3-4 says, Pay attention to yourselves!If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Did you notice the “if he repents” part? Here forgiveness of one’s offender is dependent upon the repentance of the offender. 

It’s interesting how we don’t do this. I’ve seen good, well-meaning Christians cast the precious pearl of forgiveness before an unrepentant person, who only takes that compassion and tramples all over it. Let me just say as well that I, too, have done this. I’ve always (though wrongly) thought that I should welcome back into full fellowship–all in the name of free grace–a person who neither wants, nor is interested in, expressing Godly sorrow or making things truly right. As a result, my offenders kept offending, never truly changing. I’ve come to learn (the hard way, mind you) that, because I failed to practice Jesus words in Luke 17:3-4, I have allowed myself and others to get needlessly hurt. Because of this, I’ve been left disappointed with myself, thinking that my offenders never changed because I didn’t show them “enough grace” or “enough compassion.” I constantly found myself wondering if I “showed them Jesus enough”; perhaps that’s why they didn’t change. In short, I was the one left feeling guilty! How ironic.

But in some ways, though, it is true that I didn’t show them Jesus, I didn’t show them true love. It is true, I have come to learn, that I didn’t show them “enough compassion.” Here’s how: By not requiring repentance as a condition for a full restoration of relationship between me and my offender, I have actually failed to show my offender true love, biblical grace. This leads me to my second point.

When we don’t make repentance a condition for forgiveness, we are actually failing to show our offender the love of God (contrary to what we may initially think). People who would disagree with me on this issue of requiring Godly repentance for forgiveness often point to verses like Col 3:13, where Paul says, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” But we need to ask ourselves, “How did Christ forgive us?” We rightly point to the cross, the place of atonement. After all, we never asked God to show us this type of love; in fact, it happened before all of us modern Christians were even born! It was pre-emptive love. Yes, but let’s prod further. We all believe that Christ’s death on the cross, while it remains completely sufficient for all and came prior to our repentance, is only applied and its forgiving power only actualized when we express faith and repentance. Jesus died for the world, yes, but that doesn’t mean that the entire world will be saved (see Jn 1:29; Lk 13:3). A person must want it, otherwise, God won’t give it. Therefore, we need to understand Col 3:13 within the context of the full testimony of Scripture. We ought to forgive “as the Lord has forgiven” us, but we need to remember that our forgiveness came through faith and repentance. So we, too, should require repentance, an act of good faith, on the part of our offender if we are to follow Col 3:13 properly. 

It’s interesting because when we don’t require repentance and sincere sorrow on the part of our offender, we actually do more harm toward them than the good we intend. After all, how is it loving to grant forgiveness–full inclusion back into fellowship–to someone who isn’t actually sorry for their offense? It isn’t. In fact, more often than not, it only enables their ungodly behavior. When we grant full fellowship back to a person who has willfully broken it, and when we do this apart from their repentance and sorrow, what we are really doing is giving them the benefits of grace without ever really showing them grace. How is this loving? As said, this typically only leads to a repeat of the offense in the future. Trust hasn’t ever been earned back, because the offender has never been told that they need to earn it back. Instead, trust is given flippantly. We’ve cheapened grace, like casting precious pearls before swine. And all this is a huge disservice to our offender. 

I truly believe that part of God’s grace and love toward sinful people is allowing them to repent. In fact, this is very Scriptural, for repentance is depicted as a gift from God (Acts 11:18). By requiring repentance as a condition for forgiveness, we are actually showing our offender grace because it prods them toward God through Godly sorrow, which is what they really need. When they come to see how their sin has destroyed sacred trust and how their actions have harmed the relationship, our prayer should be that they grow sorrowful and express that sorrow first to God and then to us. When they do this, we ought to forgive them. And lavishly! When repentance happens–and only when it happens–can fellowship be truly restored. After all, we’ve let them see the damage they have done, and we’ve let them make restitution. This is grace.

Let’s caution ourselves here. We need to remember that this is not an “us vs. them” scenario, for we are all offenders. And I thank God that he has shown me (and continues to do so!) where I have offended him (as well as others) and allows me to express that sorrow and turn from my sin. And when I do this–when I confess and forsake my sins–I can be absolutely sure that his forgiveness will be given (Prov 28:13; 1 Jn 1:9). 

More needs to be said about this subject, so stay tuned!