Can We Forgive Someone Who Has Not Repented?

Borrowed Light
Can We Forgive Someone Who Has Not Repented?

“Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive” (Colossians 3:13).

I wonder if we really believe this verse. I am convinced that we overload that word “forgive” with all of our conceptions of what that means and skip right over the “just as.” But the “just as” gives us a definition of forgiveness. 

Check your coffee mugs, your Pinterest board, Facebook wall, and those pithy little sayings you’ve got rolling through your noggin. The stuff you find there is why I say I don’t think we really believe this verse. Here is one you might look at: 

“Forgive, but do not forget, or you will be hurt again. Forgiving changes the perspectives. Forgetting loses the lesson.” - Paulo Coelno

You might shorten that one and say, “I can forgive, but I won’t forget.” That means I’m going to keep this offense stored somewhere in my back pocket — keep a little record of the wrong — try not to ever look at it again but for awhile, I’m going to look at you a little side-eyed. 

God does the same with us, right? He says, “I forgive you, but I’m not going to forget this!” Those pesky little verses like Hebrews 8:12, 10:17; Isaiah 43:25, and Jeremiah 31:34 will provide you some difficulty here. 

Let’s move away from our coffee mugs and check out a bit of social media. Oh, here’s a great one on forgiveness. “I forgive you, but you don’t have access to me anymore!” Yas, queen!! Set those boundaries! God does the same with us right — he forgives but shuts us out of having access with him? 

We’ll try one more. This one has got a nice little image on Instagram, cute flowers, a butterfly, some cursive writing. “To forgive is to set the prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” Lewis Smedes and about 1.5 million college graduates have said that one. It’s a great reminder that sometimes we hold onto offenses against us for so long that it turns into bitterness and ends up eating us alive. 

That’s why God forgives too, right? Because if He didn’t forgive us, He’d be trapped in a prison of His own making, overcome with bitterness. He forgives us because, well, He’s the better person and that’s what good people do. We might be getting a little closer to truth here — but is that really what it means for God to forgive? Did He forgive us because of some emotional deficit within Himself? Good luck defending that one with Scripture

We could keep looking at our coffee mugs and social media posters, but let’s start trying to answer the question at hand. Can we forgive someone who has not repented? I hope that as we interact with this topic, by the end we can return to these pithy sayings and see through them a little better. In order to do this, we need to understand what is meant by forgiveness. 

What Is Forgiveness? 

Some of our difficulty here is that when we read the word “forgiveness” in the Bible, there are a number of different Greek or Hebrew words that might be used. They are very similar, but each has a little different nuance. I’m going to be overly simplistic here, but I want to show you the basic differences:  

  • סָלַח (salach): Emphasizes God's role in forgiving sins, often implying divine grace and mercy.
  • כָּפַר (kaphar): Focuses on the act of atonement, indicating a process that involves reconciliation through sacrifice.
  • נָשָׂא (nasa): Highlights the removal or carrying away of sin, symbolizing cleansing and lifting of burdens.
  • ἀφίημι (aphiemi): Implies letting go or sending away sins, indicating a relational release from debt or obligation.
  • χαρίζομαι (charizomai): Stresses the gracious nature of forgiveness, emphasizing the benevolence of the forgiver.
  • ἄφεσις (aphesis): Suggests a formal release or pardon, often used in legal or formal contexts of liberation from sins or debts.

Let’s look at some of those coffee mug quotes. “I can forgive, but I’ll never forget.” Put that simple definition for aphiemi over that quote. You’re basically saying, “I can release you from this debt, but you still have a debt.” That doesn’t make any sense, does it?

But what if we combine these a little. What if I’m saying, “I can charizomai but at this point I cannot aphiemi”? In that case you’re saying something like I want to forgive you, I want to pardon you, but at this juncture I cannot. We might ask, “why not,” but we’re at least starting to make a little bit of sense. 

When we’re talking about forgiveness, I think we’re really saying two different things. But they have merged in such a way that we end up saying nonsensical things when we talk about forgiveness. There is the posture of forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness. 

The posture of forgiveness is like the word charizomai. As in Colossians 3:13 we “bear with one another.” It means that our heart’s disposition towards another person has changed. We do not want to hold their debt over them. This is an entirely one-way affair. We can have the posture of forgiveness whether or not that person ever repents.  

The practice of forgiveness on the other hand is a little more like aphiemi. Again, I’m being a little overly simplistic with these words. But this practice of forgiveness is actually canceling the debt. It’s being reconciled. Why would you not? The debt has been paid. The offense has been removed as far as the east is from the west. It’s possible that you’ve been able to overlook the offense and move straight into this. But perhaps it is conditioned upon their repentance. You aren’t reconciled because they have never repented. 

We can see this a bit clearer if we look at God’s forgiveness of us.  

Considering God’s Forgiveness

Is everyone saved? 

Now, if you are a universalist of some sort we’d need to have a different conversation. My guess is that most of our readers will say that not everyone is saved — only those who are in union with Christ. Or to put that another way, only those who have received God’s forgiveness. 

Which means that in some way you believe that God’s forgiveness is conditional. But I bet you also believe that God has a posture of forgiveness for all of humanity — in that if any person repents and trusts in Christ, their sin is covered and they are reconciled. You already understand a difference between the posture of forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness. 

And I’m also guessing that few believe that if you sin and ask God for forgiveness that you’ll be met with a cold-shoulder and no more access. We believe the gospel. We believe that the shed blood of Christ gives unfettered access to God’s throne. Why then, do we believe that we can say that we’ve “forgiven” someone but we cannot be reconciled to them? How can we say, “I forgive you, but I’ll never trust you again”? That’s not quite what forgiveness means. 

But it’s dangerous on the other side too. If we don’t have any concept of repentance or the practice of forgiveness conditioned upon repentance, then we’ll do great harm to victims of abuse. We’ll tell them really stupid things like, “You need to forgive that person who assaulted you! Yes, I know he hasn’t repented and wants to keep it secret. But you don’t want to be in that prison of unforgiveness. You need to be reconciled with him.” 

We need to consider how God forgives. He has a posture of forgiveness towards everyone. He will forgive in practice any person no matter what they’ve done. And that forgiveness comes when we unite to Him through Christ, by grace and through faith (of which repentance is just the other side of the coin). Posture. Practice. Know the difference. 

Let’s see this quickly in Matthew 18 and Luke 17.  

Interacting with Matthew 18 and Luke 17

Notice the language of Matthew 18 and Luke 17. In Luke 17 it’s explicit, “if he repents, forgive him.” In Matthew 18 it talks about “winning your brother” (I would argue that’s repentance). There is no talk there of “forgive him from your heart, don’t worry about his repentance, release them from prison, but you never have to talk to them again.” No, these verses have full reconciliation and a release of pardon in their sights. 

But again, it’s conditioned upon repentance. 

And the lesson here is that if such a person does repent and we don’t practice forgiveness, well now we’ve got a problem on our end. Of course, “repent” doesn’t simply mean that someone says they are sorry. If we’re talking about cases of abuse and such, we likely need to dig deep into the fruits of repentance. No, that doesn’t mean God waits to see if we’re serious before He forgives. God knows our hearts. People are a quite a bit less omniscient. We might need to see fruits consistent with repentance before we can fully reconcile. 

And grace covers this whole process. There are times when we struggle through the posture of forgiveness as well as the practice of forgiveness. But that struggle does need to be there. Matthew 18 tells us that it is costly not to forgive. If we do not have practice forgiveness (upon repentance) or even pursue the posture of forgiveness (apart from repentance) it shows that perhaps we ourselves have never experienced true forgiveness. 

Posture and Practice

Can we forgive someone who hasn’t repented? Well, that depends on what we mean by forgiveness. Can we have the posture of forgiveness towards someone who hasn’t repented? Absolutely. And we must. We cannot hold onto unforgiveness. We should long to see reconciliation that comes from the heart change that God brings into their lives. We don’t have to hold a debt over them — we can entrust that debt to God. We can hand them over to the Lord’s care. But such “forgiveness” isn’t the ultimate expression of it. It’s the posture but not the practice. 

Can we practice forgiveness without repentance? I’m not sure that we can, not in the full sense of the word. Because this kind of forgiveness requires two parties. And without repentance there is really only one party engaged.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Paolo Cordoni

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.