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Is our forgiveness of others conditional?

Some very sincere people believe it to be morally offensive to forgive people without them repenting. They believe this because the Scriptures speak of us forgiving others as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). These texts are understood to be directing us to forgive exactly as God does. Therefore, they see these passages as forbidding them to forgive if repentance hasn’t taken place.

What is overlooked is how radically different God’s forgiveness is from man’s. God’s forgiveness involves a holy God forgiving sinful people. Man’s forgiveness is one sinner forgiving another. God’s forgiveness is perfect and results in making all things new. Man’s forgiveness hopefully leads to better things, but there is no guarantee. God’s forgiveness came at the cost of His Son dying on the cross, man’s comes at the cost of forsaking vengeance for hurt he has suffered. Clearly, we can’t and don’t forgive exactly as God does. We can (and I think this is the thrusts of the texts), be gracious and compassionate as God has been (although obviously to a lesser degree), and be willing to forgive.

Then too, there are a few texts (Matthew 18 and Luke 17), where Jesus speaks of forgiving those who have repented. If we’re to forgive people regardless of whether they repent, these instructions sound out-of-sync. I think it is simply the case that Jesus is using "forgive" in the sense of reconciliation. In other words, the issue is not one person forgiving the other person in the sense of letting go of the hurt caused them by wishing good will, it’s whether the relationship should be continued. When Jesus says to forgive them if they repent, it is another way of saying "resume the relationship." It’s not unusual for a biblical writer to use a word in different ways (think of "faith," or "works"). We do the same thing. "Book" can refer to a novel, something with telephone numbers inside it, or something children color in.

However, it does raise the question of whether we should look at forgiveness as an isolated action or see it as a state in which we are called to live. It seems to me that it is much like repentance. Properly understood, repentance isn’t something we do from time to time when the need arises. A mature understanding recognizes that we’re often not immediately aware when repentance is needed. Thus, we live in a penitent state that takes into account our limited ability to see our sins (1 John 1:9).

Forgiveness is an extension of love, which is to be a constant in our lives. From this, it seems consistent to think of it as the state of mind and heart where we live ready to build bridges wherever and whenever the need arises.   
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