Relating Grace and Forgiveness


This question came to me via email recently: 

Can you have grace without forgiveness? If someone wrongs me and does not repent, can I still have grace on them without forgiving them? And what does that look like? God had grace on us before we repented, right?

I said:

Great question! In fact, it illustrates part of the problem we face today when we use words like “forgiveness” and “love” and “grace” so loosely, as if they were all synonyms–when in fact they aren’t.

Yes, you are right, there can be (and is) grace without forgiveness, though conversely, there can be no true forgiveness without grace. In fact, showing and giving grace is at least in part (if not fully) what it means to “love our enemies.” That is, by definition an enemy is someone with whom we are at odds and with whom we have a broken relationship. We are “alienated” from them. Yet Jesus does not say, “Forgive your enemies” but “love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you” (Lk 6:27).  In fact, it is as God shows us kindness and grace, that we come to repentance (Rom 2:4). Again, by definition to forgive your enemy is to remove the obstacles to friendship, so if we forgive our enemies, they are by definition no longer our enemies. But we know that this simply isn’t true–that even if we try unilaterally to forgive an unrepentant person (which I believe is no forgiveness at all), the offense remains as an obstacle to the relationship.

Of course, we can’t show divine grace without divine assistance and so we need the Holy Spirit to enable us to show grace to those from whom we are alienated. Yet as we allow God’s Spirit to help us to do that, it can be a powerful way for God to show his kindness to that person, and possibly lead that person into repentance for their wrong.

Also, I  like to point out that in Eph 4:32, the word translated there typically as “forgive” (charizomai) is not actually the more common word used in the NT for forgive (aphiemi), but could more literally be translated as, “Be gracious.” So the verse would read: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, being gracious to one another, just as in Christ God was gracious to you.” How was he gracious? By sending Christ to die for us, even though we were his enemies (Rom 5:8). But not only this, God is gracious, for example, by sending rain on the righteous and wicked alike (see Matt 5:44-45). But why is he so indiscriminately gracious? So that righteous and wicked alike might repent of our sins (there is none righteous, after all! Rom 3:10b) and seek his forgiveness.

So the short answer is, Yes, being gracious to our enemies IS crucial. But being gracious and showing God’s grace to the unrepentant is NOT the same thing as “forgiving” the unrepentant for their offense.


2 thoughts on “Relating Grace and Forgiveness

  1. Chrissy

    Forgiveness is necessary if we want to heal ourselves. I learned this in Kent Whitakers book called Murder by Family. It broke my heart, but I couldn’t put it down!

  2. Hi Chrissy. Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure what exactly you mean by “healing ourselves.” I believe that God alone can heal us of the pain we experience from the offenses and violence and hurts of others. I don’t think the Bible actually ever talks about forgiveness primarily as as a therapeutic matter, but as a clearing of a debt or a removal of an obstacle to a renewed relationship. Yes, the ability to forgive the repentant often brings great healing. However, I insist that it is possible to give one’s burden of pain over to Jesus Christ–to lay it at the foot of the cross, as it were–even while refusing to extend unilateral forgive to those who refuse to repent of the offense they have committed against us.

    In short, we are always obligated to forgive the repentant–we have no right to show revenge by withholding forgiveness to the repentant. In that case, we become the ones who need to repent! But to those who refuse to repent of their wrongs, who refuse to admit that they have hurt or harmed us, we are called upon by Jesus to love and show grace to them as our enemies, in the hopes that through that love and graciousness, they might actually come to repentance and so that we can think extend forgiveness to them!

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