Wednesday, March 17, 2021

When Unforgiveness is Wrong

I love clarifying what God says in his word about forgiveness because the most common teaching on the subject falls short of the mark and creates an unnecessary stumbling block for many people.

Forgiveness in God’s word always and only means one thing: the canceling/forgiving of a debt towards someone who repents.

How do I know this?

Because the only examples that illustrate forgiveness are towards someone who repented, cried out for mercy, or changed their mind about their sin. Stated in the obvious negative, there are zero examples illustrating forgiveness towards an unrepentant person. Ever!

This means that every reference to forgiveness is a reminder to forgive when someone repents just as God has forgiven us when we repented. It also means that every reference to the sin of unforgiveness means refusing to forgive someone who has repented, not withholding forgiveness from an unrepentant person.[1]

This morning I was listening to a message about the life of Jonah and realized that he gives a living illustration of unforgiveness as the Bible means it. In other words, people had repented, and he hated the idea of forgiving them!

Jonah was sent to a certain city to preach God’s word and call the people to repentance. He didn’t want to go. Why? Because he knew what God was like, forgiving and good, and he didn’t want his enemies to be given the opportunity to repent and be forgiven.

Well, God got Jonah to finally do what he was told, and everything happened as Jonah expected. People felt genuine repentance over their sin, and they were forgiven by the God they had sinned against.[2]

Jonah’s response was to be so angry he wanted to die. He was unforgiving of people who had repented. That is the kind of unforgiveness the Bible condemns. God was very gentle and compassionate in helping Jonah face his prejudice and hatred of his enemies, but the fact remains that God was expressing kindness to the people of the city in order to lead them to repentance so he could forgive them.[3] Jonah did not want to express God’s kindness to those people because he did not want them to know to repent because he did not want them to be forgiven.[4]

Jesus made it very clear that when someone is unrepentant, we are to agapè-love our enemies and pray, “Father, forgive them…”[5] When that is what is in our hearts, we will be ready to forgive the moment there is any indication of repentance, crying for mercy, or even an evident change of mind about their sin and an expression of trusting in Jesus.

If any of us have been struggling to accept God’s will about surrendering our bitterness to him because we think he requires us to forgive an unrepentant person, I encourage you that God nowhere shows this in his word. He never presents forgiveness as the solution to bitterness, and definitely has never required forgiveness in relation to the unrepentant.[6]

On the other hand, if we are holding bitterness against someone who has repented, that means we have not truly appreciated the gospel of grace. It took the death of Jesus Christ to give God a way to forgive our sins. We all have sinned, we all have fallen short of the glory of God, we all were equally under the sentence of condemnation and death, and the good news of great joy promises forgiveness of sins to everyone who turns to Jesus in repentance and faith. If we have received that for ourselves through our repentance and faith, we will want all our enemies to come into the kingdom of Jesus Christ through the same gift of grace.

However, if any of us have never repented to God for our sins, we have never been forgiven. If that is the reason you can’t forgive, that is a simple one to fix.

For those who have received God’s forgiveness by grace through faith (including repentance), ask Jesus to help you agapè-love your enemies, pray for people who mistreat you, bless those who curse you, do good to people who seek your harm, and, when any of them repent, forgive them as freely as Jesus forgave you.

© 2021 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8


Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.)



[1] Even the parable of the unmerciful servant shows a man who was forgiven a great debt when he cried out for mercy but refused to forgive a small debt of a fellow servant when that man cried out for mercy (Matthew 18:23-35). The King said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” The unforgiveness was clearly in relation to a repentant person.

[2] Jonah 1 tells of Jonah’s call from God and his rebellion; chapter 2 shows Jonah’s prayer under discipline and his rescue; chapter 3 shows how he finally did God’s will, preached the word of God, and the people responded in repentance.

[3] Romans 2:4 is how Paul describes it.

[4] See Jonah 4:1-11 for Jonah’s displeasure with God forgiving these repentant people.

[5] Matthew 5:43-48 is where Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies. Agapè-love refers to the Greek word that speaks of seeking God’s best for others no matter what they are like towards us. Luke 23:34 is where Jesus prayed for his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” emulating how we should pray for them, and be ready to forgive them when God answers that prayer by leading them to repentance.

[6] God’s solution to bitterness is our own repentance and faith. First we repent of our sin of bitterness, for bitterness is us handling the injustices against us in our own strength and flesh. Then we turn to God in faith that vengeance is his and that he will always do what is just.

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