February 20, 2010 Q & A

Biblical Forgiveness


Is it biblical to forgive someone who has sinned against us even if they have not specifically asked us to forgive them of the offense? In other words, if they remain unrepentant, are we to forgive them regardless of their hardness of heart? A companion question that goes along with the first one is this. Is it biblical to have a forgiving attitude/spirit toward an offender while not actually verbalizing the forgiveness to the offender, since they have not repented nor asked for forgiveness?


This is a difficult question to answer in this format, and it is my observation that questions like this do not exist in a vacuum, but occur in a relational context that needs to be understood and appreciated. Thus, insofar as I imagine that this is a real situation, let me encourage you talk with your pastor about the matter as his answer, being better informed of the particulars, may prove to be more helpful.

Yes, it is biblical to forgive someone who has not asked for forgiveness. 1 Peter 4:8 indicates that "love covers a multitude of sins." Many Reformed pastors and literature take the view that this means that it is possible and biblical for a Christian to let love cover the sins of another without confronting them. This needs to be understood carefully, however. The point is not that this suggests that enabling someone to live in sin is good; nor is it to suggest that a Christian must let love cover all sins. But the love of God at work in us is such a gracious thing that it often enables us to look past the sins of another and cover them with love. Certainly this is something that occurs in the contexts of family and church relationships all the time. If someone is going to employ this language, than love really has to cover it; not drag or conceal it to a later time. It must truly be covered (forgiven).

However, there are sins which love is not able to cover either due to our weakness or the greatness of the sin. In this context, where love is incapable of covering the matter, we are compelled to go to our brother along the lines prescribed by Mattthw 18, unless we are the offending party, and then we should "leave our gift at the altar and go" seek reconciliation. If there is a difference of opinion on the matter, it should be settled by unambiguous evidence or objective testimony. This is one of thornier issues that relate to the matter. I have seen many instances where two people (i.e., a husband and wife or two people in the church) disagree over something. One feels offended; the other feels misunderstood. Sin is such a complicating thing that again I would suggest that love should attempt to cover the fault. If not, reconciliation should be sought through honest, clear communication, and the steps of Matthew 18 should be followed only after this, and where solid witnesses and/or evidence exists.

You use the phrases "unrepentant" and "hardness of heart." That language, which is biblical, occurs in the context of those whom God has given over to their sins, and the person has chosen to live in open rebellion against God. That may be a very different thing than misunderstanding or miscommunication between two people, which is not necessarily "hardness of heart." Be careful not to confuse the two.

I would add that it is important to remember that Christ is our pattern. He has graciously forgiven us for far more than we have ever understood, and even forgives our all-too-often shallow expressions of repentance. He also calls us to sincere repentance and restoration. Our Confession affirms the same, and highlights the importance of the offending party being willing to make confession of actual sins. See the Westminster Confession, chapter 15, particularly the last paragraph.

To your last question, I am not sure of where the Bible addresses it explicitly. Every treatment of the idea of church discipline or repentance envisions the goal of restoration. The point is that we are to strive to be at peace with all men (Heb. 12:14). Though I am not sure that you must verbalize that peace has been granted, I could also worry that the question you are asking implies something that may fall short of true peace and restoration. To sum up: Is verbalizing this required? Probably not. Is it better to verbalize it? Probably. Should a pastor help you work through this? Definitely!

I want to end by saying that it has taken me a while to respond to you, in large part because as I sat down to write this, I could not help but imagine the pastoral nuances that may be behind your question. I have read counseling books that attempt to address such scenarios in order to provide hypothetical case studies of such real-life problems. It is my impression that while these may be helpful sometimes, at other times they fail to consider the particular nuances of a situation, thus unintentionally offering unhelpful advice. This is my concern with answering such an important question. I do hope you will separate the wheat from the chaff in my answer; continue to search the Scripture prayerfully; and seek further help if you need it.



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