My meditations on forgiveness for the unrepentant did not begin recently. The truth is that I have pondered this angle on forgiveness since I took a class called Ecclesiology in seminary. The Greek work for church is ekkleisia which means “called out”, hence, Ecclesiology is “the study of the called out church.” The church is a body of saints who have been called out of the world to represent Christ. The study of the church involves church discipline and this is where my thoughts began to take shape concerning forgiveness for the unrepentant. So come along with me now as I talk you through what for me was an enlightening adventure.
Question: Is the local church obligated to forgive the sin of an erring, unrepentant brother? The answer is absolutely not! Let’s begin with Matthew 18:15 and the verses that follow. If a so called brother sins against you, your desire should be that he will “hear” you when you tell him his fault. If he “hears” you, that is, agrees with you about his transgression against you, you have gained, restored your offending brother to fellowship. But if he will not hear you, get two or more witnesses. If after that, he will not acknowledge his sin, then tell the local church. If after the church pursues his confession but still he does not confess his sin, then the church is to regard him as an unbeliever (v.17).
Verses 18-20 admonish the church to do this in accordance with the authority of heaven itself – which is Christ! Christ stands over the church as the supreme Judge, endorsing this procedure in the church. But the church has only declared, “to bind”, what is already declared, “bound”, in heaven; the unrepentant person’s sins are retained! The unrepentant is not “loosed” from his sins on earth because he is not “loosed” in heaven. The church functions to represent Christ on earth: The erring, unrepentant believer is not released from his sin. It remains on him so much so that the church is instructed to view him as an unbeliever. Why? Because unrepentance is at the core of what an unbeliever is.
Then Peter, and no doubt, with some stubbornness of his own – and like all of us, asks the Lord how many times he should forgive his brother (v. 21). Why did Peter ask this question? There are only two options: 1) Either Peter believes that he and the church is to forgive an unrepentant brother, which would go against the stance of heaven, or; 2) he assumes that the process of church discipline will work, bringing the erring brother to agree with his sin that he committed, and thus obligating the church to forgive, to “loose” the brother from his sin. Which is it? I believe that the second is correct. Peter assumes that he will have to forgive a “hearing” brother more times than not. And this correct assumption about the success rate of church discipline to do its job, to restore a sinning brother, leads Christ to teach more on the subject of forgiveness.
With the following parable (vss. 23-34) Jesus shows us how to be like our heavenly Father. We are to be willing and ready to forgive when restoration is sought. The indebted servant said, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” The master was then moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. Notice that forgiveness, the releasing of obligation of debt came after the servant acknowledged his debt and pleaded for patience. Of course the debt is impossible to pay back and that is why the servant needs forgiveness. This servant enjoyed the consequence of his entreaty to the master, forgiveness of debt, but he did not reciprocate when a sub-servant also desired restoration.
Therefore, what did the Master do? Did he allow the ungrateful servant to remain in a “loosed” state? No! The angry Master now “bound” him with his debt and gave him over to be tortured until the debt is paid in full – which is eternal torture for the debt is infinite in its criminality. Therefore, what will our Heavenly Father do if we will not forgive from the heart an erring brother who has pleaded to be restored, forgiven, loosed from his debt? Our Father in heaven will not forgive us of our infinite debt. Should we take verse thirty-five out of its context and assume that Jesus is teaching us to forgive the unrepentant? I think not. Jesus is not commanding us to forgive unconditionally, for not even our heavenly Father does that. Jesus is teaching us to forgive when forgiveness is desired, just as our heavenly Father has done for us. And not only to forgive when restoration is sought, but to have a heart that is desirous to show compassion.
Luke 17:3-4 also supports this interpretation. Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (17:3-4 ESV)
The Matthew 18 passage and the Luke 17 text compliment each other and confirm the same that forgiveness is to be granted with compassion when the offender desires it and not until then. Given the clear and undeniable instruction on the issue from Jesus, I do not believe that we are to assume with contradiction that Jesus wants us to forgive the unrepentant in Matthew 6:12-15. Just because a passage does not have the fullest version on the subject does not mean we are free to construe a different paradigm of interpretation. I believe that it is improper to use Matthew 6:14 as a text to teach that we are to forgive the unrepentant just because it is silent on the condition of forgiveness which is repentance. Again, we have two options before us. We can either assume that repentance is a condition necessary for forgiveness, or we can assume that Jesus wants us to forgive the unrepentant. Given the evidence from Matthew 18 and Luke 17, my interpretation will lean to the former: Jesus wants us to be like our heavenly Father who gladly forgives when sinners cry for mercy (Luke 18:9-14).
We need to keep in mind that we are to forgive “even as” we have been forgiven. Ephesians 4:32 says, “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” How did God forgive us? Did He forgive us without punishing our sin? Did He forgive us without purchasing and giving us repentance (Ephesians 1:7; 2 Timothy 2:25-26)? No. He forgave us “in Christ.” This means that the Father forgave us our sins with respect and regard for and according to the work of Christ on the cross. The Father punished our sins in Christ. Then the Father gave us the good message: “Repent . . . for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). God was not only Just and Righteous when he punished and forgave us our sins in Christ for salvation (Romans 4:23-5:2) but He is also faithful and just to forgive us our sins now that we are the children of God (1 John 1:9). So whether before or after salvation, the forgiveness of our sins is predicated upon Christ’s atonement and our coming to Him for forgiveness. Therefore, any passage in the Bible that exhorts me to forgive others just as God has forgiven me or to forgive so that I can be forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25-26), I conclude that I am to forgive others when they desire forgiveness. I do not conclude that I am to forgive others when they don’t repent just because I am forgiven. I conclude that I am to forgive others on the same basis that I received forgiveness – which is repentance toward God, faith in God’s mercy in Christ, and confession of sins.
Oh how we need to pray for God to move hearts to repentance and to know the sweet fellowship of Christ and his church.