Question: "Since God does not forgive until a person confesses/repents, does that mean we can withhold forgiveness from those who sin against us until they confess/repent?"
Answer: The Bible speaks of two kinds of forgiveness—human forgiveness, that of people extending forgiveness toward others, and divine forgiveness, Godís forgiving human beings. Is there a difference? The forgiveness God extends to an unbeliever is conditional upon his repentance—that is, if a sinner never repents of his sin, he will remain unsaved (see Acts 3:19). Once a sinner repents and turns to Christ, all his sin is forgiven and all condemnation is removed (Romans 8:1). The forgiveness we are to extend to others is not conditioned upon being asked for nor upon our seeing fruits of repentance.
The Bible teaches us that God withholds forgiveness toward unsaved people who are unrepentant (2 Kings 24:4 and Lamentations 3:42). God does this because of His very nature: He is sinless. He is perfect. He is holy. He simply will not tolerate sin. Paul warns the willfully rebellious in Romans 2:5, ďBecause of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of Godís wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.Ē
As Christians, we are certainly obligated to forgive others who sin against us and then repent (Matthew 6:14–15; 18:23–35; Mark 11:25; Luke 17:3–4; Ephesians 4:31–32; Colossians 3:13). This holds true even if someone sins against us repeatedly (Matthew 18:21–22).
But what about when someone sins against us and is not repentant? The fact that God makes repentance a condition for saving a person does not give us license to withhold forgiveness. God can judge a personís intentions because He knows whatís in a personís heart (1 Samuel 16:7; Hebrews 4:12–13), and we donít. We are not God. We are not the Judge. For us to play God by refusing to offer forgiveness is an act of judgment on our part, something Jesus warns us against (Matthew 7:2).
When Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone, Jesus answered that we must forgive as many times as necessary. Then He illustrated forgiveness with a parable about a man who, although forgiven by his master of an overwhelming debt, refused to forgive another a paltry sum. When this manís master heard about his ingratitude and injustice, he was outraged and had him handed over to the tormentors. ďThis is how My heavenly Father will treat each one of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heartĒ (Matthew 18:35).
Surely, by receiving such a massive pardon from God, we should not be so mean-spirited as to withhold forgiveness from others. Rather, we should emulate the example of our Savior. Forgiveness is not a fruit that needs time to grow in our lives. It is an act of the will. Jesus commands that if someone sins against us seven times in one day and repents as many times, that person should be forgiven (Luke 17:4). Forgiving someone for the same offense several times in one year would be a major test of sanctification, so seven times in one day drives Jesusí point home. The disciples were so staggered by this that they immediately requested an increase in their faith (Luke 17:5). Jesus then told them what a tiny amount of faith can achieve by explaining that a servant does not receive praise for carrying out orders—for simply doing his duty. In other words, we do not need great faith to forgive; we only need to choose to carry out the Masterís instruction.
Jesus cried out from the cross, ďFather forgive them for they do not know what they are doingĒ (Luke 23:34). Stephen asked that those who were stoning him be forgiven (Acts 7:60). In both cases, forgiveness was unconditional. Those around the cross were not asking for forgiveness, and neither were those stoning Stephen. And, obviously, someone who sins against us seven times in one day is not demonstrating fruits of repentance. By emulating Jesus and Stephen, we can extend Godís forgiveness, too. To wait until we are asked for forgiveness may mean we never get an opportunity to forgive. In all this, we must realize that God never asks us to do the impossible. Were it beyond our ability to forgive from the heart, Jesus would never have directed us to do it.
An unforgiving spirit leads to bitterness, anger, and resentment. A heart with such an attitude cannot have true fellowship with God. Not holding grudges allows a state of mind that is ready and willing to forgive. Reconciliation is the goal, and if there cannot be reconciliation, a willingness to forgive must be maintained. There can be no excuse for withholding forgiveness from others (Matthew 5:22–24).