If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. –Luke 17:3

Some people say that forgiving an unrepentant person is unbiblical. They say, “In the Bible, repentance seems to be necessary to receive God’s forgiveness; and not only that, it seems to be a prerequisite for forgiving other people as well.”

At first glance, that does seem to be the case. Repentance appears to be the condition for being forgiven by God. Mark 6:12 says that the disciples “went out and preached that men should repent.” In Luke 13:3 Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That seems like a pretty strong case for demanding repentance before forgiving. It also seems as if repentance is necessary for forgiving other people. Look at Luke 17:3-4: “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

The argument seems airtight. If God requires us to repent before we receive forgiveness, and if the Bible says we are to forgive others in the same way that God forgives us (Ephesians 4:32), then doesn’t it seem logical that we can forgive only those who repent of their sins against us? Case closed. Well, not so quickly, because such a conclusion fails to take into consideration the difference between receiving forgiveness from God and granting forgiveness to others. There is a big difference between receiving forgiveness and granting forgiveness. Repentance is necessary to receive forgiveness from another person or from God, but it has nothing to do with granting forgiveness to somebody who has hurt us.

Let me illustrate that for you. Suppose a husband comes to me and says, “My wife caught me having an affair, and I don’t know how to get her to forgive me.” I’m going to tell him, “Buddy, you better go crawling back to your wife and beg her for forgiveness. You admit to her that what you did was wrong, and you promise that you will never do it again.” From his point of view, as the one needing forgiveness, repentance is vital. But suppose instead the wife comes to me and says, “Pastor, I discovered my husband is having an affair. I’m angry and I can’t let go of it.” I’m going to tell her, “You need to forgive him.” I explain that forgiveness doesn’t mean erasing the consequences of what her husband has done. Forgiving doesn’t even guarantee that the marriage will continue, but forgiveness is letting go of her right to settle the score. For her, forgiving her husband means letting go of that bitterness and giving her husband over to God. I counsel her to forgive–not necessarily to be reconciled with him but to forgive him–so that she can be free to get on with her life. We need to know the audience we are speaking to. Forgiveness can be granted without repentance, but it can never be received without repentance.


Today’s devotion is excerpted from “Why the Words “I’m Sorry” Are Highly Overrated” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2015.

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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