How is forgiveness usually explained in popular Christianity?Forgiveness is often described as letting go of the right to punish someone who has wronged you. In some circles it is described as choosing not to force someone to be sorry for a wrong they've done. In either case, Christians are suppose to forgive the guilty party whether that guilty party repents or not.
How is it consistent with Scripture, and how does it differ?There is some truth to the fact that letting go of an offense is good for oneself. It is also true that Scripture teaches that forgiveness is something a Christian is suppose to practice, regardless of the offending party's perceived sincerity. (Luke 17:1-4) However, it also seems from Scripture that repentance is the primary goal prior to forgiveness, rather than a happy consequence of forgiveness. In other words, the offended party must confront the offending party first to acknowledge the wrong and seek reconciliation. It is expected in Scripture that forgiveness is the natural response of a Christian to genuine repentance, not to self-centered psychological benefits. (Matthew 18:15-17)
But what about those times when the offender doesn't see a need to repent?From Scripture the offended is suppose to confront the offender with greater pressure, until it is clear to the whole church community that the offender is either reprobate or hostile to their cohesion. The church community is to treat that person in this manner not to condemn them, but to cause them shame in the hope that they would later come to repent, and be reconciled to God, and reaffirm the offending party. (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)
As far as the offended party, she can let the offender go with the knowledge that she tried to reconcile, and that she was at least willing to express forgiveness to them in the event that it would have been possible (Romans 12:17-21). But I wouldn't call that forgiveness per se. It is more accurate to say that she is letting them go, without relieving their guilt. On the other hand, forgiveness relieves the offender of responsibility for their offense. They are relieved of their guilt, as well as let go.
In the case of an unrepentant person, the offended person can be cordial to the unrepentant, treat them with kindness, and even allow them to go free. But she does this knowing full well that they are not free to re-injure her at will, and that she will not ignore the offender's unrepentance. Why? Because it is reality. The offense did happen. The unrepentance did happen. And her love expressed to the unrepentant is happening. This brings shame on the offender and light on the situation.
Ignoring the wrong, or pretending it didn't happen, creates a false relationship and darkness on the situation. In some cases it can cause hidden resentment, which is sin. And in the worse scenario, harm to themselves or others. This takes place when the desire to appear like a forgiving person (or congregation) outweighs the work of reconciliation and transformation.
I am not going to get hung up on the word forgiveness, for many people believe that it is exactly what is happening when you let someone go and treat them with kindness afterward, as if they didn't sin against you. But, forgiveness means letting go of a debt (or forensic guilt), as if it never happened. This can only be effective when the one who owes the debt is aware of the debt, and accepts the offer of grace. Even though grace is offered, it can still be rejected, and that person will be held accountable. That is the gospel, is it not?
So, it is more accurate to say we are to always offer forgiveness to everyone. But we have an obligation to relieve the offender's debt when they repent, not when they don't repent. However, we can offer the gift of freedom and kindness as if we've forgiven them in hopes that they will accept our gift, and thus repent.
What are we to conclude?There are a lot of opinions about this. And the majority of Christians believe that forgiveness is given no matter what happens. They will use the Scripture in Luke 23:34 as proof that Jesus gave us an example to follow when he forgave those crucifying him.
The only problem with this view (besides the fact some early manuscripts don't have this statement) is that Jesus doesn't address his forgiveness of them as absolute. He asks God to forgive them (since what they are doing is offensive to God). Are they still guilty? Yes. In fact, they are condemned unless they repent (Acts 3:17-20). They are not relieved of their offense because Jesus asked God to forgive them. Rather Jesus expressed kindness to them, and a willingness to forgive even when they do such a heinous thing —killing the Son of God. But they are not relieved of their responsibility.
We have clear teaching about what to do when a brother or sister offends us. We have clear teaching about what to do when someone claiming to be a brother or sister offends and refuses to repent. We even know what to do when offenses are minor or are simple misunderstandings, and we can even let so of them go —yes, there are cases when we can actually overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11); not all offenses are sin, not all require action right away. But, blanket forgiveness is harder to prove with Scripture, despite what psychology says we should believe.
You may disagree, and that's all right. Again, I am not hung up on the word forgiveness as much as practicing it without sound wisdom.