This installment is the second part in a series of three parts on forgiveness. It contains a continuation of the thoughts presented in the first about the Biblical meaning and limitations of forgiveness.


In the course of my counseling practice, I have ministered to the hearts of hurting people who have been betrayed, slandered, physically abused, sexually assaulted, or otherwise viciously harmed by others.

In most cases, the offender is impenitent and, if given the opportunity, would gladly continue the same cruel behavior against the victim. Some of these victims have been taught that the only remedy for their pain is to issue unconditional forgiveness to their abusers.

     They are told that Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers (Luke 23:34), and Stephen prayed similarly (Acts 7:60). They are provided many other proof texts which teach the necessity of human forgiveness, such as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21 – 24).

By carefully reading these passages, however, we notice that none of them teach us to forgive the impenitent, and they certainly do not teach that forgiveness is a means of self-treatment for healing inner trauma.

Jesus and Stephen prayed for their offenders even while in the process of being killed by them. Yet, forgiveness was not actually granted to any of them until repentance took place. As discussed earlier, we know that God does not forgive impenitent sinners.

We also know that loving words and prayers did not change anything about the trauma and death they endured at the hands of evil men. Attitudes of the righteous do not necessarily change anything about the attitudes of the unrighteous.

     God loved the world enough to send his only begotten Son to save it (John 3:16). Yet, we know he will not forgive everyone in the world. In fact, most of the world will perish in eternal destruction because they refused his offer of forgiveness (cf. Matt. 7:13-14). Clearly, love does not always demand forgiveness.

This leads us to ask an important question: Why would God expect his people to do something that he, himself, would never do?

     Jesus taught, “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Notably, he never said anything about forgiving your enemies, or forgiving your persecutors. Peter instructed, “Do not repay evil for evil” but he did not say, “forgive evil” (1 Pet. 3:9).

Paul said, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm. The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). He did not say, “I forgave him according to his deeds”. By surrendering the matter to God, Paul got past the pain Alexander had caused him. He did not forgive him.

Isn’t forgiving an enemy who is continuing to commit evil deeds just the same as excusing the continuation of their evil deeds, even inadvertently? Since forgiveness is the pardoning of a crime committed in God’s eyes, “forgiving” them without repentance would be tantamount to justifying their sin and validating someone God has not validated.

Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” (Luke 11:4). Notice the word, “as”, which means, “in the same way”. Why, then, should we practice forgiveness any differently than God does?

“Forgiving” the impenitent is not forgiving like our Heavenly Father forgives. It is something else entirely.


We each come to God with contrite hearts requesting pardon, knowing that anything less from us makes pardon impossible. Yet we are told to expect less from those who sin against us. Why?

Since we plead for God’s mercy and gratefully receive it with humility, why wouldn’t we think the same heart must belong to those who receive our forgiveness? It does not mean that we refuse to offer them forgiveness, but that we simply cannot rightfully forgive those who will not accept it.

     We often hear people say that only God is able to forgive sins “judicially”. It is argued that his forgiveness is a different “kind” of forgiveness than ours. This was the belief of the Pharisees who opposed Jesus (Luke 5:21). They overlooked an important detail about forgiveness.

     Like Jesus, who had been given power by his Father to forgive sins on earth (Luke 5:24), Christians have this authority, as well. Forgiveness is forensic, meaning it is entirely a legal matter in the eyes of God. He honors the decree of his children who forgive, and he welcomes the forgiven back into fellowship with himself. This arrangement is by his design.

     As discussed earlier, Matthew’s gospel provides a clear path for addressing the sin of a wayward brother or sister in the local congregation (cf. 18:15-17).

It involves going to the offender alone. Then, if there is no repentance, the offended party goes to the offender with one or two witnesses. If that fails to bring about reconciliation, the offended party brings the matter before the whole congregation. Then, if there is still no repentance, the offender is considered outside of fellowship.

In the very same context, Jesus stated,

     “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Matthew 18:18 – 19

     According to Jesus, God delegates and honors the “binding” and “loosing” of fellowship by his people. The Father stands in agreement with Christians who determine to forgive and reconcile with penitent brethren. He also stands in agreement with their withholding of forgiveness from impenitent brethren.

Christ’s instruction to believers agrees with God’s own policy on forgiveness. He agrees with it because it is the same. There is only one kind of forgiveness!


 Michael A. Hildreth is a Marriage Counselor at Ranger Counseling ( He resides in Abilene, Texas