Forgiving the Unrepentant

I have spent the last few days grappling with Mt 18:15-20. The first half of this passage details how we ought to deal with a brother in sin. Jesus appears to say we should try and deal with the issue as privately as possible but, if the brother remains unrepentant, escalate the publicity of the matter – each time with an eye on helping the brother recognise, and repent of, his sin – until it is brought to the attention of the whole church. If repentance is still not forthcoming the individual should be removed from the community of believers.

Given that Matthew places this passage between the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the unforgiving servant, it seems strange that a clear command to put out the unrepentant brother from the community of believers should be included. It is certainly worth noting how Paul views such a removal in 2 Thes 3:14. He appears to say this is not as a punishment but a corrective measure i.e. the aim is to publicly shame an individual into recognising their sin in the hope that this will lead them to repentance. The theory, so far as I can tell, is to exercise some level of discipline on the individual until there is some repentance.

However, this leads to an interesting question. Is it right for us to forgive an unrepentant person? On first reading, in Mt 18:15-20, the issue is less to do with forgiveness and more to do with encouraging repentance. However, Peter’s following question suggests that he saw Jesus’ teaching and the nature of forgiveness as closely entwined. It also appears that Jesus’ words in 18:15b suggest that forgiveness is involved, ‘if he hears you, you have gained your brother’, but this seems to follow the repentance rather than representing an automatic response irrespective of whether the individual acknowledges their sin. 

Similarly, when Paul deals with the issue of forgiveness, he says we should be ‘forgiving… as God in Christ forgave you (Eph 4:32)’. Now, unless one holds a universalist position, it is apparent that God forgives those who are repentant and does not forgive those who are unrepentant. Given this, and the fact that our model of forgiveness is based on God, does this lead us to conclude that – whilst we should always be ready to forgive and such forgiveness should extend to any sin committed against us – forgiveness only extends to the repentant? Or, to put it another way, is it only possible to forgive those who are repentant?

Of course, Jesus’ words in Lk 6:27-38 make it abundantly clear how we are to treat even those who hate us. More to the point, Mt 6:12 and Lk 11:4 suggest our forgiveness should extend to all those who wrong us. More starkly, Jesus goes on in Mt 6:14-15 to state exactly why we should forgive. Nevertheless, the question remains, is Jesus’ instruction intended to be indiscriminate and automatic or is it only applied to the repentant?

In truth, I am not sure I have reached any solid conclusion on this issue. In lieu of a solid conclusion, here are three articles outlining different positions. It is fair to say each of them make valid points and have their merits:

‘Is forgiveness always right and required?’ – Justin Taylor (The Gospel Coalition)

‘Forgiving the Unrepentant’ – RT Kendall (Christianity Today)

‘As we Forgive our Debtors’ – John Piper (Desiring God)

Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment. Should we forgive, and is it even possible to forgive, the unrepentant?