Was Peter forgiven without ever asking for forgiveness?

Q. Peter betrayed Jesus. He apparently was sorry for his sin, but I don’t understand how he asked for forgiveness from Jesus. Please explain. I also want to understand the way Jesus forgave him. Could this be a this a model for repentance and forgiving in today’s Christian and/or secular culture?

It is true that the gospels never specifically describe Peter asking Jesus for forgiveness for denying him. It is clear, as you say, that Peter was sorry for what he did. Both Matthew and Luke record that as soon as Peter realized he had denied Jesus, he wept bitterly. Peter also “brought forth fruits worthy of repentance,” to use John the Baptist’s phrase. Until Jesus restored him, Peter gave up his role as an apostle and returned to being a fisherman. Through this action, I believe, Peter was indicating that he did not consider himself worthy to be an apostle any longer.

We should consider the possibility, however, that Peter did have the opportunity to ask Jesus for forgiveness on an occasion that the Bible mentions but does not describe in detail. According to Luke, when the two disciples who met Jesus after his resurrection on the Emmaus Road returned to Jerusalem, the apostles there told them, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon” (that is, to Peter). Paul wrote similarly to the Corinthians that Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” and that he “appeared to Cephas [Peter] and then to the Twelve.” So it appears that Peter may have had the opportunity to speak privately with Jesus after his resurrection, and we can certainly imagine that Peter would have asked forgiveness at such a time.

Still, the Bible does not depict this, and so we are left with the picture of Jesus forgiving Peter without Peter asking for forgiveness. Perhaps, as you say, this may even be intended as something of a model for us. I think it’s important to understand, as I say in this post, that forgiveness takes one, while reconciliation takes two. Insofar as it depended on him, Jesus had already forgiven Peter on the cross, when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

So we are really talking about Peter recognizing his need for forgiveness, asking for it (whether verbally or non-verbally), and accepting it. Personally I think that Jesus recognized that Peter was ready to take all of these steps, and so Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to say three times that he loved him, as a way of taking back the three times he had denied him. Sometimes more time and work are required (and are well advised) before forgiveness extended and accepted can become reconciliation, that is, the restoration of a broken relationship. But I think Jesus knew that Peter was ready for that as well, and Jesus was too.

In terms of application to today’s world, I would say first of all that we ourselves can forgive others unilaterally and unconditionally, without waiting for them to ask. (In some cases that might be a long wait!) We forgive them because God has forgiven us. That sets us free from bondage to bitterness. But please read the post I have linked above for important considerations such as that forgiving someone does not mean giving them the chance to hurt you all over again.

Indeed, our task once we have forgiven is to see whether it is safe to pursue meeting with someone to extend our forgiveness to them in person. The model of Jesus suggests that we do not necessarily have to wait for them to ask for forgiveness before we do this. But the model of Jesus also suggests that we should have good reason to believe that the person is truly sorry before meeting with them. So there is a risk, but it might also be a risk that we have valid grounds to take. Whether forgiveness develops into reconciliation depends on how things go from there.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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