Christian Forgiveness: Conditional Or Unconditional?

The_Crucifixion001Some years ago I read a new thing about forgiveness—well, new to me. The idea popped up on a post at Spec Faith by Stephen Burnett, then expanded as I followed a link to a post by Kevin DeYoung. I respect both of these men, but I have to admit, I think they’re missing something important about Christian forgiveness.

As I understand the principle they’re presenting, they believe there are two ideas about forgiveness: one, a therapeutic forgiveness that is popular today even in the secular world, and two, a Biblical forgiveness that is dependent upon the repentance of the offender.

In his article about these two types of forgiveness, Mr. DeYoung goes to pains to explain that the second type of forgiveness in no way condones an attitude of bitterness or revenge:

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.

The foundational thought to this idea that a Christian only forgives those who repent, is that we are to forgive like God forgives and He forgives conditionally—that condition being repentance.

Let me back up and explain “therapeutic forgiveness.” I’d not heard the term before, but I think it does describe a humanistic co-oping of a Biblical principle. The idea here is that giving forgiveness makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. There is no intent to reconcile, however. It’s just a way of escaping negative feelings like anger and bitterness.

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. (“What Is Forgiveness?”)

The Biblical view, according to Mr. DeYoung, is that forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Hence, the Christian should always be ready to forgive, but true forgiveness only comes when both parties move toward one another, repenting and receiving or offering forgiveness as necessary.

Again the rationale behind this concept is the Scriptural statement that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Eph. 4:32)

I’ll admit, I have problems with this approach. First, I don’t think there has to be two choices: either therapeutic or Biblical conditional forgiveness. I think there can easily be a third option: Biblical unconditional forgiveness.

Part of my thinking is that some Bible scholars get tied up trying to think the way God thinks. Mr. DeYoung, then, says God’s forgiveness is conditional and therefore ours should be too, as if it’s possible for us to understand the conditional nature of God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but doesn’t Ephesians 4:32 say that’s how we are to forgive? I don’t think necessarily it does. I don’t read the verse as saying we are to forgive in the same manner that God forgives, but that we are to forgive because we received forgiveness.

Paul says essentially the same thing in Col. 3:13:

bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The intent does not seem focused on forgiving in like manner but extending to others the forgiveness we received.

In other words, I see these verses mirroring Jesus’s instructions to forgive in response to the forgiveness we received. See, for example, the parable He told about the slave who received forgiveness for his debt only to turn around and withhold forgiveness from his fellow slave:

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:32-33; see the entire parable in vv. 23-35)

It seems apparent to me that this “in the same way” is not talking about manner or even condition. In reality neither slave asked that their debt would be forgiven. They asked for more time to pay it off themselves. The act of forgiveness was an extension of mercy—the undeserved offer to cancel the debt.

This is what Christ did on the cross

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)

As I read those verses, I’m convinced that God didn’t forgive us when we had put ourselves in a position to deserve it by repenting. He went to the cross while we were yet sinners.

Consequently, I don’t believe as Mr. DeYoung does that God’s forgiveness was conditional. He gave His forgiveness to anyone and everyone, but not everyone has accepted it. When Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), I think the words “world” and “whoever” remove conditions from God’s side of the equation.

When Paul instructed Timothy to pray for all men, he explained his reasoning this way:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

There are literally dozens of verses throughout the Bible that carry this same idea. But one of the most telling, for me, is 2 Thess. 2:10ff which looks at salvation and forgiveness from the side of those who do not accept it:

[the lawless one will come with all power and signs and false wonders] 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (Emphasis added.)

These who perish did not receive, implying that they could have received. They took pleasure in wickedness, implying that they could have refrained from taking pleasure in wickedness. They did not believe the truth, implying they could have believed the truth.

All this to say, the third reason I don’t believe forgiveness for the Christian is conditional, based on the repentance of the offender, is because I don’t believe God’s forgiveness is conditional.

I understand there are believers of a different doctrinal persuasion from mine who will disagree, but maybe two out of three reasons will be enough to make the case against this idea that forgiveness needs to be earned by repentance.

This post is a revised version of one that originally appeared here in July, 2014.

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12 Comments

  1. I completely agree, forgiveness is never “deserved”, all our sin warrents death, and yet God forgives us and we forgive others. Repentence or not, we don’t deserve the grace or mercy of forgiveness, but God calls us worthy. That alone changes everything.

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  2. Good stuff, Becky. I don’t believe forgiveness is conditional,either. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    But I do see a lot of confusion happening around the idea of justice.Sexual abuse for example, racism, theft. Forgiveness is sometimes weaponized and used to exploit people, as if to say you have to forgive and reconcile with people who won’t even admit they did anything to hurt you. That kind of forgiveness certainly can happen, but justice also fits in there somewhere.

    I just mentioned theft because this church had an administrator that stole money, repented and had everyone convinced forgiveness and reconciliation were mandatory. Then of course, he stole more money.

    I tend to believe we forgive to restore ourselves with God, to come back into right relationship with Him. We are reconciling with God, not necessarily other people. Paul and Barnabas for example have this major disagreement and go their separate ways and the kingdom advances twice as fast. I think they do reconcile at some point,but we don’t really know clearly from what is stated in the bible.

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    • Paul and Barnabas are a good example, IB. And I’m with you. I think they reconciled. We know Paul reconciled with Mark, about whom Barnabas and he were fighting, so it seems likely that they reconciled as well.

      But I do think we can forgive without putting ourselves back into a harmful situation. It certainly is not as simple or cut and dried as I once thought.

      Becky

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  3. Well said, and the key word is “offers”. The offer is on the table, always on the table, from God. Do we genuinely accept His Offer or not? The Offer has no effectiveness without our acceptance. And to accept His Offer is confession and repentance. Confession means we agree with God’s perfect assessment of us–that we are sinners. Repentance means we turn away from our sinful life and begin a journey with Him!

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  4. I totally agree with you. Forgiveness is unconditional. However we tend to get a bit lost in the law of things. Though we are free from the law, the world around us still functions under the law. We see Christ’s death as payment for our sin which was a requirement of the law. If we do not obey the law, we receive punishment, which require payment in the form of money, a fine, jail time, prison etc. Settlement can be made in which ever way as long as it is accepted by the court. Which was the same as in the case with Christ. It even seems fair as we are given the opportunity to return to the state where we are without sin. Still looks conditional from this end. The condition is that we need to accept Christ’s gift in order to attain it, we also have to do certain things, like stop swearing, smoking and love the people around us. See, this misunderstanding brings conditions for absolutely everything in order to be fulfilled. However, the truth is that when we truly accept Christ, it never were only us, but we’re empower by the Spirit of Jehovah. All of the other conditions are only possible through the Holy Spirit. We truly love because of His working in us, are able to quit bad habits and empowered to do good. Thus, the conditions are also being fulfilled by Christ through the Holy Spirit.
    The term “above the law” does have negative connotations where a person believes the law does not apply to them and they do get away with it. However I would like to use this term stating that we’re above the law. Because of Christ’s death and resurecction we are above the law and when we break the law we allow ourselves to be again under the law. Repentance and forgiveness are the only ways of returning back to being above the law.
    Thus Christ’s gift is unconditional as repentance and forgiveness are the working of the Holy Spirit.

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    • Interesting thoughts, Thomas. I see God’s law and law instituted by mankind as separate. So, God’s law says we are to love Him, to refrain from taking His name in vain, to avoid worship of idols, but those are not the laws of the state.

      In fact, some of the laws of the state may one day be opposed to God’s law. Well, some already are.

      As far as God’s law is concerned, Paul says in Romans that we now “serve in newness of the spirit, not in oldness of the letter.” So as I see it, we obey Christ because the Holy Spirit in us has given us new life—which creates in us a desire to please God and follow Him. So on the outside we might look the same as those who legalistically follow a list of laws, but the motivation is entirely different, and as you say, so is the power that makes it possible.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Becky

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  5. Thank you for posting! 🙂 https://caramelandchocolatehomeschool.wordpress.com/blog/

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I completely agree that forgiveness is unconditional

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  7. Ok, I’m a little confused, because this is a thought I’ve been pondering lately anyway. And what I keep hearing from fellow Christians are two things that seem to be in conflict: God’s love and forgiveness is unconditional. Listened to a great sermon on God’s unconditional love just yesterday. And yet, and yet, in the same breath we say “You have to accept it.” Well, isn’t accepting forgiveness a condition? In your post you seem to be saying we don’t have to repent to receive forgiveness and yet, what is acceptance of grace if it’s not repentance? If I accept Christ’s free offer of salvation am I not repenting of my unbelief? I agree that salvation is not limited to a pre selected few. Limited atonement is baloney as far as I can see from scripture. And yet, in the same breath, it is limited to those who will say “yes” to it. So, in one sense it is conditional. And then, we could get into the question of whether we continue to accept it daily or whether it’s a one time deal. My answer to that is also: “Yes. It is both once and for all and it is a daily choice.” Because God doesn’t force us to accept him and he doesn’t force us to continue to accept him, either. But, to get back to your central point, I believe we have to forgive people before they repent, because some never will repent and holding bitterness towards that person even though they don’t deserve our forgiveness is poison to our spirit and to the Spirit’s presence in us. And we might have to also renew that forgiveness daily because unlike God, we still have to deal with our sinful tendencies to take back our anger and bitterness after releasing it.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, wildswanderer. Like so many things in Scripture, the issue of forgiveness is simple and at the same time it is complex. I think we can tie ourselves into knots trying to understand what happens first and how our relationship with God starts.

      Interesting thing, I just heard a sermon on the radio this morning and the pastor made the point that because Scripture uses the metaphor of new birth, that tells us something important about our salvation. He was basically saying that it is not us who pursue God, but He pursues us. He also used the illustration of C. S. Lewis who wrote in this autobiography that he was the most reluctant convert in England. The point was, he wasn’t trying to come to God because he thought Christianity would give added value to his life. He was not looking for God, but God was looking for Him.

      So did that happen because God only chooses some people? I don’t think so. I think, though I can’t prove it, that God pursues us all until we turn from Him. He might continue to search us out, but the longer a person turns away, the harder his heart becomes until he no longer hears God’s call at all.

      That’s how I see God’s unconditional love He makes available to every person. Because we don’t know the story of every person, we don’t always see the way God revealed Himself, the way He called. We erroneously conclude that He therefore DID NOT call. But our absence of evidence is not evidence that God did not pursue.

      And how does repentance factor is? Again, I think we miss the mark here. We think of repentance as turning from the sins we do—lying or gossip or greed, that sort of thing. But real repentance is turning from our rejection of God. In other words, real repentance is a reversal of our relationship, an acceptance of the mercy and forgiveness God has made available to us. Turning from the other sins is simply the evidence that we have accepted Jesus and the new life He provides.

      Hope that makes some sense.

      Becky

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