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On Unconditional Forgiveness

Jul 11, 2014

I just penned a piece on forgiveness, but the parameters of that were somewhat limited. I spoke primarily there about interpersonal relationships, and the need to forgive others, especially our brothers and sisters. Our forgiveness of others is an indication that we have been forgiven by God: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/07/10/on-forgiveness/

But there is much more to be said on this topic. For example, someone raised the issue of a Christian who was viciously attacked by someone, but lived to tell about, and now has to face her attacker in court. I replied by saying that while the Christian can forgive, that does not mean one must forego justice.

One can forgive the person while still pressing charges. Forgiving someone does not mean condoning what they do. While the church administers forgiveness and grace, the state exists to administer justice. But I speak to these elements of forgiveness much more fully here: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/14/sin-forgiveness-and-consequences/

Another thing to be said about personal forgiveness is this does not mean you have to allow others to run roughshod over your life. For example, if you have nasty trolls attacking you constantly online, you can of course forgive them, but that does not mean you have to give them free rein to wreak havoc. To block such people does not mean you have not forgiven them or are holding a grudge against them.

Or on a bigger scale, one might choose to forgive a Hitler or a Stalin for their horrific crimes against humanity, but such forgiveness does not mean such tyrants should not face the full force of justice, if not in this life, then in the next. Justice means giving to each person their due, and the unrepentant should get everything that is owed them.

But another thing that is worth looking at is the whole notion of “unconditional forgiveness”. We say that God loves us and forgives us unconditionally. But is that altogether biblically correct? Well, yes and no. At Calvary the work of Christ made forgiveness and reconciliation with God fully possible.

But that has to be appropriated. And there are in fact conditions. Repentance is a key condition to receive God’s forgiveness. If you refuse to acknowledge that you are a sinner deserving of God’s wrath, and that you need to turn from your sins and put your faith in Christ, then his finished work will avail you nothing.

We only can get right with God when we stop being rebels, and we put up the white flag of surrender. Until we do, there can be no forgiveness. As A.W. Tozer put it, “The idea that God will pardon a rebel who has not given up his rebellion is contrary both to the Scriptures and to common sense.”

C. S. Lewis said similar things; “The demand that God should forgive such a man while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning and forgiving. To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.”

Image of Stirred by a Noble Theme: The Book of Psalms in the Life of the Church
Stirred by a Noble Theme: The Book of Psalms in the Life of the Church by Unknown Amazon logo

An article on the imprecatory Psalms which I just read speaks to this more fully. I refer to Kit Barker’s chapter in Stirred By a Noble Theme: The Book of Psalms in the Life of the Church, edited by Andrew Shead (2013). As to divine forgiveness, he says, “Divine forgiveness happens in the context of penitence.”

But what about Christians? Are we to forgive unconditionally? Or is it also the case that forgiveness of others is conditioned by their penitence? He writes: “It is clear from the New Testament that when forgiveness is possible, forgiveness is required. Conversely, it will be argued that when forgiveness is not possible, forgiveness is clearly not required.”

He continues, “‘Unconditional forgiveness’ is not supported in Scripture. There is no explicit command to forgive offenders who remain unrepentant. There are many commands to forgive, but they either mention repentance explicitly as a condition, or require that it be implied on the basis of (1) those passages where it is explicit and (2) divine forgiveness, where we see the mechanism of forgiveness more clearly.”

He looks at Matthew 18 and dealing with offenders. As you know, at first one person goes to this wayward brother, then two or three, then the whole community must deal with him. If he still refuses to repent, then he is to be expelled from the fellowship of believers, and treated as “a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).

Says Barker, “The end result of his stubborn impenitence is exclusion, not forgiveness. Furthermore, while Matthew’s account is not explicit with respect to repentance, Luke’s account is explicit: ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them’.”

He concludes his 6-page discussion of this topic with these words: “The crucifixion and resurrection make forgiveness and reconciliation with God possible, not automatic. It is here we discover the basis for forgiveness that requires all people to respond in faith and repentance.”

Now all this needs to be teased out more fully, and much of it has to do with church discipline. Other New Testament writers also speak about excluding the unrepentant brother from the church. Paul for example says in 1 Corinthians 5:11: “But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.”

Or as he says in the Pastoral Epistles:

2 Timothy 3:1-5 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

2 Timothy 4:14-15 Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.

Titus 3:9,10 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.

But of course our willingness to forgive must always be there. So we have to tread carefully here, and one would need to read the entire case made by Barker and others before rushing to judgment. And as always we need to keep biblical balances in place.

If a person has done great harm to the church and refuses to repent, while we may not in that case be obliged to forgive him, we still have to guard against bitterness and resentment in our own hearts. We still need a right attitude, even when putting an unrepentant brother out of Christian fellowship.

Much more can be said about all this. However, since forgiveness, mercy and grace are so closely tied together, let me close with two terrific quotes by R. C. Sproul which are fully applicable here, at least to the aspect of divine forgiveness:

“God’s grace is not infinite. God is infinite, and God is gracious. We experience the grace of an infinite God, but grace is not infinite. God sets limits to his patience and forbearance. He warns us over and over again that someday the ax will fall and His judgment will be poured out.”

“We hear all the time about God’s infinite grace and mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to their sin.”

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9 Responses to On Unconditional Forgiveness

  • Another thing to be said about personal forgiveness is this does not mean you have to allow others to run rough shod over your life.

    It’s so hard to get this balance right, particularly in families…

  • Its good to see someone has the balance right. It never ceases to amaze me how holding a person to their sins when they are unrepentant is now considered as ‘personal unforgiveness’ haha.

    Has nothing to do with my personal thoughts and feelings, it has everything to do with them cleaning up their life before the Lord returns and finds them like the 5 foolish virgins, or the servant who became drunken and beat those under him.

    If believers don’t take a stand against evil to shun it, then it will not be as bad to those who commit it, and they will do it again and again and again, and then accuse you of being in unforgivness for not letting them in to do it again lol

  • Great article! Some Christians seem to be automatic forgiveness machines, without the spiritual perspicacity needed to temper this subject. Another tricky area – when to invoke the Curse of God? Not much use of this in our modern church. Vague memory ? of the Russian orthodox church using this legitimate and little used weapon against communism!

  • Thanks for writing on this.
    Stott has said: “We are to rebuke a brother if he sins against us; we are to forgive him if he repents — and only if he repents. We must beware of cheapening forgiveness. . . . If a brother who has sinned against us refuses to repent, we should not forgive him. Does this startle you? It is what Jesus taught. . . . ‘Forgiveness’ includes restoration to fellowship. If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love but its shallowness.”
    (Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation, p. 35)

    Wright and Volf have made some penetrating remarks as well. See my post here.

  • Hallelujah !!!
    Thanks Bill-finally, a precursor to an Australian challenge to the myth of eternal security
    I have noticed there is a website dedicated to you by the militants
    I hope they continue to waste their time

  • Well said indeed – of its very nature, forgiveness is a response to repentance. I’d like to add a point, known to all of us, and mentioned elsewhere by Bill in several articles, just not here. It is this. Our duty to love remains. To love in this context meaning to desire and, where possible, actively seek the good of the person whether by prayer alone or by service and even to the enormity of laying down ones life as Jesus did for all of us! So even if an offender makes forgiveness impossible by refusing to repent, we still cannot hold any resentment,bitterness or judgement but must leave them to God’s judgement without condoning their actions. We must remain always ready to forgive, just as God is always ready to forgive the truly repentant sinner. It sure is a daily struggle to really be a Christian! I know I can have a beady eye for motes in my dear husband and get a bit huffy when planks are pointed out to me in that same beady eye! Last point – we still have to stand for the truth – name motes and planks before shaking any dust from feet and leaving things to God (not husbands of course, its probably a little dispensation for wives to keep working on them – well maybe?)

  • God’s dealings with believers and unbelievers are slightly different from each other I believe, we are called to love our enemies, doing things for their good regardless of their actions, for they lack the desire or ability to discern good from evil, being thereby still outside of how God judges His people. But to those who are children of God, to them the cleansing procedure of discipline to ensure they not only stay pure, become still purer like God is pure. As to the consideration of managing the balance between forgiveness and the expectation of “fruit worthy of repentance” of those who are being forgiven, the object of God’s sacrifice combined with his utter hatred of anything evil is to cleanse the beloved of that evil, the presence of which in their soul prevents access to fellowship with God and eternal life. Forgiveness alone does not achieve this, neither does discipline alone, the two must work together in just the right mixture to achieve the restoration of God and His beloved.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennet

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