What does the Bible teach regarding repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation? According to Dr. Tom Pittman, the process looks like this:
If there is biblical support for forgiveness without repentance I have not found it, and the popular notion of unilateral "forgiveness" without repentance is taught by many popular Bible teachers and Christian authors. (See Driscoll example below.) Why is the notion of unilateral "forgiveness" so popular? I think there are several reasons.
(1) Biblical forgiveness is hard and uncomfortable and not always possible since it is contingent on the other party. What if the offending party is dead or inaccessible? What recourse for dealing with sin does the Christian have in this case? Unilateral "forgiveness" is easier because it is not contingent on the offending party, and it offers a solution to the sticky problem of dealing with the unrepentant offender.
(2) The biblical practice of church discipline and rebuke has fallen out of favor among the modern American church. Few people are willing risk the confrontation necessary for rebuke. Going to someone and saying "I forgive you" when they may not even be aware of their offense becomes a backhanded way of rebuking them, but it can cause the whole process to fail miserably. And, even if the offending party is completely aware of their offense, how does forgiving them before they have repented help them if it doesn't model God's approach to forgiveness? Does God unconditionally forgive unrepentant sinners and invite them still sinning into His New Heaven and New Earth? Or, does God forcibly suppress their sinful desire, so they become mere robots?
(3) There seems to be lack of awareness on how to deal with sin apart from repentance. Fortuntely, there is a Biblical principle for dealing with sin that is not contingent on the other party. We don't seem to have a word for it in English, but there is an English antonym which is "vindictive". The Bible clearly teaches us to not be vindictive or take revenge. This principle of "un-vindictiveness" is giving up my right to get even. But, the biblical principal of not retaliating by "turning the other cheek" or "loving your enemy" and leaving the vengeance to God is never called forgiveness in the Bible.
Premature "forgiveness" (i.e. before repentance) risks making the "forgiver" come off as "holier than thou." Rather than taking the time and pains to come to the table of reconciliation, putting the truth of the sin out in the open, and allowing the offending party to repent by their own free will, the whole process is short-circuited and often swept under the rug. If the offending party doesn't have time to experience conviction and confess (agree with the accuser) before they are let off the hook by the premature "forgiveness," what incentive does the offender have for ever repenting? After all, they are already forgiven! Most importantly, is this how God handles forgiveness? Not according to the Bible. Every instance of forgiveness in the Bible is contingent on the offender repenting first.
As Dr. Pittman points out in his essay, "Rebuke leads to repentance. Repentance is the promise (and assurance) that it won't happen again. Forgiveness is accepting that promise, and fully restoring the relationship." This is the only path to restoration that preserves justice. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by President Nelson Mandela as part of efforts to end apartheid, is a good example of how restorative justice works when this Biblical model of forgiveness is followed. Skipping the step of repentance cheapens forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance..." I think Bonhoeffer was right.
One of my favorite Bible teachers is Mark Driscoll, and here's a 20 minute video of his teaching on "real repentance." Driscoll outlines the following five steps:
It may seem like splitting theological hairs to argue with Driscoll's view since he does treat forgiveness in the context of reconciliation and justice being served, but are we not setting ourselves up to be greater than God by forgiving someone who God puts in Hell? How does that compute?
In the last couple of minutes of this video teaching Driscoll calls the idea of "self-forgiveness" blasphemy, and I agree. However, this whole notion of self-forgiveness is only possible when holding to the (wrong) view that "forgiveness takes one person." Once we agree with the Biblical definition of forgiveness being a two party transaction, the notion of self-forgiveness becomes nonsensical and keeps us away from the blasphemy Driscoll may unwittingly be leading his followers into by promoting (without Biblical support) the idea that forgiveness only takes one person.
I don't see any Biblical evidence to support the popular notion of unilateral "forgiveness," and Driscoll offers none here in this teaching. However, he does offer a corrective measure for the blasphemy of "not forgiving yourself" that is only possible under the Biblically unsupportable view that forgiveness is a solo activity.