Pt. 4—Should Christians Forgive Unconditionally? Forgiveness is Interpersonal, Not Merely Personal

Posted: October 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

Thus far I have offered two arguments in support of conditional forgiveness. That is, I believe we should forgive those who sin against us only after they have repented of their sin. I believe forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Again, the offer of forgiveness is unconditional while the granting of forgiveness is conditional. The two arguments I have offered in support of this position are: 1) Forgiveness happens as God forgives and 2) Forgiveness never precedes repentance in the Bible.

At this point I offer my  third reason for holding to this position. The third reason has been the point that has caused the biggest shift in how I understand the subject at hand. The point is as follows:

Forgiveness is Interpersonal; Release of Anger, Bitterness, and Resentment is Personal

Understanding forgiveness as an interpersonal idea is crucial. The Bible always pictures forgiveness as between two parties. It is true that Christians need to kill anger, wrath, malice, and bitterness, all while exercising self-control (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; Prov. 25:28; Gal. 5:23). But those are personal issues that are addressed within the heart of the offended party. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is interpersonal.

Chris Brauns unpacks this idea nicely.

“Therapeutic forgiveness” insists that forgiveness is at its core a feeling. Our culture has picked up on this in a big way. When most people say that they forgive, they mean that it is a private matter in which he or she is not going to feel bitter.

Borrowing a line from Boston’s, “Don’t Look Back,” album. I argue that forgiveness is, “More Than a Feeling.” Biblical forgiveness is something that happens between two parties. When God forgives us, our relationship with Him is restored. That is why Calvin said that the whole of the Gospel is contained under the headings of repentance and forgiveness of sins (Institutes 3.3.19).

Once people make forgiveness therapeutic, you have all sorts of non-biblical things happening. For instance, some say it is legitimate to forgive God. This is a heretical idea because God has never done anything which requires forgiveness. But, “therapeutic” forgiveness needs to forgive God so bitterness is no longer felt.

Therapeutic forgiveness also diminishes the necessity of two parties working out there differences. If forgiveness is simply how I feel, there is no need to worry about the relationship.

The tragedy of therapeutic forgiveness is that in making individual feelings the center of everything, I think it ultimately leads to bitterness and the wrong feelings.”[1]

What Brauns is saying is that the feelings that we have are not central to the definition of forgiveness. This does not mean that feelings are unimportant or uninvolved in every way. In my understanding, crushing anger, bitterness, and malice are pathways to unconditionally offering forgiveness to the one who has wronged you. This is what Jesus and Stephen model so well for us! They were not bitter or angry. They asked God to forgive. Yet, they do not offer absolution for the sins committed.

Do you see how this changes things? When I argue that forgiveness of a wrong is conditional, I am not in anyway allowing for the offended party to stew in anger and bitterness. They must crush these things within themselves. Within your own heart you must deal with your emotions and plead with God to forgive you for anything you have felt that is sinful. Thankfully, at the cross we know that our sins, included the ones we commit with our emotions, are paid for. Furthermore, once we deal with personal emotions, the pathway is cleared for us to unconditionally extend the hand of forgiveness, earnestly desiring to reconcile with the offender!

Yet, dealing with emotions is not to be equated with the totality of forgiveness. Why? Because forgiveness is interpersonal while dealing with emotions is personal.  Thus, given that forgiveness is something that takes place between two parties, for forgiveness to be granted, the offender must repent. And since the personal emotions have been dealt with, the offended party is quick to grant forgiveness and reconcile with the person who has wronged them.

Deal with your personal feelings. Kill what needs to be killed. Crush what needs crushing. Unconditionally extend grace and offer forgiveness. And when the sinner repents, receive them (forgive) with open arms and a smiling face.

[1] Taken from a interview conducted by Kevin DeYoung and posted at the The Gospel Coalition blog (

  1. […] As a busy part of my semester comes to an end I am finally able to take a bit of time and 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 an interpersonal issue. […]

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