What does forgiveness really mean, biblically? Should we forgive people who haven’t repented? They’re questions all Christians have probably wondered about at some point.
The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35 is really helpful for learning about the foundation and mechanics of forgiveness. As you read it, watch for the actions of the people in the story:
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”Matthew 18:21-35
Let’s zero in on the king’s actions in verse 27: And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. What did the king do?
First, he had compassion for the servant who had gotten himself into something he couldn’t get out of. And that’s always the case when someone sins against us – she’s done something she can’t undo. She might be able to apologize, or even make some sort of restitution, but she can’t go back in time and not sin against you so that things are like they used to be. It’s impossible. So we have compassion on those who are stuck in an impossible situation. We show them mercy.
Next, the king released the servant. He “unstuck” the servant from this impossible situation. The king made a proactive decision that he was not going to hold the servant captive to this situation of his wrongdoing any more. The king decided he was going to set the servant free from it and let him go.
Finally, the king forgave the servant’s debt. He surrendered his right to exact payment from the servant, and absorbed the loss himself. He zeroed out the account. He marked the bill “paid in full”. He said, “We’re good. We’re square on this.”.
Now just to drive the point home, look at how the servant demonstrates the exact opposite – unforgiveness – with his fellow servant. Look at verse 28- “…he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’.”
He didn’t release the debtor, he seized him. He didn’t give up his right to exact payment from his fellow servant, he tried to extract payment – by choking him and demanding the debt be paid.
Verse 29- So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’
And look at this point for point antithesis of compassion, release, and forgiveness of debt in verse 30: “He refused, and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”
The servant refused to show show the debtor compassion. The servant had the debtor put in prison, the definition of captivity, and the opposite of release. He keeps the debtor stuck in his impossible situation. Because, if you’re in prison, how are you going to work to earn money to pay your debt? The servant’s attitude was, “I’m not going to absorb the loss. I’m not going to pay the cost – you’re going to pay it. Even though you’re stuck in this impossible situation where there’s no way to pay it. And even if there were a way, you’d be incapable of paying that much.”
Isn’t that whole story an amazing illustration of what it means to forgive? We show mercy and compassion. We give up our right to make the person who sinned against us pay, and we set her free from captivity to the impossible situation of us being angry or hurt at her over something she can’t change.
And you know what’s even more phenomenal about this? Who’s telling this story? Jesus, right? He’s the king in this story. The King of kings. And not too long after this, He’s going to perfectly practice what He preached. He’s going to have compassion on us because we are stuck in the impossible situation of having racked up an enormous sin debt against Him that we have no way of ever paying off, and no ability to pay off that much even if there were a way.
And that compassion is going to lead him to show mercy to us and provide us a way to get unstuck. He’s going to go to the cross to release us and forgive our debt. He sets us free from being in captivity to our impossible state of indebtedness to Him. And He doesn’t just absorb the cost of our sin, He actually pays it with the currency of His own blood. He can mark the bill “paid in full” because He paid it Himself.
And that’s why we forgive others. Because Christ forgave us infinitely more.
Now, in this story, both the first servant and the second servant repented to the person he was indebted to. But what about someone who sins against you and doesn’t repent? Can you still forgive her? Should you still forgive her?1
Well, let’s go back to the text. Can you adopt a posture of mercy and compassion toward the person who sinned against you, even if she doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong? Even if she’s not aware of your mercy and compassion? Yes, because that mercy and compassion originate and live in your heart. It’s primarily an internal posture of the heart, whether you can pour it out externally or not.
Can you make the decision to set her free from your anger or hurt feelings? Yep. Again, that’s an internal decision and attitude of the heart before it ever becomes an external action of responding to someone who repents. Can you surrender your right to make her pay for what she’s done? Yes, you can make that decision of the heart that her bill is paid in full and she no longer owes you.
We would do well to remember…
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:6-8
While you were still actively sinning against Him, before you knew what sin was, before you understood you were a sinner, while you were a hater of God, Christ died for you. He showed mercy and compassion to you. He provided a way out of your impossible situation. He paid your debt in full. Romans 2:4 says that kindness is what led us to repentance.
Now, you don’t know whether your kindness in forgiving someone in your heart will ever lead that person to repent, but that part isn’t your business. That’s above your paygrade. Your paygrade is to obey God and forgive. That’s where your job stops. It’s God’s job to handle the results.
But what about forgiving a person who’s dangerous or harmful? Forgiving someone who’s unrepentant doesn’t require you to put yourself into situations with that person that allow him or her to keep on unrepentantly sinning against you. For example: If you’re in an abusive marriage, you can forgive your unrepentant husband in your heart while living somewhere safe. Scripture does not require you to move back in with him and give him the opportunity to keep sinning against you.
Forgiveness doesn’t require the other person to repent but reconciliation does. Forgiveness is a one man job. Reconciliation is a two way street. You can’t be reconciled to someone who refuses to be reconciled to you.
Forgiveness can be difficult, but no one has sinned against us as much as we’ve sinned against Christ. Because we have been forgiven much by Christ, we should be eager to lavish that forgiveness on those who sin against us.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.Colossians 3:12-13
1Some Christians believe it is unbiblical to forgive someone who has not repented to the person he has sinned against. My question to those Christians is, “OK, what does that look like in your heart and life?” Do you hate that person who sinned against you? Harbor bitterness against him? What if it’s someone you see regularly, like a family member, fellow church member, or co-worker? Do you give her the silent treatment? Leave the room whenever she comes in? If not forgiveness, what is your behavior toward that person and the posture of your heart toward that person?”. If you’re uncomfortable using the word “forgive” in such instances, consider some of the other verbiage I’ve used in this article such as “compassion,” “release,” or “not harboring bitterness against.” You may not be reconciled to the person until he repents, but Scripture doesn’t leave any room for holding grudges or being ugly towards others.