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.

Published in: on July 18, 2014 at 6:20 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. I think there is an imbalance to teachings on forgiveness. Folks are always preaching on how to forgive — which puts a lot of burden and guilt on the wounded party– but they rarely preach on how to be forgiven, how to make amends to one whom you have hurt. Jesus said, “if you bring your gift and remember that someone has something against you, leave your gift and go make sure your friend and go to the person.”

    As humans we are so arrogant, we think of those who have hurt us. But so many Christians don’r flip the coin and think: “Is there someone who is in a mental/emotional battle now because they are trying to forgive me?”

    The proverbs talk a lot about gifts, winning a friend, etc. I think the idea of unconditional forgiveness tries to bring in the idea of the sinner’s actual repentance. It’s very hard for God to change the heart of someone who has not asked Him to change his heart. So forgiving such a person is dangerous because we are asking Go to forgive the sin of someone who is holding on to sin. In the parable of the man who was forgiven and who would not forgive, both debtors asked for forgiveness. And Jesus did say, “if your friend sins 70 times and each time comes and asks 70 times for forgiveness, you must forgive.”

    So there seems to be –at least in this parable– an awareness in the heart of the debtor that he is wronging the would-be forgiver. In such a case, one must forgive unconditionally. But if someone cannot see the evil he has done, and has not brought the sin forward for forgiveness it’s best to pray for God’s blessing on that person. This is somewhat different from forgiveness because it clears the heart of anger and makes one a true child of God who also blesses His enemies. Yet even in such a state, one should not put one’s self in the position of being physically-harmed or mentally-abused. And one should not pretend that one has not been hurt. Can two walk together unless they be agreed? And so much of the church’s line on forgiveness involves a kind of masochistic pretense.

    A lot of sermons on forgiveness in Christian circles also don’t mention the idea of how to tell someone they have wounded you. Or even the whole bring it up before the church command — which is very difficult in these times.


    • Carole, wow! I think you’re absolutely right. We almost have an entitlement attitude as Christians—Well, of course you should forgive me.

      The whole issue of abuse makes this topic of forgiveness so much more complicated. I was trying to think how to express my thoughts, but then Lex left her comment (see below) and brought some clarity to the issue.

      I certainly don’t think pretense has a place in forgiveness, but sometimes I think we have to act from our head and let our heart follow rather than the reverse. So we may not “feel” kindly toward someone who has hurt us, but we know what God has called us to do. If we do the act of love God puts before us regardless of our feelings, then often our anger falls.

      I’m thinking here of offense not abuse.

      So much of this could have been taken care of if the church had taken discipline seriously. But you’re right—in today’s climate, any kind of bringing sin before the church could easily be abused or misunderstood.

      Thanks for this good discussion.



  2. This is a tough issue to tackle. Especially since a lot of “Christians” think their personal views on forgiveness are the cut-and-dried only way to see things. As a recent escapee of several abusive relationships (family and so-called friends), I have heard many variants on the argument “Oh, no, you *have* to forgive.”

    I’m learning that I don’t “have to.” At least, not in the terms that these people understand forgiveness. For many, many years, I “forgave” the people who hurt me. Sometimes they asked for forgiveness, but most of the time they never did. I offered it anyway. But there was no repentance from their end, no change in behavior. If anything, my “forgiveness” opened the door for further sin and abuse. I do neither myself nor them any favors by condoning or encouraging sin.

    But in obeying the Lord’s command to flee these relationships, I have discovered a few things. One is the weight of anger, hurt, and horror that I have carried for each of these relationships. “How could you ________, when I have loved you?” Well, if the negative feelings are still here, perhaps that “forgiveness” I always offered wasn’t as genuine as I believed. Perhaps it was simply my self-righteousness saying “I can do this better than you can.” I’ve also learned, moreover, that forgiveness does not equal a restoration of the old relationship. Especially where it was dysfunctional, but I’m beginning to believe this applies across the board. Just because I forgive a hurt or wrong, that doesn’t mean I grant this person the same level of access to me that they had before.

    Now, this part I have been on the receiving end of. I have known Christians, and pagans, who said “I forgive you” but wanted nothing more to do with me. This baffles me, because when I respond in love or try to make amends or start the relationship anew, all these efforts are blocked. What, then, was forgiven, if you will not let me demonstrate repentance, change, and newness? Is that how I want the true forgiveness I offer to work? Because if God lets me draw near to Him after I repent, then shouldn’t I do the same with sinners like me?

    That’s the thing. When I repent. He knows when I mean it, and when I’m only saying it. And His forgiveness is life-changing. I’m currently at a point where I’m learning to direct EVERYTHING back to God. If you want my forgiveness, go talk to Him first. If I want to believe a liar has changed, I must go ask Him what to think. I don’t think I can forgive the way He does. But I can enslave my will to His, so that His forgiveness governs me.

    Until I’m fully recovered from the unlovely relationships, I’m still in the Holy Spirit’s critical care unit. So to speak. How good of Him, to monitor outside visitors as long as I don’t run back to the familiar patterns of lies and abuse. And how blessed am I, that I have a heavenly Father who can forgive where I can’t, who can pour His spirit of grace through me to bless others, who can read the heart of another and respond with perfect love! Not so that I don’t have to love these people, but so that I can learn more of the breadth and depth and height of His love, so that I can better share it.


  3. Lex, thanks so much for your transparency and authenticity and for sharing your story with us. Your response clarifies far better than what I had in mind the complexity of the issue of forgiveness in the face of abuse.

    I think the key to genuine unconditional forgiveness must not overlook this fact which you clearly stated:

    If anything, my “forgiveness” opened the door for further sin and abuse. I do neither myself nor them any favors by condoning or encouraging sin.

    I think there are times a Christian must “turn the other cheek,” as Scripture says, but I don’t think being in a relationship that condones or encourages sin is one of them.

    I think of Corrie and Betsy ten Boom held captive in the Nazi concentration camp, or Gracia Burnham and her husband held captive by the Abu Saayf in the Philippines, or those Nigerian girls kidnapped by Muslim extremists. They in no way would be condoning or encouraging sin by treating their guards and captors in ways that reflect the love of Christ rather than the vengeance of humans. In reality, their circumstances are beyond their control. But what they do have control of is the decision to follow Christ.

    Someone in an abusive relationship not being held against their will has a different set of circumstances, though the same requirement to follow Christ. But we make the mistake in thinking that will necessarily look the same for every person.

    In fact, leaving an abusive situation may be the most loving thing a person can do, for a variety of reasons.

    What I find particularly interesting is that you thought you had forgiven only to learn when the abuse was removed that you had the weight of “anger, hurt and horror.” Perhaps the earlier forgiveness was artificial, but in my experiences with . . . not abuse or anything close, but mistreatment, perhaps—I struggled to forgive in the midst of the situation, on a daily basis, only to discover after the circumstances changed that I had to forgive all over again.

    I’m wondering if it’s one thing to forgive when a person really has no recourse to “get even,” and another to forgive when the threat has been removed and the person who has suffered now has some measure of power.

    Which brings up the issue of bringing charges against an abuser. Is it “pay back” to do so? Not necessarily. Sometimes it’s the most loving thing a person could do. But again, I think this underscores the fact that there is no formula for how a person is to behave “when suffering unjustly.”

    This discussion reminds me of Kent Whitaker, a man who serves for me as an example of God’s power of forgiveness. Here’s the article I wrote that included his story: “The Compelling Quality of Love.”



    • Several years ago, one of the abusers in my life confronted me about another abuser, wanting to know if I had forgiven her. I loved and trusted this person, so I weighed the question carefully before saying that I *thought* I had forgiven her for things done in the past, but she kept doing these same things now,and I couldn’t forgive something while it was happening. Oh, the backlash of shame and fury, poured out over me for being so unforgiving. This was one of the first steps in my journey to see what was going on within this relationship that I thought was Christ-centered and healthy. But it is also a dilemma I come back to often.

      Really? As a super-Christian, I am required to forgive someone before they sin? It’s one thing to choose not to be easily offended, but there’s a difference between pricking someone’s pride and sinning against them. One is personal, the other is so much harder to define. It takes me an incredibly long time to weigh whether my feelings are hurt or action is needed. By the time I am sure a confrontation is in order, the other party has moved on to bigger and better insanity. So, I’m learning to take that question of forgiveness to God first, before I smugly decide to forgive someone who lacks the good sense to ask my forgiveness. Again. And I don’t think pursuing a career as a super-Christian is wise–too much room for self-righteousness.

      If something is forgiven, then it’s gone. Finis. It shouldn’t keep coming up. So, if the sinner keeps doing the thing that requires forgiveness, the one receiving the sins should take measures to stop receiving those sins. In the case of abuse victims, leaving is the healthy thing to do. The abuser is off-loading his/her excrement (literally) on you, as the honorary septic tank overflow. God didn’t make you to fill that role. And if you know it’s not good for this abuser (whom you might love very much) to carry around that excrement, why are you doing it for them? I think that, with distance, comes the wisdom that action should be taken to make sure that the behavior doesn’t happen to other innocents. Which, for me, is the only good reason to prosecute.

      I am beginning to suspect that there is a specific place in God’s plans of forgiveness for anger. Not because I am particularly justified in any anger, but because His grace can’t move through all of me until I’ve poured everything out. He has better for me than what the world offers, but I have to let go of it and grasp Him with both hands. It’s very easy for me to pray, “I know this was wrong. Now forgive me for not forgiving them and just make me more perfect.” Well, who said I was that perfect to begin with? The “quick fix” prayers don’t address the fact that I’m still stuffing down my reaction to something, trying to present myself as mature, when I’m still holding onto my feelings, my thoughts, my way. We’re so willing to bring God our praise–and even willing to lay our sins at His feet–but we’re not always as honest with Him (or ourselves) as we think. Well, me, anyway. I’m trying to speak for others less. 🙂


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