Understanding Unconditional Forgiveness


tangled-pathway-in-the-woodsWith all due respect to Christians like Kevin DeYoung and Stephen Burnett, I’ve taken the position that the Bible teaches Christians to forgive unconditionally. Jesus seems quite clear in His teaching: our experience of forgiveness made possible by Christ’s death on the cross is to be mirrored in our treatment of other people.

In reality, we have to look no farther than the Lord’s pray, and Christ’s follow up instruction, which connects our forgiveness of others with God’s forgiveness of us.

‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . .

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matt. 6:12, 14-15)

What would a person’s life look like if he couldn’t be party to forgiveness unless the person who offended him repented? Would the Father’s forgiveness of him then be contingent upon the offender’s repentance as well?

I’m confident that isn’t what Jesus taught.

In fact, though He gave clear instructions for His followers to forgive as an outgrowth of the forgiveness we have received, Scripture makes it clear that God is the one who forgives sins.

The Pharisees understood that God alone forgives sins, and Jesus capitalized on their knowledge of right doctrine to present them with the truth that He is God. First He told the paralytic man that his sins were forgiven.

But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6-7)

Jesus then proceed to heal the man “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Mark 2:10) I find it interesting that Jesus forgave the man’s sins though we have no record of him repenting.

However, my point here is that God’s forgiveness and that extended by people are not the same things. Except, Jesus did tell His disciples that whoever they forgave on earth, would be forgiven:

“If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:23)

Of course some people believe this was a special provision for the Apostles alone.

And yet, God makes clear throughout the New Testament that we are to forgive.

Jesus, in answer to Peter’s question about how many times we are to forgive, indicated by His answer that our forgiveness is to extend beyond anything we humans would consider doable.

And yet, though forgiveness is a clear command, there seems to be more text in the New Testament dealing with unity. Paul didn’t tell the two women in Philippi who were not seeing eye to eye that they needed to forgive each other. Rather, the instruction was that they were to live in harmony in the Lord (Phil. 4:2).

I tend to think the following verses were Paul’s formula for harmony: Rejoice in the Lord; show a gentle spirit; be anxious for nothing; let God’s peace rule; think on things that are true, right, honorable, pure, lovely, of good repute (Phil. 4:4-8). That latter point seems to be saying, have a charitable focus; give people the benefit of the doubt (I know—not the way we normally read Phil. 4:8).

All this to say, along with forgiveness Scripture also teaches reconciliation. We are to forgive and we are to work for peace with all men. All men. That’s a bit shocking, but that’s what God’s word says: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).

Of course, reconciliation is not only up to us. It takes two to reconcile. Some people refuse to make peace. Nevertheless, our stance is to be open-handed—for one basic reason: we are not the Judge. God is.

The third aspect of relationships between offender and offended is that vengeance is God’s. We are commanded to get out of God’s way, essentially. We are not to take our pound of flesh because God might count that as the punishment the offender is to bear. Rather, we are to yield the floor to God who judges righteously.

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:19-21)

I think that’s a clear statement that God will not let the wicked escape. We don’t have to “fret because of evildoers” (Psalm 37:1a).

We actually know on a personal level that there are consequences for sin even though God provides forgiveness. After all, unless Christ comes back to take us with Him, we will die—a consequence of the sin endemic to our nature.

So we are to forgive, we are to work for reconciliation (peace with all men), and we are to let God work His justice.

But what about putting ourselves in the line of fire. Do we keep forgiving the abuser who is sorry, so very sorry—until the next time he becomes angry?

Scripture doesn’t speak to that exact situation, so I can only look for principles that would address the issue. First, working for peace seems contradictory to putting yourself in a situation where you know peace will not come about. So if we are to work for peace, there may be times when to achieve peace, we withdraw.

Second, Paul clearly instructed the church in Corinth to withdraw fellowship from the man living in open sin. Anyone who steals and doesn’t make it right, who treats another person with cruelty, or a variety of other sins, may need to experience a break in fellowship in order to bring about repentance and eventual restoration.

Sadly, churches today do little church discipline. I don’t think an individual was ever intended to figure out when withdrawal from fellowship is the answer. At one point, Paul said he’d given a certain person over to Satan! Now that’s a pastor taking a hard line against sin. Of course, today some people would accuse such a pastor of abuse himself, so there’s no wonder that we’ve moved away from the Biblical principle of church discipline.

Nevertheless, I think a believer needs to be plugged in with a group of mature brothers and sisters who know God’s word and can offer Biblical counsel, not emotional counsel. Above all we should resist the temptation to follow the advice of the world simply because it sounds easier or somehow more “user friendly.”

Sometimes God calls us to walk a hard road, a lonely road, a thankless road. And we should be willing to walk wherever He sends us—whether that’s to reconciliation or to a break in fellowship.

And as I see it, we are to offer forgiveness along either path.

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Published in: on July 18, 2014 at 6:20 pm  Comments (5)  
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