Is Forgiveness Conditional or Unconditional?
Some time ago I promised an article on the subject of conditional versus unconditional forgiveness. I've had many false starts and have been largely unsatisfied with anything I've written on the subject. So I decided to simplify and to provide only an outline of my thoughts on the subject. I am, perhaps, a little less than perfectly confident in my beliefs on this subject which is why I do not wish to be too dogmatic. Instead, take this article this as my understanding of why forgiveness is to be conditional, not unconditional. I'll just trace the progression of my position as I've looked to Scripture to seek to understand forgiveness. Much of my recent thought has been influenced by Chris Braun and his forthcoming volume Unpacking Forgiveness.
My first thoughts about this subject came at the time of the Columbine shootings. Shortly after those two boys terrorized the school and took their own lives doing so, I remember seeing a photograph of students standing outside the school holding signs that side "We forgive you." I remember being surprised and incensed. Why would anyone wish to forgive people who caused such pain and destruction, who expressed no remorse and who sought no forgiveness. It seemed to me that it made a mockery of forgiveness to extend it to those who did not want it. The same thing happened when at the recent Virginia Tech shootings--people forgave the killer, but only after his death and without him expressing any regret or remorse. What is it that bothered me about this?
Let me build my case for conditional forgiveness step-by-step.
Forgive as God Forgives
According to the Bible, our forgiveness of one another is to follow God's model of forgiveness. We see this in several New Testament passages.
- Matthew 6:12b "...forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."
- Ephesians 4:32 "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
- Colossians 3:13 "...bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
In each case you'll notice the little word as. We are to forgive as God forgives or in the same manner as He forgives. Thus we must first understand how God forgives if we are to rightly forgives. That would be a long and deep study, though no doubt a good one. For our purposes, though, we'll narrow in on just one area.
God's forgiveness, according to Chris Brauns, is "a commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences." That seems to me to be a good working definition and one that encompasses what the Bible teaches on the subject. Key words are "commitment," "pardon," "graciously," "repent," "believe," and reconciled." I cannot touch on all of those today, so I will leave you to read Brauns' book when it becomes available. It will be a blessing to you.
God's Forgiveness Is Conditional
It is beyond any reasonable dispute that God's forgiveness is conditional. God is not a universalist who chooses to forgive all men for their offense against Him. Nor does He offer forgiveness without expectation or condition. Rather, God forgives only those who turn to Him in repentance and who put their trust in Him. We affirm that God's offer of forgiveness is universal, in that He extends it to all of humanity. But the reality of forgiveness is only for those who accept the conditions of faith and repentance. Proof for this assertion can be found throughout Scripture, but perhaps no more clearly than in 1 John.
- 1 John 1:8-9 "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."
Forgiveness and the cleansing it brings is conditional on a confession of our sin (which is an inevitable act of those who have placed their faith in Him).
So we've seen that we are to model God's forgiveness and have seen that God's forgiveness is conditional. Would God hold us to a higher standard?
God Does not Hold Us to a Higher Standard
Nowhere in the Bible do I find that God holds us to a higher standard of forgiveness than He does. If God's forgiveness is conditional, and if we are to model Him, our forgiveness will also be conditional. Of course we will also freely offer forgiveness and we will pursue and long for the ability to extend forgiveness. We will seek reconciliation. But we will not forgive those who are not repentant. This makes sense when we understand that, in its fullest sense, forgiveness requires repentance.
According to Brauns, human forgiveness is "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." Forgiveness is a commitment to restore broken or disrupted relationship. It is a letting go of the anger or hurt that has been caused and is a commitment to restoration. It is a commitment to no longer hold an offense and its moral liability against a person. This can only happen when one person repents and the other extends forgiveness. The ultimate aim of forgiveness is to restore relationship, but a relationship can only be restored when both parties are willing. There cannot be communion when one party is willing and the other is not. To state that there has been full forgiveness in such a case is to make a mockery of the biblical concept of forgiveness.
So there is my case. To summarize it simply: We are to model God's forgiveness; God forgives conditionally; there we are to forgive conditionally.
Consequences May Remain
None of this is to say that forgiveness automatically revokes consequences. There may be times when forgiveness allow us to overlook certain consequences, such as when a wife whose husband has been unfaithful chooses to forgive, reconcile and remain with him even while she could justly divorce him (though, in such a case, there will certainly be other consequences, such as a lack of trust). But there are many other occasions when forgiveness will still require consequences. A man may be forgiven by a person he abused, but this does not mean he should escape the jail time that is a just consequence of his actions. We may forgive and still demand that a person face the consequences of his sin.
There will be times when reconciliation is extremely difficult and perhaps near impossible. A woman who was savagely raped may extend forgiveness to a repentant attacker, but it is unlikely that complete reconciliation will be possible. Such a crime is so horrific and it cuts so deep that these people may never be able to enjoy the kind of Christian fellowship they might otherwise enjoy. These cases, though rare and tragic, are a sad consequence of living in a sinful world. In heaven even these two will enjoy unbroken communion and full reconciliation may have to wait until that time. This is both a consequence of the offense and of life in a sinful world.
This may be entirely unsatisfying to you. I know questions will remain and I will attempt to address some of those as they arise. Already I anticipate one or two. Regardless, follow my argument and I think you will see it does hold merit and that it can be reasonably defended from the Bible. If you disagree with me, it may be helpful to follow the argument and to show the point where you feel it derailed.
Have at it!