by Curtis A. Cates

The above question has often been asked of this scribe. Every accountable being at times sins against others; some sin publicly, even against the church. Clearly, those who repent and ask for forgiveness are to be fully forgiven. But, not everyone repents and asks for forgiveness. Does God require us to forgive the impenitent?

What saith the Scriptures? One’s opinion and sentiment often differ from Holy Writ. Does one’s own forgiveness depend upon his forgiving the impenitent? “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Does this include forgiving one who refuses to repent?

God cannot forgive one who does not repent. He refuses to hear one who refuses to forsake and confess his sin (Psalms 66:18; Ezekiel 33:11); if the sinner will confess and turn from his sin, God will hear (I Kings 8:35-36; Luke 15:17-24; Acts 2:38). When was Ananias forgiven (Acts 8:22-24) or the Ephesians (Revelation 2:5)?

Can the Christian do what God cannot do? In individual, personal matters between you and another (in which you strive to resolve the difference), if the brother will not repent, “let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican” (Matthew 18:15-17).

Without possible dispute are Christ’s words, “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). When were the Corinthians commanded to forgive and comfort the man in adultery? The necessary implication is that the man had repented between the command to withdraw from him and the time when they were to forgive him (I Corinthians 5; II Corinthians 2:5-11).

But, some may object thusly: Does this not demonstrate a lack of love for our brother, or is it not to carry a grudge? Our Father loves the impenitent supremely, certainly not carrying a grudge; yet, He refuses to forgive the rebellious one, who will not repent. Did not Jesus pray (as did Stephen) for His murderers to be forgiven? For them to have been forgiven while still impenitent would mean that man universally can be saved while refusing to repent. The penitent, obedient ones on Pentecost of Acts 2:37-41 received an answer to Christ’s prayer; only then were they forgiven.

Does this mean that one can have a mean, unforgiving spirit? Absolutely not! The faithful child of God has the spirit of forgiveness, anxious for one who has offended him to repent (Matthew 18:15; Luke 17:3-4). Contrast the self-righteous elder brother (Luke 15:25ff). What is real forgiveness? “And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Hebrews 10: 17); "... love covereth a multitude of sins" (I Peter 4:8). How sad to appear in judgment not having forgiven a penitent child of God who injures us! How can God show is mercy (Matthew 6:14-15)?

And, how sad, on the other hand, for the erring child of God to sin publicly, hurting the name of the Lord and His body, and never to acknowledge the sin, refusing to repent of and confess it (James 5: 16)! How sad for an individual to sin against a brother and to expect to go to heaven, his never having corrected the sin (Matthew 18:15-17; Luke 17:3,4).

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