What Does the Bible Say about Forgiveness?

Does a person need to ask me for forgiveness before I give it?

When we are wronged by another person, we feel like it’s a matter of justice that they apologize for what they did. We wait for them to realize it and do the right thing. But sometimes we wait for a long time, if ever, for them to apologize.

So what does the Bible have to say about these situations? Is it just blind forgiveness that we must issue as Christians? Let’s take a look at what the Bible, especially the teachings of Jesus, have to say about forgiveness.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about forgiveness in several ways. The Lord’s Prayer makes forgiveness a standard request for Christians. We ask forgiveness from God while we forgive others (Matthew 6:12).

Jesus clarifies right after the Lord’s Prayer that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our forgiveness of others (Matthew 6:14-15). After all, God forgave us and sent his son to die for us. He takes forgiveness very seriously.

In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says that if we are in the midst of worship and remember that our brother has something against us that we must go and reconcile with him first before offering her gift.

The context may refer to something we have said about our brother (Matthew 5:21-22). But the point of the verses is to take the first step to reconcile ourselves to our brother. This requires an apology and forgiveness.

Jesus forgave at the cross (Luke 23:34; Matthew 26:28) and he is faithful and just to forgive us when we confess our sin (1 John 1:9). Jesus redeemed us and forgave our sins (Ephesians 1:7). Even from the Old Testament God was forgiving the sins of Israel (Isaiah 1:18).

If Jesus was willing to forgive our sins as grotesque and hurtful as they were, there is no wrong committed against us we should not be able to forgive. The New Testament teaches us to forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).

One of the most interesting exchanges happens between Jesus and Peter when Peter asks how much he must forgive his brother (Matthew 18:21-22). Peter doesn’t stress that his brother asked for forgiveness. He just asks Jesus how many times he must forgive his brother.

He places the limit at seven times. But let’s not be down on Peter. Seven is the number of completion or perfection in Hebrew thinking. Peter was probably thinking that he must perfectly forgive his brother. But he put a number on it as part of the question.

So Jesus put a different number on it, 77 times! That’s a lot more than seven. But even that number is not a stopping point. The parable Jesus tells explains that we have been forgiven so many times and so much by him that we must turn around and do the same to our brothers and sisters in Christ. But we shouldn’t even draw the line there. There’s no reason to not forgive unbelievers as well.

While we have been talking about forgiveness, none of these scriptures necessarily require us to forgive offenses that have not been brought to our attention. In other words, in every instance I have mentioned we do not have to forgive those who have not asked for forgiveness.

But consider that Matthew 5:23-24 does tell us to go before we offer our gift of worship to the Lord to deal with reconciling ourselves to our brother or sister. The principle of forgiving first can be found in this verse.

I strongly suggest that the spirit of the Scriptures indicates that we must not harbor unforgiveness in our hearts toward anyone. Whether they ask for forgiveness or not, if we are willing to forgive when they do ask, what stops us from forgiving the offense before they ask?

I conclude with Jesus as our supreme example again. He forgave us on the cross, forgiveness that still stands today for each of us. He forgave us before we even knew about him. He forgave people that will never ask for his forgiveness. Jesus died for everyone (2 Corinthians 5:14).

Not everyone asks Jesus for forgiveness. In fact, some people work against Jesus and his kingdom their entire lives. If Jesus can forgive before we even know him, we can forgive before it is asked of us.

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