How Forgiveness Must (Yet May Not) Require Repentance

In his book, Unpacking Forgiveness (Crossway, 2008) and forthcoming chapter, “The Pastoral Importance of Gospel-Centered Forgiveness” (future book edited by Kit Barker and G. Geoffrey Harper, Wipf & Stock), Chris Brauns claims that while forgiveness must be offered unconditionally, it should only be granted when the offender repents. Anything less risks becoming therapeutic forgiveness, in which we forgive automatically for our own sakes.

Others, such as Tim Keller, Forgive (Viking, 2022), D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Crossway, 2002), and David Powlison, Good and Angry (New Growth Press, 2016), argue for various third ways that explain how forgiveness requires repentance in some aspects or situations yet does not require repentance in others.

My paper will build on their insights while preserving Brauns’ stricter “gospel-centered” approach to produce a more finely nuanced perspective. I intend to argue that while forgiveness does not properly occur without repentance, the offer of forgiveness requires a forgiving stance. This disposition is not itself forgiveness but is a necessary step towards forgiveness. The forgiving stance is not forgiveness because it does not pay the moral cost. Yet it prompts us to take out our moral checkbook, preparing to pay what is owed once the offender repents. In this nuanced way we can retain a theologically robust and precise definition of forgiveness while avoiding the opposite ditches of grudge-holding and cheap, therapeutic forgiveness.

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