Pt. 2—Should Christians Forgive Unconditionally? Forgiveness Happens As God Forgives

Posted: October 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

The question of forgiveness is an important issue as sinful people interact. Others will wrong us and we will wrong others. How to navigate the waters of forgiveness and reconciliation are important as we seek to live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18; Heb. 12:14). So, do we forgive unconditionally or conditionally?

In an earlier post I stated that I currently believe the conditional forgiveness position makes the most sense. Five points were offered in support of this position. They are:

  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.

Today I want to start unpacking the first point on the list.

First, the Christian is called to “forgive, as God in Christ forgave you” (ESV; Eph. 4:32). It seems this verse is positing a comparison.[1] We forgive “as” (or “just as” NIV) God has forgiven. The Christian should look to God as the model and their motivation for forgiving. Peter T. Obrien calls this a “motivating clause” (Obrien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 349). Though Hoehner doesn’t use the word “forgiveness” in his translation (opting for “graciousness”) he nonetheless sees the phrase “just as” (καθὼς) as denoting the “reason or motivation” for being gracious (Hoehner, Ephesians, 640). Hoehner writes, “Paul is exhorting them to behave in the same gracious manner that God did in his Son” (Hoehner, 640). Taking God as the model, we know that the Father looks down from heaven and forgives those who turn to him. He has unconditionally offered forgiveness and has granted forgiveness when the condition of repentance and faith has been met.[2]

Someone could argue that the comparison is simply meant to teach us that since God is merciful and gracious in forgiving, so we should be merciful and gracious in forgiving. More specifically, they could say that the verse is not meant to teach that our forgiveness is just like God’s, but it is simply meant to call us to a posture of forgiveness. Nothing in this post should be understood to argue against having a posture of forgiveness. We are quick to extend mercy and grace and stand ready to reconcile! Yet, the comparison seems to teach us more than this. It calls us to pattern our forgiveness after God’s forgiveness of sinners. Like God we are merciful and gracious in offering forgiveness. However, God does not grant forgiveness unless the condition of repentance has been met. I am suggesting we follow that pattern.

If God will not grant forgiveness without the condition of repentance being met, why would he ask us to do this? Does this not fail to help people make sense of the reconciliation that they need vertically (i.e. with God)? Furthermore, is God calling us to a higher standard if he calls us to forgive unconditionally? That is, if we can forgive without repentance, why can’t (or why won’t) God do the same? More on that last point in another post.

In summary, Paul draws a comparison between the forgiveness that God grants to the penitent and the forgiveness we should grant to those who wrong us. Just as God forgives the repentant person, so we should be quick to forgive those who repent of their sins against us.

[1] Randy Nelson, NT professor at Northwestern, agrees that a comparison is being made. He has written a JETS article arguing for the unconditional forgiveness position. He shows from the Greek text that Eph. 4:32 is, in fact, making a comparison. The question becomes, “where does the comparison break down?” On that point, Nelson and I part ways.

[2] I see no problem with saying that a condition must be met for God to forgive. We are not saying that we earn the forgiveness of God, but that the needed condition must be met. We do this with justification. God justifies only when faith is exercised (e.g. Rom. 5:1). That does not mean the person has exercised faith and thus merited justification. Indeed, in both these cases (justification and forgiveness), we know that God gives the required conditions as gifts. Faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8­–10) and repentance is a gift from God (2 Tim. 2:25).

  1. […] position. That is, I believe we forgive those who sin against us only when they repent. In Pt. 2 I argued that since we are called to forgive “just as” God has forgiven us, and God […]

  2. […] continue my thoughts on unconditional vs. conditional forgiveness. So far I have argued that (1) we forgive as God forgives (Eph. 4:32); (2) repentance consistently precedes forgiveness in the Bible; and (3) forgiveness is […]

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