Is “Unconditional Forgiveness” Biblical?
First, we must note there are different contexts to the word forgiveness. Obviously, Matthew 18:21-35 is referring to forgiving someone when they repent like our Father forgave us when we repented. And there are times with unrepentant people where forgiveness is not an outward release or putting away, but is a release in that we commit the matter to God and therein forsake wrath, vengeance, etc. Paul understood Jesus’ teaching on forgiving others as we pray like this: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” (1 Timothy 2:8) Wrath can manifest itself in refusing to forgive a repentant person, as well as in having anger, wrath, malice, etc towards someone even if they have hurt us and remain unrepentant.
Going up to an unrepentant person and telling them they’re forgiven implies they don’t need to repent at all and that all is fine in their sin- it’s basically being doormats that invite being taken advantage of. Releasing them before God and trusting Him to deal with them is a lot different than just telling them we forgive them and thereby acting like everything’s okay when it’s really not. If our enemy hungers or thirsts, we should meet their need and demonstrate the love of God out of good will. But they are still our enemies until they repent- and to act like everything’s alright when it’s not isn’t being truthful.
“17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. 18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. 21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21) I keep quoting because it shows how the Apostles understood and applied what Jesus taught about forgiveness in relation to our unrepentant enemies).
“31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: 32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)
How did Christ forgive us? Kindly, tenderheartedly- of course. But without our sincere repentance? Of course not. This is of course lines up with what we see in Luke 17:3-4 and Matthew 18:15-35.
The heart we should have towards a backslidden Christian separated from a Christian fellowship due to living in sin is seen here. “4 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you. 5 But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all.” (2 Cor. 2:4-5) This is of course a reference back to Paul writing 1 Corinthians chapter 5.
Now by the time of 2 Corinthians being written the church discipline prescribed in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 did bring the man to repentance. The discipline being implemented implied he wasn’t forgiven at the time it was implemented, otherwise the church wouldn’t have been commanded to remove him from their fellowship. Now we see that the man had repented by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, as proven by the following verse. “6 Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.” (2 Corinthians 2:6)
So now that the man had repented, he was to be dealt with differently (contrariwise) by the church as compared to how he was dealt with before he repented.
“7 So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. 8 Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. 9 For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. 10 To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ;
11 Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.” (2 Corinthians 2:7-11)
This obviously implies that they should not have forgiven him before he repented. Doing that would actually be enabling and justifying his sin (could this be why many advocate and contend for unconditional forgiveness?). Jesus said “3 Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. 4 And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4)
We see by 2 Corinthians 2:7-11 that forgiving an excommuncated backslider implies receiving him back into fellowship (because he has now repented and is no longer a backslider. This lines up with Matthew 18:15-20 and the accompanying illustration in Matthew 18:21-35. This does not imply ill-will towards the unrepentant backslider, but it does mean the backslider’s exclusion from Christian fellowship/spiritual communion. If the unrepentant backslider is forgiven already, then there is no basis to exclude him from fellowship (see 2 Corinthians 2:7-11 again). That would be a very foolish, contradictory message being sent indeed!
“13 But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing.14 And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed
15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)
So why would people contend for unconditional forgiveness? Besides maybe doing so out of pure ignorance and an over-sensitive conscience, they are really contending for no standards in the church and an unconditional grace that permits man to partake of Christ’s forgiveness while being rebellious to His righteous reign. This is a deadly deception then. There is no forgiveness where there is not repentance. For us to deal with others differently is to misrepresent the gospel of salvation (the only difference being that we have to give others the benefit of the doubt when it’s reasonable to believe they’re repentant, and thus we might get fooled even in being as discerning as we possibly can- whereas there is no fooling God ever). “3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. 6 He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.” (1 John 2:3-6)
So what about dealing with unbelievers who don’t profess to be believers in Christ? If they’ve wronged us, we obviously can’t receive them into Christian fellowship even if they repent towards us (unless they’re repentance extends beyond us towards God and the gospel). We obviously should represent God’s ways to them though. So if they tell us they’re sorry and there’s not strong evidence to believe they’re insincere, obviously we should tell them we forgive them for however they’ve wronged us. But what if they don’t apology with (as best we can tell) sincerity? Are we to tell them we forgive them anyways? I don’t know where in the Bible that we are told such a thing. I’m virtually sure it’s not there, and do tell me otherwise if you see such a teaching in the Bible. Here are passages I think of related to this topic:
“44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
Note how we’re supposed to love those who hate us and wrong us. Note that Jesus didn’t say that we ought to forgive them while they are harming us or seeking to harm us. We are to do good to them in ways that are appropriate like the Father in heaven does towards all people, right? So does the Father doing good to the unjust mean that He forgives them in their unjust state while they are unrepentant towards Him? Of course not! To say otherwise is basically to teach Universalism. So is that not where this doctrine that we’re to forgive all unconditionally imply and lead to? Why would it be any different with us then in dealing with our enemies? To say that we ought to forgive those who are at enmity with us while they are unrepentant regarding their harmful treatment towards us is to basically to make the Christian out to be more merciful and kind than God Himself! That is obviously not a Scriptural, godly doctrine then!
“17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
We are commanded to do good to our enemies and not avenge ourselves. But where are we commanded to forgive those who insist on being at enmity with us? I see commands to not take vengeance upon them and to do good to them- but I don’t see a command to forgive them. Doing that would actually misrepresent God and the gospel. “45 Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, 46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:45-47- note that remission means forgiveness- there is no significant difference between the two words)
“14 Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works:15 Of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words.16 At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.17 Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.” (2 Timothy 4:14-17)
Above is the Apostle Paul’s testimony near the end of his life regarding those who had recently wronged him. Note that he distinguished between one who had purposely harmed him versus fellow Christians who had forsook him out of fear and intimidation from extremely ungodly men. With the former, he committed the man’s vengeance unto God that he was surely due in his opposition to the gospel. Even with the latter, he prayed God that He might not punish them for what they did in forsaking him (implying he feared they may indeed be punished for what they had done, despite the difficult circumstances they had faced that led to their forsaking him). Why did Paul not say he had forgiven any of them? He couldn’t. It would not be his place to do so until they had expressed their repentance towards him for how they had wronged him. To say he forgave without repentance would be portraying himself as more merciful than God Himself. That is not only silly, it’s also unrighteous.
“There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Brother Aaron [Commentary]. He can be reached at email@example.com