Over the years, I have heard it said more times than I remember: Christians are obligated to forgive unconditionally because we are forgiven unconditionally. And when you forgive, you have to treat the offender as if the offense never happened. For some reason, I have never been able to accept this because it just feels wrong. It feels wrong to ask someone who has been offended to forgive unconditionally and trust their offender. Sometimes it might even be dangerous to do so because if the offender shows no signs of repentance, there is a strong likelihood they will re-offend. But then there is Matthew 6:12,14-15:
In Matthew 6:12, 14-15, we read this: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 14 If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Whenever I question the Christian concept of unconditional forgiveness, pastors often quote Matt 6:12,14-15 to me, telling me that if I dont forgive unconditionally and trust my offender, I will not be forgiven by God. And I must admit, it is rather scary to hear someone in authority whom you trust to know the Bible tells you how you are in danger of losing your salvation if you dont forgive unconditionally. But all of this changed the day I decided to see the entire Bible as being relevant for today and not just the New Testament. This was the day I understood how to forgive and when not to forgive.
In verse 12, Jesus says: Forgive us our debt as we have also forgiven our debtors. So the same way God forgives our sins, are we to forgive those who have sinned against us. How does God forgive us? Jesus, Paul, and all the apostles agree on one thing: God only forgives us when we have repented of our sins. What is repentance? Repentance means you admit you have sinned against God, and you quit it. So if God forgives us on our account of repentance, and we are to forgive in the same way, we are only to forgive those who are repentant. If they refuse to repent, we are under no obligation to forgive them.
How can we know for sure this is what Jesus meant? If we remember, Jesus was a Jew.
Forgiveness in Judaism
Jews believe in forgoing the other’s indebtedness. In Hebrew, this is called mechilah. Mechilah can best be compared to a criminal pardoned by the modern state, the crime remains, but the debt is forgiven. Mechilah is not reconciliation of the heart or even embracing the offender. It is concluding that the offender does not owe me anything for whatever they did.
You are only to offer mechilah when the offender has done repentance. Repentance in Hebrew is called teshuvah. If the offender is not sincere in their repentance or refuses to repent, the offended is under no obligation to offer mechilah.
Forgiveness in Judaism is never about trusting the offender; it is about releasing the debt they have acquired when they hurt you.
We know the Bible says this is how God forgives us: When we repent, we are forgiven. (When we are sincere in our teshuvah, God offers us mechilah). When we repent, God says: You dont owe me anything. But when I have forgiven you, you are obligated to forgive (to offer mechilah) to anyone who has hurt you and repented. If you refuse to offer mechilah when an offender repents, God will refuse to offer mechilah when you repent, and you will not be forgiven. (Matt 6:15)
How do you forgive, according to the Bible?
- You are only obligated to forgive if the offender repents.
- Forgiveness is concluding that the offender does not owe me anything for whatever they did.
- Forgiveness is not reconciliation or embracing the offender.
- If your offender repents, you refuse to conclude that the offender does not owe you anything for whatever they did; God will do the same to you.
What happens if the offender refuses to repent? You are not obligated to forgive. And the opposite of forgiveness (concluding that the offender does not owe you anything) is to decide the offender owes you something. At the same time, we are not allowed to bear grudges. So even though someone might owe you something, you are not allowed to hold a grudge against that individual. So how do you deal with someone who refuses to repent when you can’t hold a grudge?
You hold them accountable for what they did to you, but you refuse the right to stay angry at them. And if they should choose to repent, you are obligated to release their debt. This is where it gets complicated.
When someone offends you, it is difficult to release their debt even if that person repents. As a part of human nature, you desperately want payback and see justice served. But as a Christian, you are not allowed to do so to a person who repents. So how do you manage to release an offender?
Jesus gives us the answer in Luk 7:47. When we understand how we are forgiven on account of our repentance, it is easy to forgive others because of their repentance.
Biblical forgiveness differs from the Christian understanding on two central issues: In Biblical forgiveness, you dont have to trust or embrace the offender; you only have to release their debt. Biblical forgiveness is conditional and only given when our offender repents, the same way we as Christians are forgiven by God when we repent. No repentance= no forgiveness. If you refuse to forgive someone who has hurt you in the past and has repented of it, God will refuse to forgive you even though you have repented.