September 10, 2020

Forgiveness and Abuse: Does Forgiveness Depend on Repentance? (Part Four)

This is part four of a five-part series looking at the issue of Forgiveness and Abuse. You can access the whole series here.

So, we saw in part one that the issue of forgiveness is not straightforward. In particular, I highlighted that a lot of the issues with forgiveness are connected to the place of repentance. Should forgiveness be offered unconditionally without repentance or conditionally with repentance?

Dick Lucas, in the aftermath of the bombing of St Helens in 1992, was asked whether he forgave the bombers. He responded by saying: “I’m not aware that anyone has asked for forgiveness.” Is this the response that the victim of abuse should give as well? Must repentance precede forgiveness? If I’ve been abused, do I have to forgive my abuser if they are unrepentant?

Crucial to Differentiate

Well, let me first give you my answer and then seek to show you why. I want to argue that the victim of abuse is called to forgive their abuser, from the heart, regardless of whether they are repentant or not. But, total forgiveness and reconciliation is only received upon repentance. Let me explain by asking a series of simple questions.

Firstly, How do we receive forgiveness as Christians? We receive forgiveness through faith and repentance. Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Christians only receive forgiveness when they acknowledge their sin, repent, and put their faith and trust in Jesus. Every Christian knows that.

What is repentance? Repentance means to “change our minds.” It’s not simply saying sorry for sin. It is to acknowledge the gravity of our sin and to dramatically turn away from it. Rachel Denhollander, former gymnast, who was repeatedly sexually abused by her coach as a teenager, said this to her abuser in court:

“You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance, which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today.”

Denhollander reminds us that a repentant heart understands the horror of sin, without making an excuse for it. A person only receives God’s forgiveness when they are repentant in this way.

So, this truth, paired with Luke 17:3–4, surely means a victim of abuse doesn’t have to forgive their abuser, at least not until they repent. That sounds right, doesn’t it? That sounds biblical. However, that’s not the whole story. Let me ask another question: When is forgiveness offered by God? Forgiveness is offered by God before repentance.

God’s Forgiveness and Our Repentance

The Lord Jesus atoned for our sins fully on the cross, prior to any repentance on our part. The gospel comes to the believer as a full package—Jesus died on the cross while we were still sinners. Therefore, repentance adds nothing to the finished work of Christ. Our repentance contributes absolutely nothing to our salvation.

In fact, the Bible is clear that repentance is a gift from God. It’s a fruit of God’s grace to us. He came towards us in mercy, with arms wide open. As Beach writes, “God’s grace goes before our repentance, produces repentance in us, and follows after our repentance. His grace certainly is not conditioned by our repentance, dependent on it, or needing it. Our repentance is too flimsy and wishy-washy for salvation to depend upon it.”

These truths are vital for us to understand, particularly if we teach that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. If that is true, then God’s grace becomes transactional and mechanical. In other words, if I show that I am repentant enough then He will forgive me. However, the glorious truth of the gospel is that God moves towards us in mercy, and only then do we repent. He initiates, we respond. Beach is helpful again: “Our repentance isn’t the condition for God giving us the gift of forgiveness. Rather, the giving of forgiveness enables our repenting to receive and enjoy it.” Faith accepts the gift of God’s salvation, and repentance is the fruit of the new life.

Forgiveness Between Sinners

What about forgiveness person-to-person? How is someone forgiven? Forgiveness happens when the perpetrator acknowledges their sin and repents of it. This is important because the end of forgiveness is reconciliation. When I sin against my wife, forgiveness and reconciliation do not happen until there is an acknowledgment of my sin and I turn away from what I’ve done. In the same way, there can be no reconciliation without repentance. Forgiveness cannot move towards reconciliation without repentance.

Having said that, we need to answer the second question: When does the Christian offer forgiveness? If we are imitating God, then we have to be willing to offer forgiveness prior to repentance. Volf sums it up well, “If they imitate the forgiving God, forgivers will keep forgiving, whether the offenders repent or not. Forgivers’ forgiving is not conditioned by repentance. The offenders’ being forgiven, however, is conditioned by repentance. . . ”

If the person does not repent, then forgiveness is suspended. It’s like if I sent an expensive present to my brother and instead of him opening it, he just left it on his kitchen table while he decided if he wanted it or not. Has he truly received the present? Well, no, because he is refusing to open and accept it. In the same way, if someone has not repented, then forgiveness is stuck between giver and receiver.  

Therefore, it’s not totally biblical to say: “I’m only going to forgive when someone repents.” If we are imitating God, then we have to be willing to offer forgiveness, no matter how that offer is treated. Our hearts must be filled with the mercy and grace of God. Beach again says: “To forgive like God means mercy given where mercy isn’t sought.”

The Christian is called to put ill-will to the side and have a soft heart towards those that have harmed them. In fact, it means we show compassion towards them. The gospel transforms our hearts so that we can love those who have done evil against us (as impossible as that seems). Luther writes that when the Spirit begins to work in us, it enables us to “grieve more over the sin of (our) offenders than over the loss or offense to (ourselves). And (we) do this that (we) may recall those offenders from their sin rather than avenge the wrongs (we ourselves) have suffered.” In other words, the Lord softens our hearts so that we don’t seek vengeance, but are able to pity the offender and see the damage that their sin has done towards God and themselves. It becomes less about the offence against us and more about the evil of the sin itself.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Again, we cannot mirror God’s forgiveness exactly because we are sinful creatures. When God forgives, He forgives freely. He is sovereign, and therefore, He is not moved by our repentance. He shows mercy towards whom He wants to show mercy (Rom. 9:15).

However, we find it easier to forgive those who are contrite. We become tender towards those who show evidence of repentance. When someone wrongs us and simply shrugs their shoulders like it doesn’t matter, then it’s very difficult to show any sympathy towards them, let alone forgive them. Further, the ground of the believer’s forgiveness is union with Christ, whereas the unbelieving abuser is stuck in their sins.

The point is, we are called to echo God’s forgiveness, not copy it exactly. And that echo must be regulated by showing mercy and grace to those around us, whether they are repentant or not. As Leon Morris comments on Luke 17:3–4, “(Jesus) is saying that forgiveness must be habitual. From the world’s point of view, a sevenfold repetition of an offence in one day must cast doubt on the genuineness of the sinner’s repentance. But that is not the believer’s business. His business is forgiveness.”

Repentance is therefore crucial for total forgiveness and restoration. The believer only receives God’s forgiveness through repentance and faith. In a similar way, the abuser is only forgiven when there is genuine repentance. However, if we are echoing God’s forgiveness, then by God’s grace we are able to extend forgiveness, whether repentance is present or not.

Forgiveness is one thing; restoration and reconciliation is another. Forgiveness is mandatory, reconciliation is dependent on repentance. Although it will be painful and difficult, the victim of abuse must allow the Lord to work in their hearts so that if their abuser were to repent, they are ready to forgive.

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