The Lord’s next phrase in Luke 17:3 gives the appropriate response if I have been sinned against, but also the right response if I am the offender. The simple words contain a wealth of significance: “and if they repent . . .”
The way I respond to the confrontation of someone who cares enough to challenge my sinful behavior reveals my character. The book of Proverbs makes it clear that my response to appropriate rebuke is an index of my wisdom:
Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you. Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (proverbs 9:7-10).
Genuine repentance goes beyond mere apology or expression of regret. It is a change of mind that produces a change of action.
Repentance is the way we deal with sin. It is deeper than regret, because it involves a determination to change. And it can be genuine even when it does not instantly produce change. After all, Luke 17:4 suggests someone could repent seven times in a day! Also the repentance described here is not merely felt, it is expressed (if they “come back to you saying, ‘I repent’ . . .”).
Without repentance the process is broken. Jesus said, “If they repent, forgive them.” True forgiveness flows toward repentance. The ideal is clear: I am sinned against; I confront the offender; he sincerely declares his repentance; I declare my forgiveness.
The fact is, however, that sin contaminates everything. Sometimes the offender will not admit the sin, no matter how clear the evidence. Sometimes there is no regret; he may even celebrate the evil. At other times, the person cannot repent because he has died or is too ill to respond. What do we do then? Do we forgive anyway? Forgiveness is not always cut and dry or simple.