Forgiveness, reconciliation and why forgiving the repentant is just

Yesterday, I published an article about forgiveness without repentance. I asked the question whether the Bible insists that we forgive people who haven’t repented (TL:DR – it doesn’t). You can read the full post here.

Somebody on my Facebook asked whether it might be helpful to do a follow up post based on what forgiveness is and the difference between it and reconciliation. Given how the discussion on Twitter unfolded – broadly in agreement with the position I outlined in the earlier post, with some who vehemently disagreed – it seems like that probably was a good idea. So, here it is.

So, to reiterate, scripture does not demand unilateral forgiveness when there is no repentance forthcoming. You can read the previous post to see how I get to that Biblically. But, if there is no repentance, the Bible does not demand your forgiveness for that person.

It bears saying, at this point, just what forgiveness is. RC Sproul does a helpful job of explaining here:

At heart, then, forgiveness is to say that I count this sin against you no longer. That is, I will not hold it against you and I will not seek further redress for the issue if your repentance is genuine.

This is different to reconciliation. Forgiveness is fundamentally about not holding sin against somebody anymore and considering whatever debt there was to have been cancelled. Reconciliation is more concerned with restoring a broken relationship.

Consider, for example, if you tell lies to me. When you repent, I may forgive you for your lies. I won’t count those lies against you anymore. However, reconciliation is concerned with restoring the relationship that has been broken through those lies. Though forgiveness may be immediate and the sin no longer held against you, reconciliation will be a longer process because it will take time to restore trust again. One can forgive upon repentance without reconciliation necessarily having fully taken place. However, it should be the case that reconciliation should always be the goal when forgiveness is conferred.

It should also be remembered that whenever somebody sins against another person, there are always at least two injured parties: the victim and the Lord. In some instances, the law (or the State) may also have been broken. It is important to recognise that each injured party is responsible for their own forgiveness. I cannot forgive on behalf of the state and the state cannot forgive on behalf of God. Each party is responsible for their own forgiveness.

This means, although I may forgive somebody for injuring me, the state may still seek redress for the injury they have incurred. So, for example, somebody who has committed murder may well be genuinely repentant and the family of the victim may – with the Lord’s help – recognise that repentance and offer them their forgiveness. Whilst the family have forgiven, they cannot forgive on behalf of the state and justice will still need to be enacted. The family’s forgiveness does not stop state justice and nor does it negate the fact that the Lord will also enact justice for the injury he has incurred.

Somebody might object that it is eminently unfair for a victim of abuse (for example) to forgive an abuser when justice has not been forthcoming. However, this only becomes an issue on the false view that one must forgive even impenitent people. If we consider that the Lord only expects us to forgive repentant people, this is not an issue. If the person is not repentant, their sin is still rightly counted against them. But if the person is truly repentant, they will place themselves in a position in which justice will be done. Repentant people admit wrongdoing, they seek justice and redress for victims. What this means, in the case of abuse, is that the abuser can receive no forgiveness if it is not sought but they can be forgiven when they repent, which will be evidenced by their own admissions of wrongdoing and actions that seek to redress the wrong that has been done. Such redress will include submitting themselves to the relevant authorities, admitting what they have done and accepting the relevant consequences.

Zacchaeus provides us with a good model of what true repentance looks like. A man who had stolen from others admitted his sin – against God and against those he had wronged – and sought to redress his theft by paying back what he had stolen four-fold. Zacchaeus was prepared to admit his wrong and seek to redress the problem at great personal cost. That is what true repentance should look like.

This is why there should be no trouble in our offering forgiveness to those who are truly repentant. Those who have repented will seek to redress the wrong and submit themselves to proper justice. This is also why the unbiblical view of unilateral forgiveness for all people regardless of their repentance is so damaging because it is an affront to natural justice and, worse, God’s understanding of justice. But granting forgiveness to the repentance is just because the truly repentant will have sought to redress their sin. There is no need for the one offering forgiveness to hold onto the sin because justice – in the truest sense – will have been done. The one who denies that justice matters – and is unwilling to submit to what would be just – has not truly repented at all.