In many Christian circles today, there is confusion as to what is repentance and forgiveness, and we use these words many times without knowing their meaning. On two occasions, both related to one of my books, my editor and a reader asked me about repentance and forgiveness concerning someone in my book. Thus, a blog post about this very important, but misunderstood, topic in the Bible.
The Bible, the word of God, is the final authority. However, the topic of repentance and forgiveness is a tough theological tangle.
This was the question that I was asked:
“You state that we are not to grant forgiveness until people are truly repentant. Really!? I believe we are to be like Jesus and forgive immediately, as that frees us from that load. Jesus Himself on the cross said “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” Luke 23:34 (KJV) Even Stephen asked the same when they stoned him. “And he [Stephen] kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Acts 7:60 (KJV)I believe we are called to forgive freely, as we have been forgiven.”
If two different people questioned this, I’m sure so do many others.
In this article, I will explain some of the Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness.
Definition of Repentance
Repentance is a change of heart and mind, a 180-degree turn, if you will. As you turn away from something, you are turning towards something else.
True repentance can only happen after you realize that something you are doing is wrong or harmful, and that you need to turn away from it. God wants this “turning” from sin.
“Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (KJV)
Definition of Forgiveness
According to the Bible, forgiveness is a pardon for our sins, a cancellation of debt.
Repentance and forgiveness both operate in the context of sin, and we all are sinners.
Repentance and Forgiveness of Sins for Salvation
Repentance is a necessary component for salvation. In the words of the publican (tax collector) in a parable of the Lord Jesus Christ, “And the publican, standing a far off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” Luke 18:13 (KJV).
This sinful man is an example of all sinners today. He knew he was a sinner, and he repented of his sinfulness. He knew that he needed God’s mercy. He also knew that he didn’t deserve God’s mercy, but he desperately wanted it, and was hoping that God would hear and answer him. (God did.)
When we come to God for salvation, we know that we are guilty. We know also that we deserve hell since we are a sinner and that no sin can enter heaven.
The Bible teaches “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23 (KJV)
Coming short of the glory of God is not being able to enter heaven because of our sin. According to this verse, no one is exempt from this sin nature, and so all are guilty before God.
Since all have sinned, and all have come short, the Bible also records the penalty of this condition. “For the wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23a (KJV)
Not only does this mean physical death, but spiritual death — eternal separation from God in hell.
“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (KJV)
To escape this sentence of hell, which all sinners rightly deserve, there is a marvelous connector word, “but” found in Romans 6:23. The complete verse reads, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23 (KJV)
God graciously offers this gift of eternal life to all, but with any gift, it must be accepted. Accepting (or rejecting this gift of God’s grace) is totally up each individual. Here is how the Bible describes accepting the gift of God’s salvation.
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (KJV)
While neither the words “repentance” nor “forgiveness” are mentioned in these verses that are part of the plan of salvation, both are implied. Realizing that you need a Savior from hell — the penalty for sin — confessing that only the blood of the perfect, sinless, Son of God, Jesus Christ can pay for your sins, and repentinging of your unbelief all is part of confessing Jesus Christ. When you do, God immediately forgives your sin debt and gives you the gift of eternal life.
Jesus Himself phrased salvation this way in Luke 15:7, “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (KJV)
Interestingly enough, the last part of this verse is a bit of sarcastic humor by Christ Jesus since He knew there were no one, much less ninety-nine righteous persons, who did not need repentance! But there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God when a person experiences true repentance.
Repentance of sin is a vital part of gaining God’s forgiveness and escaping hell. Peter preached repentance before gaining forgiveness.
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (KJV)
Jesus also knew that not all will repent of their sins and receive His salvation. He said:
I [Jesus] said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins. (KJV)
Repentance and Forgiveness After Salvation in Our Own Lives
After a person accepts God’s free gift of salvation, they are saved and they have a home in heaven, but they still sin. Sin is our first nature, and God’s gift of salvation does not remove it.
The pattern of repentance first, including confession of sin, and then forgiveness, is found in:
1 John 2:1
“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (KJV)
I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah. (KJV)
Repentance — acknowledging our sin and turning away from it — comes before God’s forgiveness. Whether for salvation or after salvation, the pattern is the same: repentance proceeds forgiveness. God does not forgive us our sins unless and until we repent.
While this is an Old Testament verse, it is the pattern for us today. We need to confess our sins to our heavenly Father to get His forgiveness.
Lack of Repentance in Personal Relationships
When people sin again us, and they will, there is a common misconception that we are to immediately forgive them of their wrong(s) against us.
- If a spouse is unfaithful to us, are we to immediately forgive them, despite the fact they intend to continue to be unfaithful?
- If someone, perhaps even a family member, molests our child, are we to immediately forgive the perpetrator?
- If a medical worker deliberately injects a lethal dose of morphine into our sick parent, are we to immediately forgive him?
- Should Jesus have forgiven the money changers instead of chasing them out of the temple with a whip, as recorded in John 2:15?
- In Revelation 6:10, the souls of those who were slain for their testimony wanted God to avenge them, not forgive, the ones who killed their physical bodies.
- David, in Psalm 139:22, said that he hated those “with perfect hatred” who hated the Lord God.
- Should we forgive Satan (and all of the human beings he uses) for all of the evil he has caused, and is presently causing, in the world today?
Immediately forgiving those mentioned above, makes us a doormat for any wicked person to mutilate us, not to mention a broken heart for us while the instigator continues with their evil ways.
And in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught, “And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.” Luke 11:4 (KJV).
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (KJV)
Jesus seems to teach unconditional forgiveness in this verse.
The Process of Forgiveness After the Point of Repentance
But upon closer inspection, interpreting Scripture in the light of Scripture, consider the verse in the parallel Gospel: Luke 17:4 “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. (KJV)
This verse adds the vitally important aspect of repentance before forgiveness.
In the New Testament, the oft repeated story of forgiveness is that of the prodigal son. When the wayward son returned home, after squandering his inheritance, and having a change of mind, his father forgave him. But his father did not give him the gift of forgiveness until after the son came to the place of repentance. His words to his father are found in
Luke 15:21 “And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” (KJV)
The son showed godly sorrow. After this speech, his forgiving father also gave him a party, a ring, a robe, and shoes. He also gave him a job, a place to stay, and food to eat. However, the son did not get another inheritance.
The story of the prodigal son demonstrates the process of forgiveness. There is first repentance on the part of the offender, first toward God and secondly toward man.
Where there is no repentance on the part of the offender, and no godly sorrow about their wicked ways, there is no obligation to give the gift of forgiveness. In fact, when there is no repentance, giving the gift of forgiveness is foolish on our part.
God’s Word Vs. Psychology
While psychology may encourage us to give the gift of forgiveness immediately for a wrong done to us in order to free us from anger and resentment, we may have to forgive those who have wronged us.
According to God’s Word, we have an obligation to forgive, and to freely forgive, but only after the offender has demonstrated fruits of repentance.
So why did Jesus ask His Heavenly Father to forgive those who crucified Him? There is a clue in 1 Corinthians 2:8: “Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (KJV)
Those who crucified Jesus didn’t know what they were doing to Whom. The same was with Stephen, they didn’t know. Saul, who later became the great Apostle Paul, was at the stoning of Stephen, and he thought that in helping with this deed, he was actually doing God a service. Once God revealed his error to him, and Paul confessed his sins, God forgave him and used him to greatly advance the kingdom of God.
The examples of Jesus Christ and Stephen are different than when a brother sins against us. We are to forgive our brother, but only after they demonstrate fruits of repentance.
The topic of repentance and forgiveness is an important subject both for us to know when and how to forgive others. But it is also just as vitally important for us to know to remind us to be repentant to receive our own forgiveness of our sins after we have sinned against God and others.
Knowing and applying God’s Word will result in boosting our mental and spiritual health. For more Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness, see this article.