What is forgiveness? This question has been the topic of many conversations in our Sunday School class at church. It was not until last year that I realized that what I believed about forgiveness as it relates to God and me and what I believed about forgiveness as it relates to others and myself were at odds with one another. Then as I started studying Scripture more carefully and talked to my husband on numerous occasions about it, I realized I had been wrong.
Last week I saw a blog post on this very topic by Kevin DeYoung over at The Gospel Coalition. He also says we have gotten it wrong on this issue. He says that just like God's forgiveness is conditional on repentance so also in human relations. I completely agree with him, and I hope you read what he says as it complements what I say in the rest of this post. Check it out here.
So how is forgiveness being taught in the church? From my reading, experience and talking to others who attend other churches, here's my condensed, simplified version of what is generally being taught about forgiveness.
Forgiveness as it relates to God and humans goes something like this: Forgiveness is offered by God on condition of our repentance in order that we might be reconciled to God. We are the beneficiaries.
Forgiveness as it relates to humans with one another goes something like this: Forgiveness is given by the offended unconditionally with no repentance necessary by the offender. Reconciliation is not the ultimate goal. We simply forgive because it is good for us.
I've heard it said and preached often that you forgive so that you will feel better. Bitterness destroys YOU, so YOU forgive in order that YOU will be set free. Forgiveness is then reduced to something therapeutic and self-centered for the one offended. This teaching also says our unconditional love for our brother means our unconditional forgiveness of his offenses. Unconditional forgiveness is the more "loving" thing to do.
But is it really?
I think DeYoung explains very well in his post how this model of forgiveness of one another has its roots, not in biblical exegesis, but in pop psychology. This explains why the difference in models between forgiveness from God and forgiveness of humans mentioned above do not fit together, and in fact why they contradict each other. Why would God give us one model of forgiveness only to command us to do another model?
One strategy for the psychological model is to posit that this is the way God Himself operates, that is, He gives forgiveness unconditionally. When Scriptures are used, here are the ones. Luke 23:34 is probably the most quoted verse, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." But what most lay people don't know (and what preachers should know!) is that these words are not preserved in the best New Testament manuscripts (omitted by P75). This means that based on the evidence of textual criticism, this was most likely not an original saying of Jesus but rather something added much later. Even most conservative scholars agree on this! So without that piece of evidence, others turn to Stephen's speech in Acts 7 where he prays, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." But this prayer is for God to have mercy on the sinner or offender. Stephen doesn't pray, "I forgive them." Interestingly, Saul is one of the ones for whom Stephen prays and who later experiences the great mercy of God (an answer to Stephen's prayer!).
The problem for those who accept a psychological model is that the majority passages of Scripture that deal with God's forgiveness also demand repentance. See 1 John 1:9 for one example, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The idea that God forgives without demanding repentance is entirely unbiblical. In fact it leads to universalism. Orthodoxy rejects this idea, as well as most church members (unless you are Rob Bell, that is).
So if there's not good Scriptural support and we reject the idea that God's forgiveness is imputed on a sinner without repentance, why does this psychological model continue to persist? Back to the loving thing to do...
In Matthew 18:15ff, Jesus is quoted as saying, "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother." Jesus continues by saying that if he won't repent, then take someone along with you. The idea is you continue to give that brother chances to repent, to receive forgiveness, and to "gain a brother," that is, reconciliation. Then Peter asks how many times should one forgive one's brother. Jesus says 70 times 7, hyperbolic language to make a point. He then follows up with an example or parable. In this parable forgiveness is presented in terms of debt. In both cases, the king and the wicked servant bring the debtor to themselves and demand that their debt be paid. Forgiveness is not something abstract but concrete. It is granted to the wicked servant or denied to the second servant.
If context determines meaning, and Jesus' 70 times 7 answer is couched in between two examples of two parties coming together, then how can forgiveness, which is for the benefit of the brother who committed the offense, be given without that brother knowing it or asking for it?
The psychological model teaches you are to forgive in your heart whether or not the brother repents because forgiveness is for YOU and YOUR sake. Rather than this being the loving thing to do it is in fact the unloving thing to do. Why? Scripture teaches that when we knowingly sin against a brother we also sin against Christ. 1 Cor. 8:12 says, "Thus, sinning against your brothers, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ." If a brother in sinning against you means he has also sinned against God, then not going to that brother not only keeps him at odds with you but also at odds with God. But, rather, if you love that brother, then by pleading with him to repent you are also pleading that he repent of his sin to God! This is why Paul tells the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 5 to remove that brother engaged in sexual sin so that he might repent and be "saved in the day of the Lord." The idea is that repentance is for the benefit of the offender! Because by repenting of our sin to our brother we area also repenting of our sin to God! You see how repentance is the loving thing to do and how not asking the brother to repent is actually the unloving thing to do? If you think repentance is unloving, then how do you reconcile God demanding repentance as a condition of forgiveness?
So what I suggest is we change the psychological model of forgiveness and make it compatible with the kind of forgiveness we see in Scripture. Forgiveness then is no longer understood as something we give ourselves, but as something we give to others who have offended us. We no longer define forgiveness as "not being bitter," but as releasing that person from the debt they owe us. Forgiveness is no longer abstract but a concrete reality that results in reconciliation.
So what do you do while you wait for that brother to repent, assuming you have already gone to that brother? You, the offended one, are commanded in Scripture to not become bitter, not hold a grudge and not slander against that brother. We are commanded to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are commanded to stand ready to forgive. DeYoung writes, "Overcoming anger and resentment is important, but forgiveness is something more, something different, something that involves two parties instead of one." When we forgive we do so because Christ first forgave us. And we forgive like Christ forgave us.
This conditional forgiveness model, thus, moves past the notion that we are all wounded individuals who are forgiving so that we will feel better. Rather, recognizing we are the same members of Christ's body, we work together, repenting to one another, forgiving each other and thereby being reconciled to one another.
Let me leave you with this. A loved one in our extended family is not a believer. He heard a sermon recently on this very topic preaching this second model. After the service, he said something along these lines: So if God tells me I am to forgive everyone unconditionally like He forgave us then I've already been forgiven by God and don't need to repent?
Do you see what we are communicating when we preach unconditional forgiveness? We are preaching backwards that God's forgiveness does not require our repentance. This is one reason why this issue is so important to me! This psychobabble model of forgiveness has for too long been misconstruing the gospel that says: Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone by faith and through the repentance of sins.
I know this is a hot topic and one that stirs many emotions. What do you think about what I have said in this post? Have you ever thought about how we teach forgiveness between humans is actually antithetical to the gospel we preach of repentance of sins?