The testimony of Martyn Lloyd-Jones should be the heart-cry of every Christian: “I say to the glory of God and in utter humility that whenever I see myself before God and realize even something of what my blessed Lord has done for me, I am ready to forgive anybody anything.”
Notice Lloyd-Jones’ phrase, “I am ready to forgive anybody anything” (emphasis added). Many do not understand the difference between being ready to forgive and actually extending forgiveness.
Often after a shooting at a school or some other horrendous, large-scale massacre, well-meaning spokespeople in the community will appeal for people to forgive the murderer(s). But biblical forgiveness is never given or required where there is no repentance. Although Jesus prayed immediately after they nailed Him to a cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34), this wasn’t an unconditional forgiveness. Otherwise these people would be forgiven of their sins without repenting and believing in the gospel–a heretical notion. “On the cross, Jesus did not forgive,” Jay Adams points out, “He prayed.” Referring to the martyr Stephen’s prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors in Acts 7:60, Adams continues,
“The same is true of Stephen. If forgiveness is unconditional, Jesus, Stephen, and others would have forgiven their murderers rather than use what, if true, would be a roundabout way to do so. At other times Jesus had no hesitancy in saying, ‘Your sins be forgiven you.’ Jesus’ prayer was answered in the response to the preaching of Peter and the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and on those other occasions when thousands of Jews repented and believed the Gospel (Acts 2:37-38; 3:17-19; 4:4). They were not forgiven the sin of crucifying the Savior apart from believing that He was dying for their sins, but precisely by doing so in response to the faithful preaching of the Gospel in Jerusalem.”
What Christians should always do, as Jesus exemplified in His prayer, is be ready to forgive. And then, when forgiveness is sought, forgiveness can be extended.
Yes, we ought to release our sinful bitterness and hatred whether the offender ever seeks forgiveness. Some equate this decision with forgiveness itself. In reality though, this is only getting ready, being willing to forgive. Then if the offender repents, we are prepared to complete the process by saying, “I forgive you.” The one who announces forgiveness where it hasn’t been sought not only discounts the importance of repentance, he also misunderstands the requirement of Scripture. But the one who is not willing to forgive is contradicting the Scripture, and for the moment at least, is putting the reality of his salvation to the test.
Leon Morris, a New Testament scholar from Australia, noted, “We can always think of some ‘good’ reason why in any particular case we need not forgive. But that is always an error.” Growing Christians will recognize that error and become quicker to say to themselves, “I’m ready to forgive.”