Forgiveness and repentance are two closely related topics, but must they go hand-in-hand? Does God require your repentance in order to forgive you? Should you withhold your forgiveness from others unless they’re truly sorry for wronging you?
Jesus placed enough importance on repentance to instruct His disciples that they must forgive anyone who repents, regardless of the number of times that person commits a trespass:
Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. —Luke 17:3-4, KJV
However, Jesus didn’t always mention repentance as a condition of forgiveness. He told His Disciples to forgive others if they wanted God to do the same for them:
And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. —Mark 11:25, KJV
These words from our Savior show us that repentance and forgiveness do go hand in hand when another person sincerely apologizes and asks for our forgiveness. However, lack of an apology doesn’t let us off the hook. We’re also reminded that we should forgive anyone against whom we hold a grievance if we want that same treatment from God.
When we make repentance a condition of forgiveness in our dealings with others, we put a condition on something that should be offered unconditionally. God’s love for us is so vast and unlimited that He offered his own Son to ensure we’d be forgiven and gain eternal life. How can we demand something from people who wrong us when God gives forgiveness freely? Instead, we should follow the words of Jesus and show God that we can live by His example.
Why are we so prone to want an apology before we can forgive? For some reason, we believe it will take away the sting of being wronged or betrayed. It might do that temporarily, but unless we truly decide to let go of the situation, it will still eat away at us. We don’t need the other person to repent before we can let go, even though we often delude ourselves into thinking that’s true. Forgiveness is a choice on our part. It releases our anger at the other person, which frees us from the power that the negative emotions held over us.
If we wait for someone to repent, we might wait an entire lifetime and spend it being eaten away at by bitterness. If we choose to forgive, regardless of the other person’s attitude, we don’t have to worry about the situation any longer. If that person eventually decides to apologize, and perhaps even to make amends, that’s a bonus.
What about repentance when we sin against God? When we’re living a sincere Christian life, we know when we’ve done something wrong and should automatically have the desire to confess to God and ask for His forgiveness. Proverbs warns us that we can’t be happy if we try to hide our sins:
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy. —Proverbs 28:13, KJV
It does no good to pretend that we don’t have anything to confess, no matter how carefully we live our lives. Jesus is the only one who can truly claim perfection. For the rest of us, this passage in 1 John rings all too true:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. —1 John 1:8-9, KJV
As you can see, true repentance starts with being honest with the Lord, and it goes hand in hand with forgiveness. Not only will it prove your sincerity to God, but you’ll feel better getting the weight of sin off your heart.