Sometimes questions will arise concerning forgiveness. Does Christ call us to forgive if the other has not repented? Can there be reconciliation without repentance? Does forgiveness mean I fully trust the one forgiven? John Calvin addresses these issues in his remarks on Matthew 18:21 (Harmony of the Gospels):
But the words of Luke give rise to another question; for Christ does not order us to grant forgiveness, till the offender turn to us and give evidence of repentance. I reply, there are two ways in which offenses are forgiven. If a man shall do me an injury, and I, laying aside the desire of revenge, do not cease to love him, but even repay kindness in place of injury, though I entertain an unfavorable opinion of him, as he deserves, still I am said to forgive him. For when God commands us to wish well to our enemies, He does not therefore demand that we approve in them what He condemns, but only desires that our minds shall be purified from all hatred. In this kind of pardon, so far are we from having any right to wait till he who has offended shall return of his own accord to be reconciled to us, that we ought to love those who deliberately provoke us, who spurn reconciliation, and add to the load of former offenses. A second kind of forgiving is, when we receive a brother into favor, so as to think favorably respecting him, and to be convinced that the remembrance of his offense is blotted out in the sight of God. And this is what I have formerly remarked, that in this passage Christ does not speak only of injuries which have been done to us, but of every kind of offenses; for he desires that, by our compassion, we shall raise up those who have fallen. This doctrine is very necessary, because naturally almost all of us are peevish beyond measure; and Satan, under the pretense of severity, drives us to cruel rigor, so that wretched men, to whom pardon is refused, are swallowed up by grief and despair.
But here another question arises. As soon as a man by words makes profession of repentance, are we bound to believe him? Were this done, we must of necessity go willingly and knowingly into mistake; for where will be discretion, if any man may freely impose on us, even to the hundredth offense? I answer, first, the discourse relates here to daily faults, in which every man, even the best, needs forgiveness. Since, then, amidst such infirmity of the flesh, our road is so slippery, and snares and attacks so numerous what will be the consequence if, at the second or third fall, the hope of forgiveness is cut off? We must add, secondly, that Christ does not deprive believers of the exercise of judgment, so as to yield a foolish readiness of belief to every slight expression, but only desires us to be so candid and merciful, as to stretch out the hand to offenders, provided there be evidence that they are sincerely dissatisfied with their sins. For repentance is a sacred thing, and therefore needs careful examination; but as soon as the offender gives probable evidence of conversion, Christ desires that he shall be admitted to reconciliation, lest, on being repulsed, he lose courage and fall back.
Thirdly, It must be observed that, when any man, through his light and unsteady behavior, has exposed himself to suspicion, we may grant pardon when he asks it, and yet may do so in such a manner as to watch over his conduct for the future, that our forbearance and meekness, which proceed from the Spirit of Christ, may not become the subject of his ridicule. For we must observe the design of our Lord himself, that we ought, by our gentleness, to assist those who have fallen to rise again. And certainly we ought to imitate the goodness of our heavenly Father, who meets sinners at a distance to invite them to salvation. Besides, as repentance is a wonderful work of the Spirit, and is the creation of the new man, if we despise it, we offer an insult to God himself.
Calvin suggests that the best understanding is to see two types of forgiveness. There is the forgiveness that does not harbor bitterness or resentment in the heart. Such forgiveness is a decision of the will on the part of the forgiver and requires no repentance. The second forgiveness is relational; it addresses the matter of reconciliation. Restoration of relationship does need to address the offense(s) in question and does need repentance. Also, Calvin notes that forgiveness does not necessarily imply immediate restoration of trust.
Calvin’s analysis harmonizes the different teachings of Christ in Matthew 18:21-35 and Luke 17:3-4. It also is a valuable summary of vital issues in forgiveness and reconciliation.