Christian Forgiveness: Conditional Or Unconditional?

The_Crucifixion001I read a new thing about forgiveness today—well, new to me. The idea popped up on a post at Spec Faith by Stephen Burnett, then expanded as I followed a link to a post by Kevin DeYoung. I respect both of these men, but I have to admit, I think they’re missing something important about Christian forgiveness.

As I understand the principle they’re presenting, they believe there are two ideas about forgiveness: one, a therapeutic forgiveness that is popular today even in the secular world, and two, a Biblical forgiveness that is dependent upon the repentance of the offender.

In his article about these two types of forgiveness, Mr. DeYoung goes to pains to explain that the second type of forgiveness in no way condones an attitude of bitterness or revenge:

We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them.

The foundational thought to this idea that a Christian only forgives those who repent, is that we are to forgive like God forgives and He forgives conditionally—that condition being repentance.

Let me back up and explain “therapeutic forgiveness.” I’d not heard the term before, but I think it does describe a humanistic co-oping of a Biblical principle. The idea here is that giving forgiveness makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. There is no intent to reconcile, however. It’s just a way of escaping negative feelings like anger and bitterness.

Many Christians, influenced by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. (“What Is Forgiveness?”)

The Biblical view, according to Mr. DeYoung, is that forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Hence, the Christian should always be ready to forgive, but true forgiveness only comes when both parties move toward one another, repenting and receiving or offering forgiveness as necessary.

Again the rationale behind this concept is the Scriptural statement that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Eph. 4:32)

I’ll admit, I have problems with this approach. First, I don’t think there has to be two choices: either therapeutic or Biblical conditional forgiveness. I think there can easily be a third option: Biblical unconditional forgiveness.

Part of my thinking is that some Bible scholars get tied up trying to think the way God thinks. Mr. DeYoung, then, says God’s forgiveness is conditional and therefore ours should be too, as if it’s possible for us to understand the conditional nature of God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but doesn’t Ephesians 4:32 say that’s how we are to forgive? I don’t think necessarily it does. I don’t read the verse as saying we are to forgive in the same manner that God forgives, but that we are to forgive because we received forgiveness.

Paul says essentially the same thing in Col. 3:13:

bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The intent does not seem focused on forgiving in like manner but extending to others the forgiveness we received.

In other words, I see these verses mirroring Jesus’s instructions to forgive in response to the forgiveness we received. See, for example, the parable He told about the slave who received forgiveness for his debt only to turn around and withhold forgiveness from his fellow slave:

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:32-33; see the entire parable in vv. 23-35)

It seems apparent to me that this “in the same way” is not talking about manner or even condition. In reality neither slave asked that their debt would be forgiven. They asked for more time to pay it off themselves. The act of forgiveness was an extension of mercy—the undeserved offer to cancel the debt.

This is what Christ did on the cross

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)

As I read those verses, I’m convinced that God didn’t forgive us when we had put ourselves in a position to deserve it by repenting. He went to the cross while we were yet sinners.

Consequently, I don’t believe as Mr. DeYoung does that God’s forgiveness was conditional. He gave His forgiveness to anyone and everyone, but not everyone has accepted it. When Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), I think the words “world” and “whoever” remove conditions from God’s side of the equation.

When Paul instructed Timothy to pray for all men, he explained his reasoning this way:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

There are literally dozens of verses throughout the Bible that carry this same idea. But one of the most telling, for me, is 2 Thess. 2:10ff which looks at salvation and forgiveness from the side of those who do not accept it:

[the lawless one will come with all power and signs and false wonders] 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (Emphasis added.)

These who perish did not receive, implying that they could have received. They took pleasure in wickedness, implying that they could have refrained from taking pleasure in wickedness. They did not believe the truth, implying they could have believed the truth.

All this to say, the third reason I don’t believe forgiveness for the Christian is conditional, based on the repentance of the offender, is because I don’t believe God’s forgiveness is conditional.

I understand there are believers of a different doctrinal persuasion from mine who will disagree, but maybe two out of three reasons will be enough to make the case against this idea that forgiveness needs to be earned by repentance.


  1. Hi Rebecca

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. I agree with you that Biblical forgiveness should be unconditional. However I can see why some people are advocating conditionality: there are increasing numbers of Christians who expect to be forgiven for lying to or stealing from fellow Christians and are the first to accuse those fellow Christians of being bitter and unbiblical if they struggle with forgiveness. Thus compounding the lie or the theft with a manipulative effort to evoke guilt.

    Imagine this scenario: I steal your car. You discover I am the thief and forgive me unconditionally. I say, ‘Sorry, Rebecca’ and you ask me to bring the car back. I am astonished at your hypocrisy. ‘Didn’t you forgive me?’ I ask. I expect to keep your car because you’ve forgiven me.

    This is an extreme case but I have been through similar recently. Having put considerable thought into what the correct response should be, I conclude that God is not a Lord of injustice and to resolve a situation expecting that mercy should not be accompanied by justice is unbiblical.

    I therefore conclude this: there are two aspects to this situation. In the imaginary scenario above where I steal your car, you should – before God – unconditionally forgive me.

    But – this does not absolve me. I need to reconcile with you. Your part in the reconciliation process is forgiveness. Mine is repentance and restitution.

    Just as it needs two to tango, it needs two to reconcile. It is interesting that Jesus suggests that it is necessary to reconcile with each other before we can reconcile with God.. (Matthew 5:24)


  2. My pastor Steve Cornell (think always says that forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things. We are commanded to always forgive, but that does not mean that we should always have reconciliation.

    Forgiveness, unlike reconciliation, is not dependent on the other person. It is me following God’s command. It is me passing along the grace that has been given to me by God. It is not about making me feel better ( that is often a side effect), but about obedience.

    Reconciliation, however, does partly depend on the other person and sometimes it can begin to happen right away. But sometimes reconciliation takes a very long time. And in certain circumstances, like abusive relationships, even if the other person asks for forgiveness, reconciliation is not the right thing.
    . ..


    • That sums it up quite well, I think, Kristen.


  3. There is the heart matter of forgiveness where we love and understand the person who has sinned against us, the spiritual matter of renouncing the sin debt of the person who has sinned against us and not holding their sin against them or demanding punishment inflicted on them, and there is the reconciliation with the sinner.

    We all should love and understand those who have harmed us. Life is hard. Everyone is wounded and their wounds or lack of wisdom cause them to hurt others. Heck folks are always being wounded by us because we also don’t “know” how we hurt others.

    We can renounce our desire to see the other person suffer for the wounds they cause us. We can renounce our desire for the person to even understand how they have hurt us. We can renounce our desire that God punish the other person for their sins. Then in the spiritual realm, the sin is no longer between us and the person. But we cannot tell God what to do with the other person. The sinner is now in God’s hands without us interfering. God can then do whatever he wants with that person without our wounds getting in the way.

    We need not reconcile with those who have wounded us. In the spiritual realm, we are already reconciled in the spirit because we have no hate against them. But if the person has not grown or repented, we might get hurt again. There are too many instances of abusive husbands saying they are “sorry” and getting the church and the pastor to help them “reconcile” with their wife…but the abusive person still hasn’t grown or changed and continues the abuse. The Bible has called us to peace, to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, to not cast our pearls before swine.


  4. Thanks for these questions and comments. Very thought-provoking. I realized yesterday as I zipped past what I consider a reasonable length for a blog post that (a) this is a much more complex issue than it looks on the surface, and (b) I probably need to write about it some more. Because, yes, if a person forgives unconditionally, does that mean we are giving a free pass to people to use, bully, and abuse? And if forgiveness is something other than reconciliation, then what is it? And what about the New Testament statement by the Pharisees–No one can forgive but God. Were they right? And if so, what does our forgiveness look like and/or accomplish? So, I think I’ll explore this topic some more. Appreciate your feedback.



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