Children of God should love all men, even their enemies, and when they repent, forgive them. Occasionally, I am asked if it is our duty to forgive those who sin against us when they neither ask for nor desire forgiveness. It is not only not our duty to do so, were we so disposed, but it is an utter impossibility.
The question recurs because many people persist in disregarding what the Scriptures teach is involved in genuine repentance and by substituting their concept of what they feel forgiveness should include. Those who do this imply, whether they intend to or not, that forgiveness is simply the cancellation of all bitter, revengeful, and uncharitable feelings toward those who sin against us, and the substitution of a disposition of kindness, love, and warm regard for the offending one or ones—a disposition, they urge, which should always be characteristic of faithful Christians.
But many devoted and dedicated disciples of the Lord never experience bitter, revengeful, and uncharitable feelings toward those who sin against them, however cruel and heartless such actions may have been. This attitude of a kind disposition is not forgiveness, anyway. God never entertains “bitter, revengeful, and uncharitable” feelings toward even the most vile of sinners, but He forgives only those who repent.
Our Lord, in the shadows of Gethsemane, prayed for those who hated Him so much they sought and obtained His execution, but He did not forgive them until they repented. Amid the agonies of the cross, He said to His Father, “forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), a petition not unconditional in nature, since by His own words first uttered in the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-16) and later applied by Peter it was intent that pardon be bestowed only on the basis of repentance and obedience to the commandments He gave (Acts 2:36-38).
The words remission and forgiveness often translate to the same Greek word aphesis, the meaning of which is “release,” and “sending of sins away” and the consequent restoration of the peaceful, cordial, and friendly relationship formerly existing. Unless the offender wants this “peaceful, cordial, friendly” relationship, it is impossible for the offended to affect it, however much he may desire and seek it.
It is this point people often say, “Yes, but we must be ready to forgive always,” as indeed we ought, but it should be recognized that such readiness is not forgiveness. Our Lord made crystal clear our obligation in all such cases when He said, “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times … turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). Thus, the divine edict is, if one sins against us, we are to rebuke him; and when he repents, we are to forgive him.
It is the duty of all children of God to love all men, even their enemies, actively to seek their good, and pray for their well-being; and, when they repent, to forgive them. It should ever be borne in mind that reconciliation is an integral and essential element of the relationship resulting from penitence on the part of the offender and forgiveness on the offended, and that is occasioned by an adjustment and settlement of all differences that led to the alienation. We must be sure that no action or attitude of ours deters the proper response of others to us because our fellowship here on Earth and our salvation in Heaven are matters intimately involved.
Guy N. Woods