Does the Bible call us to unilateral forgiveness without repentance?

A couple of days ago, I read an article in The Times titled, ‘Why a refusal to forgive can be the most powerful action of all’ (paywall). The article concerns the sentencing on Brandon Tarrant – the gunman in Christchurch, NZ who targeted two mosques – and the victim impact statements that were given.

Specifically, the writer lands hard on the statement from Ahad Nabi. She notes, ‘As he stood in court, Nabi — a bearded rugby player — unleashed his fury… yet what made his speech even stronger for me was the phrase: “I do not forgive you.”’ The article goes on, ‘You may think that Nabi was wrong to say so. After all, our world teaches us that the strongest people will pardon even those who have committed the worst of crimes.’

It is certainly true that many Christians seem to think this is about right too. The belief seems to be that unilateral forgiveness is something to be offered to all and sundry, regardless of what they have done. But I am not convinced that is the Biblical pattern.

If we really do believe that forgiveness ought to offered unilaterally, what do we make of the fact that God doesn’t do that? If we believe God operates that way, we quickly find ourselves heading down the road of universalism. If Jesus died for everyone, then everyone’s sin has been paid because there is nothing left to punish. If God unilaterally forgives, apart from repentance, then everybody is going to Heaven. But the Bible simply doesn’t say that.

The next stop along the journey of this argument normally heads to the Lord’s prayer. There, Jesus tells his disciples to pray, ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ That, they aver, means unilateral forgiveness for any who sin against us. But, it can’t escape notice that the statement in the Lord’s prayer is a specific request of forgiveness from God on behalf of the one repenting of their sin. If we are still asking God to forgive us ‘just as we forgive those who sin against us’, that suggest that we – mirroring God’s forgiveness – should be ready to forgive any who repent and seek our forgiveness. But that is not a unilateral decision on our part entirely apart from any repentance on the one seeking our forgiveness.

This ties in somewhat with Peter’s question to the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18:15-22. Jesus has been speaking about restoring a wandering brother to the church. Peter immediately follows up on that with another question: so, Jesus, how many times do I need to forgive? Is it as many as (oh, I don’t know, let’s pick a stupidly big number), 7 times? Jesus punctures any sense of superiority Peter might have felt at that moment with his big number by telling him as many as seventy times seven. Most rightly understand Jesus not to be offering the specific legal figure, but to be using a figurative number to say that forgiveness ought to be offered as many times as the person repentantly seeks it.

But what seems clear in these verses is that forgiveness is not automatically given. Matthew 18:15-20 are clear that church discipline is necessary to bring an wandering brother or sister to repentance so that they might be forgiven and restored to the church. Peter’s follow up question doesn’t land on anything close to the claim that Jesus might be suggesting he just unilateral forgive unrepentant people. Peter’s concern – recognising that unilateral forgiveness isn’t what Jesus was insisting upon here (NB: the clear position of the church for those who refuse to repent) – was more to do with the number of times one ought to forgive somebody who is repentant and seeks your forgiveness. The question is pointless if Jesus has insisted that everyone should be unilaterally forgiven regardless of repentance.

The final stop on the unilateral forgiveness argument is usually the cross. OK, they say, what was Jesus doing on the cross when he said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34, CSB). There it is! Isn’t that unilateral forgiveness for unrepentant people?

First, it is worth noticing that Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them’. This is interesting because, elsewhere, Jesus quite happily confers forgiveness himself. For example, Mark 2:10, ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ That followed a pronouncement by Jesus, to a lame man, that his sins had been forgiven. It is notable that Jesus doesn’t offer unilateral forgiveness from the cross himself, but calls upon the Father to forgive. Why would Jesus call on the Father to forgive if he has the authority himself to forgive and, moreover, had been teaching his disciples to unilaterally forgive everybody too?

The other question worth asking here is, who is the ‘them’ to whom Jesus is referring? Is it the Romans? The Jews? Everyone who was standing around? If it is everybody standing around, it would seem the Father didn’t answer Jesus’ prayer either. That would cause us a bit of a problem when it comes to questions about the divine will and the unity of the Godhead.

To avoid those issues of de facto universalism or lack of unity amongst the persons of the trinity, two possible answers arise. Either, Jesus was praying in line with the general gospel call. That is, everybody is called generally and Jesus is asking the Father to forgive in line with that general gospel call, knowing that only those the Father has chosen will ultimately come to him.

The other possibility (and in my view, the more likely solution) is that Jesus is praying specifically that the Father would forgive those responsible for his crucifixion by bringing them to a point of repentance. This does not mean that Jesus’ prayer was thwarted because only those who would repent – those that the Father had given to him – would be forgiven.

Clearly, not everybody responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus repented and was forgiven. There was a soldier who acknowledged Jesus was the Son of God (cf. Mark 15:39). We don’t know if he ultimately repented or not, but the statement was clearly noteworthy enough for two gospel writers to include it in their accounts. But there is a text that is very clear on this whole issue. Peter in Acts 2 preaches specifically to the Jews in Jerusalem and nails their particular sin this way: ‘let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah’ (Acts 2:36, my emphasis). It was that specific point that led, in Acts 2:37-38 to the Jews being cut to the heart, asking what they should do and Peter clearly spelling out that repentance would lead to forgiveness. That forgiveness, apparently, had not already been conferred unilaterally by Jesus on the cross. Peter is clear, it is those who repent who will be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:38). If Jesus was unilaterally forgiving them from the cross, Peter’s comments are moot here. But if Jesus was calling on the Father to bring them to a point of repentance, Acts 2 is the fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer from the cross.

The concept of unilateral forgiveness for the unrepentant, as far as I can see, simply isn’t in the Bible. It isn’t how God confers forgiveness and there is no example of it happening in scripture. Forgiveness requires repentance. To simply say, ‘I forgive you’ when there has been no repentance does very little indeed other than cheapen the idea of forgiveness itself. Funnily enough, I think Ahad Nabi was right to say, ‘I don’t forgive you’ to a man who hasn’t moved one inch toward repentance.

The danger with such a position is that those who are utterly unwilling to forgive suddenly feel emboldened in that choice. So, before we start getting too comfortable with our ungodly attitudes, let’s just look at what the Bible does demand of us, if not unilateral forgiveness.

First, as per the Lord’s prayer we mentioned above, whilst we can’t forgive unless there is repentance, we must always have a posture of willing to forgive when repentance comes. There is a distinct difference between saying, ‘I can’t forgive you because you haven’t repented or asked for it’ and insisting ‘I can’t forgive.’ Those are two very different statements. If the Lord forgives us when we repent, we are to so forgive others when they repent. That means being in a permanent state of willing to forgive if and when repentance is forthcoming.

Second, it does not give us a right to hate the person. Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44) is pretty all encompassing. We may not be able to forgive because the person hasn’t repented, but that doesn’t free us from Jesus’ call to love even unrepentant sinners who want to damage us. We frequently argue that the most loving thing we can do for a person is show them their deepest need of Jesus. We love people best when we point them to the life-saving message of the gospel. Interestingly, as we point them to the gospel – that requires repentance for the forgiveness of sin and salvation in Christ – we similarly model the gospel as we call them to repent of their sin towards us and hold out the promise of forgiveness from us when they do. Regardless of whether we can forgive because they have repented, we are still called to love those who hate us. We love them best by pointing them to Christ and modelling that same gospel to them. That requires us to love the unilaterally, but to reserve our forgiveness for their repentance.

Third, we are not free to remain bitter or resentful. There’s not much getting around Ephesians 4:31: ‘Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice’. We may not be able to do anything to move the person’s heart to repent – and so we can’t necessarily forgive – but we can ensure that any bitterness and anger we may harbour do not gain traction in our own hearts. Hard as that may be, especially in the face of somebody who unrepentantly seeks to harm us, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts to help us do just that. We also have Jesus’ own example. In the face of lies and threats on his life, he did not hate those who hated him. He even prayed for them, as we have seen, on the cross. He sought their good even as they sought his worst. We aren’t free to wallow in anger and bitterness.

So, can we forgive the unrepentant? I don’t think the Bible calls us to do that. But we should always be ready to forgive, when repentance comes, just as God forgave us in Christ. We should still love the unrepentant sinner. We should still hold out the gospel of repentance and forgiveness in Christ to them, modelling that to them in the way we respond. We should not let anger, bitterness of resentment reign in our hearts but should love them, just as Christ loved us even while we were unrepentant sinners too.