I’ve thought about this topic a great deal lately, and I think yes, some conditions do apply to Christian forgiveness.
This doesn’t mean we don’t forgive, of course. Luke 17:3-4 says, “…If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” And Mark 11:25 says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father, who is in heaven, may also forgive you your transgressions.”
But notice what Luke said. It didn’t just say “whenever someone wrongs you, forgive them.” It said “If he repents…” And this brought me to a new consideration of the word “forgive.”
In the verse in Mark, the word is aphiēmi, which means “to send away, send forth, yield up, or let go.” And this makes sense, given the context. If we’re praying, and we’re holding a grudge against someone, we need to let it go, to yield the problem up to God, and to not hold onto that wrong any longer.
Ephesians 4:31-32 confirms this, when it says, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” (Interestingly, the words “forgiving” and “forgave” here are another Greek word, charizomai, meaning “to do something pleasant or to grant a favor or pardon.”
And it says we are to forgive others as God forgives us. Psalm 86:5 says, “For you, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive; Abundant in loving kindness to all those who call on you.” In Luke 6:27-28, Jesus tells us to “[L]ove your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” But He doesn’t say to restore them without repenting.
And we can see from how God handles things that He does all He can to forgive us, up to the actual act of forgiving. He sent Jesus to bear our sins, as it says in 1 Peter 3:18: “Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteousness, that He might bring you to God…”
Yet this “bringing” doesn’t remove us from having to respond. God’s forgiveness doesn’t happen without something from our part. Romans 5:17 says, “For if by the trespass of the one, death reigned through the one; so much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus the Messiah.” It is “those who receive” who benefit from forgiveness and restoration with God, not those who do nothing and are unwilling to admit that they need forgiveness.
And similarly, true Christian forgiveness with other people can’t take place without an action on the part of the person who wronged us. No, we aren’t to hold a grudge, or hang onto bitterness or anger, as scripture says, but we cannot truly restore the wronged person without repentance.
The psalms discuss God’s forgiveness frequently. Psalm 85:2 says, “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people. You have covered all their sin.” Psalm 32:1 says, “Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Psalm 32:5 says, “I acknowledge my sin to you. I didn’t hide my iniquity. I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
The word “forgive” in these verses is nasa’, which means “to lift, to bear up, to support, aid, and assist,” which makes sense when we recall how forgiveness is linked with repentance. When we repent, we humble ourselves before God. We cast ourselves down and bow down before Him (metaphorically at least), admitting that we were wrong…and then God lifts us up, restoring us to relationship with Him.
And this is what needs to happen in our relationships with others. Like God, we need to be ready to forgive. In the meantime, we show them love and do good to them, as it says in Galatians 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let’s do what is good toward all men, and especially toward those who are of the household of faith.” If we are to show love to enemies and those who curse us, obviously we’re also to love those that aren’t “enemies” but have wronged us in some way.
But to forgive as God forgives, we have to wait for repentance before true restoration can happen. How can we forgive, or “lift up” someone when they aren’t even asking for it? When they haven’t humbled themselves at all, admitting they were wrong? This isn’t to say that they need to grovel or perform a certain way, racking up so many “nice actions towards us” before we let them back into our lives.
But they do have to recognize that a wrong happened. Christian forgiveness doesn’t just mean turning a blind eye and becoming a doormat. It means loving even those who are hateful, but there are boundaries. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we have to be close friends with people who hurt us, welcoming them into our daily lives no matter what they do. Loving others doesn’t mean “not loving and taking care of ourselves at all,” surrounding us with those who don’t care. And it doesn’t mean acting like nothing happened.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren