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Can We Forgive When the Offender Doesn’t Repent?

Forgiveness is excruciating. Who wants to pardon the perpetrator who maliciously wounded us? Forgiveness can also be confusing. What should we do when the person who wronged us doesn’t repent? He doesn’t own what he did, say he’s sorry, and mean it. What then?

Some theologians argue it’s wrong to forgive an impenitent offender, while others say it’s wrong not to. Let’s review the arguments for both options and see if we can find a solution.

Forgiveness Requires Repentance

In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns gives four compelling reasons why we mustn’t forgive unless the offender repents.

1. Forgiveness without repentance isn’t biblical.

Paul tells us to forgive others “just as in Christ God forgave [us]” (Eph. 4:32, NIV), and God demands repentance before he pardons. When convicted sinners asked Peter what they must do, he said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). There are no finally forgiven people in hell.

2. Forgiveness without repentance creates a moral hazard.

If I pay the moral debt of an impenitent offender, I fail to hold him accountable. I increase the chances he’ll strike again. He’s learned he can get away with it and may aim for more.

3. Forgiveness without repentance isn’t morally serious.

It fails to account for the offense. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes,

I can be willing to forgive him—when he repents. I can have a forgiving disposition toward him. But it appears to me that no longer to hold against someone the wrong he did one while believing that he himself continues to stand behind the deed, requires not treating the deed or its doer with the moral seriousness required for forgiveness; it is to downplay rather than forgive.

Truth and reconciliation commissions in both Rwanda and South Africa emphasized there can be no forgiveness without confession. It’s dangerously naive to attempt to reconcile bitter parties if the offenders don’t own what they’ve done.

4. Forgiveness without repentance easily slides into therapeutic forgiveness.

A popular and mistaken view assumes the point of forgiveness is my mental health: “It doesn’t matter if she repents for what she did to me. I forgive for my sake, to break the chains of her offense and take back control of my life. I forgive her so I can forget her and move on.”

Forgiveness is excruciating. It can also be confusing.

While there can be therapeutic benefits to forgiveness, forgiving for the sake of these benefits isn’t genuine. It’s yet another defensive move dressed in its Sunday best, aimed at shoving the offender out of the way. But true forgiveness isn’t selfish. It aims at reconciliation, seeking what’s best for the offending party—her repentance and the restoration of the relationship to the degree possible (some consequences may remain).

Those arguing forgiveness requires repentance aren’t saying the offender’s impenitence permits us to hold a grudge. They insist we must do the difficult internal work that prepares our hearts to forgive. We must cultivate an attitude of forgiveness, unconditionally offering forgiveness to all guilty parties. We tell all offenders we stand ready to pay their moral debt if they own what they did. Yet we don’t pardon them; we don’t say the words “I forgive you” until and unless they repent.

(Internal) Forgiveness Does Not Require Repentance

Other theologians notice these two steps in forgiveness—the internal heart work and the external shaking of hands—and suggest the term “forgiveness” should be used for both parts. Tim Keller calls them “inward” and “outward” forgiveness, and David Powlison says they’re “attitudinal” and “transacted” forgiveness.

Both agree the “forgiveness” label is properly used for the first stage—the agonizing task of releasing the offender’s moral debt in the heart—and that this must occur whether or not the offender repents. Jesus prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), and Stephen prayed for his executioners, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60), so we must forgive everyone in our hearts. Don Carson agrees with Keller and Powlison in principle, but uses “forgiveness” for the first stage and “reconciliation” for the second.

Carson’s view of forgiveness coincides with his understanding of the atonement. As Jesus’s death is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect who thereby believe, so our forgiveness of all is only applied to those who receive it and are reconciled. This two-stage approach is similar to the Lutheran notion of “objective” and “subjective” justification. Objectively God declares the world to be not guilty because of Jesus’s death, yet subjectively this must be applied to each person by saving faith.

This approach guards against the extremes of bitterness on the one hand and cheap grace on the other. We aren’t allowed to nurse grudges; we must forgive every offense inwardly. Yet we won’t reconcile or transact that forgiveness until and unless the offender repents. The world isn’t too dark: we must always forgive. And the world isn’t too airy and light: we require responsibility before reconciliation.

However, saying we must forgive everyone in our hearts raises significant issues. How can we pardon impenitent offenders and avoid the dangers Brauns notes above? Isn’t pardon without repentance an unbiblical, therapeutic attempt that creates moral hazard and fails to treat the offense with the moral seriousness it deserves?

Escrow Forgiveness

I propose a modified two-stage approach that I believe solves these problems. In the case of unrepentant offenders, we must forgive and yet not pardon them. This seems strange because it is. Sin makes things weird. The same sinners who need forgiveness are liable to mess up their repentance, gumming up the path from confession to reconciliation. In such cases, we must separate the two normally united elements: payment and pardon.

Forgiveness means to pardon an offender by paying/absorbing his moral debt.

When an offender repents, it’s clear we should both pay and pardon. We absorb the moral cost of being sinned against and assure the offender of our forgiveness. When the offender doesn’t repent for whatever reason—perhaps he’s hard-hearted or has died—we must separate the payment from the pardon. We don’t pardon him (and gloss over his offenses), because he hasn’t repented, yet we still must absorb the moral cost.

During our church’s discussion of forgiveness, my friend Robert Wynalda III suggested we do this by writing a moral check in the offender’s name and placing it in a moral escrow account, accessible to him when he repents.

This solution should satisfy those who rightly insist forgiveness requires repentance because pardon is conditional on the person declaring moral bankruptcy. No repentance, no pardon.

I propose a modified two-stage approach that I believe solves these problems. In the case of unrepentant offenders, we must forgive and yet not pardon them.

And it should satisfy those who rightly insist the offender’s impenitence is no excuse to hold a grudge, because we do more than merely prepare our hearts to forgive. We do more than stand ready to pay, pen poised over our moral checkbook. We actually write the check. We pay the debt. It’s now out of our hands. It’s no longer our concern.

This solution gives counselors a practical way to help those struggling with bitterness. Forgiveness is rarely a one-off event, particularly for deep wounds. What if we gave people physical checkbooks so they could write checks to figurative escrow accounts, in the offenders’ names, for the amount they feel they were hurt? In this way, they’d pay but not yet pardon the offenses’ moral cost. They’d avoid both bitterness and cheap grace, and they’d treat both the offenses and God’s command to forgive with the moral seriousness each deserves.

An Illustration

To illustrate, consider a wife whose husband left her for another woman. The abandoned wife understandably falls into rage, jealousy, and bitterness. But she doesn’t succumb. By the grace of Christ she slogs through thickets of resentment, absorbing the cost of being sinned against by writing check after check in her husband’s name until finally she’s free. She no longer holds her husband’s offense against him. She stops running him down in front of their kids. She doesn’t need her pound of flesh. She has paid, but not yet pardoned. She is released, but not yet he.

His release only comes with his repentance. Years later he tearfully confesses his sin to her. He owns how he’s wronged her and their children and he makes restitution where he can. She tells him she forgives him. Many consequences remain, including lost years, broken trust, and a shattered family. But his staggering moral debt is erased.

One last point, and it’s important. When writing the moral check, remember it’s not our money. We don’t have the resources to forgive, especially for cold-blooded, personal attacks. Our Father doesn’t expect us to manufacture the grace that pays the moral debt. He does demand we draw from the endowment he has lavished on us.

We’re not generators of forgiveness. We’re mere distributors, forwarding our Savior’s hard-earned blood money to those who need it most.


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