Christian Forgiveness and Repentance
info This commentary was written by a volunteer for our Bible translation project. It’s not an official view of our project; we are not a religious denomination and we do not establish doctrine. These commentaries reflect a variety of views and some disagree with each other.
- Does God Forgive the Unrepentant?
- Must We Forgive the Unrepentant?
- Repenting and Overlooking Sins
- Denying and Ignoring Your Sins
- Third-Party Forgiveness
- Paying for Forgiven and Unintentional Sins
- Unforgiven Sins
Does God Forgive the Unrepentant?
The words of an old song well illustrate a common incorrect view of God’s forgiveness. They go,
‘He'll always say, I forgive!’
What is wrong with those words?
Understand that God doesn’t overlook and forgive the bad actions of people that aren’t sorry enough for what they have done to ask Him to forgive them or to try to correct their way. For the Bible is filled with examples of how God has taken strong action against deliberate wrongdoers… putting many to death and cursing future generations of their families.
Note the example of the wrong actions of the Amalechites, as found at Exodus 17:14:
‘Then the Lord told Moses:
Write this in a scroll so it will be remembered:
Tell JoShua that I'm going to totally blot out all memory of the Amalechites from under the heavens.’
Actually, repentance is what the Kingdom message is all about; for Jesus said (at Luke 24:47):
‘Then, in his name, [the message of] repentance for forgiveness of sins is to be preached in all the nations, starting from JeruSalem.’ (To see why the need to repent is the most important message of our time, see the Note in Matthew, The Gospel Message).
On the other hand, the Bible is also filled with stories of how He has forgiven even the worst of sinners because they were repentant (King David is a prime example), and of how He has blest future generations of families because of the righteous actions of a single ancestor (the blessing of AbraHam’s descendants is proof of this).
Must We Forgive the Unrepentant?
However, we have often heard of cases where people that are trying to show a ‘Christ-like attitude’ have publicly told someone that might have murdered a loved family member, ‘I forgive you,’ even when such a person has never repented or asked for forgiveness. Is this really something that Jesus expects of us? Well, let’s consider what Jesus actually said about the matter. Notice, for example, what he told us about the condition of unrighteous people that don’t understand ‘the mystery of the Kingdom,’ at Mark 4:12:
‘So although they can look, they can’t see; and although they can hear, they don’t listen and understand.
Therefore, they can never turn back and be forgiven.’
Notice that ‘turning back’ or ‘repentance’ is required to be forgiven by God.
You can see exactly what Jesus said would be required for a person to be forgiven from his words as they are recorded at Luke 17:3, 4: ‘If your brother should sin [against you], go to him and discuss it. And if he repents, then forgive him. Even if he sins seven times every day; if he returns seven times to say I repent, then you should also forgive him.’
So although Christians are obligated to forgive the errors of those that have asked forforgiveness, repentance is required on the part of the wrongdoer… that is, if it is an important matter and if the offending person is even aware of having done something wrong. Therefore, if someone says, ‘I'm sorry,’ the Bible tells us that the matter should be forgiven and forgotten (never mentioned again) if we want God to keep on forgiving us for our sins.
Yet, many commonly hold a grudge even after a sincere apology has been made.
And some will remain angry with people that may not even be unaware of what they’ve done wrong. This is truly a sin for such ones that are angry but have failed to follow Jesus’ instructions to ‘go to him and discuss it.’ Then if we haven’t tried to make amends so as to forgive, how can we expect God to forgive us for our sins? And this even hinders our prayers to Him. Notice that in the model prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to ask God to forgive us as we have forgiven others.
Repenting and Overlooking Sins
Notice again what Jesus said about this as is recorded at Matthew 7:1, 2):
‘Do not judge others, so you won’t be judged.
For the [rules] by which you judge others
Are the rules they will use to judge you,
And the standards you're setting for them
Are the standards that they'll set for you.’
In other words: Don’t be too quick to be offended. For if you want God to overlook your mistakes and forgive you for the bad things that you've done, you must be quick to forgive those that have wronged or offended you.
Denying and Ignoring Your Sins
King David wrote at Psalm 37:10, and Jesus repeated those words at Matthew 5:5:
‘The meek will inherit the earth.’
So, what is meekness?
It is the opposite of being proud and haughty.
And meekness is a trait that God appreciates, for what reason can we find for being proud when we stand before Him?
Therefore, remember that our sins against others don’t just go away if we are too proud and choose to deny that we are guilty of doing anything wrong, or if we just ignore the bad things that we’ve done. So if someone has good reason to be angry with us for something we've done bad against them, whether real or imagined, and we've never tried to resolve the problem, this is impeding our relationship with God.
For notice Jesus’ words on this matter, as found at Matthew 5:23, 24
‘If you bring a gift to [God’s] Altar, but while you're on the way you remember that your brother holds something against you; leave your gift at the Altar and go.
First make peace with your brother, and then return to offer your gift.’
So clearly, true Christians are obliged to try to make peace with everyone.
Jesus told his Apostles (at John 20:23):
‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, they will remain forgiven. But if you don’t forgive their sins, they won’t be forgiven.’ So, doesn’t this mean that righteous men can offer us forgiveness for our sins against someone else? Yes it does mean that. But notice that the sins Jesus was talking about are our sins against God.
However, realize that no one other than the person we may have harmed can forgive us for the sins that we've committed against them… and this is why Jesus told us to ‘go to him and discuss it.’
For unless we’ve tried to correct the problem, we can’t say that we’ve truly repented.
Note how the tax collector ZacChaeUs showed his repentance for his past unrighteous actions by what he told Jesus he would do at Luke 19:8:
‘But ZacChaeUs stood up and said to the Lord,
Lord, I will give half of my belongings to the poor; and whatever I got from anyone by extortion and false accusations, I'll repay four times over!’ So to truly be forgiven by God, it is best to try to make amends with those whom we may have wronged.
Nevertheless, despite all the clear explanations in the Bible about what is required to obtain the forgiveness for our errors; there are those who claim that they have the power to offer forgiveness on behalf of God, even when there is no indication of repentance. Such actions are a sham if the sinner has not first spoken to the person against whom they have sinned and tried to correct the error.
We were made aware of a case where a Christian ‘brother’ extorted the entire life savings of a poor widow. However, he was later ‘forgiven’ his sin by a religious group whose representatives claimed to make this decision on behalf of God… but he never said he was sorry or returned her money.
So we ask: Was this really God’s decision?
Clearly this man wasn’t repentant, for he didn’t try to set matters straight. Therefore, the religious body actually became sharers in the sin by claiming to speak for God and excusing the vile act when they supposedly absolved the man of his extorting a poor widow, leaving him with a clean conscience and good standing in a ‘Christian Congregation.’
There are also religious organizations that require the confession of sins (that can be as serious as murder, rape, adultery, burglary, etc.) and teach that their priests can then forgive the offenders on behalf of God without any need for them to correct the error other than ‘a penance’ of speaking a few pointless words. These religions never report even serious crimes to local authorities, nor do they require any expression of sorrow, or an apology, or that compensation be made to the injured parties. Thus, by offering clean consciences for unrepented vile acts, they too become sharers in the sins and must bear that weight before God.
So what’s the Bible’s view? Notice the words of Proverbs 29:24:
‘The one that shares with a thief, is someone that hates his own life. And if he should hear public cursing, he will never report it.’
Paying for Forgiven and Unintentional Sins
Understand that God expects each person to bear the weight of his own sins. So even when a person is repentant and asks forgiveness from God, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t have to face the results of what he did.
Although God forgave King David’s sin of having righteous UriAh killed (so he could cover his adultery with UriAh’s wife BathSheba), the baby that was born from that immoral union died, and David’s reign was thereafter plagued with problems and rebellions from within his own family. Therefore, even if a sin is unintentional or forgiven, we may still have had to pay a heavy price for what we’ve done.
Notice, for example, what God’s Law said must happen to a person that accidentally killed another (Numbers 35:22): ‘However, if someone is accidentally stabbed (where no anger is involved), or if he is struck by something (other than from ambush), or he is accidentally hit with a rock and he dies when no enemy was looking to harm him; then the court must use these rules to judge between the one that did the striking and the blood avenger. And [if he is found innocent], the gathering must save the slayer from the blood avenger and allow him to stay in the refuge city that he ran to, and he must live there until the High Priest (who was anointed with the holy oil) dies. But if the person that did the killing should ever leave the city that he ran to for refuge and the blood avenger should find him outside the refuge-city limits and the blood-avenger kills him, he has done no wrong.
Because, the man should have stayed in the refuge city until the High Priest died.
For, only after the death of the High Priest may the slayer return to his homeland.’
Yes, even an accidental killing is a serious matter in God’s eyes.
Jesus also said that there are sins so serious that they will not be forgiven. Notice his words as found at Matthew 12:31, 32:
‘I’m now telling you this:
Men can be forgiven for all their sins and blasphemies, except for blaspheming [God’s Holy] Breath… that will not be forgiven.
If someone speaks against the Son of Man; this can be forgiven.
But if someone speaks against [God’s] Holy Breath, he will not be forgiven… no, not in this age or in that to come.’
So, God doesn’t always say, ‘I forgive.’