The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (3) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Stated plainly, I do not believe that God teaches we are to forgive people unconditionally. I do not believe God does so, and I do not believe we can justify doing so from the Bible. I wrote in my last post that I believe there is a very selfish reason why we hold so firmly to the idea of “unconditional forgiveness.” We just do not want to be confronted by our own failure, and so in order to excuse our own weakness we simply choose to “forgive” everyone else and defend our actions with a very pious sounding argument.

There is yet another reason why we are so firmly attached to the idea of unconditional forgiveness. We simply do not understand the depth of the consequences of human sin. If we really took the time to reflect on our sinfulness and rebellion, I just do not think that we would be so cavalier in our dismissal of the biblical teachings regarding forgiveness.

Ponder for a moment the God’s reaction to sin in the book of Genesis. Consider Isaiah 64:6, and if need be, research the meaning of “filthy rags” or “polluted garment.” Ask yourself what Paul was trying to communicate in Romans 1. Think about why he warned the Thessalonian Christians about the coming “day of wrath.”

Read Jeremiah 6:14-15, 8:10-12, and Ezekiel 13:1-16. Could it be that when we blithely and sanctimoniously “forgive” we are actually repeating the actions of those whom the prophets so soundly condemn? Are we not coming dangerously close to fulfilling the words of Isaiah 5:20-24?

Why did Jesus have to die if God can, and indeed does, forgive unconditionally? It seems to me that the most obscene injustice this world has ever seen would have been the cross on Golgotha if God simply looks down on our little peccadilloes and wipes the slate clean with a brush of his divine eraser.

Others have written far more eloquently describing this false forgiveness. I offer just one example:

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. . . The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, a denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. . . Cheap grace means justification of the sin, but not of the sinner. . . Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 43-44.)

I mentioned in my first article that those who believe this myth have not committed some serious theological crime. In one sense maybe that might be true, but in another sense maybe I myself was being too glib, too forgiving. The myth of unconditional forgiveness is itself rather innocuous, but it leads to a denial of the gospel. If we are forgiven unconditionally, then Jesus’s death itself becomes, as I said above, obscene.

Although I am not a psychologist, I also believe there are some serious psychological repercussions when we buy into this myth. When we suggest that we are forgiving unconditionally, we are attempting to perform spiritual gymnastics that only result in the short-circuiting of a process that God had instilled deep within the human soul. We humans are designed for community, for relationship. Our first relationship is with God, and second with other humans. When we expect God to forgive unconditionally we are telling him that our sins do not matter – he just needs to “get on with life” and wipe the slate clean. When we do not expect, or demand, that others acknowledge their sins agains us, we are denying them the opportunity to unburden their soul – to admit their own failure. This is a critical point so often overlooked – we as humans have a very deep need to be able to admit we are wrong, and to be forgiven of that wrong, so that our relationships can be healed. “Unconditional forgiveness” sounds so wonderful, but in reality it actually prevents what it is supposedly designed to do.

So, what do we do in the very real world where many of those who hurt us have no intention of asking for our forgiveness, or who have died and therefore cannot ask for our forgiveness? Can we forgive them?

In a word, no. As I said in a past post – we do have the ability to surrender the will to get even. We do have the ability to pray to God, to surrender our hurt feelings, to not let the sun go down on our anger. I believe in the practice of writing letters to be placed inside caskets letting go of the hurt and anger. I believe in punching pillows or sweating our frustrations out. I also believe very firmly in the ability to pray the imprecatory Psalms – the Psalms that ask God to exact revenge on those of our enemies who refuse our efforts to make peace. But we must remember to allow God to exact that revenge.

This is NOT forgiveness, however, and in no manner, shape, or form should we disguise it as such. Forgiveness is two individuals, or groups, that have be separated by a real disruption of relationship, who come together for the purpose of healing that relationship. The offended party offers peace, the offending party acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness. The offended party accepts the apology and extends the forgiveness, and the two parties reaffirm their love and acceptance of each other. This is biblical – from Genesis to Revelation. This is putting the words of Jesus into practice. This is the act of ascending higher by climbing lower. Anything less is just not biblical.

It is a myth.

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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