When I was a teenager, I can remember being forced to watch some video in church about a family who forgave a man for killing one of their children.  They went to him while he was in jail and simply said through the bars, "I forgive you."  The man did not ask for it, but the family gave it, and we were encouraged as teenagers to live out that kind of "Christian" forgiveness in our own lives. In a similar vein, a few years ago I sent a letter to a former pastor of the church that I was serving that had been wronged by the church.  I asked him if there was anything that the church could do that could show genuine repentance toward him and restore broken relationships.  He quickly blew off my idea by saying simply, "I forgave them a long time ago."  He forgave them, but they were not sorry.

The questions we need to ask ourselves are actually, "What does forgiveness truly mean?" and "Can there be forgiveness apart from repentance on the part of the one who needs the forgiveness?"

Forgiveness, at least in the way that the Bible speaks of it, is not a blanket covering stemming from the injured party to the injurer.  Rather, it is all about reconciling one party to another.  Forgiveness is not a declaration, but a restoration.  And there cannot be a true restoration until both parties are willing to move toward one another.  Thus, if there is no true repentance from the injurer, then no matter how willing the injured one might be to forgive, true forgiveness cannot take place, because the relationship cannot be restored.

This idea may sound foreign to some people.  As I said earlier, most of us have been taught through various means that our duty as Christians is to forgive those who hurt us, regardless of whether they seek it or not.  But what does the Bible say on the matter?  Jesus shows the process best when He says, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).

This is the true, Biblical process of forgiveness.  There are four parts to it: the hurt, the acknowledgement of the hurt (the rebuke), the repentance, and then the forgiveness.  Most "Christian" forgiveness tries to jump directly from the hurt to the forgiveness - completely bypassing the rebuke and the repentance.  As a result, there is no true forgiveness - no true restoration of the relationship to the joy and closeness of what it once was.  In fact, in many cases, so many hurts can be 'swept under the rug' like this until eventually the relationship cannot continue at all and ultimately fails.  And the sad part of all of that is that one or both of the parties in that failed relationship may not even really know why it failed, because wrongs were never truthfully discussed.

By the way, it should be pointed out that God's own forgiveness works this way.  When we disobey God, that is the very definition of 'sin' against Him.  As sinners, we are desperately in need of God's forgiveness, so that we will not have to face His righteous judgment.  But He does not extend this forgiveness as a blanket over every human being in His creation.  He calls men to repent - repeatedly, and in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Repentance on the part of the sinner is a necessary ingredient in forgiveness.  He says over and over again that He will not grant forgiveness unless there is repentance: "If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow" (Psalm 7:12), "Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent" (Matthew 11:20), "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3), "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent" (Revelation 2:5).

So throw away whatever unbiblical notions you may have had in the past of forgiveness without repentance, and embrace the Scriptural teaching - both as the one who injures and the one who has been injured.  Make sure that if you wrong someone, you immediately seek their forgiveness by repentance and heartfelt apology.  Don't just expect them to issue some blanket declaration of your forgiveness because of the context of the relationship that you are in.  Your sin has damaged that relationship, and it needs to be restored.

Likewise, if you have been wronged, don't just sweep that hurt under the rug.  You may think that doing so is the "Christian" thing to do, but that hidden hurt will end up destroying the relationship in the end - especially if other hurts are added to the pile.  Instead, be sure to go through the 'rebuke' part of the process.  The one who has hurt you needs to know that the hurt has been done.  And you should expect a genuine repentance before the forgiveness can be completed.  If the injurer refuses to repent after the sin has been made known, then it is easy to see why true forgiveness cannot be accomplished.

It is true that a Christian should be "willing" to forgive anyone - and I believe that it is this willingness that most Christians confuse with the forgiveness itself - but we must understand that in order for the Bible's kind of forgiveness to take place, the relationship must be reconciled through repentance followed by restoration.