Conditional Forgiveness Is Taught by Many Christian Authors and Theologians

Chris Brauns —  February 18, 2008

Conditional Forgiveness is a topic covered in Unpacking Forgiveness.Conditional forgiveness is a topic addressed by many others  including Jay Adams, Lig Duncan, John MacArthur, Ken Sande, John Piper and Justin Taylor. Here is a survey of what others have said about conditional forgiveness.

Jay Adams on Conditional Forgiveness

Jay Adams argues without qualification that forgiveness is conditional.  Notice Adams’ balance in stressing that Christians are obligated to try and bring an offender to repentance.

What shall we say then?  It is clear that forgiveness-promising another never to bring up his offense again to use it against him – – is conditioned on the offenders willingness to confess it as sin and to seek forgiveness.  You are not obligated to forgive an unrepentant sinner, but you are obligated to try to bring him to repentance.  All the while you must entertain a genuine hope and willingness to forgive the other and a desire to be reconciled to him or her.  Because this biblical teaching runs counter to much teaching in the modern church, it is important to understand it.  Such forgiveness is modeled after God’s forgiveness which is unmistakably conditioned on repentance and faith.[1]

Ligon Duncan on Conditional Forgiveness

This is a question that many Christians have never thought through. I think that Christians who have themselves harbored unjustified bitternesses and have been unforgiving in places and in ways that they should have been forgiving, often when they are confronted with and gripped by the radical teaching of Christ on forgiveness, out of sorrow for their own sin, read Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in such a way that they understand it to mean that forgiveness is an automatic obligation in every circumstance, irrespective of the repentance of the other party. And, again, I think that that is a mistake. I believe that forgiveness always has in view reconciliation, and reconciliation is always two-sided. So if there is not a repentance corresponding to a forgiveness, then very often there is an impossibility of reconciliation. I think that whatever we think about forgiveness, forgiveness is a component to what is a larger picture, and the larger picture is reconciliation. And reconciliation is necessarily two-sided. Consequently, I think it is important for us to talk about both forgiveness and readiness to forgive. There may be circumstances where a reconciliation is impossible, but a readiness to reconcile can still be present with a believer. Consequently, I would want to make that distinction when I was counseling a believer who was in a circumstance where there was not a present possibility of reconciliation of the relationship. Instead of telling them that they need to forgive or they will become bitter, I think I would rather say that you need to be ready to forgive and not to be captured by your bitterness.[2] http://www.reformation21.com/Upcoming_Issues/Forgiveness_Roundtable/354/.

John MacArthur on conditional forgiveness

John MacArthur argues that for small matters there are times when forgiveness is unilaterally and unconditionally granted.[3]  But, MacArthur also clearly argues that conditional forgiveness is at times appropriate:

It is obvious from Scripture that sometimes forgiveness must be conditional . . . There are times when it is necessary to confront an offender.  In such cases, unconditional forgiveness is not an option.  These generally involve more serious sins- – not petty or picayune complaints, but soul-threatening sins or transgressions that endanger the fellowship of saints.[4] In his book, Forgiveness, (Crossway), 122-128.

Ken Sande on Conditional Forgiveness

Ken Sande agrees that there are times when a matter should be overlooked.[5]  And, he also agrees that in most ideally forgiveness should follow repentance.  Sande pictures forgiveness as a two stage process.  In his words:

When an offense is too serious to overlook and the offender has not yet repented, you may need to approach forgiveness as a two-stage process.  The first stage requires having an attitude of forgiveness, and the second, granting forgiveness.  Having an attitude of forgiveness is unconditional and is a commitment you make to God . . . By his grace you seek to maintain a loving and merciful attitude toward someone who has offended you . . .

Granting forgiveness is conditional on the repentance of the offender and takes place between you and that person . . . When there has been a serious offense, it would not be appropriate to [make the promises of forgiveness] until the offender has repented.[6] (See his The Peacemaker, pages 77-79, and 210-211.

Justin Taylor on Conditional Forgiveness

 “Love your enemies” is something that we should do at all times and in all places. It is modeled after God’s love for his enemies, whom he loves even when they are “unjust” and “evil” (Luke 6:35). At the same time, our forgiveness of others is likewise modeled upon God’s forgiveness of sinners, whom he forgives conditioned upon their repentance. God does not forgive apart from repentance; neither should we. In major offenses, we are not to forgive the unrepentant.

In the event of a tragedy that involves the loss of human life brought about by wanton human sin, it is therefore wrong for Christians to call upon immediate forgiveness in the absence of repentance. Such a call both cheapens and misunderstands the biblical doctrine of forgiveness.[7]

See Justin’s post on conditional forgiveness “Is Forgiveness Always Right and Required?”

John Piper on Conditional Forgiveness

In a sermon, John Piper pointed to the conditional forgiveness.[8]  While Piper allowed that at points Christians should forgive unconditionally he also added:

One last observation remains: forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person.

In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3-4 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.

But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matt. 18:17) we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).

The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.

Update (6/27/12): See also this post on a primer by A.B. Caneday which argues for conditional forgiveness and Kevin Lewis of Biola University: Should forgiveness be conditional or unconditional?

Update (7/5/13): Douglas Wilson writes:

“We cannot forgive those who are defiant, however much we might like to. Because forgiveness is a transaction, if someone steals your car, you can’t run down the street after them, yelling out your forgiveness” (For a Glory and a Covering, p. 95).

“But you can have a heart full of forgiveness, full to the brim, ready to overflow the moment repentance appears. Until that happens, there is no forgiveness. We need to distinguish forgiveness in principle and forgiveness accomplished” (For a Glory and a Covering, p. 95).

I’m always amazed at the response (notice that there are 57 comments and climbing on Tim Challies blog) generated when it is argued that biblical forgiveness is conditioned on repentance. . . .especially, when it is not a novel position.


[1] Jay Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving: Learning to Forgive One Another God’s Way (Amityville, NY: 1994), 37.

[2] A Roundtable Discussion on Forgiveness: Derek Thomas Interviews Ligon Duncan and Justin Taylor, (Reformation 21, accessed October 23 2007); available from http://www.reformation21.com/Upcoming_Issues/Forgiveness_Roundtable/354/.

[3] John MacArthur, Forgiveness: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 122-128.

[4] MacArthur, 119, 128.

[5] Ken Sande, The Peace Maker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004; reprint, 3rd), 79-99.

[6]Sande, 210-211, emphasis his.

[7] Justin Taylor, Is Forgiveness Always Right and Required(2007, accessed July 15 2007); available from http://theologica.blogspot.com/2007/01/is-forgiveness-always-right-and.html.

[8] John Piper, As We Forgive Our Debtors: What Does Forgiveness Look Like(Desiring God Ministries, 1994, accessed September 19 2007); available from http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1994/868_As_We_Forgive_Our_Debtors/.

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27 responses to Conditional Forgiveness Is Taught by Many Christian Authors and Theologians

  1. Wow!! This is a powerful stack of support for what you are saying!!

  2. Eph.4:32, the last part, just as in Christ God forgave you. If someone is not repentant, did not ask for forgiveness from God or the person offended, and continues to do evil, forgiveness would not come (just as God’s forgiveness is not automatic).. I would, however pray for that person that they would allow God to come into their life.

  3. Ken Sande’s dividing the attitude of forgiveness from the actual granting of forgiveness embodied my thoughts on this matter. Jesus’ desire, even on the torturous cross was “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Yet actual forgiveness did not take place until the sinners repented and sought God’s forgiveness.

  4. So glad I didn’t read this article until I had wrestled with it last night – my conclusion exactly. “a two-stage process. The first stage requires having an attitude of forgiveness, and the second, granting forgiveness. ”
    I’m looking at the paper I scribbled notes on at midnight – 2 halves, 2 sides same points. Wow! God is good to me.
    (I am now nervous that He has taught me something I am going to need to put into practice soon)

  5. You improperly cite John Piper in support of the proposition that one should not forgive until there is repentance. I believe we are always called to ‘forgive’ from the heart in the most important sense of wanting retribution or payback for the debt/wrong done to US (not to God, the community, consequences, etc.); this is consistent with Piper’s citation, and even more so when you read the entire sermon from which the quote is pulled. Calvin also believes that we are ALWAYS called to forgive from the heart, and distinguishes the use of the word ‘forgive’ in Lk 17 in his commentary on that section in meaning the first type of “forgiving” we are always called to do, but in the second more limited sense/use/definition of the word (and less common sense of the word in both Scripture and common usage) we are called to forgive so long as the offender repents, not holding it against them. Here is the quote:

    “…there are two ways in which offenses are forgiven. If a man shall do me an injury, and I, laying aside the desire of revenge, do not cease to love him, but even repay kindness in place of injury, though I entertain an unfavorable opinion of him, as he deserves, still I am said to forgive him. For when God commands us to wish well to our enemies, He does not therefore demand that we approve in them what He condemns, but only desires that our minds shall be purified from all hatred. In this kind of pardon, so far are we from having any right to wait till he who has offended shall return of his own accord to be reconciled to us, that we ought to love those who deliberately provoke us, who spurn reconciliation, and add to the load of former offenses. A SECOND kind of forgiving is, when we receive a brother into favor, so as to think favorably respecting him, and to be convinced that the remembrance of his offense is blotted out in the sight of God…” Just because forgiveness has reconciliation as its goal does not mean that the definition of ‘forgive’ should be collapsed into what reconciliation is, nor that we are commanded to forgive only when repentance has happened. This is logically inconsistent with the command to overcome evil with blessing and good toward even enemies, is inconsistent with God’s waiting for us chronologically to repent before forgiving for 99% of our sins, and inconsistent with a view of the Greek word apheimi which at its root is a releasing, as in the releasing of a debt for which we desire/seek repayment.

  6. Steve, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. You can see my argument more fully developed in Unpacking. You might also find Caneday’s primer helpful. Jones book, Embodying Forgiveness is a thoughtful reflection. Sande also has some helpful material.

    I think the citation on Piper is correct. Desiring God just pointed to it off their blog.

    If by improperly citing you mean, “out of context,” I didn’t do much analysis of the quote. I think there is enough context given for the quote to stand on its own.

    I am always thankful to hear people are thinking deeply about forgiveness. Proverbs 27:17.

  7. In response to you, I did not say in my comment that the citation of Piper was incorrect, but only that you improperly cited him “IN SUPPORT” of the proposition you suggest that biblical forgiveness should always be conditioned upon repentance of the other person. He only says that the “full work” of forgiveness can not be accomplished, but that does not mean that we do not do the important part ourselves of what “forgive” literally means in context and according to the best lexicons, which is to release our desire/right for personal payback to ourselves or just retribution/harm to the offender himself from the heart.

    This deepest sense of forgiving, from the heart, is what forgiveness is that I believe is ALWAYS the biblical calling even of hardened unrepentant enemies though outwardly we may need to demand many consequences because of the offense to include not trusting them, lessening our opinion of them, seeking proper this-worldly punishment for them in ecclesiastical/criminal courts, etc. The teaching you list only provides dangerous warrant to many to say “I don’t need to forgive that person because they have not repented… I don’t need to forgive my wife because she has not GENUINELY repented… etc. etc. etc.” Not biblical, not wise, not the foundation of God’s forgiveness of us in waiting for our repentance on 99% of our sins in thought word and deed (he’d be waiting forever in this life). I AM forgiven for all the sins that don’t even come to conciousness, let alone come to some genuine level of grief and change of mind over them hour after hour day after day.

    Piper’s quote only says that while “full work” (I would say the full AIM would be a better choice of words) of forgiveness is forestalled, we still are to desire release of the small debt owed to us even by the most unrepentant enemy just as our much larger debts have been forgiven solely due to God’s grace that came long before any seedlings of our repentance. Here is more from the quote of Piper right after the quote you cite in the sermon on the unrepentant person suggesting we CAN forgive him even when we cannot reconcile/trust him/have intimacy with him due to his lack of repentance:

    “”We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy. Thomas Watson said something very jolting:
    We are not bound to trust an enemy; but we are bound to forgive him. (Body of Divinity, p. 581) “”

    Calvin is right, see his commentary on Luke 17. I beg you to reconsider your position on this and search the Scriptures, as you would have much influence if you changed your mind. If I am right, it is a very dangerous thing our best Reformed leader/thinkers have done in giving unbiblical excuse to many of our brightest in the evangelical church to NOT forgive, waiting for repentance that will never come and holding onto their petty desires for payback in light of the infinite debts they shockingly expect forgiveness for daily without ever being specifically repentant for or concious of in the ways they fail to love God with ALL their heart, soul, mind, and strength. The multiple dire no-salvation warnings in the Gospels if professing believers are withhold forgiveness (categorical teaching except for the Lk 17 church discipline context) make this too important not to be absolutely sure we’re getting this one right and going beyond the text because we are looking at “well, what is the further AIM of forgiveness”. Being a lawyer in addition to a PCA minister, I can tell you by analogy that is also how we get in trouble with liberal statutory and constitutional interpretation.

  8. Question: If forgivness is always conditional – what does un-forgiveness look like?

    Question: In comparison to forgiveness what is the difference in our response and attitude toward the unrepentant unforgiven person(s)?

    Question: If you don’t forgive unless someone repents – do you try to remember all who haven’t repented and you havent forgiven as to keep up with who is unforgiven in your life?

  9. Chuck,

    (1) It looks like God who offers forgiveness to all – – who stands graciously ready to forgive.
    (2) The relationship has been restored with the repentant. Therefore, a commitment has been made that this matter no longer stands between us – – though forgiveness does not necessarily mean the elimination of consequences.
    (3) No.

  10. Steveprost, I have a feeling you believe in once saved always saved. Did Paul not warn the Corinthians to expel the man who committed a sin that was even an abomination to the world, in fact he said to turn him over to Satan. You say It is dangerous to teach to withhold forgiveness unless there is repentance, well how do you feel about encouraging sin which is what you do when you overlook unrepentant sin. Do you know what blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is? Before you start quoting Jesus and Stephen’s forgiveness, keep in mind that the centurion claimed Jesus was the son of God and Saul eventually repented, do you think that was coincidence? Paul who persecuted Christians when he was Saul did not appear to be forgiving of Alexander because of the continuous harm he caused so that again shows that unrepentant sin not to be forgiven, no man be saved while committing sin leading to death, the Bible even instruct us to not pray for such a man, I don’t know who you can interpret that to suit your misguided faith. I pray that God gives you the wisdom to rightly divide His Word so you don’t lead other Christians to Hell by leading them in the wrong direction, you may think you do well, but obedience trumps sacrifice so it is better to obey God’s command and not our feelings. By supporting evil and welcoming unrepentant sinners to your life, you place yourself in the same position as the churches in the book of Revelations that Jesus rebuked for tolerating evil.

    God Bless Everyone That Seeks The Truth.

  11. Repentance is not a work that we do. It is God’s work,accomplished through law and gospel.

    We are forgiven.Who? The ungodly. The whole world.

    But not everyone who hears of this forgiveness (the gospel) comes to a living faith in Jesus.

    That is the mystery that we are stuck with.

    Thanks.

  12. Steve, thanks for commenting. Do you think it is possible to be forgiven by God and yet still go to hell?

  13. A passage that has helped me tremendously in processing these concepts is 1 Peter 2:21-25. Peter explicitly makes Christ our example in issues of mistreatment, and clearly shows us that our main action is to entrust the situation (and ourselves) to the “just Judge” (God)… and not harbor bitterness or malice. Great post Chris.

  14. Coca-Cola Christian July 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    While many points and counterpoints are discussed here…and some rather vehemently…I believe that true, full forgiveness hinges upon repentance. And lest we forget, the Bible teaches that God grants repentance, just as He grants grace, mercy, and love. It is a tool for sincere people of God to allay the normal consequences of their sins/offenses. There is no 2-part forgiveness. One is either forgiven or he is not. What was described by one blogger [as partial forgiveness] is actually the abatement of the aforementioned normal consequences of the offense — i.e. revenge, etc. That is GRACE, not forgiveness! I believe we should be ready to forgive…but not so ready for reconciliation that we forgive without considering the possible negative consequences of “confirming unrepentant sins.”
    Yet there are times, after consulting God, that we DO forgive another person who has not repented [and might never, because the offender doesn’t recognize his offense] when we have held onto the bitterness, anger, and desire for revenge to the point that we ourselves are being injured by our dwelling upon those negatives. I HAVE done this [a VERY few times] when God has prompted me that it’s the only way to turn loose of my hatred, etc.
    Loving [love is an act, not truly an emotion] one’s enemy, giving grace, praying for our offenders — these are all commands that relate to emulating God’s grace to us. Cheap forgiveness [of unrepentant offenders] is not only NOT biblical, it could be said to be diabolical!

    Oh, and one person seemed to take issue with “once saved, always saved”. Since the Bible seems to indicate that that is sound doctrine…why question it…especially in a blog on forgiveness?

    In His Service,

    J.McC
    Mississippi
    Bapterian

  15. J. McC – -Thanks for stopping by from Mississippi. Very helpful thoughts.

  16. Thanks for the quotes. Have some of the citations been lost over time? I don’t see the source for citations #2, 4, and 5.

  17. Peter, thanks for pointing out the bit about citations. Actually, they were there, but for some reason the paragraphs had been taken out so they were all in one big paragraph at the end. I fixed that. And I also put some citations around the quotes you mentioned.

    Thanks so much for stopping by. I think it is easier to follow now.

  18. Thanks Chris.

    I used a lot of your citations in my last blog post.
    http://www.bereconciled.com/spiritual-reflections/forgive-someone-not-repentant

    Let me know if I can cite you better. I used a link to Tim Challies which cites you. I assume Tim Challies got that quote from your book? I’m not sure the page number.

    And let me know if you have any “feedback” on my post.

  19. Thanks for sharing this all. There are, uh, lots of passionate opinions on here. Glad to see that others get aggressively attacked besides myself…no wait. That stinks for you too!

    I have a question for you Chris, as this seems to be an area of expertise for you that I’m currently working through in depth. Could you explain, in brief, the difference between MacArthur and Adams on the question of conditional forgiveness/the idea that forgiveness is a transaction? I’ve looked at both their websites and cannot pin that down, but on GTY MacArthur says that he disagrees with Adams somewhat (and doesn’t really clarify to precisely).

    Also, you’ve already written the book on this, but I thought this might include something that I learned while studying forgiveness (specifically the comments on Psalm 109) that may be of interest to you:

    http://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/a-biblical-definition-of-forgiveness/

  20. Thanks Lyndon. I will take a look.

    I think the difference between MacArthur and Adams (and it’s been some time since I made the comparison) is that there are times when MacArthur says that love can cover over the matter without formal repentance and forgiveness – – that is that love covers over a multitude of sins.

  21. See my chapter, “Should I Just Get Over it?”

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