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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unconditional Forgiveness

The preacher assured us that "Forgiveness is unconditional!" And that, I'm pretty sure, is a common perception. Any attempt at suggesting conditions are likely to be interpreted as placing conditions on salvation -- "earning" salvation. Well, that's what he said. "No, forgiveness must be unconditional because we can never earn grace." Being the open-minded person that I am, I had a problem with that. If forgiveness was actually unconditional, then the only possible logical outcome was universal salvation. If there are no conditions, then there is no unforgiven sin. Now, the preacher would surely not buy that. "No," he would likely say, "forgiveness is not conditioned on anything we do. It's conditioned on what God does." Or something like it. Let's take a look.

Important to the discussion is to arrive at a reasonable definition of "forgiveness". Many see "forgiveness" as the opposite of "bear a grudge" or "bitterness". Interestingly, the definition, "to cease to feel resentment toward", is way down the list in the dictionary. Instead, the first two definitions are "to grant pardon for" and "to give up all claim" respectively. So these would be better starting points for the definition of the word.

Still, the Bible is abundantly clear that we are to forgive "as your Father in heaven". That is, we're supposed to forgive as God does. Moreover, the primary question in the concept of unconditional forgiveness is God's forgiveness. Is His forgiveness without condition? So how does God forgive? First, God does not always forgive. That must indicate that it is not unconditional. God offers forgiveness to all, but does not grant it to all. Second, forgiveness from God has a primary point: reconciliation. It isn't simply an opportunity for God to "let it go and move on." No, no. God forgives for the purpose of reconciling. So if a person does not repent -- does not intend to change direction -- in what possible sense can there be reconciliation?

In an article by A. B. Caneday, Professor of New Testament Studies & Biblical Theology, on the topic of forgiveness, the two primary Greek verbs translated in our English Bibles as "forgive" both have "sin" as their direct objects and not the sinner. The one receiving the forgiveness is an indirect object. That is, sin, not people, is what is forgiven. You know this. Forgiveness is always stated in terms of "forgiveness of sins", not "forgiveness of people". Indeed, there is a sense in which sin cannot be forgiven. Justice demands payment. God cannot simply wink at sin. "Oh, forget about it. It's okay. Let's just act like it never happened." This, in fact, would be an affront to His Son, His Justice, His Holiness. God's forgiveness is predicated on justice and mercy. It is predicated on a debt paid, not simply dismissed.

The Bible has much to say on the topic of forgiveness. Look, for instance, at the parable of the forgiven servant (Matt 18:21-35). The king (representing God) was prepared to collect the debt, not forgive unconditionally. It was the servant's plea for mercy that got his debt forgiven.

Jesus taught about repentance in a similar passage in Luke.
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).
First, "If your brother sins, let it go. Pardon him. Don't push it." No! "Rebuke him!"

Second, there is no limitation to forgiveness. That is, if transgressed seven times a day, forgive seven times a day. But, there is a condition offered -- if he "turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent.'" It does not say, "regardless of whether he repents or not." This unlimited forgiveness is conditioned on repentance. Forgiveness given unconditionally cheapens forgiveness, mitigates sin, and diminishes Christ's blood. Unconditional forgiveness robs the recipient of the necessary consequences of and repentance for their sins.

What are some of the conditions of forgiveness? Sin must be paid for. "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Eph 4:32). Repentance is necessary. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:8-10). We have to be ready to forgive. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt 6:14-15). There are conditions. One very common objection I've seen to this is from Jesus's words on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). "See? Unconditional." Is it? Jesus asked for their forgiveness (based, apparently, on their ignorance). Do you conclude that everyone there was forgiven? And when Stephen made the same prayer? Were they all forgiven as well? Or were these requests that may or may not have been granted? And, if these were all forgiven, on what possible basis could you argue that any sin is not forgiven?

So, the obvious question is, "What if they don't repent?" Our natural inclination is to ask, "Are you saying that it's okay to bear a grudge if they don't repent?" That's not at all what I'm suggesting. I can't say this with enough emphasis: Not forgiving someone does not mean that we hold them hostage to our hurt and anger. The alternative to "forgive" is not "hate, begrudge, revenge." We know at the outset that we must "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled" (Heb 12:15). Before we think any further, toss out "bitterness" as an option. Throw away revenge, as well, because "'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." No, I'm not suggesting that we maintain hostilities in any sense. Instead, like God, we must always be ready to forgive. It must be held out as an option, ready to go when needed. You can't do that with anger or resentment hanging over you. We must rebuke, pray for, and love those who sin against us. That's the position to take when someone does not repent. And, of course, when they do? Like a loaded gun with a hair trigger, if we take this attitude, then at the very moment they repent we'll be ready to forgive, to set aside the debt, to reconcile.

The Bible, it seems to me, is abundantly clear that God's forgiveness is predicated on repentance. "Oh, so you do have to earn your salvation, eh?" I would say "no" because Scripture also says that God grants repentance. That is, God supplies the necessary condition upon which He forgives. Still, this doesn't eliminate the condition. It can be rather difficult to think in terms of "conditional forgiveness". We're told that we're supposed to always forgive everything. I think that's a product of a therapeutic society with no real concept of justice or sin. It's not only unrealistic. It's wrong. If Christ needed to die to pay for our sin, surely we cannot ignore the price of sin. Surely God doesn't hold us to a standard higher than He has for Himself. If God requires of us that we forgive unconditionally, then we must also affirm that He does the same ... and we're back at the problem of universal salvation. That can't be true. So neither can the concept of unconditional forgiveness.


Anonymous said...

Here's a hypothetical problem: Suppose a Christian mother has a son who is cruelly killed by bullies on the bus. She knows he wasn't saved. The murderers are unrepentant and brag about doing it. They tell her she HAS to forgive them because she's a Christian. How can this mother forgive these punks for sending her son to hell?

Stan said...

My position on the subject (in this post) is that she doesn't. My position is that this concept of "unconditional forgiveness" is a false idea. God Himself does not forgive unconditionally. Why are humans supposed to?

Anonymous said...

i agree! without repentence, forgiveness is NOT an option. thry MUST repent 1st, and, ONLY them must you forgive. It's ok to not forgive the unrepentent. Just don't put energy into hating the sinner. pray for them to see the evil of their ways & repent & not go out & RE- sin the same sin!