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.

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47 thoughts on “Following Up on Forgiveness”

  1. Chris Donato says:

    “Father, forgive them—unless they refuse to repent,” Jesus said, as his murderers nailed him to the cross. Thank God, NO.

    Your explanation of this particular passage is weak, and, thankfully, wrong.

  2. Ben Thorp says:

    Whilst I concur that a purely therapeutic notion of forgiveness is lacking, I find this notion of conditional forgiveness equally troubling when it comes to the passages that advise that “if you do not forgive men their sins, then your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins”, which would thus imply that my forgiveness from God could be dependent on the repentance of someone else.

    The idea of conditional forgiveness given here sounds more like what I would usually term reconciliation.

  3. a. says:

    this is such an important sermon (your link); need to meditate and study on this more; may we all be repentant forgivees and gracious forgivers just as the Lord demands

    On the one hand he encourages us to get out of debt while on the other hand he tells us we have an ongoing debt of love (J C Ryle) Rom 13:8

  4. Andy says:

    “and must be granted–only when there is repentance.”

    Pretty muddy waters. Only God will know a truly repentant heart.

  5. Aaron Wojnicki says:

    Hi Kevin! Thanks for this post. Had a question. Is forgiveness conditional, or is reconciliation conditional? I’ve always thought that forgiveness is unconditional, however reconciliation requires both forgiveness from the offended, and repentance from the offender. Just as God offers forgiveness through the cross, however sinners are never reconciled to God unless they repent of their sin. What are your thoughts? Do those seem like good, biblical categories?

  6. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Chris, honest question then: was everyone complicit in the death of Christ ultimately forgiven of their sins regardless of any future faith and repentance? Clearly, Jesus was wonderfully and mercifully interceding for his enemies. It can also safely assumed that some on those enemies were later converted and put their faith in the blood they now shed (to use Calvin’s beautiful phrase). Their new birth was the answer to Christ’s plea. But if we take his prayer to be the unilateral forgiveness of everyone present–some of whom we know never repented of their sins or believed in Christ–how does that square with everything else we know about forgiveness being found only through union with Christ, not to mention Jesus’ teaching that condemnation rests on those who do not put their trust in him? Or perhaps you would argue that in this instance in Luke 23 forgiveness amounts to overlooking their sin and giving them another chance.

  7. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Aaron, good question. Brauns make a good case in his book that forgiveness implies reconciliation and restoration, that that is the point of forgiveness. We can see this is certainly the case when God forgives us. I’ve heard some Christians say before that hell is full of forgiven sinners (the idea being God procured the forgiveness of all unconditionally, but only some have sought out a relationship with him subsequently). This notion has all sorts of exegetical and logical problems, not least of which that it makes a mockery of God’s justice (i.e. punishing sinners whose debts have already been cancelled).

  8. Janet says:

    Mark 11:25 says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Forgiveness is unconditional, between me and God. This is a command of Jesus. Reconciliation is conditional, because it takes two people. I have forgiven people whom I am not reconciled with. Forgiveness is God releasing me from my bitterness or wrath, which they may or may not deserve. God would never call us to live in unforgiveness.

  9. Kevin Bruursema says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for tackling this key issue and then working at clarification. Unforgiveness accounts for a great deal of relational brokenness inside and outside the church. I must, however, present a counterpoint to what I see is your unnecessarily limiting definition of forgiveness.

    Most everyone would agree that forgiveness restores a relationship when it is met with repentance on the part of the offender. However, forgiveness is possible and I would say essential even when it is not united with the offender’s repentance. Forgiveness is at its root a choice to destroy the debt incurred by an offense. It begins in the soul or heart of the offended–the debt-holder–and is practiced there, providing a complete release from bitterness and anger and an ability to love, even the enemy. Thus forgiveness is first and foremost the restoration of the heart of the one offended. When a forgiving, restored heart meets a repentant offender it can also then restore a relationship.

    To take away what I would call releasing forgiveness–forgiveness offered by the offended without an offer of repentance–would eliminate the possibility of authentically obeying Jesus’ command to love our enemies (who remain unrepentant) and it would take away the freedom & healing that is available in Christ when someone forgives an unrepentant dead offender or a living unrepentant abuser.

    Forgiveness is accomplished in the heart of God without repentance and prior to repentance. It is found at the Cross. This is true whether you believe in limited or unlimited atonement. Christ accomplishes and offers forgiveness and then at some point in human history within a human life, that person experiences and receives the forgiveness that God has already accomplished and offered. God’s forgiveness is no less real before it is accepted by the repentant sinner and neither is a human’s forgiveness of another human less real prior to or without repentance.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Another thought to put into the mix. We keep comparing our forgiveness with God’s as if it’s apples to apples, when it’s not. God is forgiving sin, we are not. We are forgiving a wrong done to us.

  11. Josh says:

    I am no bible scholar at the level of you Kevin or Chris Braun, but it sure seems like even the Ephesians 4:32 verse given as support actually works against what you’re advocating for. It says “forgive others just as in Christ God forgave you.” Well, he’s forgiven me of every sin. That statement is written to a group of believers. So I then should forgive my brothers and sisters of everything would be the inference.

    When Jesus tells people in the Gospels “your sins are forgiven” he does so often before they repent.

    It just seems like this is another example of inferring something out of a text versus there being actual, textual support.

  12. Thanks for sharing Kevin!

  13. Chris Donato says:

    Thoughtful engagement in combox, Kevin? Can’t I just troll around and say I think you’re wrong on a particular exegetical point?

    Seriously, thanks for the thoughtful response.

    You ask: “Was everyone complicit in the death of Christ ultimately forgiven of their sins regardless of any future faith and repentance?”

    There may be some double predestinarian stuff getting in the way for you here, but I don’t take every pronouncement of forgiveness by Jesus as infinite and atemporal. In this instance, Jesus clearly asks his Father to not credit those complicit in his death with his death. It’s forgiveness for that, and for that alone. So, yes, more like what you say in the last sentence: ” . . . in this instance in Luke 23 forgiveness amounts to overlooking their sin [the murdering of God's Son] and giving them another chance.”

    That said, as far as we’re concerned (and in a certain sense for God as well), I do think the bottom line is that forgiveness is unilateral. To be sure, what has been deemed “therapeutic forgiveness” does ultimately mitigate against the biblical approach of working toward reconciliation and may indeed produce more bitterness, anger, and strife than expected. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone recognizes their offense to you. After you’ve followed the injunctions to meet with that person in love have failed, you’re still required to forgive that person “in your heart,” so to speak. It’s the entire process of forgiveness, even the unilateral sort, that best reflects the way Christ walked.

    Kevin Bruursema above nails what I’m getting at, so no need to repeat it. Another pithy way of saying it might be, “We should assume that God is more concerned with our response to an offense than the offense itself.” Or as Richard Rohr puts it: “Forgiveness in the teaching of Jesus is not for the sake of moral purity; it’s quite simply for the sake of a future.”

  14. Joey says:

    Fascinating discussion. I’d like to echo others in thanking you, Kevin, for tackling this tricky topic. I think definitions are important, so that we all know what we are talking about when we use words like forgiveness. Most definitions are something like “to give up resentment of or claim to requital for”…There is obviously a difference in the forgiveness of God towards man, and a forgiveness of man towards man. I’ve always understood the Bible to clearly teach that man’s forgiveness should never be conditional (love your enemies, forgive 70 x 7 times, forgive if you want to be forgiven etc etc) because forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation. Including reconciliation in the definition of what forgiveness is would seem to unnecessarily complicate the issue.

    For me to give up a claim for requital does not require anything on the part of the person I am forgiving.

  15. adam says:

    Kevin,

    2 quick questions:

    1 If we seek forgiveness but the other party does not accept it or does not repent are we still sinning in that we have not completed the conditional forgiveness process.

    2 What do we do then if the other party does not repent? Do we say, “I do not forgive you. I am not angry with you, but you are not forgiven?”

    Thanks

  16. Rory Tyer says:

    As someone else pointed out, I don’t think Eph. 4:32 works here. It seems like bad exegesis to think that Paul means “as God waited to offer full forgiveness to you until you repented.” I think more work needs to be done unpacking the times in the NT when “forgiveness” refers to something God grants that includes reconciliation, union, etc., and times when it it used to refer to a unilateral willingness, on the part of one human being towards another, to no longer hold some sort of debt over one’s head (and here I think there are probably multiple ways of using this term to refer to human relationships).

  17. Bill Hughes says:

    When did Joseph forgive his brothers? Before or after their repentance?

  18. Bernard says:

    I agree with the main point of this post and I think it’s very helpful and much needed. Modern Christians are far too casual, morally, in the way we treat each other and part of the explanation for that serious problem may be the assumption of blanket forgiveness with or without repentance.

    But may I suggest a qualification? Surely smaller, less significant wrongs can simply be overlooked, treated as if they never happened. In other words the full machinery of forgiveness described in this post doesn’t need to be rolled out unless the offense is major. “It is to a man’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11)

  19. Matthew James says:

    I’ve been preaching through Matthew for almost three years now (with some breaks) and we are currently on Matthew chapter 18 so I have had to take a close look at forgiveness lately.

    I am excited to find this post because the more I study, the more I realize that the biblical concept of “forgiveness” is a very nuanced and multifaceted issue.

    Just my two cents…
    I think that making a blanket statement that biblical forgiveness is always conditioned on repentance is just as dangerous as the concept of therapeutic forgiveness.

    There seems to be both an internal aspect to forgiveness and an external aspect to forgiveness that would include repentance on the part of the offending party.

    I can not figure out another way to understand Mark 11:25 except that God expects me to be able to forgive someone without them being present. I suppose you could qualify it by saying it must be describing a situation where a person has repented but your are STILL holding something against them, but I find nothing in the context to warrant that.

    So, maybe it would be allowable to say something like…
    We should always be willing to forgive.
    We should always grant internal forgiveness.
    We should pursue offending parties according to Matthew 18 in the hopes that they will repent and we can express/grant our forgiveness externally.
    Resulting in restoration and reconciliation.

    I also feel that we are not comparing apples to apples when we compare God’s forgiveness of us to our forgiveness of others. There are similarities, but there are also pretty massive differences. So unless the similarity is explicitly stated, we must be very careful about inferring it and going beyond what the text actually states.

    Thank you for tackling this issue Kevin. I would genuinely be interested to hear how you would deal with Mark 11:25 as it relates to this topic, but I totally understand if you don’t have time. May the Lord bless us all with clarity and conviction.

  20. Thank you for this post Kevin! This is exactly what my husband and I have been talking about to friends and Sunday School members recently. The view of forgiveness taught in the church, generally speaking, is one that is more pop psychology driven than theologically driven. Our understanding of forgiveness as it pertains to God is completely different than the forgiveness we preach as it pertains to others. You hit the nail on the head! I think part of the problem is that we have defined forgiveness as not holding on to bitterness. In answer to Chris above, I think it would be helpful if you knew that the saying of Jesus from the cross in Luke, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is a textual variant and even the most conservative scholars do not think that is an original saying of Jesus. And, like you said Kevin, the remark by Stephen in Acts is an appeal to God to be merciful rather than him actually forgiving the people. Interestingly enough Saul, who was in that group overseeing Stephen’s death, would later experience God’s mercy and forgiveness as Stephen prayed.

  21. Mark Kim says:

    Conditional forgiveness is the biblical view because God does not forgive those who remain unrepentant and hardened towards him. If unconditional forgiveness was true, then you are insinuating that God will allow into his kingdom those who remain hostile to them to the end of their lives.

  22. Chris Brauns says:

    I put some links in above, but they are still in moderation. It may help to state that forgiveness is a package we always wrap. It’s a gift we offer. So we have an attitude of forgiveness. But it does not take place in its fullest sense unless the offender chooses to open the package.

  23. Janet says:

    Yes, you do not need to go and verbally grant forgiveness to someone, you forgive them in the presence of God (Mk 11:25). Also, salvation is sufficient for all, and effective for some. We do not need to emulate what Jesus did on the cross, we need to follow his command to forgive unconditionally and be ready to offer it if it is ever asked for. We don’t need to wait to forgive based on another person’s prerogative!

  24. Susanne Schuberth (Germany) says:

    Whoever loves like Christ loves can’t help but forgive. Always. Even if the unrepentant sinner remains in his unrepentant state. As it has been said above, reconciliation then is not possible. But forgiveness is. And prayer, of course.

    “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
    You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
    You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
    Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Lk 7:44-47 ESV)

  25. Dear Kevin
    Thank you for your writing ministry – I really find it very helpful and beneficial. Although on this topic I must disagree with you. I think that our forgiveness must be unconditional. The clincher for me is Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus is saying there that if you are a Christian and understand how much you have offended God; and comprehend the enormity of your sin; and realize that your debt has been cancelled and your sin forgiven; then you will be able to and indeed be compelled to forgive others who have sinned against you.

    Forgive me for pointing to my blog, but I have penned my thoughts on why forgiveness should be unconditional.
    http://www.pastorfish.co.za/2012/11/13/why-forgiveness-must-be-unconditional-not-conditional/

  26. Pal Borzasi says:

    Dear Kevin,
    Thank you for writing on this topic. I think that the tension must not be avoided but sustained: (1) there are times when we must forgive unconditionally (Mark 11:25) and (2) there are times when we should forgive conditionally (Luke 17:3), based on repentance, as Jesus said: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him (Luk 17:3 ESV)”. Why not live with the biblical tension then, as we do in so many other areas of Christian life. Instead of avoiding the tension, we should always pray for heavenly wisdom, so that we can be able to choose well which course to follow in each situation. What do you think?

  27. Brent says:

    Forgiveness, at its core, involves releasing someone from a debt — whether it be a financial, emotional or moral debt. This is seen in the meaning/usage of the underlying Greek words and in the Lord’s prayer (forgive us our debts…). Understanding this basic meaning, I think, sheds helpful light on this question. Consider the example of financial debt. If someone owes me a debt of money, I can choose to unilaterally forgive that debt whether that person ever seeks forgiveness or not. The same is true of our emotional and moral debts. The health of my relationship with an offending person will be greatly improved if they formally acknowledge their debt and either pay it or seek forgiveness, but my decision and ability to forgive their debt aren’t dependent on their response. I can choose to release them from whatever it is that they owe me — whether it be money or appreciation or an apology or a retraction or a good deed of some kind. I don’t need for them to seek forgiveness before I can choose to wipe their debt off my mental ledger.

  28. Keiko Takahashi says:

    I found the following comment is more faithful to the Scripture.
    “To connect Eph. 4:32 (Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you) to “conditional forgiveness” would be unexpected and unnatural. Rather, it would seem more natural to connect this verse to the character of God revealed in chapters 1:3-8 or 2:1-9, etc. At face value and in the larger context of Ephesians, this verse even seems to contradict any concept of “conditional forgiveness” among believers.” I agree. It is risky and against any well-tested hermeneutical principle to pick just one verse or passage in order to make a big theological assertion.

  29. Keiko Takahashi says:

    Thank you, Kevin for good summary of this book.
    Except for the point 5 about “conditional forgiveness,” where he uses Eph 4:32 as a proof-text, I totally agree with all his points. I want to promote his points, but only in a sense we need to communicate the biblical Gospel in that God’s impassionate and sovereign character is the only foundation and divine driving force of our Christian forgiveness. Even our horizontal forgiveness is ultimately about God’s character and His glory, poured out to our relationships.
    – But after I studied a very advanced theology of “relationship” that Ed Welch teaches at CCEF, I think we might want to do more diligent “biblical theology” or think more carefully about how to approach the whole counsel of God in order to examine many points he raised, such as the definition of “therapeutic” forgiveness from the biblical perspective. — D A Carson in his book “Love in Hard Places” says that the Bible shows that God’s love is made up with His multiple perfect attributes arranged in His perfect wisdom.
    For example, as Carson points out, affection of love is not denied but said most important in 1 Cor 13. Brauns may agree on this. But if so, he may contradict on many different scriptures on “enemy love.” — Are we just to read the contexts of them, which the meaning of the forgiveness depends on? Or, are we to draw much bigger coherent biblical principle on forgiveness which overarches the whole Scripture? — He fails to answer any of those basic questions, either.

  30. Greg Alderman says:

    In recovery circles, we talk about Forgiveness requiring the act of one while reconciliation requires the act of 2 people. This seems to be the flow of what you are trying to get at with ‘conditional forgiveness,’ but I like this distinction best because it makes sense biblically; i.e. although forgiveness is offered to all without condition, not all are reconciled to Christ because they have not turned from their sin in order to receive it.

    I do believe this is what I hear you saying. Just a thought. Thanks for the provocative message Kevin!

  31. James M. says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but is not the point Braun making that forgiveness, properly defined, is not possible without seeking a cancellation of the debt? While an “attitude of forgiveness” ought characterize the disciple, forgiveness can only be offered upon the seeking petitioner. One reason this is an important distinction, especially in the body, is that when we imply that forgiveness is merely a one-sided proposition (“I forgive you, regardless”), we communicate that the forgiver receives the benefit but accountability is not necessary for the one needing to be forgiven. What does this say to the parties involved when the shoe is on the other foot? This is more than mere semantics, and we ought to take care lest we produce careless understanding and ultimately undermine the means to healing and a proper perspective on how one rightly relates to his neighbor.

  32. jin says:

    Forgiveness is CONDITIONAL.

    Love is UNCONDITIONAL.

    Love your enemies and always be alert to forgive anybody if they ask. Forgiveness is for the offender. It is a gift. It is not to be used as a therapeutic form of suppressing anger and bitterness. You are GIVING away your love through forgiveness. FORGIVENESS IS A GIFT FOR THE OFFENDER.

    When people tell me that they have forgiven someone, I always wonder if the other person actually did want forgiveness. What if the person doing the forgiving is the one who actually is the offender and that they just had a twisted view of the situation? How can you forgive someone if they don’t want to be forgiven or if they think they don’t need to be forgiven??

    FORGIVENESS IS CONDITIONAL.

    LOVE IS UNCONDITIONAL.

  33. Brooks Hanes says:

    @Great Alderman

    Perhaps forgiveness “offered but not received” is not forgiveness… Perhaps it is simply and powerfully grace.

    I write that because forgiveness does not lead to repentance, but God’s kindness (grace) leads us there.

  34. Brooks Hanes says:

    @jin

    Jin that is amazing. I’m currently in that situation: where someone does not want forgiveness because they do not admit wrongdoing.

  35. jin says:

    Brooks,

    Exactly.

    So love has to take over first; ever being patient and at the ready to offer forgiveness when the person comes around to that step.

    To take it even further, I can even say that therapeutic forgiveness is actually being selfish. Because you think you have judged the situation correctly, you offer forgiveness in your own mind without even consulting the other party or the so-called “offender”. It has been my experience that in almost all situations, the offense is usually done by both parties. It almost makes the “unconditional” forgiver out to be conceited in his own thoughts…this is indeed dangerous.

  36. Kristen Padilla says:

    The problem for many here in the comments section and for others I have encountered is that unconditional forgiveness has been taught since Christian infancy; it is part of the fabric of their belief system. Many are afraid that if they have been taught incorrectly on this issue and they admit it, then that their belief system will break down. This was my story. But as I’ve studied Scripture I see that unconditional forgiveness as it is taught actually is at odds with the gospel I preach: if I forgive unconditionally so does God? I sense that many think that asking a brother to repent is the unloving thing to do, but then how does one reconcile that God requires our repentance? Is that the unloving thing of God to do? I’ve written a blog post as an addendum to Kevin’s post here if anyone is interested in continuing the conversation: http://www.kristenrpadilla.com

  37. Alex J. says:

    My question regards the differences between God and ourselves:
    God allows those whom he has chosen to repent and thus grants them grace to be forgiven by allowing them to have a new heart which desires forgiveness and seeks it by repenting at the cross.

    We are not sovereign and if our ability to forgive is dependent on the offender seeking repentance does that disallow us the opportunity to show the same grace God has shown to us to those who have offended us?

    Yes, we are to be like Christ but we will never be sovereign and therefore under this assertion, forgiveness is conditional, we are not allowed to extend the grace as God has too us. Maybe only grace can truly apply to that which is shown to us through Christ and not to how we love others.

  38. John says:

    My .02:

    I believe that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.

    I can forgive someone who has wronged me without reconciling with them. As someone who has gone through sexual abuse, I can, must, and have forgiven that person. It may take years, but I must not allow the bitter root to grow within. They may never know that I’ve forgiven them, but still, I have.

    Reconciliation would take place when we sit down and the person confesses their sin and seeks that forgiveness, and then it is bestowed upon them by me.

    This is what we find in scripture, forgiveness offered to all, but only some are reconciled with God through Christ’s sacrifice.

  39. Paul Adams says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I’ve long been a fan of Brauns’ book and think it’s one of the best treatments to date. For additional angles, I’ve offered a synthesis of Brauns and NTW here, which I think important to the discussion. Also, there’s Volf’s work that needs a careful reading (see here for details).

  40. Margaret Frizzell says:

    I can appreciate both views.
    What concerns me is that there could be an underlying need with those who ardently believe in the “conditional” view because they do not want to address the clear directives for doing good to those who harm them, praying for them, without any desire for revenge or malice.This view could be seen as giving them an “out,” so to speak, although not biblical at all.
    Let’s not dwell on the definitions of forgiveness but dwell on what is clearly taught: to love others regardless of their treatment of us. For me, that is the hard part and can only happen with help from the Holy Spirit. I’m leaving the rest up to God, regarding when forgiveness takes place.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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