How Should I Respond to the Unrepentant? A Third Principle
...[W]henever it is argued that forgiveness should be preceded by repentance, some will counter, "Isn't it true that Jesus forgave those who crucified him? They allude to the crucifixion account in Luke 23.
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:33-34)
The short answer to that question is no. Jesus did not forgive them. If you think carefully about this passage, you will see this is the case. Jesus prayed that those who crucified him would be forgiven in the future — he did not thank God that they were already forgiven. If they had already been forgiven, such a prayer would have been superfluous.
Jesus surely could have forgiven them on the spot himself, had they been repentant on the spot. We know from else where in Scripture that Jesus had authority to forgive sins. Indeed, there were times when he told people that their sins were forgiven (for example, Luke 5:20-24, Luke 7:49).
Notice also that on the cross, in exactly the same context where Jesus prayed that his killers would be forgiven, Jesus does grant forgiveness to someone else! There were two criminals hanging with Jesus, and one of them repented. Jesus forgave him immediately: "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). He did not say, "I pray that you will be forgiven." He forgave him. And Jesus' forgiveness promised a new relationship: "Today you will be with me in paradise."
Others argue that elsewhere in Scripture Jesus does not seem to include repentance as a condition for forgiveness (Matt. 6:12, Matt. 6:14-15, Matt. 18:21-22). It is true in these verses that Jesus does not explicitly utter a condition of repentance. However, the requirement is implicit. In Matthew 6, Jesus told the disciples to forgive as God forgives. He does not explicitly mention this in Matthew 6, but we learn from the other passages that God's forgiveness is indeed conditional. The emphasis of Matthew 6 is to forgive as God forgives, which is another reiteration that we ought to forgive only repentant offenders.
In Matthew 18:21-22 Jesus does not explicitly include repentance as a prerequisite for forgiveness. However, the conditional nature of forgiveness is certainly assumed in the context of the chapter. Both in the teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20 and in the parable that follows in Matthew 18:23-25, Jesus describes situations in which people should be forgiven when they repent.
Forgiveness is conditional. The great Reformed theologian John Murray summarized this truth as follows:
"Forgiveness is a definite act performed by us on the fulfillment of certain conditions. ... Forgiveness is something actively administered on the repentance of the person who is to be forgiven. We greatly impoverish ourselves and impair the relations that we should sustain to our brethren when we fail to appreciate what is involved in forgiveness."
Won't Conditional Forgiveness Lead to Bitterness?
The Bible always presents forgiveness as something that happens between two parties.
Contrary to the conventional understanding, I believe that the notion of automatic forgiveness itself fosters bitterness. We are created with a standard of justice written on our hearts. When we forgive someone who is not repentant, we are acting in a way that is unjust. Deep down we are saying that forgiveness must sometimes happen at the expense of justice.
On the other hand, when we recognize that those who have offended us will face the vengeance of God, at that point we will begin to feel true love and compassion for the.
Christians should offer grace to all people. We should wrap up forgiveness as a present and make it available to anyone who will accept, regardless of the offense. But it is not the offense that conditions forgiveness but the repentant heart. Whether or not they unwrap the present and accept the gift so that forgiveness takes place is up to them.
Romans 12:17-21 gives a framework for responding to evil. (1) Resolve not to take revenge. Do not even allow yourself to rehearse it in your mind. (2) Lovingly and proactively offer grace to your enemies. Although love and grace are undeserved, creatively consider what you might do to live at peace with all people, . . . (3) Do not forgive the unrepentant. Leave room for the wrath of God. He will deal justly with all wrongs. When we consider that those who do not know Christ will spend eternity in an everlasting hell, we can move beyond bitterness to compassion, even in the most awful circumstances.
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 no 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. (1 Peter 2:21-24)
The Lord took no revenge. He prayed that his killers would be forgiven. He entrusted himself to him who judges justly. The Word became flesh (John 1:14), Christ is the example of how we should respond to evil.