It is common to hear Christians talk about unconditional forgiveness. They tell people that they must forgive everyone for everything they have done to them because Jesus did the same for us. Even Christian psychologists make unconditional forgiveness a part of therapy for personal anger issues. Many will teach that you should forgive even when there is no confession of guilt. Is this correct according to the Bible? I found the answer in a response by Professor Kevin A. Lewis of Biola University in an email to a student.
When Jesus’ teaches how to pray, part of the prayer states, “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12 NASB); “…forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32) We need to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1; Matthew 5:48; and Luke 6:36). We need to forgive in the same way God does. God requires repentance [confession of guilt] to receive forgiveness and we need to also.
Jesus on the cross said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). This is Christ’s revealing His heart which is the same as God’s: “who [God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4); “The Lord…not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus’ death and words on the cross displays the Father’s heart and His longing to want to forgive all of us. When Jesus died, He died for everyone’s sin. However, not everyone will make it to God. If everyone has been forgiven unconditionally, then why do some people die in their sins? They die in their sins because they reject God’s forgiveness by not repenting and reconciling to a proper relationship. Acceptance of the God’s forgiveness means you want to return to the proper relationship with God and freed from the slavery of sin. That relationship means following God as He leads and being a slave to righteousness. (Romans 6:18-23)
Repentance is necessary to accept God’s forgiveness as we can see in Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38; Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 3:19; 8:22; 17:30-31; Romans 2:4-5; II Corinthians 7:10; and II Timothy 2:25-26. If you do not want to be in a relationship with God then you are still in rebellion to God and continue to declare yourself to be His enemy. God cannot reconcile the relationship if you are unwilling to do so. That is why it is a free will choice. Repentance not only acknowledges that you are dead in sin but is also a declaration to follow God as your leader because you do not want to sin against Him any longer. God is Lord and Master of everything and He created this universe. Our correct place is following Him as our King. God’s forgiveness is conditional on whether you accept it or reject it either by repenting or rebelling.
When you accept God forgiveness, you give the burden of your sin to Him to deal with. When you reject His forgiveness, you keep the burden on yourself and you will therefore have to deal with the eternal consequences of it.
We should imitate God as Jesus has taught us. Systematic theology would expect the Scriptures to be consistent so we would find one part of Scripture to have the same message and context in a different part of Scripture. In Luke 17:3 and Matthew 18:15-17, we as believers are to go to our brother who has sinned against us, or done us wrong, and speak with them (they may not even know they have done us wrong). If they repent [confess guilt] then you must forgive them. This is the same way God forgives us. To have a deeper understanding, you must remember that God in His heart wants to forgive so much that He sent Jesus to His death. Before you go over to speak to your brother, you need to have established in your heart the desire and want to forgive. In other words, you should have given destructive emotional burdens up to God beforehand. This way, when you speak to your brother, it is not out of a self-righteous position but a righteous one. If they will not repent, or confess their guilt, then you do not give them the benefits of a clean slate. That means you do not keep enabling someone who is taking advantage of you or hurting you.