As we think of God’s forgiveness as Father, we can do so initially through what Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer. In that model prayer that he taught his disciples, Jesus mentions two important details, each of which shows that this type of forgiveness is conditional. The first important aspect of this refers to our need of daily cleansing from our sins. In order to receive this forgiveness, we have to confess our sins.
When we sin as Christians, we cause disruption in our fellowship with God. This fellowship will not be restored until we confess our faults. In Psalm 32:3-4, David describes some of the feelings he had when he refused to confess his sin: ‘For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.’ Given that we sin in all that we do, it is inevitable that we should confess our sins continually as part of lifelong repentance.
The second aspect concerns our need to forgive other Christians when they sin against us. Here is the way we have to forgive one another: comprehensive, continual and complete. We are to forgive all kinds of sins that others commit against us, we are to spend our lives forgiving them, and we are not to resurrect them once they have been confessed. What happens if we do not forgive? Our prayers will not be answered and our worship will not be accepted.
But is Christian forgiveness unconditional? Jesus says in Luke 17:1-4 that forgiveness of another believer follows his repentance for his sin. I think the best way to understand this is to recall that forgiveness is both an attitude and an action. Believers are always to have an attitude of forgiveness but they cannot give forgiveness until the person repents. Sin is not primarily against my feelings; instead it is against God. Imagine a Christian who refuses to repent of a sin. God will not forgive him in a fatherly sense until he does repent. If we say that a Christian should always forgive, without waiting for an expression of repentance, then we are acting differently from God.
But God’s forgiveness is invaluable. In Psalm 103, when David lists God’s gracious benefits, the first one he mentions is forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is the first of two spiritual benefits that Jesus taught us to pray for (the other is for divine protection).