While an accurate understanding of forgiveness can be discerned by studying the vocabulary found in Scripture, in another sense it takes sixty-six chapters to plumb the depths of forgiveness. Even then, we cannot fully comprehend it because we will grow in our understanding and appreciation as we study God’s Word and seek His wisdom for its application. One of the questions that relates to forgiving another has to do with the place of repentance as a requisite for granting that forgiveness.
“If he repents, forgive him.”
Is hearing an expression of repentance by the offending party necessary for the granting of forgiveness by the one wronged? Can a debt of sin be canceled apart from recognition of some degree of remorse on the part of the offender? Should it be?
A pastor friend was wronged by another pastor, totally blindsided and slandered. My friend intended to pursue conciliatory efforts with the offending pastor but said this: “I forgive him and I pray that he will one day repent.” Is my friend putting the cart before the horse by forgiving without first hearing an expression of repentance and, in so doing, cheapening grace?
We want to form our opinions from the Word of God. A key passage to consider is found in Luke’s gospel: “Pay attention to yourselves! 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). Is our Lord laying out a requirement that we discern repentance before granting forgiveness?
It is safe to say that repentance is always to be desired when it comes to ownership of sin. All sin is first and foremost against God. Repentance accords sin its weight before a holy God. It also admits not only the wrong but acknowledges a degree of personal responsibility for the wrong and laments over it.
But is Jesus saying that we need to hear the actual words, “I repent,” or does He mean that we must always endeavor to somehow discern or elicit contrition before granting pardon? Or could it be that our Lord is not speaking of repentance so much as He is of return? The brother who was adversarial and moving away is now conciliatory to some degree and moving toward even if he has not fully acknowledged his sin. In this case, repentance would refer to a turnaround by the offender, and the one offended would acknowledge that and receive the offending party rather than rejecting him.
Part of the challenge in nailing down our Lord’s instruction is grasping the biblical nature of repentance. What is it and how is it measured? Repentance has three elements: sorrow, change of mind, and new obedience. Ideally, the sorrow is a godly sorrow that grieves because of sin against God and neighbor, the change of mind is one that conforms to the assessment of God’s Word, and the new obedience is the heart-driven fruit of that change of mind. But in the scenario Jesus gives in Luke 17, how would the earnestness of that expression of repentance be determined?