Monday, June 3, 2013

Repentance in Forgiveness

Christians are called to forgive extensively (Matthew 18: 21-22). Should they forgive those who do not apologize for their offense? What does the Bible teach about forgiveness?

Gladys Staines, wife and mother of the brutally burnt husband and sons, stated, "I have forgiven the killers and have no bitterness … God in Christ has forgiven me and expects His followers to do the same.” 1 Here is a case of forgiveness where the offenders did not repent of their sin. Yet, can Christian parents forgive the killers of their brutally murdered child? I think they would struggle to forgive them – with or without repentance. Forgiveness isn’t an easy task.

Sin, repentance and punishment are the main factors involved in forgiveness. The Bible seems to state that God forgives a man under three conditions. The concern, however, is that these three conditions contradict each other:
(1) When a sinner repents of his sin (Luke 13: 3; Acts 2: 38, 8: 22 et al.).
(2) When a sinner forgives the one who sinned against him (Matthew 6: 12).
(3) When the sinner remains unrepentant (Luke 23: 34; Acts 7: 60).

Forgiving a repentant sinner is not difficult to comprehend. But (2) and (3) are difficult to comprehend. One could misinterpret the Lord’s prayer thinking God would forgive an unrepentant sinner who forgives the one who sinned against him. E.g. I don’t repent of my sins to God. But I have forgiven a person who sinned against me. Should I now expect God to forgive me – an unrepentant sinner? Is God’s forgiveness based on my forgiveness of another’s sin against me or on my repentance to God? This is the doctrinal knot we should untangle. But answering (3) would untangle the doctrinal knot of (2). If we can infer that God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner, then it would preclude every other situation that seems to indicate that God forgives an unrepentant sinner.

Does God forgive an unrepentant sinner?

Although Christ and Stephen appealed to God for the forgiveness of their enemies, the Bible does not explicitly state that God forgave their enemies. When the Bible isn’t explicit, doctrine should not be dogmatic. Thus we can reasonably infer that God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner.

However, there is a tricky situation to decrypt. Why did the Lord Jesus (God incarnate) appeal to God the Father when HE knew (through HIS omniscience) that God wouldn’t forgive an unrepentant sinner? Did Christ utter this statement meaninglessly? No! I think Christ would have forgiven those who perpetrated evil against HIM from the perspective of HIS humanity and not HIS divinity.2 (Divine forgiveness is different from human forgiveness.3) Christ forgave an unrepentant sinner to teach an invaluable lesson to mankind that those harmed could forgive the sinners, so to love them, even if they remain unrepentant. So Christ’s appeal to God does not offer us a sound proof that God forgives an unrepentant sinner. 

Would God forgive an unrepentant sinner who forgives the one who sinned against him? If this be true, we must resolve two problems about our understanding of God:

1. Is God sovereign? Is God’s forgiveness predicated on man’s forgiveness (of another)? Doesn’t God have an ability to act independently? Or is man wiser than God?

2. God cannot contradict HIMSELF. The Bible explicitly states that God forgives a repentant sinner. But if the same Bible also states that God forgives an unrepentant sinner, then it amounts to God contradicting HIMSELF i.e. God is a liar.

The sovereign God’s actions cannot be based on man, unless HE so wills it. God will not state that forgiveness of sins is only through repentance, and in the same breath forgive those who remain unrepentant.

Verses that imply a doctrine ought to be interpreted in light of the verses where the doctrine is outlined explicitly (demanding repentance for forgiveness of sins). One of the fundamental principles for biblical hermeneutic is “Sacred Scripture is its own interpreter.”

Furthermore, if God forgives an unrepentant sinner, we need to contend with more problems, for instance:

1. The many passages that teach forgiveness through repentance should be misinterpreted by employing a faulty hermeneutic.

2. Repentance loses its existence and meaning. (There is no need to repent to God.)

3. Promotes willful disobedience of man against a holy God. What holds me back from sinning willfully, if I am forgiven though being unrepentant?

Hence I submit that God will not forgive an unrepentant sinner. Therefore, we summarize as follows:

1. God forgives a repentant sinner; the forgiven person will not be punished.

2. God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner; the unforgiven person will be punished.

3. The sinner in the Lord’s prayer prays for forgiveness of his sins (repents) primarily.4 So God would forgive this sinner, since he repented of his sins.

Thus, from the divine perspective, repentance is necessary for forgiveness. If repentance is necessary for God to forgive man, how should man practice forgiveness in a human relationship? Asking a few leading questions could provide us with answers:

1. Should man forgive only those who repent? If the answer to this is ‘no,’ then how can love be ignited inside a broken relationship?

2. How do we identify a genuine repentance from false?

When a person repents of his sins, we ought to forgive (Luke 17: 3-4). We should also forgive an unrepentant sinner for love to be reestablished and for hatred and bitterness to disappear. This is in obedience to God’s command to love our neighbor as Christ loves us (John 13:34; cf. Hosea 3:1). A model for this forgiveness is provided by Hosea, Christ and Stephen. We should not speak maliciously or take revenge of any form or size against the one who wronged us. But restoration of relationship is only predicated on genuine repentance (cf. Hosea 3: 3). If someone has wronged me and remains unrepentant, I should forgive and not harbor bitterness or hatred. But unless this person genuinely repents, I cannot resume a perfectly normal relationship!5 By forgiving an unrepentant sinner, I am paving way for love to be reestablished in the relationship. Genuine repentance paves way for restoration of a normal relationship.

Distinguishing genuine from false repentance consumes time. The blessed Holy Spirit will guide us through life situations to recognize the genuineness of repentance. If someone has falsely accused me and eventually repents of that sin, I will definitely resume a normal relationship. After some time and in a similar situation, if this person makes another false accusation against me, it would prove that his/her repentance was false.

Forgiveness ought to proceed from the intrinsic to the extrinsic - from the heart to the mouth. It is quite possible to say that we have forgiven the perpetrator of evil, but to forgive the person from the heart is another spiritual battle that needs to be won through prayer (for forgiveness does not come easy to many). From this perspective, one cannot take Gladys’ words for granted, but only God knows the true state of a human heart. However, by issuing a statement that she has forgiven the killers, Gladys Staines did something extraordinary which an ordinary Christian would find very difficult to do. In Christian life, we ought to take small steps to monumental spiritual achievements.

To conclude, I submit the following:

1. God forgives a repentant sinner. HE does not forgive an unrepentant sinner.

2. A Christian ought to forgive the one who repents of his sin.

3. Even if the offender remains unrepentant, the Christian ought to forgive him for love to be reestablished in that relationship.6 However, restoration of a normal relationship is predicated on a genuine repentance. (Christian parents can forgive the killers, through prayer, and by God’s power.)

I bless you in the name of our Lord. Amen.

References & Notes:

Repentance: A heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p1253.)


2  My assumption is based on the explicit assertion of the Bible that God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner. Understanding of “Incarnation” or “hypostatic union” is mandatory to understanding the concept of Christ’s humanity and divinity in one hypostasis.

3 The divine forgiveness is an instance where the perfect God forgives an imperfect human. God forgives man from within HIS attribute of omniscience and eternality. Human forgiveness is from the perspectives of a temporal and an inadequate knowledge. This subject should be examined in isolation and not within the scope of this blog.

4 Will God not forgive a man who genuinely repents of his sins to HIM, but hasn’t forgiven his debtor? We could consider this subject at a later point in time.

5 The unrepentant man would not have changed his offensive / sinful ways. He will continue in his sinful ways.

6 In God’s perspective, this could be correlated to the “common grace” of God.


Sarah Bhuyan said...

Hi Raj,

I have a little difficulty with the first part of your blog, ie 'repentance in forgiveness.'

No doubt, there are verses that states that repentance precede forgiveness from God. In your blog, I presume that you are talking about people who have put their trust in god. We also know that at the foot of the Cross, God has forgiven my past, present an future sins and He has justified me. I have moved from death to life. Now, how does God go back and say that
He cannot forgive me ? Is this not part of grace ? that He took the risk ?

By no way am I promoting unrepentance. The problem that I face in my mind is about theology. I am just wondering ........


Raj Richard said...

Sarah, Thanks for posting your thoughts.

Apologies to you if my articulation was inadequate to provide clarity to my communication. Let me try to add more clarity to my thoughts.

Everyone is in need of forgiveness - those who believe in Christ and those not.

Those who are in Christ should have a sensitive heart that senses the prompts of the Holy Spirit. Even when we sin in ignorance, the blessed Holy Spirit will convict us of our sins. When such a conviction occurs in our life, we repent and seek forgiveness.

Unforgiven sins in a Christian life leads to separation from God - not from an eternal perspective but from a temporal. Christians do not lose their eternity even if they fail to recognize their sins (we assume that their faith in Christ is intact). The separation we are referring entails lack of spiritual blessedness in a Christian life. E.g. One who can harvest 90 fold, may only harvest less. The one who can bear much fruit may only bear less.

I hope I have understood your thoughts well. If my response is yet to answer your question, then please let me know.

Much blessings.

Sarah Bhuyan said...

Thanks Raj for the clarification.

The separation is temporal and our witness is affected when we do not repent. Hence it is not so much about God not forgiving me due to my absence of repenting because His forgiveness is not dependent on my good behaviour but on what He has done on the cross. Even my repentance could be because I am afraid of God's anger- a false repentance.. My best repentance is sometimes false.

Mathew 18 - the parable of the unmerciful servant - looks like God not forgiving when we look at vs.35. I understand vs.35 as my own creation of bitterness that lock me up in a concentraion camp created by myself.
Hence God says, Do not make yourself a prisoner of war in your heart
because I have released you. Be free from bitterness. For that, I have to forgive the other person and myself.

God's forgiveness is based on what God has done.
Repentance is mainly for my good. If I do not, I am the loser. This is my theological understanding of repentance and forgiveness.

Please add if I have missed out anything.

Raj Richard said...

Sarah, you are so right. Once we split hairs in the subject of repentance, many questions could arise, one such is whether repentance is false or genuine, and how God deals with that.

I think Matt 18 is about mercy in forgiveness. We cannot forgive unless we are merciful and gracious. So once again we invoke the grace and mercy of God, and try to emulate that thru our Christlike life.

I would like to deal with forgiveness of sin, from God's perspective in my next blog. I pray that would add more clarity.

Remain blessed....

Sarah Bhuyan said...

True Raj there will be many questions to a thinking mind. That enables us to probe more. My emphasis was not on false or genuine repentance, but on God's forgiveness which is not conditional.

Mt.18:35 is a verse very often we get confused because if there is no condemnation for a believer, between my salvation and glorification (and sanctification in the middle where I ask God
for forgiveness many times which is essential for my cleansing and growth) when God will confine me to prison !! That prison is self created and not God created. that is my point of reasoning.
Looking forward to your next blog.
Keep going...

Raj Richard said...

Sarah, I dont think anyone can escape God's judgment - Christians included. Receiving forgiveness from God constantly, I am expected to forgive my brother. If I dont forgive my brother, I will be judged and that judgment will be in this time and age. In case of obstinate disobedience now, eternity wud welcome us with loss of rewards.

Unconditional forgiveness of God will not tolerate willful disobedience. This is my take.

Sarah Bhuyan said...

Raj, pLEASE Read my views carefully.

You will notice that I did not say that anyone can escape God's judgement, did not say that I am not expected to forgive, did not deny judgement on earth, did not affirm willful disobedience and loss of rewards. Did not say that unconditional forgiveness of God will tolerate willful disobedience. These are consequences of no repentance.

I affirmed constant repentance which is essential for my cleansing and growth, emphasised loss of witness in the absence of repentance..

In fact my point was not at all about the consequence of lack of repentance, but about the fact that God's forgiveness is unconditional. Now, for the consequence, I understand that my relationship with God remain in tact, but my fellowship breaks.
When I repent, that fellowship is restored. My point was only about the unconditional forgiveness of God which happened at the Cross when He forgave my past, present and future sins.
This is my take on this subject. Philp 3:15 "And if on some point we think differently, that too God will make clear to us. Only let us live up to what we have already attained."( I have changed ' you' to ' we.'
Have a good day Raj,


Raj Richard said...

This is a delicate theology, Sarah. Hence, I was explicit in what I said. I did not mean to imply anything else. I am sure both our views are on the same track and not divergent at all. God bless :) Keep on....

Raj Richard said...

To all readers: There was an inadvertent typo error in the 'notes and reference' section of this blog. It has been corrected. Apologies.

Erroneous Statement: 2 My assumption is based on the explicit assertion of the Bible that God forgives an unrepentant sinner. Understanding of “Incarnation” or “hypostatic union” is mandatory to understanding the concept of Christ’s humanity and divinity in one hypostasis.

Correct Statement: 2 My assumption is based on the explicit assertion of the Bible that God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner. Understanding of “Incarnation” or “hypostatic union” is mandatory to understanding the concept of Christ’s humanity and divinity in one hypostasis.