By Stephen Green

First Published in Christian Voice May 2013

Luke 17:3 Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. 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.

Back in March I wrote an article on the power of forgiveness.  It sprang from the Chris and Vicki Huhne case.  I quoted Professor Tim Wilson from the University of Virginia whose studies showed that revenge makes us feel worse rather than better.  We saw from the Lord’s Prayer in Matt 6:9-14 that God himself makes his forgiveness of us conditional on our forgiveness of others.  From Mark 11:23-26 we even saw that forgiveness can move a mountain.  And we remembered that in response to Peter’s question in Matt 18:21-22 about how many times he should forgive his brother, our Lord set a limit so high that no man could possibly come to the end of the line of forgiveness.

But a dear brother has emailed to ask: ‘What if the brother is unrepentant?  Are we bound to forgive in such a case?’  So I thought it right to try to address this point.  I may well miss the mark, but in that case I am sure the scriptures will speak better than me and lead us into truth.

The Lord’s teaching in Luke 17 seems to indicate that there is only an obligation to forgive a repentant brother.  When we look in the scriptures, we find much justification for waiting until the person repents before extending the hand of forgiveness.  For example:

Jer 36:3 It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

Many of us have drawn great comfort from the first Epistle of John, and its assurance of God’s forgiveness to the one who acknowledges the depths of his sin:

1John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Equally, if we don’t confess our sins, the implication seems to be, God won’t forgive us and he won’t cleanse us from our state of unrighteousness.  From our Lord’s own words, we see that the brother who stubbornly will not accept he is in the wrong is going to be thrown out of fellowship:


Matt 18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

We should note that if the brother hears us alone, we have gained him.  But from then on the situation escalates and the chance of regaining the brother diminishes.  In life, we have to decide what we want to achieve and then do everything in our power to achieve it.

Eccl 9:10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

As an example, imagine being pulled over by the police for some real or imagined traffic transgression.  What do you want to achieve in that situation?

It may be that you want to be in the right.  In that case you will say something like, ‘No, officer, you have it wrong.  I checked the road markings and signage and the traffic very carefully before I pulled out.’  What does the policeman do then?  He gives you all the stories of all the accidents there have been at that very point and how your driving could easily have led to another one.  Then he is all over your car like a rash, checking this and that, looking for faults.  Then he is asking for your driving license, which you left at home.  You may get away without a ticket but you have spent a long time at the roadside.

On the other hand, you may want to achieve getting on your journey without too much delay.  In that case, you will say something like, ‘I’m terribly sorry, officer, I’ve let myself down there.  Thank you for drawing that to my attention.  It’s a good job you were there.  I’ll be much more careful in future.’  You are now likely to get a short lecture and told to be on your way.  ‘Thank you, officer.’

If we decide that what we want to achieve is to be in the right then we can embark on a certain course of action.  If we want to be on good terms with our fellow, we might embark on a different course of action.

Probably the most important thing to want to achieve in this life is a right relation with God.  A close second, closely related to the first, must be peace of mind.  If we decide to wait until the person who wronged us comes to us in repentance, we might wait a long time.  And what if the person who committed the wrong against us is dead?  What if they do not even recognise what they did as a wrong?

All the time during which we are waiting we are dwelling on the wrong done to us.  All that time the bitterness is festering and it goes without saying that bitterness does not bring peace of mind.  The Luke 17 teaching, while commanding us to forgive the repentant brother, does not say not to forgive the unrepentant one.  Our Lord does not address that point.


I am not saying that we should let people walk all over us.  Nor am I saying that if a crime has been committed against you it is wrong to call the police.  Seeing justice done can bring peace of mind.  It occurs to me that ‘peace of mind’ is referred to these days by the word ‘closure’.  It means a line has been drawn under the terrible event.  People can move on.  Seeing someone convicted can be a moving-on moment.  But if we are talking about a wrong which was not a crime, that is not going to happen, and nor is it if all the evidence has flown.  In that case we need to take stock of what we want to achieve.  I said in the previous article that if Satan can keep you in the past, he’ll rob you of your future.  And one way of doing that is to keep you dwelling on wrongs done to you.

One course of action could be to be at least ready to forgive.  We know the Lord is like that:

Psalm 86:5 For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.

To have a forgiving heart is a quality worth praying for because it brings us closer to the throne of grace.  The prophet Hanani told king Asa that God is always looking for those with the right attitude of heart:

2Chr 16:9 For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.

In Galatians 5, the works of the flesh include hatred, wrath and strife, while the contrasting fruit of the Spirit includes peace, longsuffering and gentleness.  The Apostle Paul talks more than once about the importance of forgiveness

2Cor 2:6 Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. :7 So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. 8 Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him.

Eph 4:27 Neither give place to the devil. 30 And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: 32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

So we know that the heart of God is ready to forgive and that our heart should be like that as well, praying for the one who has wronged us, pleading with God to change their heart and bring them to us.

Of course another strand of forgiveness is reconciliation and we should all want that.  Christ died that we might be reconciled to the Almighty father.  But, uncomfortably, on the cross, he prayed the father to forgive those crucifying him before there was a hint of their repentance:


Luke 23:34 Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.

Now we can argue that those men had unwittingly taken a hand in the redemption of the world, and deserved, in a way, their forgiveness.  But I can think of a moment in the Bible where God covers sin without those who sinned repenting.  That moment is in Genesis 3:

Gen 3:21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

There is not a hint of repentance from Adam and Eve up to this point, just blaming everyone other than themselves and trying to cover their own sin.  It was the grace of God which covered them with the first sacrifice in a shedding of blood prophetic of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.

The Christian writer RT Kendall says of some people whom he believed had wronged him:

‘I never went to them and told them I forgave them (this would have insulted them). It happened in my heart. Once you forgive in your heart, it ceases to be an issue whether they repent or not. The blessing I got personally from this has been incalculable.’

Kendall’s mention of a blessing illustrates the point that there is a spiritual dimension to forgiveness, and possibly even a greater one to forgiveness against the odds, or forgiving the unrepentant.  Doors can unlock in the spiritual realm that we had no idea were even there.  Mountains can be moved.  It is worth reminding ourselves of the Lord’s words in Mark 11 about belief and confession and noting how dependent the results are on forgiveness:

Mark 11:22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. 23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. 25 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. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.

‘If ye have ought against any’.  That seems to me to include every eventuality, even forgiving the  unrepentant.  And to anyone struggling with feelings of hurt and anguish over a wrong done years ago, I can only say that I know it is not easy, that you may need to pray for power from on high to enable you to forgive but that by doing so you may unleash such a blessing that it will take your breath away.


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