Is Forgiveness Conditional?

Pastor Michael Bowman

“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)

Wait, is that an out? We’ve been working through this forgiveness series and so far it has seemed that as Christians we are commanded to forgive no matter the circumstance. But look at Jesus’ words above. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and IF he repents, forgive him…” Well, that sounds way easier. I guess you don’t have to forgive anyone until they repent right? 

Obviously there would be something wrong with an attitude that looks for opportunity not to forgive someone. That is a heart that hasn’t understood forgiveness. But isn’t that what the passage above is saying? Clearly there must be something conditional about forgiveness right? Well, yes and no. Jesus does set up a situation here where someone has been sinned against, and he gives them very clear instructions on what to do about it. Notice that the focus is on the forgiving, so forgiveness is the main point. As with any other passage, this all needs to be taken in the context of the rest of Scripture, and here’s something that is interesting. As far as I’m aware (and I’m fine being proven wrong), this is the only passage in the Bible dealing with forgiveness that includes a conditional. 

Here’s what I think is going on. Most of the passages we have covered in this series deal with a spirit of forgiveness, or a forgiving heart. Spoken of in this way, forgiveness is something you can do before anyone repents and even if they never do. You can forgive them in your heart, which means that everything that you can do leading to reconciliation has been done. But that can’t reconcile you to someone else until they turn from their sin. The forgiveness spoken of above could be called transactional or reconciliatory forgiveness. This is where forgiveness comes to its fullest fruition in the complete reconciliation of two people. 

This is not two levels of forgiveness but two different ways of talking about it. When you’ve been slandered and lied to or about by someone you considered a friend and they know what they have done, you can forgive them in your heart. You can come to a place, in light of God’s forgiveness, where you are completely ready to overflow with forgiveness toward them and put the sin behind you, but if they never repent of the sin to you then you will not be able to see that forgiveness actualized to the fullest extent in the reconciliation of the friendship. 

When your sins were laid on Christ as he died on the cross, you were forgiven. Christ said it was finished. But that forgiveness doesn’t take hold in your life until you repent of your sin and turn to God in faith. This isn’t exactly what we are talking about here, but it is analogous. In Christ’s case, his forgiveness is effective and totally accomplishes its end goal. In our case, on the basis of Christ’s forgiveness, we can cover over a multitude of sins and forgive someone in our heart. In this way we prepare for the end goal. This goal of your forgiveness, reconciliation, won’t take effect until it is received. That is when forgiveness among men is complete.