Introduction: Forgiveness and reconciliation are taught throughout the entire Bible. There are over 100 references teaching about this concept along with many differing opinions. This makes forgiveness an important topic to discuss.
(5) I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:5 ESV)
The first thing we need to understand about forgiveness is that it applies not only to people, but God Himself. Whenever we disobey God, our relationship is hurt. If we continue to rebel without repenting of our sin and seeking forgiveness, our communication with God is fractured.
This psalm makes it clear that forgiveness begins with an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. The psalmist declares that he sinned against God. When he confessed this sin, the Lord forgave his iniquity. Therefore, forgiveness is a two-way system–it is conditional upon the person repenting or making restitution to the one offended.
For example, if someone gossips about you, they have committed a sin against you. Now, they have the opportunity to repent of gossiping, confess it to you, and ask for forgiveness. If they do so, you as a Christian have an obligation to grant them forgiveness every time.
However, if the person continues to gossip and refuses to stop, they are not repenting. Since they are not repenting, your relationship with them can’t be restored. How can you restore a relationship with someone who habitually gossips about you to others? Even if you decide to unconditionally “forgive them” in your heart so you don’t become bitter, it still doesn’t change the fact that they are sinning against you.
I want to be clear that forgiveness is not just an emotional idea. Forgiveness is contractual, relational, and binding upon more than one party. Oftentimes, forgiveness is presented as this emotional state where you should just forgive, even if the person refuses to do so. Like I said before, you can forgive in the heart, but forgiveness deals with restoration. How can you be restored to an unrepentant offender?
This may sound shocking, but Christian forgiveness is conditional. Yes, I know while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Yes, I understand that He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might receive the righteousness of God. I understand the notion of unlimited forgiveness. And I absolutely agree. We should always be willing to forgive, no matter what!
But keep in mind, God doesn’t forgive everybody. Otherwise, there would be no Hell. If God granted forgiveness to unrepentant sinners, this would lead to universalism–the notion that all people will end up being saved. But this is not a biblical concept. Let me explain.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1: 9 ESV)
This verse states that if we confess our sins, then God will forgive us of our sins. The sentence structure here is conditional. There must be an action from us to be sorrowful over our sins. The Bible teaches that godly sorrow leads to repentance and salvation, but worldly sorrow leads to death. Therefore, only when we acknowledge and confess our wrongdoing will God forgive, purify, and restore us.
Theologians who argue for unconditional forgiveness often cite this verse, but it needs to be understood in it’s proper context. Let’s read it together and analyze what Scripture is teaching.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21 ESV)
Peter thinks there is a limit to the amount of times we should forgive others. Jesus makes it clear that we should forgive anytime someone asks for it. Forgiveness is unlimited here, but it is not unconditional.
The context of Matthew 18 makes it clear. In this story, there was a king who forgave one of His servants. This servant was not able to pay the king back. The servant pleaded with the king to be patient until he could get the money. The king was gracious and decided to cancel the debt and let him go.
When that servant was forgiven, there was another person who owed that same servant money. Unfortunately, the servant was not kind and gracious towards the man like the king was to him. He was impatient and punished the man who owed him money, even though the man said the same thing: “Please be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
This last statement is important because it shows one who is willing to repent. The man was going to pay the king and servant back, but he just needed some time to do so. Likewise, we may not be able to pay our sin debt; for it is too great. However, if we plead with God and repent to our best effort, God will still forgive us. Our righteousness is not found in what we do, but it’s found in trusting in Jesus.
So, this story does show a heart of repentance. The story illustrates how Christians should be unlimited in how often they should forgive. Anytime someone asks, we should forgive. But this doesn’t mean forgiveness is unconditional. It doesn’t say: “The servant refused to pay the money back, but the king decided to forgive him anyway.”
This is an important point. It’s the attitude that matters here. If we don’t repent of our sins, if there is no desire, no turning from wrongdoing, God is not obligated to forgive us. In fact, he can’t. Our free will restricts us from receiving the pardon God wants to give us.
I believe God desires to extend His mercy and grace to all. In John 3:16, God makes it clear He died for the sins of the whole world. I believe that He died not just for the elect, but for everyone. However, not everyone is forgiven because it requires restoration. Restoration can’t happen without both parties agreeing to the contract.