It hurts and angers us when someone sins against us and is not genuinely repentant. “So, I can be angry with the person and withhold forgiveness because he/she is not sorry, right?” No! Look at what God’s Word says, “And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ” (Eph. 4:32). We are to forgive one another in the same way that God forgave us in Christ. God graciously forgave us in Christ (Eph. 1:7-8). We did not deserve God’s forgiveness. So, Christians are to forgive others who do not deserve it. You may point out that Christians receive forgiveness of sins because they repented and believed the gospel. You are correct. Salvation is not received by anyone who does not repent. But, the present discussion relates to unrepentant individuals who have sinned against another human being. God calls us to forgive and leave vengeance to Him.
When you forgive an unrepentant person who has sinned against you, it does not mean that you condone the sin. In reality you are turning over the situation and the person to God, who will ultimately make all things right. Listen to what Romans 12 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (vv. 17–21). So, even if the person is unrepentant we are still to forgive in obedience to God.
You may wonder, “how does God deal with the unrepentant person who has sinned against me?” If the person is an unbeliever, there is no reason to even expect that the person sees the need to repent and reconcile with you. Unbelievers are spiritually dead and incapable pleasing God (Rom. 8:7-9). Something you must remember, God is storing up wrath, which he will pour out on the unbelieving world during the Tribulation ( Rom. 1:18-32; 2:1-11; Dan. 9:27). Furthermore, if the unbelieving person who sinned against you never repents and believes the gospel, he will spend eternity separated from God (Rev. 20:11-15; 21:8). All unbelievers will experience eternal torment because they refused to repent (2 Pet. 2). Unbelievers will spend eternity in hell and they will receive judgment for their sins (Rom. 2:1-11; 9:22-24; Eccl. 12:13-14; Rev. 20:11-12). Their sins will be dealt with fully. I would hope that we would desire even the “worst offender” to repent and believe the gospel.
If the person who sins against you is a believer and is unrepentant, even after you have sought to be reconciled with him (Matt. 18:15-20, we will look more at this personal responsibility next prayer letter), what do you do? Pray for the unrepentant believer, that God will bring conviction of sin. But, how does God deal with an unrepentant believer? Every believer’s sin was punished on the cross, so there is no scenario in this life or the after life where the unrepentant believer is punished for his sin – Christ already endured that punishment. God disciplines believers when they sin to teach them (Heb. 12:3-13). It is likely that God will discipline the unrepentant believer to bring him to repentance, but in some cases God ends the life of an unrepentant believer, rather than allowing him to continue in his sinful living (1 Cor. 11:29-32).
But, if the individual remains unrepentant we must forgive so we are not sinning against God by withholding forgiveness (2 Cor. 2:5-11; Eph. 4:26-27, 32). Listen to what Jesus said about withholding forgiveness, “For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing” (Matt. 6:14–15). Obviously Christians have already received forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God, but this refers to forgiveness of sin in the lives of believers to maintain (or experience) close fellowship with God (1 John 1:9-2:2). Therefore, if we withhold forgiveness we are sinning against God and will not experience a close relationship with God, until we are willing to repent and forgive the one who sinned against us.
Let’s say you have forgiven the unrepentant individual, does that mean that it is as though nothing ever happened? I would say the answer is no. For there to be true reconciliation there would need to be repentance. When a person sins against you, expresses repentance, and seeks to make things right, then reconciliation is possible. An example of repentance (demonstrated by him making restitution) is Zaccheus (Lk. 19:8-10). He was truly repentant and showed it. But, if there is no repentance, even though you have forgiven and left vengeance to God, there can be no reconciliation. Things cannot be as they were prior to the sin, apart from repentance. In interacting with the unrepentant individual you should be godly, but you cannot act as though nothing ever occurred. The relationship will not be what it was apart from reconciliation, which necessitates repentance. The obligation you have is to pray for the unrepentant one.
Sadly, there are multitudes of Christians who have refused to forgive and leave vengeance to God. There are many who have refused reconciliation with repentant individuals. Both of these responses are sin, which result in bitterness and a relationship with God that is distant. On the other hand, there are unrepentant professing Christians who have made reconciliation impossible and created disunity in marriages, families, and churches. This is sin and it results in a relationship with God that is distant. Reconciliation is always the goal biblically. Next time, I will discuss what our biblical responsibility is in the process of biblical reconciliation.
One final thought, there are many erroneous thoughts about forgiveness. Some say they can’t forgive. Forgiveness is a choice and it is what God instructs us to do. Some say you should forgive and forget. It is humanly impossible to forget. When God forgave our sin He chose not to hold us accountable for our transgressions because we repented and believed the gospel. He is not able to forget that we sinned because He knows everything. He knows what we did (Eph. 2:1-10; 1 Cor. 6:9-11), but chose to forgive us and reconcile us to Himself in Christ (Rom. 5:1-5; 2 Cor. 5:17-21). You cannot forget, but you can forgive, through God’s gracious enablement. If someone refuses to repent and be reconciled with you, then you must pray for him, but you cannot force repentance and reconciliation. Romans 12 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Rom. 12:17–21). This is how we honor God when someone sins against us and refuses to repent and be reconciled with us. Pray for God’s help to respond biblically because on our own we cannot do it.