An argument has been made that, “Though there is a posture of forgiveness that every believer must have, we cannot fully forgive unless the other person repents.” I would answer, Yes we can ‘fully forgive’ from our end. In fact we must because that is what Christ would have us do. We cannot withhold our forgiveness, for that would make it conditional.
Reconciliation, however, is a related but a separate thing. By misassociating reconciliation with forgiveness, a person might excuse himself in not extending forgiveness because the offender has not yet repented. Jesus extended forgiveness even before repentance took place. Full forgiveness was offered. He waits for people’s response for reconciliation to take place.
Forgiveness is extended unconditionally, but for forgiveness to be received it requires repentance. Otherwise, reconciliation is impossible. Therefore, reconciliation with God is based upon God’s forgiveness extended, but received by repentance and faith.
As I read the scripture, I would say that forgiveness is “the willingness to extend undeserved love towards someone who has caused you hurt.” Whenever forgiveness takes place, it always costs somebody something. That is what the sacrificial system was all about. Extending forgiveness is the willingness to absorb the cost that the offender accrued. That is what I mean to say, when talking about the deliberate act of letting it go.
Now, let’s discuss this a little further. There are actually two aspects of forgiveness: (1) forgiveness extended and (2) forgiveness received. From the forgiver’s side, forgiveness is extended; the forgiver is willing to bear the cost of the offense. However, forgiveness must be received by the offender for the forgiveness to take effect. When Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12) He spells out what that means in the succeeding verses (vv. 14-15). He is not saying that forgiveness is conditioned, but rather is saying that someone in a state of un-forgiveness we are in no condition to receive forgiveness. Michael Green states, “If we are to open our hands to receive his gracious pardon, we cannot keep our fists tightly clenched against those who have wronged us” (The Message of Matthew, 101). For God’s forgiveness to be received, it means owning our sin, that is, confession or repentance. As soon as that happens, forgiveness takes effect and reconciliation is possible. The unmerciful servant (Matt 18:23-35) demonstrated by his actions that he had not owned up to the enormity of his offense; therefore, the forgiveness did not take effect.
Second, we need to distinguish between (1) forgiveness of the relationship broken and (2) forgiveness of the consequences. These are two different things. God immediately forgave David when he confessed and repented for his sin (2 Sam 12:13); however, God chose to allow the consequences for David’s sin to remain (vv. 10-12, 14). As I see it from the scripture, we should always be willing to forgive for the sake of the relationship, but we are not always required to drop the consequences of the offense. Many times a price needs to be paid to set things right (e.g. a crime), and many times the tragic consequences for an offense may last the person’s lifetime (e.g. a relationship has forever changed, disqualification from certain ministries, etc.). God may move the forgiver to absorb those consequences, but many times those consequences will need to be borne by the offender.
Tragically, many people are more concerned with forgiveness of the consequences of their sin towards God (or someone else) rather than forgiveness for the broken relationship. They are saying, “Lord, please get me out of this mess” rather than repenting of their sin and begging for the relationship to be established. As such, they have not owned the enormity of their sin.