"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God in Christ also forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32)This is a glorious verse we as Christians must not only hide in our hearts and minds, but also one that we must live out in our daily lives as we press on towards the Celestial City.
Since we live in a sinful world, and since it is [therefore] inevitable that we will be unjustly sinned against, the question we need to answer is this: if someone sins against us, are we to forgive them even when they refuse to acknowledge their wrong and/or repent? How are we to understand Paul's exhortation for Christians to forgive others "even as also" God forgave them?
The answer to this question is impossible until we first answer the prerequisite question, namely, "How was the forgiveness we received from God granted?"
The Bible makes it explicitly clear that those who refuse to repent for their sins will not - indeed, cannot - receive the forgiveness that God offers them. Perhaps the most explicit example is one of the most famous OT passages quoted so frequently in the NT. In Isaiah 6, the prophet is commissioned to preach the gospel to the rebellious and impenitent nation of Israel. The prophet's message is simply this: if Israel would but heed the prophet's message and "turn," she would be "healed" (6:10).
The word "turn" is the Hebrew word shuv (rhymes with "groove"), and in most contexts it means "to repent" or "turn back towards." Here, then, it is abundantly clear that if Israel would only "turn from" their idolatry and rebellion and "turn to" Yahweh, He would "heal", that is, forgive them (see Isaiah 53:5 for the same analogy of God's sinful people being 'healed' of their 'disease' [= "sin"]).
Simply put, unless the people heed God's offer and repent, they will not be forgiven.
This is seen in other passages, such as:
"If My people, who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14)
"It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin." (Jeremiah 36:3)
"Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy." (Proverbs 28:13)
"Repent...for the forgiveness of your sins." (Acts 2:38)Repentance is the necessary prerequisite to the reception of divine forgiveness. The pattern is pretty simple: if A (repentance), then B (forgiveness); if no A, then no B.
Our question, then, is this: does this divine equation apply to us as God's people? Do we have the right, based upon the precedent of Scripture, to withhold forgiveness from those who forget, or even refuse, to seek reconciliation with us as the offended party? Are we able to say, "Well, Paul commands us in Ephesians 5:1 to be imitators of God, and so I'm just trying to follow His example [of not forgiving those who refuse to seek it] as one of His beloved children."
Is it possible for us, in following God's example, to hold out forgiveness while withholding it?
Furthermore, we may reason, doesn't the forgiveness of unrepentant sin contradict the very gospel we cherish so much? When forgiveness is offered so cavalierly, aren't we promoting what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called 'cheap grace'? Does not such a disposition encourage others to sin with impunity?
Logically, does it not seem fair to deduce that even though God really doesn't like (editor's note: make that "hates") our sin or our rebellion against Him, He is yet willing to sweep our sins under the cosmic carpet of His forgiveness, since His greatest desire is not justice, but removing any barrier that keeps us from Him (regardless of whether we want it removed or not)? Though God 'prefers' repentance, will He settle for less?
Really, if we're honest with ourselves, do we not "outdo" God in the department of forgiveness when we forgive others who have not apologized or repented? Are we 'more forgiving' than God when we forgive the impenitent?
These are questions we need to wrestle with and ponder over until I attempt to reconcile this with the explicit NT commands that call God's people to unreservedly forgive those who have offended them, even if/when they refuse to apologize and/or repent.
In Christ, the One in whom God's sheep are fully and forever forgiven,