As Christians, How Should We Handle Repeat Offenses?
Jesus answered this question expressly in Luke 17:3-4: “If your 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.” Our forgiveness is supposed to be lavish, enthusiastic, eager, freely offered, and unconstrained–even for repeat offenders. After all, we are all repeat offenders against God.
But What If There Is Reason To Think That the Offender’s “Repentance” Is a Sham?
In normal circumstances, love obliges us to assume the best about those who profess repentance (1 Cor. 13:7). Scripture does suggest, however, that there are certain times when it is legitimate to demand fruits of repentance before assuming that someone’s profession of repentance is genuine (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8).
One author paints a hypothetical scenario where an offender intentionally punches an innocent person in the nose. After the first offense, the offender asks for, and receives, forgiveness. Moments later, in another unprovoked attack, he punches the same person in the nose a second time. The cycle is repeated a third time, and a fourth, and so on, with the bully professing repentance each time and the victim granting forgiveness each time. That author suggests this is how Jesus’ words are to be interpreted: “If he . . . returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” All the offender needs to do is to say he repents, and the offended person is obliged to forgive.
But that is far too wooden an interpretation of Jesus’ words. Our Lord was not suggesting that the disciples should throw discernment out the window when it comes to evaluating a person’s repentance. Nothing in the context of Luke 17:3-4 suggests that the offense Jesus had in mind was deliberate or that the repentance was feigned.
In fact, it is important to be wary of feigned repentance in cases like the hypothetical one just described. Such deliberately repeated offenses, especially when accompanied by phony repentance, are evidence of a profoundly evil character and a cynical hatred of the truth. John the Baptist was justified in refusing baptism to the Pharisees until they showed the reality of their profession of repentance (Matt. 3:8).
So there are times when it is sheer folly to accept a mere profession of repentance, especially in the wake of several deliberate repeat offenses.
Nonetheless, even after multiple offenses, the offended person must be prepared to forgive — eager to forgive — unless there remains some very compelling reason to doubt the offender’s profession of repentance. Even the hardest and most deliberate offender should never be permanently written off; rather, complete forgiveness and reconciliation should remain the offended person’s goal.
(For more practical answers to questions about forgiveness, click here to read John’s booklet Answering the Hard Questions about Forgiveness.)