In Luke 17:3-4, we read:
“Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (NRSV).
So a Christian is supposed to forgive a person who repents, even if he has to do so seven times in a single day.
A lot of Christians look at this passage and say, “I don’t have to forgive a person who doesn’t repent. See, the passage itself says that ‘if there is repentance, you must forgive.’ So if there’s not, you don’t.”
But what if there isn’t repentance? What exactly does a Christian attitude of unforgiveness look like? Does it mean that a Christian can hold a grudge, or hate the offender, if he hasn’t explicitly repented of his sin? Does God allow Christians to hate unrepentant sinners?
I have a hard time believing that God would sanction a Christian hating someone else, even if the object of that hatred has failed to repent. Luke 6:35 states:
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
God is kind to the wicked, and there’s no statement there that the wicked had come to repentance. If they had, they wouldn’t still be wicked, right?
Yet, loving the unrepentant sinner is not necessarily the same as forgiving him. So a Christian can love an offender and not necessarily forgive him. How is this possible?
I think Jesus is talking about life within the local church. In the Christian church, there were ways to deal with members who did not repent. Matthew 18:15-17 presents the rules of church discipline:
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Here, an unrepentant sinner is excommunicated. Forgiveness must mean allowing the sinner to stay in the church, and that occurs when he repents of his sin. And Luke’s Jesus wants the church to give the sinner the benefit of a doubt. Sin is serious business, which is why Jesus talks about church discipline in the first place. But Jesus is interested in the sinner’s restoration to the church. Someone who sins against another person seven times in the same day may strike us as a person who has not truly repented. But if he apologizes, Jesus wants us to forgive him, for the ultimate goal is reconciliation and restoration.
In my opinion, the offender may have to show that he’s taking some steps to correct his sinful behavior, at least in some cases. What I mean is this: In I Corinthians 5, we see a man who unashamedly maintains a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. Suppose he said he was sorry about that, yet continued to be in the relationship. Would that “apology” count? I don’t think so.
But there are some things for which we may need forgiveness several times in a single day. If I have problems controlling my temper, for example, I may have to apologize a lot to the person I keep offending. And I hope that he or she continues to give me chances to improve myself. There are bad actions that one can abandon with a single decision (e.g., the man could leave his father’s wife). And then there are bad habits that cling to us, meaning we need gobs of chances to overcome them.
So what is the church’s punishment for the sinner who does not repent? There appears to be controversy on this issue. Paul says in I Corinthians 5:11: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.” Romans 16:17 says, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” And so many Christians maintain that people in a local church should shun the member who does not repent.
On the other hand, Jesus said that the unrepentant sinner is to be regarded as a Gentile and a tax collector. And how did Jesus treat the tax collectors? He ate with them (Luke 5:29-30)! He didn’t shun them, but he reached out to them in love.
Paul’s concern was that Christians might encourage the sinner’s bad behavior if they continued to fellowship with him. They couldn’t pretend that nothing was wrong. They needed to send a clear message that his action was immoral, and excommunication was the way to do it.
At the same time, Jesus reached out to sinners to bring them to repentance. He brought them God’s light through his example and his teachings. If the sinners are cut off from positive influences, does that reduce the likelihood of them repenting? Of course, Paul did hand the fornicator over to Satan, so that probably encouraged him to come back to the church in humble repentance really quickly!
And so the church is the forum in which forgiveness, unforgiveness, and repentance take place. This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t forgive people outside of their local church. We are imitators of God, and that entails that we love all of God’s creation. But it’s within the church that Christians can withhold forgiveness from unrepentant sinners. And they do so not out of bitterness or malice, but out of love and a desire for restoration.