Reading the Bible Through Fresh Eyes

I am experiencing some wonderful things in my Bible reading this year, and as a result I believe I am doing some of the best work of my life in terms of Bible study. If you have seen my daily Bible reading plan, you know that I try to read the Bible through twice every year. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, but this year just seems to be different.

This year I am trying to approach my daily Bible reading through what I have come to call “fresh” eyes. Some people speak of reading the Bible “as if they have never read it before,” but that is really impossible. Our brains just do not work like that. Once we have read something, especially if we have spent any time studying it, our initial conclusions will always affect our subsequent reading. But, I think it is possible to hold those first thoughts and conclusions and still approach the text through eyes that are “fresh” (or perhaps “refreshed” might be the better term.) We do not seek to erase those prior conclusions; rather, we hold them close, but realizing their presence, we read the text again, looking to see if those first (and often powerful) impressions are indeed the most beneficial.

Anyway, this has been a particularly fruitful couple of weeks. I will illustrate with two examples, one from each Testament.

I am teaching the book of Revelation again, so I have been reading and thinking about that great book in preparation for my classes. So, as I was in the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading I was struck by the phrases in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31. These verses all speak of the sons of Noah, their sons, and in particular their lands, languages, clans and nations. A light bulb went off in my mind, “Boing!” (My light bulbs go “boing” when they light up). That is remarkably similar to John’s language in the book of Revelation as he speaks of “tribe, language, people and nation” (see 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 10:11; 14:6 and 17:15). I have an idea about why John is using that phraseology, but never mind. Back to Genesis, I immediately thought, “wait, up until the confusion of languages at Babel there was only one human language.” Bingo! Chapter 11 describes the confusion of languages at Babel. You see, the author of Genesis (Moses in my way of thinking) introduces some events, and then backs up to explain in greater detail how, and sometimes why, those events occurred. Now, I have studied Genesis academically and read it dozens of times, yet this year for some reason this passage jumped out at me (a lot of it had to do with my preparation for the book of Revelation, I admit).

Could it be, in fact is it not highly probable, that Moses does exactly the same thing with the creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2? Even a cursory reading shows some differences in the two accounts. I know many try to “harmonize” the two chapters, but to me that seems to be Scripture twisting in the worst possible way. Why not allow Moses’s style to lead us to accept the two chapters as different, but equally instructive, ways to understand God’s creation? Why do we have to make them the same?

Hence, I turn to the New Testament. On Sunday nights I am teaching the gospel of John. This past week we studied chapter 12. John says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus went to Bethany where a feast was provided, and Mary anointed his feet with a costly perfume. A quick check of Matthew and Mark, however, reveals that this same event took place two days before the Passover, and that the unnamed woman anoints his head. (Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:1-9). Now, there are some ways to attempt to “harmonize” the accounts. You could say that John is reporting that Jesus went to Bethany six days before the Passover, but is not specifically saying the feast took place six days before the Passover. That works until you get to v. 12, when John describes the triumphal entry on “the next day.” If you use Matthew’s and Mark’s chronology, that would place the “triumphal entry” the day before the Passover (unless, of course, you want to argue for more than one “triumphal entry.”) Another attempt to harmonize the accounts is to suggest there were two feasts four days apart, with two women basically doing the same anointing, with the same response by the apostles, and with the same rebuke by Jesus. Possible? Yes; but realistically? Would not the apostles recognize the value of the second anointing and praise the sacrifice?

Or, is John trying to tell us something different using this story? John appears to be using chronological markers (days, feasts) in a different way than what we expect chronological markers to be used. Once again, because of my daily Bible reading, I was drawn back to Genesis. What happened on the sixth day of creation? It was on the sixth day that God finished his work. What is the last statement of Jesus on the cross in the gospel of John? “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus rested on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection begins a new week, “on the first day of the week” Mary went to the tomb, while it was still dark.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read John 12, nor is it necessarily the best way to read John 12. I am suggesting it is a possible way to understand John 12, and one that opens fresh ways to understand the entire gospel (why, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early in the ministry of Jesus, while the synoptics place it in the final week of Jesus’s life).

You see, if we are desperate to make the gospel accounts “harmonize,” we are faced with a discrepancy – six days or two days before the Passover, anointing the feet or the head. Some differences in parallel passages can be easily harmonized. With others it appears we have to resort to using crow-bars and a can of axle grease to make the separate accounts “agree” with each other.

I have a better solution: let’s let the text speak exactly as the author intended, not as we think the author should have intended based on some other text we find in the Bible. That means occasionally we have to deal with some ambiguity, as there are passages where we cannot crawl into the author’s mind and know for certain what he intended.

As I said, we cannot read the Bible every time “as if we had never read it before.” But we can read it through fresh eyes – eyes open to discover new truths, and to re-discover new light in old truths. We need to read the Bible expectantly, not with the intent to justify our previous conclusions, but to challenge us and to draw us closer to the one who gave it to us in the first place.

What an amazing book – and what an amazing God who gave it to us!

Sabbath

[The following meditation arose as a response to a comment to an earlier post. I love receiving feedback from my millions of dedicated followers (okay, one or two). My response to the comment just got so long and complicated I thought I would turn it into a post of its own.]

The Sabbath day is a conundrum for me. Part of me wants to say the observance of the Sabbath is a matter of the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic law, and was thus “superseded” or “abrogated” with the death of Christ. But there is another part of me, which incidentally happens to be growing, that recognizes that the command to keep the Sabbath holy is the fourth command (at least in many listings), sandwiched right between not taking the name of the LORD in vain and honoring father and mother. For us to carefully excise the Sabbath command while keeping the others intact requires a sharp scalpel indeed. The command – or the validation of keeping one day in seven as “Holy” comes in Genesis 2:2 – literally the first “command” or explanation of such in the Bible. I just cannot blithely dismiss that significant truth.

For those who argue that we are no longer bound to “hallow” one day in seven because Jesus never commanded it, my response is that if the death of Jesus voided the entirety of the Old Law, then EVERYTHING Jesus said or did not say was voided on the cross, as EVERYTHING he taught was under the auspices of the Mosaic Law. I know there are individuals who teach that the only words of Jesus that are binding on Christians today are those he spoke after the resurrection, but I view such belief as a fringe element and not to be taken with much seriousness.

If we turn to the book of Acts then we are led back to the idea of keeping the Sabbath, as Paul used the Sabbath meeting at the Synagogue as a chief method of evangelism (i.e., the “example” part of our old hermeneutic). Once again, I do not put much stock in that line of thinking, because I believe Luke was describing a situational practice, not prescribing a kingdom ethic.

So why do I think we need to keep one day out of seven as “holy” – whether it be the first or the seventh? Because I think there is something intrinsically beneficial, or “spiritual” about allowing our bodies, the bodies of our beasts of burden, and all our servants/employees etc., a chance to rest and to contemplate the blessings of God. There is also something profound about the command to keep the Sabbath – it is the only command that has two separate, yet equally “spiritual” explanations as to its purpose or reason for existence. In Exodus 20 (as well as Genesis 2) the observance of the Sabbath is connected to the creation of the world. In Deuteronomy 5 a lengthy explanation of Sabbath keeping is given, and it has nothing to do with creation, but is entirely focused on the deliverance from Egyptian bondage. One command, two reasons. Once again, I just cannot simply overlook that sublime fact.

So, as a matter of personal observation (and I am NOT binding this conclusion on anyone!), I believe there is biblical warrant for Christians today to refrain from any work, whether it be attached to our secular work or domestic “house” work, whatsoever on one day out of seven. We can argue that it should be the first, i.e., the “Lord’s Day,” but there is no evidence that the first century church had the luxury of abstaining from work on the day following the Sabbath, and for the Jewish Christians it would have been somewhat preposterous to suggest doing so. I have no doubt they worshipped the risen Christ on the Lord’s day, but I also have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of them also worked on the first day of the week. [As an aside, I can guarantee you that the most exhausting day of the week for a minister is Sunday. To suggest that our Sunday is a “day of rest” for a minister is just flat out ridiculous.]

I also have to say with absolute candor that I do not practice keeping one day a week as a “Sabbath.” I wish I could, and maybe that is something I need to make as a higher priority for my spiritual health. In today’s world I just find it almost impossible to do. We are simply too bound as slaves to our frantic lifestyles.

Which, incidentally, may in fact be the very best reason in the world for me to practice a Sabbath rest – because that is why God commanded it to be done in the first place – to allow my soul to rest in the perfection of God’s creation, and to remember that He has set me free from every form of bondage, physical and spiritual.

As always, all comments and large financial donations are warmly received and appreciated.

(Who says I don’t have a sense of humor!)

The Head and the Heart

So far in 2018 I have been posting a flurry of articles, mostly planned and even a few written in the last weeks of 2017. These posts come from a deepening sense of uneasiness both within myself and with what I see transpiring within the brotherhood of Churches of Christ. As I have said repeatedly, the Churches of Christ are my spiritual home, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation). There is just one church of Christ, and I want to be a part of that church.

My uneasiness lies in this: for far too long and for far too many of us (myself included!) the focus has been getting the head stuff right. We argue endlessly over issues which are matters of human reason – can we have separate classes for Bible study, how many cups can be used in distributing the Lord’s Supper, can we have an attached “fellowship hall,” if women can pass the communion trays “side to side” why can’t they pass them “front to back,” can we raise our hands in prayer or during a song, can we use the church treasury to send money to an orphan’s home, can we hire a preacher, youth minister, involvement minister – and if we do, what do we call them. The list goes on and on and on. While I would suggest that the answers to those questions vary in degrees of importance, I will flatly say that Jesus did not die for any of those questions. The fact that any of those questions (among the dozens not given) have divided congregations is a huge blot on our fellowship.

What really terrifies me are the passages in the New Testament that should make us ashamed of our petulance. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:22-23). “Woe to you, scribes and  Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15, all references from the ESV).

I never want to discount the head stuff, the rational part of our faith. But I am only too aware of the trap of becoming so locked into our head that we lose sight of the heart. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In them we see time and time and time again how God disciplines the people of Israel for focusing on getting the rules right and completely missing the point of the rules. Was this not the major point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees?

The “mystics” and contemplative fathers had a saying, or rather an image, that they used, and which I think has great value. They talked about “descending with the head into the heart.” This is illustrated somewhat clumsily in the posture of kneeling for prayer. While kneeling, and with the head bowed, the head is either parallel to, or sometimes below, the heart. It is not a perfect image – but it is still a powerful one.

That is what this blog is intended to be all about. I am, for better or for worse, a head guy. I’m so right-handed and left-brained it is pathetic. But I believe God has blessed me with some profound gifts, and being left-brained is as much a gift as it is a hindrance, and I want to glorify God by using my logic and my reason.

That being said, I just feel a growing sense of dread that God is looking down at all our reason and logic and rationality and is simply furious. Can we not learn, after 2,000 years, that the church is more valuable, and more important, than whether we have pews or chairs, or whether there is a coffee pot in the classroom, or whether we even have a classroom at all?

Lord, have mercy on us, miserable sinners.

I want the church to ascend higher. I want us to attain the calling to which we have been called. I want the church to be the pure bride of Christ who longs for and prepares the way for his coming. In order to do that, however, we are going to have to learn how to descend – descend in to the heart, descend into humility, descend into submission to God and to one another.

Let us ascend lower.

Christ and the Law [Uncertain Inferences Series]

At the outset here let me make some things absolutely clear:

  1. I know I’m going to be misunderstood. I will try to make myself as clear as I possibly can, but I cannot control those who misread or intentionally distort what I write.
  2. I want to state unequivocally that I believe Christians live under the covenant that Christ established on the cross. In no way do I believe that Christians are bound by the ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic code.
  3. I do, however, firmly believe that Christians are just as bound to obey the moral/ethical commandments as given in the Mosaic code, (explained in part by the 10 Commandments) just as the people living before Moses were bound by those same moral/ethical teachings. (Read, for example, Genesis 26:4-5, and ask yourself what laws and commandments Abraham was expected to obey?)

The point I want to make today is that we can be correct in understanding a biblical concept, and be wrong in applying passages of Scripture to defend those correct conclusions. In other words, we can abuse Scripture by incorrectly appealing to proof-texts to defend perfectly legitimate doctrines. I do not want to teach false doctrines, but just as important, I do not want to teach correct doctrines by falsely appealing to the use of unwarranted Scriptures.

The correct doctrine that I want to point out in this article is the New Testament teaching that the covenant established by Christ has superseded the Sinai covenant described in the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy. In order to defend this doctrine, overly zealous preachers have gone beyond the biblical teaching and have used phrases such as “Christ abolished the Old Testament” or “Christ nailed the 10 Commandments to the cross.” To support their claims reference is frequently made to two passages of Scripture. One passage supports the idea that the cross does indeed invalidate certain aspects of the Mosaic covenant, but in a context that is completely incompatible with the manner in which it is used today. The other passage simply does not support the teaching that Christ has “abolished” law of Moses. A third passage of Scripture flatly rejects the teaching that Jesus abolished the law. Let’s examine these in reverse order.

First, Jesus himself plainly rejects the idea that he came to abolish the law of Moses – Matthew 5:17. Any preacher or teacher who suggests otherwise MUST explain this passage, in context, can be ignored or refuted.

Second, appeal is made to Colossians 2:14, which states (in the King James Version), “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” The “handwriting of ordinances” is usually inferred to be the Old Testament, or the Mosaic law at the very least. But, note, if that was Paul’s intent, he could have used the word “law” here. He did not. He chose a unique expression (used only here in the New Testament) to make clear he was NOT talking about the Mosaic law. Note how more recent translators have worked to translate that phrase:

New Living Translation – “record of charges against us”
NET Bible – “certificate of indebtedness”
Common English Bible – “record of the debt”
God’s Word Translation – “charges brought against us” (by the written laws God had established)
Holman Christian Standard Bible – “certificate of debt with its obligations”
English Standard Version – “record of debt”
The Message (Eugene Peterson) – “old arrest warrant”

It is obvious that these committee translations (Peterson’s work is a paraphrase, not a translation) all want to convey that what Paul is talking about here is not the law of Moses in and of itself. The subject is the debt, or the charges made against us, because of humanity’s inability to obey the law (which the God’s Word translation makes clear through its next explanatory phrase, which is not in the Greek). Part of the difficulty in translating this section is determining the referent to the pronoun “he.” The ESV makes the issue fairly clear by providing God as the subject, but the word “God” is not in the Greek text. To me it makes the most sense, as Jesus did not nail anything to the cross – he was nailed to the cross!

I just do not see any way forward by using this text to argue that Jesus abolished the Old Law, the Old Testament, and certainly not the 10 Commandments.

Third, the passage that does teach that Christ abolished the certain aspects of the law, but which has been taken completely out of its original context to teach something it does not teach, is Ephesians 2:15, “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” In this text we see how a passage which teaches one thing can be wrested out of its context to teach something entirely foreign to the author, and would not have been considered by the original audience.

Read in the immediate context of chapter 2 and the larger context of the Ephesian letter, Paul is refuting the idea that there can be two bodies, two “churches” of Christ. There is no “Jewish” church and “Gentile” church. There is ONE body – and Jews cannot claim superiority and Gentiles cannot thumb their noses at Jewish practices. Through the cross God (and Christ) have “abolished” or “broken down” the barrier, or the dividing wall of hostility that was crystalized in the ceremonial aspects of the law of Moses – Paul elsewhere points to circumcision, certain dietary laws, and specific days of worship.

Paul’s understanding of the law of Moses is multi-faceted.  On the one hand he can say, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” (Rom. 7:12); but he also knows that, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul is not giving his readers a finely tuned, carefully crafted explication of the old covenant versus the new covenant. He is emphatically telling both Jew and Gentile that neither side can use the law of Moses as a battering ram to bludgeon the opposing side. The cross has nullified the one single barrier that stood as a point of division between Jew and Gentile, and that was the ceremonial, or nationalistic, components of the law of Moses.

So, I return to my opening thoughts. Has the covenant of Christ established on the cross superseded the covenant established on Sinai? Absolutely. Did Jesus “nail” the Old Testament to the cross? No. Are Christians today still bound by the moral/ethical demands of the law? In my opinion, yes. Nowhere in the New Testament are such demands nullified, voided, abolished, or superseded. I believe such moral demands were in place long before Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, and I believe such demands are still in place. If you doubt me, please consider Genesis 26:4-5, as well as Matthew 5:17, and the numerous moral/ethical catalogs given by Paul, Peter, James and John in the New Testament letters.

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.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (2) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

I would like to move on and discuss the theological aspects of the idea of unconditional forgiveness, but before I do that I want to examine one other critical question – why is the myth of unconditional forgiveness so entrenched in our beliefs? If there is such little (or, in my opinion, zero) scriptural support for the idea, and so much scriptural evidence against the teaching, why is it so tenaciously defended?

In a sentence: because we ourselves are utterly terrified to consider the prospect that we might stand before God as unforgiven sinners. The logic is that if we can impose upon God the concept that forgiveness must be unconditional, then we ourselves do not have to repent, we do not have to change, we do not have to turn from our idolatrous practices and yet we can stand wholly and totally forgiven. Therefore, we create this unbiblical, yet psychologically appealing, model by which we are to “forgive” others whether they ask for it or not, simply to smooth over our rebellious defiance of God’s pleas for a “broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51)

For evidence all I have to do is to point out the difference in worship hymns written before the twentieth century and contemporary worship songs composed in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. While there are many older hymns that highlight God’s love and forgiveness, as you scan the majority of these hymns you see another central component – a confession of man’s sinfulness and complete dependence upon the God of love. “Amazing Grace” is meaningless without an acknowledgement that I am a “wretch” that needs saving. The light of God’s grace can only be seen through the reality of a very dark world of sin.

I will also admit that there are phrases in today’s contemporary worship music that use the word “sin,” but the overwhelming majority of songs heard on Christian radio stations (and increasingly used in worship services) only talk about the love of God, about how Jesus is our “lover” or “brother” and how we as Christians can bask in the glow of God’s presence. In short, there is very little “wretch” in these songs. The message these songs give us is, “We’re forgiven, God loves us, get over all that unhealthy guilt stuff.”

But, I say again, we cannot repent of something that does not exist. If we as Christians are forgiven “unconditionally” and without our even asking for forgiveness, then there is simply no reason to pray for forgiveness (as Jesus and the apostles plainly teach us to do) because we dwell in a perpetual state of being unconditionally forgiven.

I know the concept that God might expect, or even demand, conditions before forgiveness can be extended sounds harsh, repressive, and even un-biblical. But as I stated earlier, I think it is because we as Christians in the industrialized, capitalistic, and democratic societies in the West have lost a critical understanding of the meaning of the word “sin.” It is to that subject that we must turn if we are going to ever regain what it means to be truly “forgiven.”

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.