The Limits of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament as a requirement for followers of Christ. But forgiveness is not expected independently from the rest of the values of the Word and righteousness. We cannot separate the requirement to forgive from the requirement for righteousness or from the requirement to use discernment. Specifically, the Word does not require us to extend forgiveness to someone who is not repentant and it does not indicate that forgiveness is synonymous with reconciliation.

Repentance is more than just acknowledgement of wrong and it is more than just apology. Repentance is even more than simply saying, “I repent” or “I am truly repentant.” Those are just words and can be used to manipulate Christians into feeling obligated to forgive.

We are supposed to use discernment and evaluate fruit. Repentance doesn’t stand alone; there should be accompanying fruit. And where there has not been repentance, we are not required to forgive – in the sense of absolving someone from guilt. Nor are we ever required to forgive and absolve from consequences of wrong, even in the face of genuine repentance.

While the Bible stresses the importance of individuals forgiving those who have wronged them, which releases them from the bondage of bitterness and unforgiveness, nowhere does God insist that forgiveness is necessarily followed by reconciliation. I can forgive someone for the wrong they have done to me, but I do not have to remain in the path of continued harm at their hands. If someone has harmed me and will continue to do so, it is my responsibility to protect myself. If I fail to protect myself, I will reap the consequences and be hurt again. Worse, I may participate in “calling” evil good by my silence and allowing wrong to continue.

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