"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3:12-14).
On my job today, the subject of forgiveness came up. A couple of my co-workers were discussing whether forgiveness is conditional upon a change of heart or whether it is completely unconditional. They were talking about the concept of being like God in forgiving people. Then one of them asked about my thoughts on the subject.
As I understand it, I explained, God loves unconditionally, but he forgives conditionally. God wants what is best for us, but he wants a change of heart before he forgives us.
One of my friends objected. He pointed out that Christ prayed as he was being crucified, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). He argued that Jesus was demonstrating unconditional forgiveness on the cross.
However, Christ was actually demonstrating unconditional love rather than unconditional forgiveness in his prayer. Out of love for his killers, Jesus was seeking their forgiveness. He did not want them to suffer hell for their sins, but he was not granting forgiveness to them yet.
A few weeks later, however, many of the people directly responsible for the Lord's crucifixion received God's forgiveness.
When the apostle Peter preached his first sermon after Jesus' resurrection, he addressed people who had crucified Jesus (Acts 2:36). When the people discovered what they had done, "they were cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37). At that point, Peter offered them God's forgiveness: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). On that day, three thousand of them received the forgiveness for which Christ had prayed a few weeks earlier (Acts 2:41).
They were unconditionally loved by Christ; but they were forgiven only after a change of heart. God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).