When and How to Forgive

There are many who are of the opinion that forgiveness should only be given to those who have either asked for forgiveness or have some how demonstrated true repentance. They say it is because the Bible says that without repentance, there is no forgiveness of sins, therefore no salvation (Luke 13:1-5).

It's true that if a person does not repent of their sins, ask God for forgiveness, and trust their lives to Jesus Christ, they will suffer the full penalty of their sins. But we're not talking about God's forgiveness that is necessary for salvation, we're only discussing the gift of forgiveness from one sinner to another.

As Christians, we understand that before anyone sins against us, they first sin against God. Therefore, it would be proper that they ask God for forgiveness BEFORE they seek our forgiveness.

"Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;"
~ Hebrews 12:14

There are those who say, "I will forgive him/her when they ask for forgiveness for every specific sin they have committed against me, take responsibility for it and completely repent, or I will not forgive them."

To those who are in this camp, let me share with you what God says about that:

"For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls."
~ 1 Peter 2:21-25

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;"
~ 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 

"For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
~ Matthew 6:14-15

When Jesus told someone He forgave them, even He didn't require they list every sin before He forgave them. Therefore, if Jesus, who is God, did not require for a person to recount every possible sin they've committed (because in reality, who can do that?), then why does it seem reasonable that we require such a thing? When we begin to "add" to God's law (rather than rightly judge in accordance with His Word and precepts), we are no longer loving and serving God, but we are arrogantly taking the seat of judge.

"Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, He who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?"
~ James 4:11-12

So then, when and how should children of the Most High God forgive?

"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you....But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful."
~ Luke 6:27-28, 35-36
According to God's Word, we are not held in bondage to offer the gift of forgiveness by another person's unwillingness to repent, but we have been set free by Christ Jesus to freely offer forgiveness to anyone and everyone who sins against us...at any time. What wonderful freedom and joy we have in Christ!

Jim refused to do that. He had read a popular Christian book on forgiveness, and the book taught that forgiveness can never be granted until the other party repents and seeks forgiveness. Jim now believes he is justified in withholding forgiveness from his brother as long as the other man refuses to admit he was wrong. Jim is determined to see that he gets justice, and he has already spent several years seeking someone who will take up his cause. But almost everyone has given him the same advice: "The issue is petty. It's your word against the other fellow's. This might not be resolved until Christ Himself sorts it out and you lay your differences aside in heaven. Give it up and move on. It is beginning to dominate your life and rob you of opportunities to bear the fruit of the Spirit."

I don't know whether Jim or the other fellow was at fault in the original dispute. It may well be that both of them were partly wrong. But even if the other fellow was totally at fault, I believe Jim is clearly wrong to hang on to his bitterness and justify his refusal to forgive on the ground that the offender has not repented. This is precisely the kind of situation in which we are supposed to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). Those who keep account of such wrongs, constantly demanding redress of personal affronts, are violating the very spirit of Christ.

I am convinced that many, if not most, of the personal problems Christians see counselors for have to do with forgiveness. And there are some difficult questions surrounding this subject of forgiveness.

In this booklet I want to address some of those issues. These are some of the hardest questions about forgiveness that have come my way in thirty years of ministry.

excerpt from, Answering the Hard Questions About Forgiveness
by John MacArthur

WHEN to forgive:
We should forgive as soon as we can, so no seed of bitterness can take root in our hearts, deceiving us to believe that some how we are "better" than the offending party.

HOW to forgive:
Just as Christ our God has forgiven us, with great love, compassion and mercy.

"Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs."
~ 2 Corinthians 2:5-11
Please do not be deceived into believing there is a twelve-step program or some other ordinance that must be performed prior to forgiving anyone. The only "process" necessary to forgive someone is the process of you dying to yourself and whatever it is you're holding onto that is keeping you in the bondage of unforgiveness.

I know that forgiving others for horrendous sins committed against you are hard. I've been there.

When I forgave loved ones for years of brutality, it was in an instant....the instant God revealed to me my bitterness, self-righteousness and false piety. I broke down in tears and asked them for forgiveness as I had become bitter and unkind (I didn't do anything "mean", but I also wasn't very loving either). I had convinced myself that doing "nice" things (that really I could pay someone else to do) was a "good" thing. I was only fulfilling my duties.

God's love is tender, it is gentle, it looks the offender in the eye and says, "I love you. I forgive you. Let us never bring this subject up again as I can see the pain it causes you. But let us instead move forward from here and never look back again." This is what I did, only through Christ's strength and holy love.

If you can't look your offender in the eye and tell them you you forgive them, then you have not forgiven them and you are still bound by the sin of unforgiveness.

I pray that you too will be set free from the bondage of unforgiveness, so that others who see your life, will see Christ and His majesty, and not the self-righteousness that is of this world.

With every breath we take, we come closer to seeing our Maker face-to-face. In light of that truth, let us strive to decrease so that the fullness of Christ's life may increasingly be manifested in us, for the glory of God alone.

May the Lamb who was slain, alone, receive the full glory (Revelation 5:12).