Christology Soteriology Spirituality

Should we forgive the unrepentant?

When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we find it easy at the start. We do want our heavenly Father’s name to be reverenced, and we do want his kingdom to come, which means that his “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are also happy to ask God for our daily bread, because we know that he is the source of all that we have and need (Mt 6:9-11). So far so good, but then the words may get stuck in our throat. Dare we ask God to “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Mt 6:12)? The thought that the extent of our forgiveness of others is the measure of what we are asking from God, in terms of his forgiveness of us, is rather sobering. This was the only petition in Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, upon which Jesus commented after giving the disciples that model prayer (Mt 6:14-15), which highlights both its importance and its difficulty. Jesus seems to have been forestalling our predictable response: “Surely Jesus didn’t mean literally what he asks us to do with regard to forgiving people.”

The wrongs done to us by someone else may be fairly minor, or they may be extremely serious, but in either case those injustices and mistreatments can rankle in our minds and rob us of peace. What we naturally want is to see justice done and restitution made by the transgressor. This is good and right. But suppose the person who sinned against us has a clear conscience, being completely unaware of the offense they committed? Or what if they have done things totally brutal, perhaps robbing us of loved ones whom they kidnapped or murdered, or taken off some of our own limbs, as happens to many followers of Jesus around the world? These things have happened often in human history and unspeakable things have been done to people by others, within my own life time. Are those people to be forgiven by the ones against whom they specifically sinned?

In a recent Facebook update, Brian Stiller (Ambassador of the World Evangelical Alliance) wrote about his recent visit to Rwanda:

Brian StillerThen we went to a village of reconciliation. This has been built by Prison Fellowship bringing together the survivors of the genocide and the perpetrators. Along with soldiers who returned from Uganda and the Congo and had implication in the genocide. The village consists of 182 houses side-by-side as people are learning to live together. We met a woman whose six siblings and mother and father were all killed in the genocide and she is living alongside the perpetrator. She said that she can leave her goat knowing that her neighbor will look after it. She can leave her fruit and she’s assured that it’ll be properly cared for. One has to remind oneself that these are people who experienced unbelievable suffering and pain and who through the gospel have opened their lives to both the giving and the receiving of forgiveness.

I am awed and humbled by what I have heard from the experience of Truth and Reconciliation in S. Africa, in Rwanda, and now in Canada, between the government and the survivors of the residential school experience that devastated so many lives. Regularly, people speak of the tremendous relief they felt when they had the opportunity to speak of what had been done to them but to express their forgiveness of those who wronged them.

One question particularly troubles people when the issue of forgiving others who have sinned against us comes up. Should we forgive people who are not repentant of their wrong doing? To this particularly significant question, I think we should bring Mt 6:12. If we are to forgive people as God forgave us, what does that entail? How did God forgive us?

How has God forgiven us?

I am finding that my move from a high Calvinist, single intent, understanding of the atonement (as Christ’s death for the elect only), to the classic moderate Calvinist position (also dubbed “hypothetical universalism”) is very helpful right at this point.

Paul tells us that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), and John the Baptist said, as he saw Jesus approaching him: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). High Calvinists may understand the “world” in a text like this as either the elect or sinners in general, viewed as a class of those opposed to God, but not as individuals. I believed this for many years, but have come to believe that it is unnecessary. We can read the universal New Testament references concerning Jesus’ atoning death in a completely natural way. I see this affirmed by the Synod of Dort, in its declaration that Christ’s death was sufficient for all, even though it is only efficient/effective for the elect. (Even Arminians can say this, but we disagree about whether the election is conditional or unconditional.)

Jesus died for sinners, and he did so whether or not they were aware of what he was doing or were repentant of their sin. He died in their place, bearing the penalty of sin, the just judgment of God against sinners. What he bore was the penalty of sin, of all sin and hence of all sinners, so that no further sacrifice would have been necessary to satisfy God’s justice if ten billion more sinners had existed in the history of this world. But, contra the belief of universalism, Christ’s bearing the sin of the world does not automatically bring about the forgiveness of particular sinners or their reconciliation with God. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” and he entrusts to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19). But the message we proclaim is not: “You have sinned grievously against God and your sin deserves ‘death,’ but don’t worry, Jesus died in your place and bore the penalty of your sin, so I can assure you that you will be saved.” Rather, we tell people that Jesus has indeed paid the price of sin, so that the way toward the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation with God has been opened up. But that reconciliation does not happen automatically.

To the crowd created by the throng in Jerusalem who were trying to figure out what to make of the behavior of the followers of Jesus upon whom the Spirit of God had fallen on the day of Pentecost,  Peter announced that God had made “both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom [they] had crucified” (Acts 2:36). Many who heard this were “cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’” (Acts 2:37). Peter answered: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Jesus had borne the sin of the world “in his body on the cross” (1 Pet 2:24) and the apostles’ offer of God’s forgiveness to everyone was based on that universally sufficient sacrifice by Christ, but it did not bring actual forgiveness and effect reconciliation with God, unless people repented of their sin and trusted in Jesus’ work on their behalf.

To those who were gathered in Solomon’s portico, after Peter had healed a crippled beggar, Peter acknowledged that they and their rulers had acted in ignorance when they put Jesus to death. And that death had fulfilled all that had been foretold by the prophets about how God’s Messiah would suffer (Acts 3:18). But it was not enough for Peter to announce the good news that Jesus had died for the sin of the world, to reconcile sinners to God. Peter went on to enunciate what God demanded of those who heard this truth: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19).

So that is what God did in Jesus. He forgave sinners because Jesus, the Righteous One, bore the sin of the world and satisfied the demands of his justice. God put Jesus forward “as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:25). In this way God is able to be righteous, while justifying “the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

How then should we forgive those who sin against us?

When other people sin against us, we should forgive them, following the model of God’s forgiveness. God is calling upon us to offer forgiveness to those transgressors. This will be costly. As J. O. Busell argued,

J. O. Buswell Jr.All forgiveness, human and divine, is in the very nature of the case vicarious, substitutional. . . . [This is] one of the most valuable views my mind has ever entertained. No one ever really forgives another, except he bears the penalty of the other’s sin against him. When the state pardons a criminal, society takes upon itself the burden of the criminal’s guilt. When we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we are not asking God to forgive us by a vicarious sacrifice while we forgive each other by merely overlooking faults which cost us nothing. The human analogy is of course imperfect, but all the moral outlines of divine substitutional atonement are present in human forgiveness. (A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, II, 76)

I stated earlier that it is right for us to want wrong doers to pay the just penalty for their crime. If someone has stolen from us, we want them to make restitution for what they have taken. If they fail to do this, we want them to experience an appropriately equivalent sentence. This desire for justice is natural to us, as creatures made in the image of God who is completely just in all his relationships. But when we have hearts graciously softened by God because we are duly amazed at the grace God has given us in forgiving our sin at his own expense, we are ready to extend forgiveness to those who sin against us, not harboring in our hearts and minds a spirit of vengeance which robs us of peace and makes us bitter. This does not mean that we necessarily prevent the instruments of public justice from doing their duty, for the restoration of harmony in the public order. But sometimes we may feel led to make such a plea, particularly if we have reason to believe that the criminal is repentant, wishes to make what restitution he can, and intends never to transgress in the way he did at our expense. Nevertheless, when we take the initiative in extending forgiveness, prior to repentance on the part of the criminal (as Christ died for us, while we were still sinners), we are expressing our willingness to give up our personal grievance against that individual, a readiness to bear the cost of this gracious act ourselves. But, as in the case of God’s relationship with sinners, reconciliation between us and the one who wronged us can only be brought about by the transgressor’s repentance. Our offer of forgiveness is not dependent upon his repentance, but the reconciliation between us, which brings to fruition our act of forgiving, is conditional upon his acceptance of his forgiveness which necessarily entails an admission of his guilt and a genuine sorrow at the (possibly irreparable) harm he has done.

“Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Lk 7:47).


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “Should we forgive the unrepentant?”

In his prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray against ourselves.

We often don’t forgive as God forgives us. But that prayer reminds us that we ought, and exposes our need of a Savior. The One who has no problem forgiving the ungodly. In fact, He loves to do it!

Thank you.

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