Is God's forgiveness conditional?
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- That God, being holy, stores up wrath against the sinner (here they typically cite Rom 2:5). Moreover, God will not let go of this wrath, through forgiveness, until the sinner repents (which to them, includes asking God for his forgiveness).
- That God will not forgive the sinner until they forgive those who have sinned against them (here they typically cite Jesus' words in Mat 6:14-15 and 18:21-35).
First, I note a disconcerting paradox: Those who claim that God will not forgive us until we repent, often claim that we should forgive those who have offended us, whether they repent or not. I agree that our forgiveness of others should be unconditional; but does that mean that we are required to be more generous with our forgiveness than God is with his? How bizarre to think so!
And how untrue! To forgive others unconditionally is not to trump God, but to be like God. We forgive others unconditionally, because that is how God has forgiven us. Stated more accurately, in forgiving others unconditionally, we participate in God's unconditional forgiveness of all humanity. Conversely, when we withhold forgiveness, we block our experience of God's unconditional forgiveness. This is what I understand Jesus to mean when he instructs us to pray to our Father in Heaven, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."
Second, I note that God the Father is not one way toward sinners and Jesus another. Jesus is "a friend of sinners." He said, "if you have seen me, you have seen the Father." Therefore, we can be assured that the Father is also a friend of sinners. His "wrath" is toward sin, not sinners - precisely because he is their friend, and knows the destruction that sin brings into the lives of his friends.
And so, in wrath against sin, and in love and friendship toward sinners, the Father, with the Son and Holy Spirit (the Trinity, which has one undivided being and thus mind and will), acted on behalf of humanity (sinners all), to bring healing through forgiveness. This was accomplished for humanity by God through the Son of God who through the incarnation became our representative and substitute. On earth he lived a perfect life while bearing our diseased nature. He then died our death, and rose to new (glorified) human life and ascended to heaven. Through Jesus, God accomplished his will to reconcile humanity to himself, forgiving all sin. That forgiveness came not by sweeping sin aside, but by decisively dealing with it, through Jesus, on our behalf.
Thus, God's forgiveness of all sin (and all sinners) is accomplished fact - granted in Jesus, unconditionally to all people. For us, it is a free gift (a gift of grace). However, for God, it is a gift bought at great price - the life of his Son, Jesus Christ.
If this gift of forgiveness is already given, why then the many scriptures calling people to repentance? Certainly not to earn what is free, rather it is to change one's mind (the New Testament word for repentance is the Greek word metanoia, meaning literally to change one's mind). Through repentance, we change our mind, agreeing with God's assessment concerning our sin (as horribly destructive). We agree as we confess our sin to God (and one another) - allowing us to appreciate and thus embrace the forgiveness that we already have from God. And this embrace is important - it makes 'real' in our personal experience what is already established in God's will and heart - our unconditional forgiveness.