Following Up on Forgiveness
This past Sunday I preached on forgiveness at URC. One of my themes was the controversial assertion that forgiveness, as a two-way relational commitment, is conditional. That is to say, while we must always work to overcome bitterness in our hearts, true forgiveness can only happen when there is true repentance. Judging by the many conservations I’ve had since the sermon, it seems the message was freeing to some and disconcerting to others. That probably means I wasn’t as crisp or as clear as I needed to be.
So let me follow up here with a few notes:
- First, an old post summarizing what I was trying to say on Sunday.
- Second, an older post where I ask Chris Brauns some questions about his excellent book Unpacking Forgiveness.
- Third, a couple closing clarifications.
Many Christians, influenced by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. But if we start with a biblical notion of God’s forgiveness, we see that such a view falls short.
The offer of forgiveness is unconditional (for God, and it should be for us), but forgiveness itself is conditioned upon repentance. We must always be open–and even, in God’s grace, become eager–to extend forgiveness, but we (like God) can only forgive the truly penitent. No bitterness either way. No revenge. But forgiveness, and the reconciliation that should follow, is a commitment to those who repent.
Chris Brauns explains:
This book has argued that forgiveness should be defined as a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.
In contrast to this definition, forgiveness would be alternatively defined according to a therapeutic approach. In the therapeutic line of thinking, forgiveness is a private matter that means shutting down anger, bitterness, and resentment. In other words, Christians should always forgive automatically. Because therapeutic forgiveness is based on feelings, it posits that people may even find it necessary to forgive God.
Ultimately, the question for the reader must be this: which definition do you think is more biblical? This is not a theoretical question that can be avoided. Life is relationships. In a fallen world, relationships get damaged and broken. What we believe about forgiveness will determine whether or not we can move forward for God’s glory and our own joy. (Unpacking Forgiveness, 72-73).
Overcoming anger and resentment is important, but forgiveness is something more, something different, something that involves two parties instead of one.
One of the thorniest, most practical problems any pastor or Christian will deal with is forgiveness. Every Christians knows forgiveness is a good thing, but what does it mean? How do we do it? Is it always necessary no matter the circumstances?
For answers to these questions (and many others) I highly recommend Chris Brauns’ book Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. Chris is a pastor in western Illinois, and, I discovered, used to be just down the road from my current church. He was kind enough to answer some of my questions for a blog interview.
1. Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? Do you have a family? Where are you serving now? Why does your book reference the Lansing State Journal?
Originally I am from the cultural center of Keosauqua in the GSOI (Great State of Iowa)–though, I’m very disappointed about last week’s court decision about marriage.
I pastor a church in a small town (Stillman Valley, IL). My wife, Jamie and I have four children (ages 15, 13, 11, 6). You can read more about me than you want to know here.
As for the Lansing State Journal, I was the senior pastor at Grand Ledge Baptist for 6 years which is just west of Lansing, MI. I collected a lot of forgiveness illustrations during that time and they ended up in the book.
My sermon illustrations are not the only thing we took from Lansing. Our dog still has a Michigan State collar, and my wife picked MSU to win it all in March Madness. Go Spartans.
2. Your book “Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds” is very good. Thank you for it. How did you get interested in the topic of forgiveness?
As a pastor, I repeatedly encountered situations where people in my church needed to work through forgiveness issues and were not following biblical teaching. I began to study and preach about forgiveness because there was such a need in my church.
Once I began to really study forgiveness, I discovered that a lot of what was written was not biblical. So, it was that combination, the need of people in my church, combined with unbiblical teaching.
3. What are some of the common misconceptions about forgiveness?
Many people do not understand what a serious matter it is to be unwilling to forgive those who ask for forgiveness. If someone reading this is unwilling or unable to forgive they should read and meditate on Matthew 18:21-35.
I think another misconception is that we can unpack forgiveness on our own. All Christians must be part of a local church. The need for a church home is even more pronounced when working through a deep wound. The church is God’s plan for this stage in redemptive history. As much as Noah and his family needed to be on the ark, we need to be truly connected to a local church if we are going to unpack forgiveness. If someone feels themselves drowning where a forgiveness issue is concerned, the first question they should ask is, “Am I really connected to a Christ-centered, Bible preaching local church?”
The most common misconception is that of “therapeutic forgiveness,” which we get to in the next question.
4. You talk a lot about therapeutic notion of forgiveness. What is this and why is it so dangerous?
“Therapeutic forgiveness” insists that forgiveness is at its core a feeling. Our culture has picked up on this in a big way. When most people say that they forgive, they mean that it is a private matter in which he or she is not going to feel bitter.
Borrowing a line from Boston’s, “Don’t Look Back,” album. I argue that forgiveness is, “More Than a Feeling.” Biblical forgiveness is something that happens between two parties. When God forgives us, our relationship with Him is restored. That is why Calvin said that the whole of the Gospel is contained under the headings of repentance and forgiveness of sins (Institutes 3.3.19).
Once people make forgiveness therapeutic, you have all sorts of non-biblical things happening. For instance, some say it is legitimate to forgive God. This is a heretical idea because God has never done anything which requires forgiveness. But, “therapeutic” forgiveness needs to forgive God so bitterness is no longer felt.
Therapeutic forgiveness also diminishes the necessity of two parties working out there differences. If forgiveness is simply how I feel, there is no need to worry about the relationship.
The tragedy of therapeutic forgiveness is that in making individual feelings the center of everything, I think it ultimately leads to bitterness and the wrong feelings.
5. Probably the most provocative aspect of your book is the repeated assertion that forgiveness is conditional. What do you mean by this? What don’t you mean?
Start with the most basic biblical principle about forgiveness. We are to forgive others as God forgives us (Eph 4:32). The Bible clearly teaches that God does not forgive everyone.
That being the case, Christians are always required to have an attitude of forgiveness. Just as the Lord prayed on the Cross that his murderers would be forgiven, so we should pray for those who persecute us.
However, forgiveness doesn’t happen until the other party is repentant. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he wasn’t granting absolution. Unless those who crucified Him repented and accepted God’s grace, then they weren’t forgiven.
6. As you’ve talked about this topic in different places, how do people respond to the message? Have you changed your mind on any aspect of the book? Have certain areas been reinforced even more strongly?
The fun part of preaching and teaching on forgiveness is that people are always interested. In a fallen world, everyone is unpacking forgiveness one way or another. And, there are always plenty of case studies to consider.
I haven’t changed what I believe the Bible teaches. The messages have been reinforced. I see more than ever that people need to carefully think about how justice fits with their beliefs about forgiveness.
If I was going to add to the book, I think I would put in a section about holding to forgiveness ideals in a fallen world. The reality is that many forgiveness wounds will never heal completely this side of eternity. I did include one chapter about what Christians should do when they can’t agree. But, there needs to be more said about that.
I’ve heard two main questions from people who weren’t quite sure whether they agreed with Sunday’s sermon.
1. People have asked, “Well, what about ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’? It seems like Jesus is offering unconditional forgiveness those who have conspired to crucify him.” But notice, Jesus is offering a prayer, much like Stephen does in Acts 7. Jesus doesn’t pronounce absolution on the sins of the people (be it the disciples, the Jews, or the Romans). He is simply asking God the Father to be merciful to his enemies. There can be no doubt that the men and women in this crowd needed to repent in order to be forgiven and saved (Acts 2:37-38).
2. On an emotional level, the idea of conditional forgiveness doesn’t sound right. It sounds like we can be bitter toward those who hurt us. It sounds like we should hold on to our pain. It sounds like we shouldn’t release our offenses to God unless our offender comes to us and repents. These would be the wrong inferences to draw from the biblical teaching on forgiveness. We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them. We might call all this an attitude of forgiveness or a willingness to forgive. But if our forgiveness mirrors God’s forgiveness, it is something that can be granted–and must be granted–only when there is repentance. It is a relational transaction that establishes a commitment to release our debtor from all he or she owes us. When someone sins against us and we are never given the opportunity to hear “I’m sorry,” we do not have the opportunity to grant forgiveness, but we will foreswear personal vendettas and bitterness by leaving room for God’s wrath (on the cross or in hell) and by trusting ourselves to the one who judges justly.