Should Christians Forgive Unconditionally? Thoughts on Forgiveness

Posted: October 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

It seems theological topics are always more complicated than they appear. The issue of when you grant forgiveness is one such topic. The default position of most Christians would be that you grant forgiveness of an offense immediately and unconditionally. That is, when a person wrongs you, you extend grace and forgiveness whether or not the person repents of the wrong committed. While I certainly agree that we should immediately show grace when wronged, I am not convinced that forgiveness should immediately follow as well. The issue is not so simple.

First, let’s begin by clarifying the question. We are asking if forgiveness should be unconditional or conditional. That is, should you forgive even though the offender has never repented of their sin (unconditional)? Or do you forgive only after the offender has repented (conditional)? Those are the questions.

Second, we must define our terms. Since this discussion concerns forgiveness, we need to offer a definition. Chris Brauns defines forgiveness “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.”[1] This is a good and important definition that, as you can see, does not focus on overcoming personal feelings (e.g. anger, wrath, malice) but recognizes forgiveness as fundamentally a transaction between two parties. This will be important to remember.

Now we move to the issue at hand.

At the present I am leaning very much away from the default answer as described above. Instead, it seems that while the offer of forgiveness is unconditional, the granting of forgiveness is conditional. The distinction between offer and granting is an important point and we shall return to it as the issue unfolds.

It is also important to note that this is not a novel idea. Chris Brauns has articulated this position in his book, Unpacking Forgiveness. Kevin DeYoung summarizes the position well and I shall quote him at length.

“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.”[2]

DeYoung states the issue clearly, but I assume that for many reading this post such a position seems novel. As stated earlier, the default position is most likely that forgiveness is unconditional. Therefore, many may read what DeYoung has written and feel that the idea of conditional forgiveness is not consistent with the Bible. I disagree. I find the conditional forgiveness position to make the most sense of the biblical and theological data.

What would lead me to believe this? There are several reasons that I currently affirm this position. I’ll state the larger principles and briefly unpack each over the next few posts.

  1. Forgiveness happens as God Forgives.
  2. Forgiveness Is Never Spoken of as Preceding Repentance.
  3. Forgiveness is Interpersonal; Release of Anger, Bitterness, and Resentment is Personal.
  4. Forgiveness and Reconciliation Should Go Together.
  5. Forgiveness Should Tell the Truth about the Gospel.

If you have any thoughts or critique, I always welcome pushback!

[1] http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2014/02/13/following-up-on-forgiveness/

[2] http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2014/02/13/following-up-on-forgiveness/

NOTE: For an excellent and more in-depth look at this position, see Ardel Caneday, Must Christians Always Forgive.

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Comments
  1. […] an earlier post I stated that I currently believe the conditional forgiveness position makes the most sense. Five […]

  2. […] the initial post five points were given as to why I currently hold a conditional forgiveness position. That is, I […]

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