On Divine Forgiveness
God’s forgiveness of sinners is not unconditional:
Let me cut to the quick: God cannot forgive you if you think you have nothing to be forgiven for. Divine forgiveness applies only to sinners. If you do not think you are a sinner in need of forgiveness and a saviour, then you will not be forgiven. Only guilty sinners who know they are guilty can find forgiveness from God through Christ. That is why Christ came. It is that simple.
I write about such matters because of a particularly foolish and unbiblical meme I just saw on the social media. It said: “Wouldn’t God be a hypocrite for telling us to forgive people 70 times 7 while he burned people eternally in a hell.” Good grief, talk about bad theology, biblical illiteracy, and logical fallacies to boot. There are just so many problems with this.
First of course, how God forgives us is not the same as how we forgive others. Only God’s forgiveness of a sinner will give him new life and change his eternal destination from hell to heaven. We are called to forgive others, but that does nothing to impact their eternal state. While the two sorts of forgiveness are related, they are nonetheless quite different and distinct things.
Second, while we are told to forgive 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), we are also told that our forgiveness of others needs to be received and embraced. Not everyone wants or earns our forgiveness. Thus other verses make it clear that if others have sinned against us, they need to repent in order to properly receive our forgiveness.
As Jesus said in Luke 17:3-4: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Here we have a clear word on the need of repentance for forgiveness to be efficacious.
And it is the same with God. There is no forgiveness without faith and repentance. So in one sense it does not matter how much God may want to forgive us sinners, he cannot if we refuse to meet the divine conditions imposed to receive such forgiveness.
I must say the fellow who posted this was really mixed up in terms of Scripture, basic theology, and just plain common sense. The meme reflects the unbiblical idea that God forgives everybody, whether they like it or not, so everyone will ultimately be saved. That is the heresy known as universalism.
But then this fellow goes on to talk about people being annihilated and totally destroyed. That is the heresy known as annihilationism. With either heresy, the clear teachings of Scripture are denied: that hell is real, hell is everlasting, and real people who refuse to repent and receive God’s forgiveness will end up there.
But all these topics I have written on extensively and in great detail. See these pieces for example for more on these vital matters;
C. S. Lewis had a lot to say about forgiveness, so I will offer some of what he had to say in this discussion. In The Problem of Pain he has a chapter on hell, and discusses the place of pain in planting “the flag of truth within the rebel fortress.”
He speaks about the supposed conflict between justice and mercy, and notes how the impenitent rebel may well need some pain in his life to remind him of who he is, and about his relationship with God. He says the following about this sort of a “horribly rebellious soul”:
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.
And in his 1947 essay “On Forgiveness” he says this:
If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.” We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.
There are two remedies for this danger. One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do. If there are real “extenuating circumstances” there is no fear that He will overlook them. Often He must know many excuses that we have never even thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they thought. All the real excusing He will do. What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin. We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused. When you go to a Dr. you show him the bit of you that is wrong – say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right. You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that.
The second remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins. A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that is not forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.
In sum, the notion that sinners can somehow be forgiven – and saved – without repentance and confession of sin – is utterly foreign to Scripture. In this sense God’s forgiveness of sinners is certainly conditional. Fail to meet the conditions and you cannot be forgiven.
We must agree with God about our sin and come to him in faith and repentance, with a willingness to turn from and forsake sin. Just five of many verses can be featured here:
Matthew 21:31-32 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
Mark 1:4-5 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Acts 17:30-31 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Acts 20:18-21 “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 John 1:5-10 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
It is always so very shocking when people who claim to be Christians get these fundamental biblical truths so very wrong. They are not only deceiving themselves, but deceiving others. The result of course is a lost eternity – the very thing these folks deny that exists.
10 Replies to “On Divine Forgiveness”
Modern psychology tells us we should forgive unconditionally, often throwing in soft religion by adding ‘as God forgives you’ or ‘as Jesus teaches you’. I rile and respond ‘only God can forgive unconditionally, but in any case, His forgiveness IS conditional: He requires repentance.’
Thanks for this article, Bill. You have finally stated my own gutfeel. Our weak shepherds are allowing folks stray to hell, with their heretical Modernist theology.
Many thanks Dan.
Bill, Dan, some further nuancing that I think we all agree on:
On HUMAN Forgiveness:
Immediately after teaching in “The Lord’s Prayer” that we ask God to ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’, Jesus explains that if we WILL not forgive, then our Heavenly Father CAN NOT forgive us. If we will not forgive, but rather hold resentment and hurt, or hate or seeking revenge etc, we are ignoring God’s statement that vengeance is his (alone). So forgiveness towards fellow humans should be unconditional, not conditional on apology or repentance, i.e. letting it go through to the Keeper, God, to whom pardon and vengeance belong in true justice. E.g. Stephen’s stoning and of course Jesus on the cross.
Thanks Peter. Yes and no. We of course have to take the totality of the New Testament teaching on this. You mention one verse (Matthew 6:14). I discuss that and other passages here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/07/10/on-forgiveness/
And above I did mention Luke 17:3-4: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
That gives another component to the equation, and it does add a conditional element to it. But I discuss all this much further here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/07/11/on-unconditional-forgiveness/
And I discuss these issues even further here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/01/22/on-christian-forgiveness/
There I quote from John Stott who affirms what Jesus said in Luke 17:
Thank you for writing on such a vital topic Bill and bringing home the truths of what the Bible says and God has made clear. In our our day and age of New age and the occult and liberalism merging ideas with gospel, watered down beliefs have been passed on -without a full scriptural base. Much has been lost.
Thanks for sharing the website discussions on this also which are very valuable aspects to make a stand on.
I am reminded of the verse in John’s gospel that the ‘Holy Sprit convicts of sin, righteousness and judgement’ as as we pray for others God will shed full light on the truth, for He alone is is the way to truth and eternal life and forgiveness through Jesus death and shed Blood for our sin on the cross is the key.
His word cannot change and ‘He is a God who cannot lie.’
Our human heart is deceitful so these other beliefs like universalism are a real pitfall and trap (i.e. Universalism teaching all go to heaven no matter what they believe or how they live.)
It is so essential to read the Bible itself and see what Jesus said in the parable of the rich man who was in hell and asked to cross back to earth to warn his family members what lay in store unless they believed and repented. It was forbidden to go back and too late.
Though it grieves us to think of anyone in hell, let alone any loved ones, its so essential to teach of the whole counsel of God which includes that we need to choose Jesus as our Saviour and the way to heaven or due to our innate sin we go to the destination of hell where Satan will be also, and all tormented day and night forever.
The price Jesus Christ paid on the cross and the agony He suffered on our behalf shows such incredible love for all but a choice remains for all and then we find peace and forgiveness in Him alone and go on living for Him.
I didn’t know that truth until my early 20’s and wondered why no one had told me but was challenged to read the Bible to find out if it was true, when seeking in India…. but then when I returned to Australia to share the word and way of salvation I had to learn to pray hearts would be opened and others would want to hear…plus to share His love to those seeking and wounded.
In our culture Satan has had a heyday in hiding the truth of the word of God and way of salvation and the fact heaven and hell exist, and created counterfeit beliefs (as you have outlined) but God still calls us to help seek Him who want to find Him and the narrow way.
“Let me cut to the quick: God cannot forgive you if you think you have nothing to be forgiven for.”
Dear Bill, I have just been reading the comments on forgiveness. I have one one verse to add for discussion and a question.
When Jesus prayed ‘Forgive them father for they know not what they do’, I have understood that to mean that nearly all those present (except the Centurion, the thief on one side, and the beloved Mary the Mother of Jesus, and few followers at the cross) didn’t realise the solemn truth that the rulers and crowd had delivered up the very Son of God to be crucified yet they did not truly realise Jesus was God’s Son incarnate nor that he would die on the cross for their sin and the sin of all generations. They did not realise that the Blood of Jesus was being shed for their personal sin or future sin to free them from death, Satan’s grip and to give them forgiveness freely and the gift of eternal life.
Q. As intercessors, and with love in our heart, if we pray ‘forgive them Father for they know not what they do’ as Jesus did when others sin against us, then doesn’t give the person more chance of being convicted of their sin and then at some stage they may repent ask for forgiveness from God and from us. (not all will be able to make contact at a later date to carry out asking forgiveness as people move away etc but God sees the heart and knows when they will have a change of heart.)
if the other person is a born again Christian and has sinned against us or others and is under a pastor and church then its Biblical to go to the person first and try to help them see their need to repent. If that reconciliation gesture fails, then we are told to gather 2 or more witnesses and meet to speak to that person as a small group. to carry our church discipline/the Biblical method God has lain down.
Then if reconciliation fails, and the person refuses to repent, that is when we leave them alone (or ask them not to attend meetings) so they may come under conviction. (also so they don’t stumble others or lead others astray as I understand it)
RE out attitudes: James chpt 5 says to do this in love so we may win back one who is wandering and Jude says to look to yourself let you be tempted, when dealing with the sin of another.
Sorry this is a 2-3 layered comment with a single question …It is just what I have been thinking over and working out as I have read comments.
Thanks Gail. I have actually written two articles on the verse you mention (Luke 23:34). So if you have a read of them, they may go a long way toward answering your question. (If not, you can come back here again with more questions!)
I have often puzzled over the theology of forgiveness when I hear of a drunk driver wiping out half a family, or a crazed gunman shooting people randomly in a school or shopping centre, and then the mother of one or more of the victims declares her immediate forgiveness for the perpetrator. While the willingness to forgive is understandable (rather than the bitter poison of unforgiveness), you have made the valid point that the circuit is not complete unless the offer of forgiveness is humbly received with a sincere and genuine heart of repentance.
I think ‘forgiveness’ in such circumstances also has significant legal implications in some cultures?