Do I need to forgive someone who's harmed me but never asked for forgiveness? Definitely not.
by Stephen Yuille on January 25, 2020
I am indebted to Chris Brauns for his insights in Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
A concept known as “therapeutic forgiveness” came into vogue in the 1980s. Simply put, it defines forgiveness as ceasing to feel anger or resentment toward a person who has wronged you. In so doing, it turns forgiveness into an emotion. This definition is now accepted orthodoxy within the church. But this concept of forgiveness is actually foreign to Scripture. Biblical forgiveness isn’t an emotion, but a transaction. How does God forgive? There are two essential ingredients: justice and repentance. God forgives those who repent on the basis of His satisfied justice in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. As a result, they’re reconciled and restored to Him. But there’s no restoration without forgiveness, and there’s no forgiveness without repentance. All that to say: God’s forgiveness is conditional, not unconditional.
God calls us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. In other words, the same essential ingredients must be present when we forgive. How do we react to those who wrong us and victimize us? How do we counsel those who are victims of crime, abandonment, slander, betrayal, or abuse? We remain focused on the cross.
The cross enables us to escape the prison of the past. How? Christ now shapes our identity. We no longer define ourselves by how others have mistreated us. We define ourselves by what God says about us in Christ.
The cross moves us to squash hatred and bitterness. It enables us to mortify the desire for personal revenge. We don’t repay evil for evil (Rom. 12:17). The cross engenders meekness, enabling us to seek the good of others.
The cross compels us to offer conditional forgiveness. When we contemplate the cross, we’re overwhelmed by God’s love for us, and we’re compelled to extend compassion to others – even those who’ve hated and abused us. “Forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). How does God forgive us? Where there’s repentance, there’s forgiveness. Where there’s forgiveness, there’s restoration. That’s a transaction. We offer this same conditional forgiveness to those who’ve wronged us. If they repent, we forgive them. And what if they refuse to repent? That brings us to the next point.
The cross strengthens us to wait for the Avenger. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). Although it might seem that those who abuse and misuse others are escaping the consequences of their actions, Paul assures us that God is a glorious Avenger. In the case of those who refuse to repent, there’s no forgiveness – only the certain expectation of judgment.
Interestingly, this was Paul’s outlook. On one occasion, he writes, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). How did Alexander harm Paul? We don’t know the details, but we do know it involved “great harm.” Take note: Paul doesn’t offer Alexander unconditional forgiveness. Undoubtedly, Paul mortified his desire for personal revenge. Undoubtedly, he would have been kind to Alexander if given the opportunity. Undoubtedly, he would have forgiven Alexander if he had repented of his sin. But without repentance, true biblical forgiveness is impossible. And so, what comforts Paul in the face of Alexander’s obstinate sin? Here it is: Paul rests in the undeniable fact that God “will repay him according to his deeds.”
How do we reconcile this understanding of biblical forgiveness with Christ’s words in Luke 23:34? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Note three details:
First, Christ has authority to forgive sins (Luke 5:20–24; 7:49), but He doesn’t forgive these men. Why doesn’t He offer them forgiveness at that very moment? Why doesn’t He turn to them, and say, “I offer you unconditional forgiveness for what you’re doing.”
Second, Christ does forgive one of the thieves on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Although the term isn’t used, forgiveness is clearly implied. Christ utters this declaration of forgiveness in response to the thief’s confession of sin. Interestingly, Christ doesn’t offer forgiveness to the other thief who ridicules Him. Why not?
Third, Christ asks His Father to forgive these men. I believe His request pertains to something that’s going to happen in the future. I believe the only conclusion we can make is that – at some point in their lives – these men repent of their sin, and God forgives them.
We see something similar in Acts 7:60. Stephen prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Did Christ answer Stephen prayer? He did in at least one case – Saul/Paul.