The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (1) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Have you heard of “urban myths”? These are the stories and timeless truths that are just simply not true. Pearls of wisdom like, “Don’t go swimming within an hour after eating” would qualify. Some can also be considered conspiracy theories – such as “the astronauts never landed on the moon.” Urban myths never die because in some respects they are believable, and also because for those who believe in them, circular logic dictates that the number of the arguments against the myths is just further proof that they must be true, otherwise so many people would not be arguing against them.

Would you also believe there are theological urban myths? These are statements and opinions that appear to be beyond question as to their correctness, but upon further investigation simply are not true. I want to explore some of these myths – as dangerous as that might be – and in so doing challenge us to read and study the Bible in a healthier manner.

I guess I should say at the outset that if you happen to hold to one of these myths I am not accusing you of some ghastly theological crime. For the most part these myths are not dangerous (although, wrongly applied, they might be). They are just not true, and because they are not true, they are not healthy teachings to hold or to defend. With that caveat understood, let us proceed.

The myth I want to expose over the next few posts is the myth that Christians are commanded to forgive all who injure them, in any manner real or imagined, unconditionally. That is to say a Christian must forgive whether the enemy wants the forgiveness (or can even ask for the forgiveness) or not. It sounds so authentic – so, well, Christian.

The only problem is, its just not true. It’s a myth. A myth with very good intentions, I grant; but it is still a myth.

I could start with some smaller points of evidence and work up to the biggest, but why make you suffer? Here is why unconditional forgiveness is a myth – not even God himself forgives unconditionally. I’ve read the Bible through many times and I can find many, many passages that teach that divine forgiveness is conditional – but I cannot find one single verse that teaches that God forgives outside of some verifiable condition.

We find in the Levitical code that animal sacrifices are the outward evidence of a repentant heart, and that upon their presentation the sinner would be forgiven. We find in the Psalms numerous references to God seeking and accepting a repentant, broken heart. The prophetic books are replete with God pleading for the people of Israel to return to him with broken and penitent hearts, as verified by their actions. The parables of Jesus stress the actions of a penitent heart. The conversion stories in Acts demonstrate how God’s forgiveness follows the actions of a repentant heart. James and John both teach that forgiveness follows upon the confession of sin. It is in the Bible from cover to cover – God seeks for, God yearns for, God pleads for, his people to turn to him so he can forgive them and restore a broken relationship.

But – nowhere from Genesis to Revelation is it ever recorded where God says, “Okay, everyone is forgiven, I’ll just turn my back and ignore the sin that separates me from you. We’re all good now.”

Please understand me – I am not saying that sinners earn God’s grace. As my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #12 clearly states, God’s grace is always primary (first), God’s law follows after that grace. However, our sin violates the relationship we have with God (as sin also violates the relationships between humans), and the Bible teaches that human repentance necessarily precedes the provision of divine forgiveness.

The two passages most frequently referred to as defending the command for unconditional forgiveness – read in context – actually teach the opposite. The first is Matthew 6:9-15, the model prayer. In these verses Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness as we have forgiven others. The usual  interpretation is that forgiveness must be unconditional. Hence, whether they seek it or not, we must forgive all who sin against us.

The context of the prayer, however, is that of a penitent sinner seeking forgiveness from God. Praying this prayer is, in effect, saying, “God, I know I have sinned against you. I beg you, forgive me as I have demonstrated my own repentance by forgiving those who have hurt me.” Not clearly stated but understood is the idea that these individuals have also requested forgiveness. The phrase, “as we have forgiven others” is positively meaningless if God forgives unconditionally. If God forgives unconditionally, then even the simple act of asking for forgiveness is ridiculous – it has already been granted!

The other passage is Luke 23:34, the statement from Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If this is an argument for unconditional forgiveness, then it follows logically that it is also the ultimate defense for the idea of universal salvation. Jesus prayed for unconditional forgiveness/salvation – and that’s it. God has forgiven everyone, case closed.

Or, is it? In his sermon on the day of Pentecost Peter commanded his audience to “repent.” Now, unless you are willing to believe that none of those hearing Peter were also in the crowd that heard Jesus’s words of forgiveness, you have to accept that Peter was calling on the very same people to repent and then to be baptized, “for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38). Once again, if God’s forgiveness is unconditional, and based entirely on Jesus’s words, Peter’s command was frivolous. The people had already been forgiven – of what were they supposed to repent?

You see, the concept of “unconditional forgiveness” just sounds so good, so Christian, so divine. But it simply cannot be defended from Scripture. So why is it taught and believed so fervently?

For one, I do not think we truly understand the concept of sin, and so we cannot understand the idea of forgiveness. I think the primary understanding of “forgiveness” today is that we just “get on with life.” If I understand the Bible correctly, that is not biblical forgiveness. If we misunderstand the concept, it is also easy to falsify the process by which forgiveness can be extended and received.

Second, I think there is a genuine, and powerful, reality that follows our ability to “surrender the will to get even” (as my good friend Dale Frazier once put it). We are commanded to go and to ask for forgiveness of those we have injured, and to even confront those who have hurt us. We are commanded to release our anger before the ending of the day. Psychologically we live healthier lives if we can simply surrender the need to constantly be a victim of every perceived injury. I think that is what most people understand by the word “forgiveness.” We can extend that benefit to others, and to ourselves, unconditionally.

But that is not forgiveness as taught and described in the Bible!

Apples are not oranges just because both are fruit that grow on trees. Biblical forgiveness is one fruit, the surrendering of the will for revenge or of the need to remain a victim is another fruit. To confuse the two leads to some very real, and some very unhealthy, results.

I’ll step in that quicksand next.

 

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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