Answer: The Bible speaks of two kinds of forgiveness—human forgiveness, that of people extending forgiveness towards others, and divine forgiveness, God’s forgiving human beings. Is there a difference? God’s forgiveness is conditional upon repentance, but as we’ll see, our forgiveness is neither conditional on being asked for it, nor on seeing fruits of repentance.
The Bible teaches us that God withholds forgiveness towards people who are not repentant (2 Kings 24:4 and Lamentations 3:42). God is able to do this because of His very nature: He is sinless. He is perfect. He is holy. He simply will not tolerate sin. Paul warns those who choose to transgress God’s law in Romans 2:5, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” But there are also times in the Old Testament when God forgave those who did not seek His mercy and forgiveness. He did so for His own purposes and in accordance with His perfect will.
As Christians we are certainly obligated to forgive others who sin against us when they are repentant if we are to expect God to forgive us when we sin against Him (Matthew 6:14-15, 18:23-35; Mark 11:25, Luke 17:3-4, Ephesians 4:31-32, Colossians 3:13). This holds true even if someone sins against us repeatedly (Matthew 18:21-22). However, this does not give us license to withhold forgiveness in the same way. The key to remember is this: God can judge a person’s intentions because He knows what’s in a person’s heart (1 Samuel 16:7; Hebrews 4:12-13), whereas we don’t. We are not God. We are not the Judge. For us to play God by refusing to offer forgiveness is an act of judgment on our part, and Jesus tells us that God will judge us according to the way we’ve judged others (Matthew 7:2).
When Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone, Jesus answered that we must forgive as many times as necessary. Then He illustrated forgiveness with a parable about a man who, although forgiven by his master of an overwhelming debt, refused to forgive another for a meager debt. When this man’s master heard about his ingratitude and injustice, he was outraged and had him thrown to the tormentors. “This is how My heavenly Father will treat each one of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
Surely, by receiving such a massive pardon, we should not be so mean-spirited as to withhold forgiveness from others. Rather, we should emulate the example of our Savior. In truth, offering forgiveness is an act of will, and failure to acknowledge this will only encourage us to justify our own disobedience. Forgiveness is not a fruit that needs time to grow in our lives. It is not a result of some special encounter with God. Jesus makes that clear in Luke 17:4 when He commands that if someone sins against another seven times in one day and repents as many times, that person should be forgiven. Forgiving someone for the same offense several times in one year would be a major test of sanctification, so seven times in one day drives Jesus’ point home. The disciples were so staggered by this that they immediately requested an increase in their faith (Luke 17:5). Jesus then told them what such a tiny amount of faith can achieve by explaining that a servant does not receive praise for carrying out orders—for simply doing his duty. He’s telling us that we do not need great faith to forgive, but only to choose to carry out the Master’s instruction.
Remember, it was Jesus who cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Stephen asked that those who were stoning him be forgiven (Acts 7:60). In both cases, forgiveness was unconditional. Those around the cross were not asking for forgiveness, and neither were those stoning Stephen. And, obviously, someone who sins against us seven times in one day is not demonstrating fruits of repentance. By emulating Jesus and Stephen, the action of extending forgiveness releases us and allows us to receive forgiveness. To wait until we are asked may mean we never get an opportunity to forgive and would also prevent us from being forgiven. In all this we must realize that God never asks us to do the impossible. Were it beyond our ability to forgive from the heart, Jesus would never have directed us to do it.
But what if there is no indication of repentance? The law given to ancient Israel is akin to the New Testament teaching: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:17-18). An unforgiving spirit leads to bitterness, anger, and seething resentment against another. Such a heart attitude cannot have true fellowship with God. Not holding grudges allows a state of mind that is ready and willing to forgive. Reconciliation is the goal, and if there cannot be reconciliation, an attitude of willingness to forgive must be maintained. There can be no excuse for withholding a forgiving spirit towards others (Matthew 5:22–24).
As stated at the beginning, human forgiveness and God’s forgiveness have differences. The Lord’s Prayer teaches that we are to ask for God’s forgiveness regularly, just as we are regularly to forgive others who have sinned against us. But human nature wars against this. As Paul said, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21). Like Paul, we must know that of our own strength, we are powerless to do the right thing. But as Christians who possess the Holy Spirit, when we rely on His power, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).
Recommended Resource: The Gift of Forgiveness by Charles Stanley.