Is Christian Forgiveness Conditional?

During my previous post, I looked at the biblical idea of forgiveness, especially as explained by Jesus in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). The definition of forgiveness that makes most sense in light of that parable is that forgiveness means the foregoing of vengeance in both thought and deed. Moral wrongs are represented by debts in the parable. Forgiveness is represented by the action of not demanding payment of the debt and unforgiveness is represented by the action of demanding payment and having the debtor thrown in prison to pay the debt ( i.e. retribution or punishment). This means that forgiveness is not primarily about relational reconciliation, but about not demanding retribution against someone for the wrong they’ve done to you (and not being motivated by such a wish in your thoughts and behaviour toward that person). However, it makes sense to think that to the extent that someone has forgiven, they will, in most circumstances, be willing to restore the previous relationship. But if they wish to end the relationship from a motive of vengeance, then they have violated the Christian teaching of forgiveness.

In one section, I addressed the notion that forgiveness is conditional and I looked specifically at Tim Challies’s argument for conditional forgiveness. In this article, I will look at Kevin De Young’s argument for the same conclusion ( which is pretty similar to Challies’ argument). Both De Young and Challies are influenced by a book by Chris Brauns called Unpacking Forgiveness, which I may look at in more detail in a future post. One problem with De Young’s argument against unconditional forgiveness is that he seems to conflate it with a therapeutic conception of forgiveness, which I don’t think is correct.

Many Christians, influences 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.

According to De Young, the offer of forgiveness is unconditional, but forgiveness itself must be conditional upon penitence, like God’s forgiveness of us. This is because, he, like Challies, believes that true forgiveness must include relational reconciliation. De Young emphasizes that there should not be bitterness and no revenge (by which I think he means that foregoing vengeance must be unconditional). As I pointed out in the previous post, it doesn’t make sense to think that our forgiveness must be exactly like God’s. The scriptures appealed to to support this notion do not say that our forgiveness must be like God’s but that we must forgive because God has forgiven us. Challies appealed to three scriptures to make this point: Matthew 6:12, Ephesians 4:32, and Colossians 3:13. All of these scriptures say some version of the following: just “as” God has forgiven us, so we must also forgive. I think these scriptures make more sense when interpreted in the way the king in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant responded to the unforgiveness of the servant:

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

Matthew 18:32-33

The king (who represents God) is saying basically what these other scriptures are saying, in the same form. The “as” in those passages is ambiguous. It could mean either that your forgiveness must be exactly like God’s, or it means you must forgive because you have been forgiven by God. In the parable, the contextual elements of the story make it clear what the king means by “as”. The king believes that his forgiveness of that servant creates an obligation on him to forgive other servants, which means that whether the forgiveness is precisely like God’s is really irrelevant to what is being said. The point is that God’s forgiveness creates an obligation to forgive and it is this idea that I believe is being communicated in those other scriptures that Challies appeals to. When I say that you must give me a present on my birthday, “as” or “ in the same way” that I gave you a present on your birthday, I don’t mean that you must give me exactly the same present in exactly the same way. It simply means that since I gave you a present, you should give me one too. Just as God has forgiven, you must forgive. Secondly, God’s forgiveness means something completely different from our forgiveness. God’s forgiveness denotes absolution from moral justice. Human forgiveness does not achieve that. God only forgives when people place their faith in Jesus in addition to repentance of their sins. Forgiveness for personal wrongs should not only be completed when someone places their faith in Jesus, otherwise there would be no obligation to forgive non-Christians, which is probably not what Jesus is teaching. This is why we should not regard the teaching about church excommunication in Matthew 18:15, as being about personal forgiveness ( but as being about reconciliation to the church community). Thirdly, if we must forgive exactly like God, does that mean we are justified in visiting retribution on others until they repent, as God does? This way of thinking about forgiveness is fraught with difficulties, and is based on a wrong interpretation of the texts about forgiveness (that our forgiveness must be exactly like God’s rather than communicating the idea that God’s forgiveness creates an obligation to forgive). If you no longer have those texts, there is little biblical reason to think that forgiveness first requires repentance, because, except perhaps for Luke 17:3-4, there is, as far as I know, no text that explicitly requires repentance for human forgiveness. It’s true that, in the parable, the servant who is thrown in jail by the other servant, does first ask for his debt to be forgiven, but does that imply that if the servant had not pleaded for his debt to be forgiven, that it would then have been justifiable for the other servant to insist upon his debt and throw him into prison? There are several reasons to think that the answer to this is no. First, if this is true, then it would imply that avenging oneself until someone repents is acceptable. But the Bible everywhere rejects vengeance (Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35, Leviticus 19:18, Proverbs 20:22, Proverbs 24:29). Forgiveness, in the parable, is contrasted with having the servant thrown into prison for their debt. That is retribution, which means that saying you can fail to forgive up until someone repents is to say that you can seek retribution against them until they repent, which the Bible rejects categorically. The point of the parable is to forgive because God has forgiven us. This rationale for forgiveness is repeated in other New Testament scriptures that deal with forgiveness (Matthew 6:12, Ephesians 4:32, and Colossians 3:13). The requirement that someone first repent is only clearly seen as a requirement for reconciliation to the church community (Matthew 18:15) but not personal forgiveness. Almost every time forgiveness is mentioned, the only basis for it is the fact that God forgave us, not the idea that the wrongdoer must first repent. Also, Jesus instructs us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Our enemies are people who are still busy doing us wrong, and therefore very clearly have not repented. It is impossible to love our enemies and to pray for their good, if we are still preoccupied with the wrongs done against us by them, or if we are praying for God to punish them or trying to do so ourselves ,whether through legal or illegal ways. Jesus’s teaching to love enemies suggests very strongly that forgiveness must be unconditional, because loving enemies presupposes unconditional forgiveness. Finally, it seems very implausible to me that Jesus would have been fine with the servant demanding his debt and having the other person thrown into jail and his family sold, just because that person didn’t say they’re sorry. I wouldn’t take that chance. My point here is that insisting on conditionality in forgiveness implies that some form of vengeance is acceptable, not that Challies, De Young and Brauns are approving of vengeance.

De Young quotes Chris Brauns’ definition of forgiveness, which is also quoted by Challies. Brauns defines forgiveness in the following way:

This book has argued that forgiveness should be defined 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.

Let’s look at a couple of problems with De Young’s approach to forgiveness (and with Brauns’ definition above). First is the belief that the inner thought world of emotions and motivations is morally irrelevant to forgiveness or is conflated with a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness, when Jesus is explicit that forgiveness must be “from the heart” (Matthew 18:35). This is consonant with the rest of Jesus’s teachings, or that the inner life must match the outer life, and that forgiving someone outwardly must involve also forgiving them inwardly, which means that we should not indulge fantasies of vengeance or bitter feelings. I agree with the first part of Brauns’ definition, which is that forgiveness involves pardoning someone from moral liability, except for one very significant difference. I do not think that someone should first be repentant before you pardon them from moral liability. If you define forgiveness as pardoning the repentant from moral liability, then that means that you do not pardon those who are not repentant from moral liability. If you refuse to pardon someone from moral liability, that is an affirmation of vengeance. Even if Brauns and De Young don’t realize it, if you are refusing to pardon someone from moral liability, based on the fact that they have not repented, that does imply an affirmation of the legitimacy of seeking retribution against them. If you refuse to pardon someone from moral liability if they haven’t repented, this implies that it is acceptable to seek retribution against them until they repent. If it doesn’t imply an approval of seeking retribution against someone, then they should make clear what exactly it looks like, in thought and deed, to refuse to pardon someone from moral liability. That cannot merely be a refusal to relationally reconcile, because moral liability has to do with punishment, not with relational reconciliation. This is where this approach to forgiveness becomes confused, because it seems to me that De Young is primarily defining forgiveness as relational reconciliation, and therefore, refusing to forgive, is simply to refrain from entering into relationship with the wrongdoer. But if that’s the case, then “pardoning from moral liability” does not belong in your definition of forgiveness, because refusing to pardon from moral liability is retribution. It does imply that, whether or not Brauns and De Young realize it. If you define forgiveness as refraining from vengeance unconditionally in both thought and deed, then you will have a definition that makes sense in light of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant and your definition won’t inadvertently approve of vengeance.

A concern may be that it doesn’t make sense to pardon someone from moral liability if they haven’t repented, because your pardon would then be a lie, since they haven’t been pardoned by God. The “pardon” then is defined as some sort of decree over the other person, which seems to me to make you responsible for absolving them or declaring their absolution complete (which I don’t think is right). Firstly, your forgiveness is not a guarantee that they won’t be punished for what they’ve done, because human forgiveness does not achieve moral absolution. It is a guarantee that you won’t try to punish them. It is not a guarantee that they won’t be punished, or that God won’t punish them, but a guarantee that you won’t insist on them being punished. It only means that you forsake any claim you have against them, not that all claims against them are forsaken. You will also not desire that God insist on your claim for you, because then you have not truly forsaken your claim, but are hoping that it is insisted upon by proxy. Secondly, the problem with this is that it makes you into the person who is supposed to keep score of who is pardoned by God and who is not. It is not your job and nor are you capable of determining who is forgiven by God and who is unforgiven by God. There is some justification, in the context of excommunication, for the elders of a church to make their best determination about whether someone has truly repented (flawed as such a determination may be), but not in general and not as a matter of personal forgiveness. There is a further problem here in that Brauns says that “not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.” I agree that forgiveness doesn’t always mean complete non-retaliation, but nothing should ever be done from a motive of vengeance or a desire to insist upon moral liability. This means that talk of consequences should not even feature in a definition of forgiveness, because from the perspective of moral liability, there will be no consequences (as far as what you will inflict). That is to say, you will not insist on consequences based on moral liability. There should be a different reason. If you do insist on consequences based on moral liability, or a desire for retribution, you have not forgiven.

Finally, there is a problem with thinking that forgiveness requires relational reconciliation. The biblical teaching of forgiveness does not seem to me to include relational reconciliation. Jesus’ parable contrasts forgiveness with an action of retribution ( throwing the debtor into prison). I suppose you could argue that this represents a refusal to relationally reconcile, though arguably the debtor would not be so terrified, and resort to begging, if the threat was merely being cut off from relationship. He is terrified of the servant’s ability to punish him or to deliver him over to judgment. The only way I think the relational definition of forgiveness could be justified is by saying that God’s forgiveness makes us in right relationship with him, and therefore, our forgiveness must achieve the same for those we forgive. I’ve addressed the idea that our forgiveness must be exactly like God’s above. There is an additional problem with including relational reconciliation in your definition of forgiveness. This, strangely, implies that it is impossible to forgive someone who was never in a relationship with you. Many people are wronged by strangers or by acquaintances, with whom they never really had any relationship, beyond maybe “hello’s” and “how are you’s”. It makes no sense in such a circumstance to say that forgiveness requires the restoration of a relationship that never existed in the first place. But does that mean that forgiveness is irrelevant in that situation? By no means. Every person who has been wronged will have the choice of whether they are going to seek retribution for it, and whether they are going to bear a grudge (i.e. whether they are going to insist on moral liability). But once again, I think that someone who has forgiven would ( mostly) not refuse to have a basic friendship with that person. Clearly, not including relational reconciliation in your definition of forgiveness, doesn’t mean that forgiveness is irrelevant to relationships. It simply means that cutting off from relationship or entering into relationship with them are not the actions that are identified by the Christian teaching of forgiveness ( though obviously cutting someone off from relationship is a violation of forgiveness if it is done from a motivation of vengeance).

In conclusion, there are some problems with De Young’s conception of forgiveness. Even though De Young rejects vengeance, insisting upon moral liability before repentance, which is what their definition of forgiveness implies, implies an approval of some type of revenge (even if they don’t realize it). Second, it is not biblical to think that human forgiveness must be like God’s forgiveness in every way and that human forgiveness must always involve relational reconciliation ( although in most cases where there was a relationship, a refusal to reconcile after the wrong may be indicative of unforgiveness.)

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