On Unconditional Forgiveness

Barb Wire

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.

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 forgo 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.

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.

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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.”

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.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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