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"If He Repents, Forgive Him"

Luke is the Apostle of repentance. In Luke's Gospel, the doctrine of repentance takes center stage. Commanding a place at center stage in God's grand plan for our salvation (Acts 2:38, 8:22), repentance requires much of the sinner and maybe even more of the sinner's support system of fellow Christians.

Repentance in Luke

Like so many other Bible teachings, repentance combines the condition of our hearts with the action of our hands. Repentance can be defined as the required condition and action of sinners as they return to God. Repentance is not an either/or doctrine. Both condition and action, heart and hands must change. "Rend your heart," said Joel (Joel 2:13). "Demonstrate...repentance by...deeds," said Paul (Acts 26:20).

In keeping with this basic explanation of the Bible's doctrine of repentance, Luke often returns to repentance.

  • "Bear fruits in keeping with repentance" (Lk. 3:8).
  • "I tell you...unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Lk. 13:3).
  • "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Lk. 17:3;  see also Mt. 18:15).

Luke 13:3

Saying, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him," Luke and Matthew are addressing the touchy subject of repeated, public sin. Some sins are secreted between the sinner and God. Other sins are quickly acknowledged and corrected. Still other sins are note-worthy and notorious. What should be done about public, repeated sin?

Step I

Instead of immediately taking a hand's-off, stand-back approach, the support system of the local church is called into soul-saving action by Luke's words. Congregations that are called on to evangelize the world and do good unto all are also called on to "Bear one another's burdens, andso fulfillthe law of Christ... if anyone is caught in any transgression,you who are spiritual should restore him ina spirit of gentleness" (Gal. 6:1-2). This is the "rebuke" of Luke 13:3. This is the "tough love" of Christian brotherhood.

James added these empowering words: "If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back...will save his soul from death" (Jas. 5:19-20). What good is a family that allows its children to remain prodigal? What good is a church that has adopted an off-brand of Christianity that knows nothing, sees nothing, does nothing, and says nothing to its wayward members? Much is required of a sinner's support system of Christian brothers and sisters.

Step II

Responding to his own reignited conscience, the sinner's step is only as demanding as his pride and his pretense. Low-pride and low-pretense sinners quickly rend their hearts and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. Sinners with greater arrogance and greater cause themselves greater pain by putting repentance off.

Step III

Following a sinner's repentance, the burden of responsibility again shifts to the congregation. Following the very public disgrace and the very public repentance of a member at Corinth, Paul told his brethren,

The punishment (note: punishment) inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him (II Cor. 2:6-8).

No accounts were to be kept and no second-class citizenship was to be maintained.   "If He Repents, Forgive Him." But what if he does not?

Step IV

We are living in an age without "if," that is, an age without conditions. Citizenship without naturalization, income without jobs, and remission of sins without repentance are signs of our times. Within Christianity, the age of anti-if is dumbing-down the responsibility to repent and deconstructing the responsibility of fellow Christians. Some encourage us to behave toward the unrepentant in exactly the same way we behave toward the repentant.  

But the Apostle of repentance is also the Apostle of conditions. "If He Repents, Forgive Him." But what if he does not? Christians cannot take the place of God and extend our own forgiveness in the place of God's. Should we be eager and ready to forgive? Certainly. Should we ignore God's conditions and extend unilateral forgiveness? Certainly not.


Truly, more is expected of congregations than of errant members. If a member sins notoriously, we must rebuke him. "If he repents" we are to "forgive him" without reservation. If he continues in sin, we are to retain our tough-love/tender-heart stance.