“Is it ever OK for a Christian to not forgive?” In a word: no.
I wasn’t present, but I know the question came up recently in a bible class. More than a few folks argued that there are just some offenses and sins that couldn’t and shouldn’t be forgiven.
Scripture is clear: Christians forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven. When Peter asked Jesus if there was a cap on forgiveness, Jesus said, “No.” Peter asked, “How many times do I forgive someone? Seven times?” Jesus replied, “Seventy-seven times.” In other words you always forgive.
Jesus then tells a story that illustrates his point in Matthew 18:23-35. God’s forgiveness is so extravagant that we must forgive the comparatively small things others say or do against us. His instruction to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” expresses the same directive. Our mandate is to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). He sets the example; we follow suit.
No one ever said it was easy. Forgiveness is hard. God doesn’t just look the other way or say, “Forget about it.” His declaration of the forgiveness only happens because Jesus was crucified, paying for our sins with his life. In fact, Jesus paid for all sins by his innocent suffering and death.
“But what if they don’t repent?” “What if they aren’t sorry?” Neither changes the call to forgive. Forgiveness is one-sided. You let it go. You don’t hold it over someone’s head. You don’t seek retribution. You do not make them pay for what they have done.
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, though. It does, however, give us a different way of remembering without resentment or bitterness. Forgiveness makes it possible to see the one who hurt us through the lens of the cross, which always brings Christ’s compassion and mercy into view.
However, forgiveness may or may not lead to reconciliation. Forgiveness is one-sided. You can intentionally forgive in your heart all on your own. Reconciliation, however, takes two. It requires two people to work to heal a broken relationship. Reconciliation may take a long, long time. Though pursued, it may never happen. You may never get along with someone, even though you have forgiven them.
What about Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23)? The church pairs these words with Jesus’ teaching about what to do when a “brother sins against you” (Matthew 18:15-20). Much responsibility is given to the church to hold its members accountable for their actions and proclaim God’s forgiveness. In other words, the preaching of Law and Gospel is serious business! Just remember, you are not the church. You are simply a child of God, forgiven and free from your sins. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8 NIV).