You are meant to forgive others if you wish God to forgive you (Matthew 6:14-16), "77 times" (Matthew 18:21-22) if necessary, though the actual implication is you endlessly must forgive. But if your brother robs you, and you forgive him, and then he robs you again... forgiveness becomes highly expensive.

The general suggestion I see is to "forgive" the person, while still throwing them in jail or the like; where you don't in fact forgive their crime or their debt to you. It's something like you don't condemn murderers to hell, but you'll still condemn them to the gallows for the safety of yourself and others.

I was hoping to get a clearer definition and example of what kind of forgiveness a Christian is to give, and how a Christian society should act.

  • There is a difference between a brother 'trespassing' against one (in rudeness or thoughtlessness) and someone committing a criminal act of robbery or violence. And one is not expected to forgive the impenitent. – Nigel J Oct 24 '20 at 18:01
  • Forgiving someone frees you. (They may still need to deal with the consequences.) – Dave Oct 24 '20 at 18:34
  • 2
    Debt is a contractual obligation redeemed by a provider, or forgiven by a provider when the borrower is unable but wishes to pay back the amount owed. - A thief does not borrow, but steals without any obligation to pay back the victim. The thief is punished, if they do not intend to pay back what was stolen & disregards the victim. - The thief can be forgiven, if they acknowledge their wrongdoing to the victim & attempt to pay back what was stolen. – חִידָה Oct 24 '20 at 19:01
  • @VisualHermeneutics Thank you very much for your response. I'd like to ask you a question. So, your interpretation of the texts is that forgiveness requires repentance? To clarify, are you saying that forgiving the person is impossible if they do not repent? Or are you saying that there is no charge to forgive a person who is not repentant? Thank you. – Johnny Oct 24 '20 at 19:11
  • 1
    @NigelJ The idea that one doesn't have to, mustn't, or even can't forgive the impenitent is an idea I have considered and heard. But I must admit, I don't know what the scholarly basis for the idea is. I'm mostly familiar with the fact God does not forgive the impenitent, so it's a logical induction that Christians should be like God and do the same, that forgiving the impenitent might even be immoral. It's possible I should start a new question on this very subject, but I would like to ask if you can teach me about this concept and its biblical basis, as I want to learn more. – Johnny Oct 24 '20 at 19:17

The best way to understand forgiveness vs punishment/consequences is with a concrete example. Here I will select what happened with King David. The sequence of events went something like this:

  • 2 Sam 11 - David commits adultery with Bathsheba and arranges for the effective murder of her husband, Uriah, and then tries to hush the whole affair up (unsuccessfully). This was a very serious triple crime that caused the enemies of God (the surrounding nations) to show utter contempt for the LORD - another very serious consequence. 1 Sam 12:14.
  • 2 Sam 12:1-12 - Nathan the prophet tells that famous parable to show David's guilt in it true light
  • 2 Sam 12:13a - David admits his guilt
  • 2 Sam 12:13b - David is immediately declared forgiven (guilt removed)
  • 2 Sam 12:14, 6, 10, 12 - the consequences & punishments for David's crimes are spelled out.

Thus, we have a simple result - God forgave but this did not remove all the consequences of the crime/sin.

[NOTE: We have a very similar situation in the incident of 1 Sam 24 where David sins by taking a census of the people. (See especially, 1 Sam 24:10, 13, 14) David was forgiven but the consequences were very dire.]

APPENDIX - David's punishments/consequences for this crimes

  • The son born to you will die (1 Sam 12:15)
  • Three more sons will also die unnaturally (2 Sam 12:6 = Amnon, Absalom, Adonijah)
  • David did this in private but his punishment/consequence will be very open (2 Sam 12:12)
  • The sword would never depart (no lasting peace) from David's house during his lifetime (2 Sam 12:10)

There are two different levels going on in your question and they are often confused: Individual Forgiveness and Societal Justice.

First, is, what should an "individual" do? Individual responsibility toward their neighbor. This is the level of forgiveness.

Second, is, what should the greater community do? How do we administer a community where there is order and stability? This is the level of justice.

Take for example the case of Dr. Larry Nassar - the doctor for the US Women's Gymnastics Team. On an individual level, many of the women chose to forgive him. The choice is to release the upset. To free yourself from the burden of the upset. To not bear a grudge or seek revenge (Leviticus 19:18).

Rachael Denhollander both forgave Nassar and demanded justice.

But on the level of community - the prosecuting attorneys and the Justice System - Justice MUST be served. If a community does not serve justice then we would likely expose more innocent people to the harm of a molester. The societal bureaucracy (the Justice System) is what we rely upon to ensure proper justice is served.

If the system of justice breaks down - people will revert to revenge. This always ends badly and Jesus does not want us to go there. Again, see Leviticus 19:18.

In the Old Testament, you find a combination of the two. For instance:

Deuteronomy 16:18-20 deals with appointing judges within the community to hear disputes and make rulings:

Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Also see Deuteronomy 17:8-13. This is directed at the community.

Exodus 23:2-3 tells you, as an individual, how you are supposed to respond to matters of Justice:

“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.

Also, notice you are not supposed to show favoritism to someone just because they are poor.

Now forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act for an individual that was wronged.

Forgiveness is necessary because it is the process that releases the upset caused by others. If you don't release the upset you will likely become bitter, angry, and vengeful. This will not serve proper justice.

Notice Leviticus 19:18. "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge" - both of these carry the presupposition that someone wronged you. Why else would you "bear a grudge?"

Now go to the second half - "but you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

How do I move from wanting to "seek revenge" to "loving my neighbor?"


Jesus wants you to forgive so that you don't become bitter and vengeful.

But Jesus is also concerned about PROPER justice. If we do not have proper justice in a society thigs will literally go to Gehenna quickly.

  • Thoughtful answer +1 – user48152 Oct 25 '20 at 5:36

If someone in a 'Christian society' (I am going to assume you mean a 'church') were to behave criminally then I would expect that society to discipline the person accordingly. We see that in Corinth where a man was excluded from fellowship for an act which all societies consider unacceptable.

But that man repented, showing genuine sorrow, and was to be received again, in love.

But matters between one brother and another, which are purely personal, and if the brother, each time, expresses repentance, though it be seventy times a day, are to be forgiven.

For how much patience and tolerance do men require from God ? How many times a day does one trespass in thought, in intention, in desire ? How many times a day does the Lord see that which is unworthy, yet if there be a penitent heart, does not forgive, for Christ's sake ?

And if a brother is needy and takes from me. And if I find out and admonish him and he is sorry, maybe I can assist him. Maybe he needs help. Maybe I am better off than he.

In which case John the Baptist tells me to share my extra food and my extra clothing. And why should I not do so ?

In the early church, none had any need for they all shared what they had with one another. Those who had houses (plural) sold them and distributed the wealth to those who were poorer. And none had excess and none was without.

This is true 'Christian society'.


There are three main reasons to put a person in jail.

  1. To serve justice
  2. To protect other people
  3. To rehabilitate the criminal.

Matthew 18:21-22 tends to negate the first reason which borders on vengeance. However, the other two reasons still exist with "to protect people" being the most important. Forgiveness negates "To serve justice," not the other two.


In every instance and circumstance of wrongdoing, we are called to respond with love and kindness: “But I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again (Lk 6:27-30).

But to return goodness for wrongdoing does not necessarily mean that an offence should go unpunished. As contradictory as it may seem, punishment can be a loving response when a person commits a transgression or crime. This is something that all parents understand. In order for children to learn how to take responsibility for their choices and actions, there needs to be clearly defined rules and consequences.

In the story of the first sin, Adam and Eve break God’s commandment and were punished for their disobedience (Gen 3). But it is in exile that mankind would know that they were not forgotten and come to learn the love and goodness of God who sent His only Son to open the way home.

The question is whether our justice and penal systems can be modelled after or be informed by our Christian teachings. The goal would have to move away from merely extracting payment and retribution. Can we remember the humanity of those who are locked up? Can we help open a way for them to come back to society and to “not sin again?” (Jn 8:11)


though the actual implication is you endlessly must forgive

You need to be more specific here. As you can see from the parable that follows, the question in Matthew 28 is about the degree of forgiveness, not the scope — Jesus is telling Peter that he should not be looking to limit forgiveness by keeping count, because the overall picture has him overwhelmingly in debt himself:

When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. Matthew 18:24 (ESV)

There is no hint in the parable that false repentance is in view — all the witnesses are shocked at the servents stinginess:

When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Matthew 18:31 ESV

The scope of forgiveness (i.e. what category of sins are to be forgiven), and any question about whether forgiveness should be offered without repentance are not the subject of discussion. Peter does not say "Lord, how often will my brother sin the same sin against me". If you want answers to those other questions you need to start from a different scripture.


How do you forgive criminals while still punishing them?

  • Debt is a contractual obligation redeemed by a provider, or forgiven by a provider when the borrower is unable but wishes to pay back the amount owed. - A thief does not borrow, but steals without any obligation to pay back the victim. The thief is punished, if they do not intend to pay back what was stolen & disregards the victim. - The thief can be forgiven, if they acknowledge their wrongdoing to the victim & attempt to pay back what was stolen.

In the Tanakh, How is forgiveness granted to criminals? :

  • If criminals Repent (Shuv, שׁוּב), acknowledge G-d, vow never again to commit injustice, and pay back debts owed then they will be forgiven. [Ezekiel 33:12-16]

In the Gospels, How is forgiveness granted to criminals? :

  • All repentant criminals will be forgiven (EXCEPT the criminal who does not acknowledge G-d by rejecting the Holy Spirit). [Mark 3:28-30]

  • Besides acknowledging G-d, a criminal must forgive the injustice of all other humans in order to receive forgiveness. [ Matthew 6:14-15 ]

  • If a repentant criminal (who was forgiven or had their debts removed) keeps a grudge / demands debts from others, then G-d will not forgive the unmerciful criminal. [ Matthew 18:21-35 ]

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.