Repentance And Forgiveness

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . .

                                                                                    –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The exception proves the rule.

We have rules and we have exceptions—each has its proper place.

Today, however, when the topic is forgiveness, we hear many Christians thoughtlessly citing the exception just as if it were the rule; it appears as if they have never heard and applied the true rule.  (Shades of Murphy’s Law! See Introduction) We hear the exception from Jesus on the cross (an exceptional circumstance indeed!) with reference to his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

When this verse is quoted out of context, the emphasis always falls on “Father, forgive them.” The remainder of the verse is all but forgotten.  Who are the “they” who “know not what they do”? I. Howard Marshall explains the verse in this manner: Jesus, addressing God, “asks him to forgive ‘them’ (the executioners, possibly all who are involved in his crucifixion), on the grounds of their ignorance; their sin is unwitting.”*

But Jesus also teaches us the clear rule that forgiveness is conditional based upon the repentance of the sinner: “Take heed to yourselves.  If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).

First, note that this concerns a “brother,” that is, a fellow believer.

Here, Jesus’ exhortation to forgive rests upon the conditional phrase, “if he repents.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, “Jesus recognized that there are conditions to be fulfilled before forgiveness can be granted.  Forgiveness is part of a mutual relationship; the other part is the repentance of the offender.  God does not forgive without repentance, nor is it required of mankind.”1 (This aspect of a mutual relationship has been banned from today’s self-centered, therapeutic notions about forgiveness.)

In expositing Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47), F. F. Bruce states, “It would be a mistake to link the words ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ with the command ‘be baptized’ to the exclusion of the prior command to repent. . . . blotting out of the people’s sins is a direct consequence of their repenting and turning to God.”

And we must not confuse these two aspects: though forgiveness is conditional on repentance, it is also unlimited, even to seventy times seven.

*The New International Greek Testament Commentary 

From Chapter Three,  Love, Prayer, And Forgiveness    

5 comments on “Repentance And Forgiveness

  1. Hi Mike. So are you saying that we ought to forgive unconditionally non-Christians on the grounds that they are ignorant of the sins they are committing, but we withhold forgiveness of Christians until we first rebuke them and they then acknowledge their wrong? I’m not sure I was reading your post correctly, and if I am, I suspect I don’t agree with that interpretation of Luke 17 and Luke 23. But regardless, a thoughtful reflection.

    You would enjoy reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon on Luke 23:34 in which he focuses on how it can be helpful in loving our enemies to acknowledge that sometimes people commit evil out of ignorance…thinking they are doing right. It is a really powerful sermon. You can read it in his collection of sermons entitled “Strength To Love”.

    Grace and peace,

    • Michael Snow says:

      Jason, this was a hard post to put in just a few words. This just outlines Jesus’ teaching to point out how many people take it out of context. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He says nothing about forgiving them. On the cross, his executioners were simply public servants doing their civic duty. And all that we can say for certain is that his forgiveness applied to them.

      I deal at length with this topic in the whole third chapter in the book. I would be glad to send you the pdf. There is a contact link on my website or you could send me a message on facebook but I don’t check there regularly

  2. Very true. As the following scriptures show, we need to repent of our sins so that we can receive God’s forgiveness:

    “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14

    Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.” – Acts 2:38-39

    “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” – Acts 17:30

    Jesus Christ preached repentance:

    “From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” – Matthew 4:17

  3. […] [Exhortaton…do right   Heart and Mind;  The Love Chapter;  Of Ponds and Pitfalls;    Repentance and Forgiveness […]

  4. Steve Brown says:

    I enjoyed this post, thanks. I wish these words would come out of the mouth of Pope Francis.

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