Forgiving Without Repentance


After last Sunday’s message, a friend sent the following e-mail: “The sermon was a hard one for me this Sunday. Forgiving someone when they refuse to apologize is where I am struggling. I have been hurt too much. Tough!” My friend is right. Forgiving is hard enough even when the person who hurt you asks you to forgive them. But what do you do when there is no admission of wrongdoing? How can you forgive without repentance? After all, Jesus himself said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). I think the answer comes from something John Calvin wrote over 400 years ago. He said there are two kinds of forgiveness. The first is the kind where the person who did the wrong admits it, comes to you asking forgiveness, you grant it and the relationship is restored. That’s the best kind. That’s the ideal. There is confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. And I should add, even in this “ideal” situation, forgiveness will not come easily or quickly or without cost. Unfortunately, in this fallen world the ideal is not always possible. Sometimes people who have wronged us will not admit their guilt no matter what we do. In fact, sometimes they will lie to cover up the truth. Sometimes they will cut off the relationship rather than face the hard work of reconciliation. Sometimes they will keep right on hurting us on purpose. How can you forgive in a situation like that? Calvin said you can forgive even in that situation in the sense that you let go of your anger and bitterness and refuse to let the hurt dominate your own life. True, the relationship remains broken. It may never be healed. But you can choose not to remember the sins of others. You can choose to wipe the slate clean so that your life is free from bitterness. That’s not easy but it’s far better than living in the past nursing a wounded spirit. Forgiveness starts in your own heart. In a profound sense, forgiveness is something you do that doesn’t have anything to do with the person who hurt you. Your forgiveness does not depend on their response–positive or negative. It’s a gift you give because you want to be set free from the inner torment of living with negative feelings toward other people. You may forgive someone and they may never know it. Some people are so thickheaded that they will never admit they did anything wrong. Until they do, you can never have a close relationship with them, and even if they do confess their wrongdoing, you still may choose not to be close to them. But how others respond is a secondary issue. When you forgive from the heart, God knows what you have done, and that’s all that matters.

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