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)
There is – or so it seems to me – a long sermonic tradition about forgiveness. This tradition goes something like this: you must be forgiving, without condition, no matter what the circumstances. In this tradition, forgiveness is entirely at the initiative of the one who is wronged, that is, the one who might be doing the forgiving.
If you have been around churches very much, you have surely heard such a sermon. These sermons always raise questions that no one ever seems to answer. For example, does the offender need to desire forgiveness?
It is a very noble-sounding tradition. No matter how horrible the offense or how complete the un-repentance of the offender, God calls us to forgive. The offended should simply do it, without regard to the offender.
As noble-sounding as this is, it does not appear to be Biblical. The passage quoted above paints a somewhat different picture for the received sermonic tradition. Jesus does lay down a requirement of forgiveness. But notice that it is conditional: if the offender repents. Notice also that Jesus assumes that a “rebuke” might be required to trigger this repentance.
This does not mean that forgiveness is not important, or is easily accomplished. But it is a very different picture of this matter than what is often presented in churches about it.
I know I am not the first to notice this. But as much as it has been noticed, another notice does not seem out of order. Perhaps with enough notices, we can change this sermonic tradition.