Forgiveness is a difficult topic. For many years I was under the impression Biblical forgiveness was a bilateral transaction between the offender and offended. Much of my perspective was influenced by my former mentor and friend, Dr. Tom Pittman. Tom's view is outlined here.
In May of 2016, while on a business trip in Atlanta, I was listening to a Christian talk radio show when I got two insights that changed my perspective. My first insight was that repentance is not a necessary precursor to initiating forgiveness and/or reconciliation. My second insight was that either party in the transaction could initiate forgiveness and reconciliation. A few days later I got a third insight.
After returning from my trip to Atlanta, I started thinking about my view of forgiveness as taught by Tom. His view sees repentance as a necessary precursor for even offering forgiveness based on the fact that forgiveness from God is only applied to repentant sinners, and not the unrepentant. I started to question if that order of operations was necessary, and what it would mean if either party could initiate the forgiveness process. What if the reconciliation process could be initiated without forgiveness being completely applied?
In thinking this through, I realized I had a remnant of Calvinism's Limited Atonement (the "L" in the Calvinist TULIP) affecting my theological understanding of the forgiveness process. Since I moved away from Five Point Calvinism many years ago, and therefore no longer subscribe to Limited Atonement, that led me to consider what it means if forgiveness is not limited either. What if anyone can potentially be forgiven just as the atonement of Jesus for our sins can potentially be applied to anyone, not just the "predestined elect." What if we freely offered forgiveness regardless of where the offender was in the repentance process, just like the free gift of God's grace is freely offered to whosoever will submit their life to Jesus?
If we truly and freely offer forgiveness liberally, then we cannot expect or demand repentance in order to initiate the forgiveness process. By connecting my first two insights with this third one, I came to understand I'd been wrong about forgiveness for more than 20 years. And to be clear, this is not Tom's fault. It may just be my perspective on the topic, and how I apply my perspective within the context of Scriptural truth.
Here's how I'm thinking about it now...
Forgiveness is letting someone who sins against you (offender) off the hook and putting their sin against you (offended) on God's hook. In my 20+ year relationship with Tom, and through many email dialogs about this topic over those 20+ years, I don't recall us ever discussing the forgiveness process in this way. Transferring the sin debt of someone else to God was a very freeing discovery for me.
I doubt I'm alone in my struggle with bitterness over someone who never repents. But by transferring that sin debt to God, I'm now free to move on with my life knowing I've done my part. I can trust in God's perfect justice and mercy to work out the issue with the offender through the Holy Spirit and much prayer. This may not amount to much more than semantical repositioning of Tom's steps in his view of the sin->rebuke->repentance->forgiveness process, but it is an important repositioning in my theological understanding of the forgiveness process.
If the offending party never repents, Tom would likely say that no offer of forgiveness is required, but that still frequently leaves a "root of bitterness" in the offended party. With Tom's process, we can easily become self-righteous by believing we don't owe someone forgiveness because they didn't respond to our rebuke with repentance. But who are we to judge the response of someone else? (Romans 14:4) This can be a big problem.
We experience this problem all the time when relationships fall apart or something like sickness, death, or distance interferes with full relational reconciliation. The offended party is left holding a grudge because the offender has moved on, gotten sick and doesn't have the emotional or mental fortitude to reconcile, or perhaps even died. If we believe we have no responsibility to initiate the forgiveness and reconciliation process because no repentance was offered, that results in what amounts to a stalemate.
This is especially true because most offenses are not just one way. Usually there is at least some offense on both sides when a relationship breaks down. But, by releasing the sin debt to God, my part of the process is accomplished without any involvement of the offending party. I can leave it in God's hands, and my part of the transaction is complete. Forgiveness and reconciliation potential is there, even if it isn't applied or actualized - yet. This leaves a wider door for reconciliation than the process Tom outlines.
Tom's view is "there are no shortcuts" in the sin->rebuke->repentance->forgiveness process. I disagree. The shortcut is to give it over to God, and to lovingly seek reconciliation. The forgiveness process is not a bilateral transaction. It is a three-party transaction, and we know this because God makes it clear in Scripture that all sin is ultimately an offense against His Perfect Character.
I still need to do more Scripture study to ensure my new insights are Biblically sound, but I did look up 120+ mentions of forgiveness in the Old Testament. There isn't much there about sin between people. Most mentions of forgiveness are about our transgressions against God, and I've not wavered in my belief that ultimately the offense of all sin is against God. But, this still leaves us to figure out how to work things out among our sinful human selves. I think my new understanding accomplishes just that in a more loving and relationally healthy way than the approach my former mentor taught me.