How to Forgive
“When do I forgive someone?” “What does someone have to do before I forgive them?” As a counselor, I regularly hear these questions, and they’re all wondering the same thing: how to forgive.
To help people answer these questions, I encourage them to examine Scripture. But many quickly find Mark 11:25 and Luke 17:3 and struggle to reconcile their seemingly conflicting messages.
Do I Only Forgive Those Who Repent?
Mark 11:25 says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” This verse speaks of forgiving unconditionally when someone has sinned against you. But then we read Luke 17:3. This Scripture states that “if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.“ Unlike the previous verse, this one contains a condition—to offer forgiveness only if a person repents. So, which verse is correct? And what does it mean for those who want to know how to forgive?
Since all Scripture is true, we must look for how these two verses can be reconciled. And they absolutely can. How? Because these two verses are referring to two different types of forgiveness: attitudinal forgiveness and granted forgiveness. Let’s take a look at both.
There are many Scriptures that speak to how we are to treat one another (Ex. Matt. 6:14; Luke 6:37; Matt. 18:21-22; Col. 3:12-14). These passages instruct us to be gracious, forgiving, and kind. They encourage us to not choose bitterness but rather to go the extra mile. These passages speak to how our heart attitude should manifest into our actions toward people.
Similarly, Mark 11:25 speaks to our heart attitude. The unconditional forgiveness in this verse can be called attitudinal forgiveness. When someone sins against you, you should work on your own heart (with God’s help) to cultivate a heart attitude that is ready to forgive them. By doing so, you are ready to offer forgiveness as soon as they repent. In his book Pursuing Peace, Dr. Jones says, “Attitudinal forgiveness involves emptying our hearts of bitterness. Along with entrusting ourselves and the offender into God’s hands, we are called to take responsibility for our own responses.”
Once a person repents, we can take the attitudinal forgiveness we’ve cultivated in our hearts and offer the second type of forgiveness: transacted or granted forgiveness. This is what Luke 17:3 refers to when it states, “If he repents, forgive him.”
Ephesians 4:32 specifically states to forgive as Christ forgives us. So, to understand how to forgive, we need to first consider how Christ has forgiven us. Again, Dr. Jones says it well,
“God’s forgiveness is a decision he makes, part of his eternal plan of redemption. He chose to send his Son to die on the cross to offer forgiveness for all who would repent and believe in him, and he actually grants that forgiveness—declaring them not guilty in his eyes—when they do repent and believe.”
God grants forgiveness to us when we repent (Acts 2:38; Col. 3:13; Ps. 86:5; 1 John 1:9). Therefore, we should grant forgiveness when those who have sinned against us repent. This forgiveness is empowered by God’s forgiveness of us. In other words: forgiveness doesn’t happens in our own strength. On our own, it’s easy to remain in unforgiveness because it can feel impossible.
Yet if we are Spirit-filled, Christ-redeemed children of God, forgiveness is possible. It is empowered by the same One who raised Christ from the dead—who has forgiven us of much.
How to Forgive: In Practice
So, what does this mean for our day-to-day lives? To start, I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean. Choosing to forgive others doesn’t mean that forgiveness will suddenly come easily or feel “good.” Our sinful hearts are not bent toward forgiveness, which means we must continually choose to forgive before it feels natural. Secondly, choosing to forgive others doesn’t mean we are dismissing the error of their actions. Was that what Christ did when he forgave us? Certainly now. Our sin was still every bit as grievous. His death on the cross didn’t make our sin “okay.”
Living out forgiveness means that we acknowledge the sin and allow it to point us back to the grace and forgiveness of our Savior. Yes, he commands us to forgive. But the forgiveness God wants us to live out is the same forgiveness he enables us to give.
When we walk by the Spirit, then we can do all that God has commanded us to do in Christ, including forgive.