“3 Be on your guard. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” –Luke 17:3-4
The issue of forgiveness is always between two parties, so naturally we must ask the question of whom should we forgive. Do we need to forgive someone if they don’t ask for forgiveness? Or is it even really possible to forgive someone who is not asking for forgiveness? Some passages in the Bible clearly imply that we can only forgive those who ask for forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4), while others seem to imply that we should forgive everyone who sins against us, regardless of whether they ask for it or not (Mark 11:25).
I believe the best way to understand biblical teaching on forgiveness is to make a distinction between the exchange of forgiveness and the positioning of the heart to be willing to forgive. Even though we may not be able to fully reconcile with everyone who sins against us, our attitude toward them should never be one of anger, bitterness, resentment, or any kind of ill will. We should also treat them very kindly and graciously (Romans 12:17-21). We are commanded to love everyone (Luke 6:27-35), so we must desire their best, which means we will do everything we can to help them to repent and we will also always be ready to reconcile, as Psalm 86:5 says about God. Other verses that echo the principle of having a heart that is committed to forgiveness can be found in Mark 11:25, Luke 23:34, Luke 11:4, and Matthew 6:12-15. We can conclude from these verse and others concerning love and graciousness that any time someone wrongs us, we should pray to God in this way:
“Father, You know what has happened between and me. Help me to not be angry or bitter at him/her, nor to seek revenge in any way, but help me to love him/her and desire only his/her good. Please work in his/her heart and bring repentance so that we can have a reconciled relationship. Use me in any way you can to find help him.”
Keep in mind that for a believer, help may involve a confrontation according to Matthew 18, and for an unbeliever it would involve witnessing to him/her if possible.
In the same manner that God does not make His promise of pardon to people unless they repent (Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38), we cannot actually say, “I forgive you” to people unless they admit their sin and repent. Therefore the exchange of forgiveness is conditional in that we can only be fully reconciled to those who repent. Those who refuse to repent of their sin are not forgiven by God in a saving nor parental manner; therefore, the consequence of repentance is a broken relationship with the offended person continuing.
Luke 17:3 makes clear that our part of responsibility to those who sin against us is to humbly and lovingly confront them, and if we have truly dealt with our own heart first, which is have a willingness to forgive the other person. Then, if they recognize their wrong and repent form it, we can be reconciled to them. Matthew 18:15-17 makes it clear that we cannot be fully reconciled to those who have not repented, because if we did we could not continue the process described in those verses.
My council to all is to seek to forgive both positionally in the heart and seek out for the exchange of forgiveness to happen. God’s heart is always bent towards forgiveness and reconciliation, so should we! Never withhold forgiveness!