Repentance is important, even indispensable, and it is indispensable because forgiveness is an event between people, not just an individual’s change of feelings, attitudes, or actions. Instead of being a condition of forgiveness, however, repentance is its necessary consequence.
If they imitate the forgiving God, forgivers will keep forgiving, whether the offenders repent or not. Forgivers’ forgiving is not conditioned by repentance. The offenders’ being forgiven, however, is conditioned by repentance — just as being given a box of chocolate is conditioned by receiving that box of chocolate. Without repentance, the forgivers will keep forgiving but the offenders will remain unforgiven, in that they are untouched by that forgiveness.
Why? Because they refuse to be forgiven. . . . Unrepentant offenders implicitly say: It’s wrong for you to forgive me; I’ve done you no wrong. Or more brazenly, they say: I don’t care if you forgive or not, because I don’t care whether I’ve wronged you or not. Mostly, however, they say: I am too ashamed of the wrongdoing I’ve committed to repent, too afraid of the consequences that may befall me. In all three cases, forgiveness is rejected. . . .
That it is difficult to repent genuinely will not come as a surprise to those who have pondered the gravity and power of human sin. One of sin’s most notable features is that it unfailingly refuses to acknowledge itself as sin. We usually not only refuse to admit the wrongdoing and to accept guilt, but seem neither to detest the sin committed nor feel very sorry about it. Instead, we hide our sin behind multiple walls of denial, cover-up, mitigating explanations, and claims to comparative innocence.
The accusations of others reinforce our propensity to hide sin. We usually do all we can to justify ourselves, and that reaction is understandable. We fear the consequences of sin. We may lose a good reputation or be punished. We cannot bear to face ourselves as wrongdoers. We fear that the integrity of our very selves might crumble under the weight of our offense. That’s why we are often able to repent only when we are assured that our guilt will be lifted and charges will not be pressed against us. In other words, we are able to genuinely repent only when forgiveness has first been extended to us. . . .
Forgiveness does not cause repentance, but it does help make repentance possible.
— Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, p. 183-186