What If I Forgive But They Never Change?

I Will Forgive You for What You Did If You Promise to Change

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Forgiveness is only one aspect of the change process. Forgiveness is not a complete change because there are several links—after forgiveness—in the repentance sequence. However, forgiveness is a vital mile marker that leads to complete repentance, making this step non-negotiable because we cannot experience transformation without biblically forgiving each other. But what if a person keeps asking for forgiveness and never changes? What are we to do with repeat offenders?

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How Many Times?

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Peter raises a good question when he thought about the complexity of forgiveness: how often should we forgive the unchanging person? Jesus answered his question hyperbolically, pointing to our infinite opportunities to forgive offenders. The implication is clear: we must forgive those who genuinely ask, but it does not mean the asking soul will change. If you have ever been in this spot with an offender, you know how forgiveness can wear thin if the offending person continues to behave poorly. Has someone in your life asked for forgiveness repeatedly but never changed their behavior?

Perhaps that person is you (Matthew 7:3-5). I know it’s me. That’s where my mind tends to go when I hear a question like what Peter asked. I know you don’t want to be that person who always asks for forgiveness but never changes, but all of us are repeat offenders. What sinful habit continues to harass your soul? To still be stuck (Galatians 6:1) without ever changing can exasperate any relationship while testing the boundaries of Jesus’ expectation for forgiveness—to forgive repeatedly. To live well with others requires more than a never-ending cycle of granting and receiving forgiveness, but what if they do not change?

He Never Changes

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Biffy is twelve years old. His parents love the Lord and have tried to live that out in their home authentically. Emulating Jesus to Biffy has been their regular habituation on how to change, or what the Bible calls repentance. Paul’s language in Ephesians 4:22-24 gives us a quick at-a-glance overview of total repentance with his put off, renew, and put on formula. Every believer brings an old way of living into their new walk with Jesus. Paul knew that. Thus, he gave the body of Christ a template for a total makeover. Christians have the privilege of working out their salvation (Philippians 2:12-13) progressively and incrementally, removing their former manner of thinking and doing from their lives (James 1:22). Forgiveness is part of this comprehensive process.

Biffy knew this. His dad and mom have modeled and taught him well, and Biffy is not a flippant kid. He wants to do what is right. He has a heart for God (Acts 13:22), so he asks God to forgive him after he makes a mistake. He also asks his dad and mom for forgiveness if the offense is against either of them. But there is a problem: Biffy never changes. The never-changing person, who asks for forgiveness, is a test of the offended person’s Christian maturity because a person’s lack of change does not remove the responsibility of the offended person to forgive. God is our best example when it comes to forgiving repeat offenders. He will do it whenever we ask Him (1 John 1:9).

With an imitateable God as our example (Ephesians 5:1), all Christians should be ready and willing to forgive someone when they ask them to do so. But let’s press the point further. Even if they do not ask, we should be willing to appropriate God’s free grace to forgive the person in our hearts. Their lack of asking should not be a reason for us to be under the control of their sinful actions. This mercy is the power of the gospel activated in our souls (Romans 1:16). Forgiveness—transactional or attitudinal—is our best option when someone offends us. Attitudinal forgiveness can always happen, even when the offender never pursues transactional forgiveness. “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'” (Luke 23:34).

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Beyond Forgiveness

Living in a relationship where nobody ever asks for forgiveness or where someone does ask but change never occurs can be hard enough. But if we use their lack of change as an excuse to hold on to our unforgiveness, we will make problems worse by being captivated by their sin. The quicker we can appropriate God’s grace with—at least—an attitude of forgiveness, the faster we will experience freedom from what happened to us regardless of what they do. Granted, some sins against us will be more challenging than others, but there is grace for that. An attitude of forgiveness frees us from what happened and prepares us to transact if the offender ever comes to us for forgiveness.

Biffy’s willingness to seek forgiveness places him in the top 10 percent of the Christian class. And true to form, his parents tell him each time he requests their forgiveness how glad they are to release him from what he did (Romans 2:4). On several occasions, a parent has taken the time to walk him through the necessity of not just being released from the guilt of his actions but for him to push beyond forgiveness toward repentance. They want him to fully repent to be uncaught from the repeated patterns of sin in his life (Galatians 6:1-2). An example of this is if you choose to be angry at someone, it would be wise and humble to seek forgiveness. It would be better to break the habituated patterns of anger that have captivated your soul (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; James 4:1-3). Reflecting on my years of counseling with families, I have observed three recurring themes of forgiveness and repentance practices in Christian homes.

  1. Forgiveness and repentance have not been part of their family dynamic.
  2. Forgiveness and repentance have been partial but not complete in their homes.
  3. Forgiveness and repentance have been completely and consistently employed within the family.

No Repentance

This kind of family has no repentance language operative in their homes. Things like sin, guilt, conviction, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not part of their daily vocabulary. Occasionally, an “I’m sorry” will be tossed about for mitigating relational tension but not for genuinely owning an offense or transforming a relationship. Perhaps they have not been discipled well. Maybe these Christians are part of a local church that does not practice complete repentance. It could be there is no humility, the prerequisite to God’s grace. The Lord’s empowering favor is negated because of His resistance toward proud hearts (James 4:6; Romans 1:18).

For many, it’s a bad habit never illuminated by the Spirit or addressed within their closest relationships. I can testify to this. For the first five years of our marriage, I never asked my wife to forgive me for anything. I never changed in any meaningful long-term ways as far as our one-flesh union was concerned. We were shuffling and stumbling toward a business partner relationship or roommate status. Mercifully, the Lord imposed Himself on our marriage, and we began the long, tedious, and arduous process of practicing repentance in our relationship, which has become a daily habit (Galatians 2:20). There is no doubt in our minds that what I’m sharing with you was the means of grace that transformed us and our marriage.

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Partial Repentance

The second group of Christians employs the forgiveness language but does not have a transparent, practical, working model of complete repentance. Though they are a notch higher than the “I’m sorry” crowd, the kudos stop there because of their similarity to the “I’m sorry” crowd. There is no adequate, sustained transformation in their lives. They have roller-coaster seasons of getting along and seasons of struggle. They can be mainly civil to each other, especially because they have learned to get along in public. But the gospel’s transformative power is not dramatically and dynamically empowered in their homes. They experience small changes because they are growing old together, and there is some residual effect from being in a Bible-teaching church. We can do better.

When the power of the Word of God and the Spirit of God come alive in humble hearts and lives, families experience transformation. Change is the power of the gospel, awakening dark and dull hearts (Hebrews 5:12-14). Maybe the most common reason for a partially repentant home is because one spouse is unwilling to change for whatever reason. A wife who resists her husband’s biblical attempts to lead her will cause any marriage to flounder. This grieving (Ephesians 4:30) or quenching (1 Thessalonians 5:19) what God can do for them will always keep their marriage from what it should be (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Complete Repentance

The third kind of family is a confessing and forgiving one that is intentional about helping each other change. When sin happens, they own it. That’s called confession. Then forgiveness is asked for and granted, which is only the beginning of the change process. So many grace-empowered opportunities await this kind of family that lives out repentance. After they neutralize the sin through gospel forgiveness, they move to the glorious step of genuinely reconciling with each other. That’s when you can have an unencumbered gospel group hug. The power of Jesus removes the wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14).

The offender and the offended are now partners in the transformative gospel (Philippians 1:5). They are for each other, which is one of the core tenets of the gospel practicalized (Romans 8:31). They prove this attitude repeatedly by engaging each other after they forgive each other to become educated about what went wrong. They want to help each other mortify (Romans 8:13) and amputate (Matthew 5:30) all bad attitudes, words, and actions, which is the power of the gospel activated in them. You will know if the power of the gospel has successfully neutralized the sin between you and another person by how you both talk about what went wrong after you have reconciled.

If the forgiveness exchange was authentic, there is no reason for two people—in an ongoing relationship—to keep from talking about what went wrong. To miss out on this essential discussion is to miss out on an opportunity to help someone change (Galatians 6:1-2). Discussing the sin between two people without judgment is a real sign that the gospel has rendered the offense dead. It also helps to keep the offender from becoming a repeat offender, which is what was going on with Biffy. A few characteristics of this kind of gospelized family are openness, transparency, honesty, and humility, plus an intentional willingness to serve in the sanctification of the entire family (Hebrews 10:24). You’ll also observe relational warmth, kindness, and genuineness in their communication (Ephesians 4:29-32).

Call to Action

  1. Are you in a relationship where someone is a repeat offender? It’s a trick question; you are a repeat offender, and so am I. Nobody is perfect. Everybody has problems that have become patterns. Therefore, the better question should center around your recurring bad habits. With you in view, do you regularly push past forgiveness by seeking to change? If so, great!
  2. What is one of your habitual sin patterns? As you think about that pattern in your life, would you characterize yourself as a full repenter? I realize you may not have gained a complete victory over that sin, but have you formed the habits found in the order of repentance: confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration?
  3. Do your primary relationships practice complete repentance? If not, what are some things that keep you all from having gospel-transforming relationships?
  4. I gave some characteristics of a repenting home: openness, transparency, honesty, humility, and relational warmth toward each other. How would you characterize your family relationships? In what ways are you willing to change?

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