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Do I have to forgive someone who has never repented of what they did to me? 

This question usually comes up when a person has encountered what Jesus says in Luke 17:3-4:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4 ESV)

There it does kind of sound like forgiveness is conditional upon repentance: “if he repents, forgive him”. However, that text needs to be held in tension with what Jesus says in passages like Mark 11:25:

“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25 ESV).

There is no mention here of the offender confessing their sin and demonstrating repentance; it merely says that the person praying should forgive whatever grievances they may have against another. Similarly, in Matthew 6 there is no mention of any action being taken by the offender before forgiveness is granted. Jesus says simply and straightforwardly:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15 ESV).

In addition, we have numerous examples in the New Testament of people forgiving others without any mention of the sins and abuses being acknowledged by the offending party. As Jesus was being nailed to the cross, he said:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 ESV).

Likewise, Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, called out saying:

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60 ESV).

Therefore, it would be difficult to argue that the Bible does not require us to forgive people until they repent of the sins, they have committed against us.

Rather, I think it would be better to say that we should begin the process of forgiving others immediately, recognizing that we may not be able to proceed from there to full reconciliation until there is appropriate acknowledgement and growth from the other party.

Reconciliation is a bridge that has to be built from both sides, but forgiveness – in terms of letting go of any desire and plan for revenge, praying for the abuser, wishing well toward the offender – is work that we can begin in our own hearts right away, mindful of the mercy we have received and wary of the costs associated with on-going bitterness and resentment.

God help!

Pastor Paul Carter

If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.