It has been the uniform opinion of all Christian groups throughout all of church history that forgiveness is an essential and foundational aspect of Jesus teaching. Not only is forgiveness plainly taught in scripture, but a consistent testimony of deep inner healing and deliverance following delayed forgiveness bears witness to the importance of obeying this command.
One aspect of forgiveness though is rarely discussed: is forgiveness conditional or unconditional? Various bible passages suggest that it is unconditional. For example, Mark 11: 25 says “If you are praying, and you remember you are holding something against someone, then forgive them that God may forgive you”. Other passages state that the person should not be forgiven until their repentance has been demonstrated. For example in Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus is quoted as saying “If your brother trespasses against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you then you have won your brother. But if he will not hear you then bring 1 or 2 witnesses so that every word can be established. And if he won’t listen to them then tell it to the church. If he won’t listen to the church then let him be as a heathen man and a publican.” Furthermore,
If we compare Mark 11:25 with a similar passage in Matthew 5:23-24 we can see, again, that unconditional forgiveness is not always taught: “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you then leave your gift at the altar and go and be reconciled to your brother and then come back and offer your gift”. This shows the importance of reconciliation.
If we agree to use the word “forgiveness” to refer to an unconditional act in which we release a person, turn from resentment and turn towards love, then we still must deal with concept of reconciliation, which will be the conditional side of forgiveness and judging.
When a person is transgressed against and suffers injustice the natural reaction is anger and pain. If the transgressor becomes apologetic when confronted, (see contrition), and shows real evidence of change (see repentance) then forgiveness is relatively easy. The real difficulty, however, arises when there is no confrontation and/or no contrition and repentance. It is here where we must practice unconditional forgiveness.
Failure to forgive can lead to bitterness, feelings of hatred or a desire for revenge. If the transgressor will not display repentance then the issue becomes the wounded heart, not a need for justice. The need to forgive is no longer focused on the relationship but on the inner peace that unforgiveness has stolen. Thus, in a case where there is no reconciliation forgiveness must still be done, and it is unconditional; it does not require that the person who hurt you be repentant.
When unconditional forgiveness occurs the victim’s spiritual condition will be improved. However, it is important to realize that unconditional forgiveness does not produce reconciliation. That is, just because a person forgives someone “from the heart” it does not mean that they should resume their previous relationship. That is, reconciliation is always conditional. The transgressor must become contrite and repentant in order to restore trust and relationship. Looking again at Mark 11 and Matthew 5 and 18 it is clear that the conditional side of forgiveness is relational whereas the unconditional side of forgiveness is inward, personal and independent on the transgressors attitude.