Forgive the Unrepentant Believer?

Luke 17:1-4, Page 1634

People often ask me about forgiveness and repentance.  They have questions about what to do when a sinful brother receives a rebuke about sinful behavior, but completely ignores that rebuke and continues in sin. What do you do with that brother?

Basic, Complete Forgiveness

Let me start with the basics. We know that God will never ignore the guilt of sinners, but He remains full of compassion, grace and lovingkindness (Exodus 34:6-7, page 146; Romans 6:23, page 1766).1In Exodus 34:6-7, Moses has returned to Mount Sinai after the people of Israel sinfully worshiped a golden calf. The LORD passed by in front of Moses and declared that the LORD the Lord God (“יְהוָה אֵל”) has wonderful qualities: “compassionate, and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” God declared Himself to be “jealous” (“אֵל קַנָּא הוּא”) and said His name is “Jealous” (“קַנָּא”) (Exodus 34:14, page 146). 

“and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

1 Peter 2:24

Jesus died upon the cross and “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness  . . . ” (1 Peter 2:24, page 1896). 2In 1 Peter 2:24, page 1896, we read that Jesus Himself bore (“ἀνήνεγκεν”) our sins (“τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν”) in His body on the cross. Let me highlight the significance of the original text here. The word “bore” stands in the aorist tense, which emphasized the completeness and totality of the act. Jesus bore all of our sins: completed, total act. All our sins were laid upon Him, once and for all time. Therefore, our payment for sin was complete upon the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus did not redeem us on the installment plan. One payment, one time, for all sins of all people, no matter when they lived, past, present or future. As believers, we also know that all of our sins upon Jesus, meaning that our past sins, our present sins, and our future sins were all covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.

“By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Hebrews 10:10

Jesus died once for all so that we are sanctified through the offering of His body (Hebrews 10:10, page 1880).3In Hebrews 10:10, page 1880, we first that we have been sanctified (“ἡγιασμένοι”). As believers, by the will of God (“ἐν ᾧ θελήματι”), we are and remain forever as the people who have been sanctified. The term sanctified means generally to be made holy, consecrated, and set apart for God’s own use. In this verse, the term means that we have been sanctified in the past, by completed action, with the result continuing into the present. God used a participle here to relate our sanctification to the main verb “we are” (“ἐσμὲν”). Therefore, in the past, we have been consecrated and made holy, set apart for God’s use, and now we live always as set apart for God’s use. In fact, Jesus has perfected for all time those who are sanctified (Hebrews 10:14, page 1880).4Jesus taught us in Hebrews 10:14, page 1880, that by means of one (“μιᾷ” the first word in the Greek sentence) and only one offering He has perfected (“τετελείωκεν”) believers. Jesus again emphasized that one offering has perfected all believers, for all time, so that they are all the ones sanctified (“τοὺς ἁγιαζομένους”). With this participle, Jesus highlighted that we are, right now, the sanctified ones. We will never need another sacrifice for sins, even the sins we commit after our initial salvation. The single offering of Jesus Christ has made us perfect from the standpoint of payment for sin and perfection of believers. From these passages we can now see that all the condemnation we deserved for our sins was laid upon Jesus Christ, so that now the believer has no condemnation from God (Romans 8:1, page 1768). Every believer has peace with God, having been justified by faith alone (Romans 5:1, page 1764).  Jesus suffered the death penalty of sin for us, and also propitiated the anger of God, meaning that Jesus appeased the wrath of God directed at our sins.5We can learn about the doctrine of propitiation in 1 John 2:1-2, page 1905. The word propitiation (“ἱλασμός”) there means to take away anger, to appease wrath. Jesus died to be the propitiation not for the sins of believers only, but for the sins of the entire world. But that propitiation only becomes effective for me by faith alone. So, I may be very confident that the wrath of God that once weighed on me (John 3:36, page 1659) has now been placed upon Jesus because I believe that He died for me, in my place, and He suffered the wrath of God directed toward my personal sins. Therefore, I will never face the wrath of God, because Jesus has appeased God’s righteous anger toward my sin. We can be very precise about propitiation. In Romans 3:25, page 1762, we learn that God displayed publicly Christ Jesus as a propitiation (“ἱλαστήριον”) in His blood through faith. Notice here that the blood of Jesus Christ was and remains essential in appeasing the wrath of God. Only the sinless, perfect blood of Jesus shed for us would satisfy the wrath of God. That blood only becomes effective for us by faith alone. We must believe to be saved. Therefore, my salvation rests totally upon my faith that Jesus died for all of my sins, and God has already forgiven me of all my sins. Every believer has eternal life as a free gift from Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23, page 1766), and every sin past, present and future has already been forgiven and covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.

“and put on the new self, which has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”

Ephesians 4:24

       Jesus commands every believer to stand before Him clothed with “the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:24, page 1831). In His eyes, every believer wears those clothes daily. He commands us to excel still more. In Christ, we have been sanctified once and for all, which means we have been made holy, called saints, and set apart for God’s own use (Hebrews 10:10, page 1880). Therefore, we may happily conclude that every believer has been forgiven by God for all sins. From the standpoint of salvation, all of the believer’s sins remain forever under the atoning blood of Christ.6As we saw in verses from Hebrews 10, all of our sin was laid upon Christ when He died. In fact, the entire sins of the entire world from creation forward were placed upon Jesus at the cross. He truly died for the sins of the entire world (1 John 2:1-2). Christ has forever taken away the anger of God over sins, by offering Himself as the propitiation for our sins. God has forgiven every sinner who turns to Jesus by faith alone, believing that Christ died for my sins, once and for all. Now let us consider a few verses that speak to the question of sinful behavior after salvation.

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have no sin, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”

1 John 1:8-10

Every believer should recall that they sin. Indeed, sin may deceive believers: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, page 1904).7Compare 1 John 1:10, page 1904, that shows we have sinned in the past also. This verse emphasizes that sin exists in the life of every believer, even those who walk in the light mentioned in 1 John 1:5-7, page 1904.

When we sin as a believer, we must confess our sins: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, page 1904).8In 1 John 1:9, page 1904, the Holy Spirit used the term “confess” (“ὁμολογῶμεν”). This single word contains two important points: (1) the same and (2) speak. The Holy Spirit means that we must say the same words that God speaks about our actions, thoughts, and desires. When we speak the same words that God speaks about our behavior, we confess our sins. We know that God knows everything we have thought and done before we speak, but we join God in His attitude toward our sin. We no longer ignore it or hide it, but seek God to forgive it and cleanse us from sin. Please recall that all our sins were laid upon Jesus at the cross, and salvation does not rest upon our continuous confession of sin. Instead, we must remember that as we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7, page 1904). Walking in the light of Jesus does not mean we have no sin, but rather that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, so that we may have fellowship with other believers and have a close walk with God in the light. Our confession of sin does not bring us back to salvation, because we do not lose eternal life by sinning. We lose our sense of walking in the light and our sin interferes with our fellowship with other believers. I often illustrate this principle with a pair of dirty hands. When I work on my car, I often cover my hands in very black grease from the car. Of course, I am always the child of my earthly father, no matter how black my hands get. The dirt on my hands remains an entirely separate matter from my permanent relationship to my father. Likewise, I will always be the spiritual child of my heavenly Father, because Jesus died for my sins, and I have been adopted into the family of Jesus Christ (1 John 3:1, page 1906; Galatians 4:6, page 1823). My hands may get dirty with sin, but God will always be my heavenly Father. With all these concepts in mind, now let us turn to the sins of others around us.

“He said to His disciples, ‘It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If you brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.'”

Luke 17:1-4


In Luke 17:1-4, Jesus taught His disciples about repentance and forgiveness. He described the enormous evil of causing little ones to stumble (Luke 17:1-2, page 1634). In this context, Jesus indicated that even a person making little ones stumble must be rebuked, and upon repentance, forgiven.9]In Luke 17:1-2, page 1634, Jesus began by saying it was inevitable that stumbling blocks would come, but woe to him through whom they come. Jesus meant that causing one of these little ones to stumble would bring woe upon the sinner. In fact, Jesus described the woe as more severe than having a millstone hung around your neck and you cast into the sea. Jesus meant that while stumbling blocks are a fact of life, Jesus does not tolerate them. As we will see, Jesus calls upon the brother to forgive the one who causes stumbling blocks to little ones when they repent, even if they repent seven times a day for sin so profound it brings the woe of God upon them. Jesus then turned to the problem of brothers sinning against brothers. When a brother sins against me, I must rebuke10In Luke 17:3, page 1634, Jesus commanded us to rebuke our brother who sins. The word for “rebuke” (“ἐπιτίμησον”) means to confront sharply and to admonish. Notice the command. Jesus commanded us to rebuke the sinful. Jesus described the sin as “ἁμάρτῃ” which means to miss the mark, or wander the path or law of righteousness. In contrast, the word “trespass” (“παραπτώματι”) means a false step, resulting in unsure footing and describes general sin, a violation of a moral standard, or an offense against God; see Galatians 6:1ff. below. my brother. Jesus does not allow us to ignore the sinful behavior of my brother, and if he repents,11The word “repents” (“μετανοήσῃ”) means literally to move to a different mind. It carries the idea of leaving the old, sinful mind behind and changing to a new mind. In this verse, Jesus posed a conditional sentence (third class), linking the concepts of rebuke, repent, and forgive. Jesus described a hypothetical situation to remind every believer to rebuke the sinful, look for repentance, and forgive the repentant sinner every time the sinner seeks forgiveness. This hypothetical should remind us that Jesus Himself forgives us more than seventy times seven. forgive him (Luke 17:3, page 1634). Jesus commanded me to forgive my brother when he seeks repentance as a result of the rebuke I delivered to him. Please keep two things in mind here. First, as we have seen above, my brother who sins will always go to heaven, because God has already forgiven a believer for all sins–even if they do not listen to my rebuke and repent. Salvation never rests upon daily repentance. Salvation rests upon saving repentance producing saving faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection from dead, all according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, page 1800). Once saved, always saved. So, in Luke 17:1-4, page 1634, repentance by my brother has nothing to do with salvation, but everything to do with my forgiveness directed to my brother. It also has to do with my interest in helping my brother escape from persistent sin by rebuking him repeatedly for sin. Each time he sins before me, I have a duty to rebuke him, even if he says I repent seven times seven (Luke 17:4, page 1634). Jesus teaches us that each of us has a duty to help our brothers to seek repentance resulting from brotherly rebukes. We should not lose patience with our brothers. We must always be ready to forgive them each time they repent and seek to restore the relationship with us. Let me mention two other matters here. Jesus tells the disciples that they must have faith to implement this complete forgiveness (Luke 17:5-6, page 1634).12In Luke 17:5, page 1634, the apostles pose a very pertinent request to the Lord: “Increase our faith.” Implicitly, the apostles recognized that faith alone in forgiveness for sins would allow them to walk by faith when it comes to forgiving the brother who seeks forgiveness after being rebuked. Every part of the process of rebuke, repent, and forgive requires faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the disciples should not expect a special reward for forgiving people who repent, because they are only performing the commandments of God to forgive just as God has forgiven you (Luke 17:7-10, page 1634).13In Luke 17:7-10, page 1634, Jesus explained that servants should not expect thanks for doing the things commanded by their master. Instead, they should say: “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” In this context, we learn that Jesus commands us to rebuke and forgive according to His command, and we should not expect some special thanks for doing basic Christianity.  Well, what about the sinful brother who refuses to repent after being rebuked?

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

Matthew 6:14-15

Jesus taught that we must all forgive others for their transgressions (Matthew 6:13, page 1509).  If we fail to forgive others, then our heavenly Father will not forgive us.14In Matthew 6:15, page 1509, Jesus issued a sweeping statement about forgiveness. Some believers read that statement and conclude they must not be saved if they have not forgiven everyone. Before leaping to that conclusion, consider James teaching us about works and faith. In James 2:14-17, the Holy Spirit informs us that faith without works is dead. Notice, however, the precise language in James 2:17, page 1889: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” A complete absence of works shows no faith. In the same sense, a complete absence of forgiveness towards others indicates that you have not been forgiven by your heavenly Father, because you are not truly saved. But, if your life as a believer generally testifies to your forgiveness of others, even if you have notable exceptions of no forgiveness (like the prophet Jonah failed to forgive the people of Nineveh, even when God forgave them because of the preaching of Jonah), then you are disobedient, but saved because you have shown a predominant pattern of forgiveness. These blunt words remind us that we must forgive everyone who transgresses against us, even if they do not repent and seek forgiveness from us.  As believers, we have been forgiven by God. If we do not extend that same kind of forgiveness to other people, then we sin against God, and our salvation is not real.  Without forgiveness flowing out of our hearts, we must realize that God has not forgiven us (Matthew 6:15, page 1509).  The true believer knows that God’s forgiveness lives within the believer, and flows out to everyone, whether or not they ask for our forgiveness.   Please recall the words of Jesus upon the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, page 1649). Jesus perfectly modeled this forgiveness that God demands in us. 

If we must forgive everyone, then why did Jesus talk about forgiving seven times seven, and then only after they repent and seek forgiveness (Luke 17:1-4)?  Please recall that Jesus commanded us to forgive under all circumstances, even if the repentance does not seem real because they sin all day long and apparently repeat the sin.  Jesus never said in that passage that we do not forgive if they do not repent. We know from Matthew 6:14-15, page 1509, that we have no option but to forgive everyone whether they repent or not.

So, if I must forgive with or without their repentance, then why do I rebuke them at all? Here we move on to a very important issue.  We rebuke brothers so that they may repent and turn away from sin.  We do not condition our forgiveness upon their repentance.  We are going to forgive them under all circumstances, because we know that God has already forgiven them of all their sins.  The point here centers upon repentance that restores our fellowship with them. We do not ignore their sin, and just forgive them without a word. Let us consider a passage about how we restore a sinner.


“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. 5. For each one will bear his own load.”

Galatians 6:1-5

In Galatians 6:1-5, page 1826, Jesus talks with us about restoring15The Holy Spirit used the word “restore” (“καταρτίζετε”), a command directed to people. The term restore means to make whole, repair, set right. The spiritual people restore the person “caught” (“προλημφθῇ”) in any trespass (“παραπτώματι”). Notice that Jesus commanded the spiritual people to restore the brother caught in trespass, using a similar command for a brother to rebuke the brother in Luke 17:1-4. people caught in a trespass.  This passage requires that you first master walking in the Holy Spirit and bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life (Galatians 5:16-24). 16In Galatians 5:16, page 1825, Jesus commanded believers to walk in the Holy Spirit. This term “walk” (“περιπατεῖτε”) means to carry out all of life’s activities in the power of the Holy Spirit. Notice it is a command. Furthermore, you must also walk 17In Galatians 5;25, page 1824, the Holy Spirit used a different word for “walk” (“στοιχῶμεν”) which refers to marching in rank or order, as part of a unified group. Think marching with the band and making every turn correctly, keeping in step with the other band members. As you can see in Galatians 5:25, page 1824, walking in rank keeps us from boasting, challenging one another, and envying one another. These sins relate to others, and occur when we do not walk in order with them, by the power of the Holy Spirit controlling our lives. in the Spirit to avoid being boastful, challenging one another, and envying one another (Galatians 5:25, page 1826). Only the spiritual believers, walking in the Holy Spirit, will be in a position to restore another believer caught in any trespass (Galatians 6:1, page 1826).  This restoration must be done in gentleness, with the spiritual believer looking to himself so that he will not be tempted. Well, how do we do this restoration?

First, the spiritual man will start by bearing the burden18]In Galatians 6:2, page 1826, the Holy Spirit used the term “Bear” (“βαστάζετε”) as a command for all spiritual people. As we have seen, Jesus commanded believers to rebuke and forgive, and also to confront. of the other believer (Galatians 6:2, page 1826). If you thought you would administer a quick rebuke and then exit, think again. Jesus demands that we bear the burden weighing down the transgressor. People often sin because the burdens weigh them down. They do not find rest in Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30, page 1519). You must make a sincere effort to help the sinful brother bear the burden and strain. Notice the verse does not specify what you must do to bear the burden, because it will vary by the burden and the person.  We do know that Jesus will provide rest, and His burden is light.

Second, we must not think we are something for helping the transgressor, and so deceive ourselves when we are actually nothing (Galatians 6:3, page 1826).  If we puff up with pride and arrogance, we will be of no value in restoring the transgressor.  Puffed up remarks include words like: “I am the spiritual man here to relieve your transgressions.” Instead, we come along side the transgressor and seek to bear the burden with them, and never draw glory to ourselves. 

Third, we must each examine19In Galatians 6:4, page 1826, the Holy Spirit chose the word “examine” (“δοκιμαζέτω”) in reference to our own work. This term for “examine” means that we examine our works for purity, as in metals; it can also mean that we scrutinize our works to determine the true character and motivations underlying our works. our own work (Galatians 6:4, page 1826). I help to restore the transgressor by encouraging him to examine his own work. As a believer, we will always find something that God has done in our lives that we should boast about. This self examination also requires us to focus upon the positive and wonderful works that God has done in the transgressor’s life. I will not examine his work, but my own. I will not live in boasting about how great I am. That will achieve nothing when it comes to restoring my brother caught in transgression. It will only make it worse. Examination of our works leads to restoration and repentance, and also praise and worship to God for His work in all our lives, even if we transgress. During this process of restoration, we should never compare ourselves as spiritual to the transgressor who is sinful. Keep in mind the temptation that caused my brother to sin may also cause me to transgress.  A focus upon my own works (not emotions) will promote restoration. Let me highlight here a common problem. If you become consumed with wringing repentance from your sinful brother, then you have violated this examine your own works principle. When we become obsessed with our sinful brother’s transgression, we violate this command to look first and foremost to our own examination of our own works. Rebukes come only from the Word of God, and never from our own personal opinions. We promote proper application of the Word of God by examining our works in light of the Word of God (Psalm 119:11, page 975). God performs the rebuke of the arrogant and cursed (Psalm 119:21, page 975). He uses believers to encourage, confront and rebuke other believers, with a view toward winning the brother (Matthew 18:15, page 1533).

Fourth, each one of us will bear his own load (Galatians 6:5, page 1826).  While the spiritual brother helps bear the burden, we must each accept full spiritual responsibility for bearing our load before God. Ultimately, we stand before God, and we must learn to bear the load He places upon us. This sense of personal responsibility ultimately leads us to the proper understanding and action of what it means to carry our own load. No one else can do that for us.


“Above all, keep fervent in your love for another, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

1 Peter 4:8


So, in summary, spiritual brothers restore transgressors in gentleness, bearing the load, with a humble attitude, encouraging examination of our own works, and accepting personal spiritual responsibility for our own works. We cannot ignore our duty to be spiritual and restore our sinful brothers. Yet, even if our sinful brother spurns our rebukes and the restoration by spiritual men, our brother will always be our brother, and God commands us to forgive him. Because the end is near, we must keep fervent in prayer.  As we pray, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8, page 1898), and love prompts us to act always according the will of God, for no one can love except those who have been born of God and know God, for God is love (1 John 4:7-8, page 1908).



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