No King but Caesar

In my daily Bible reading today I came across this phrase (John 19:15). In their zeal to protect their position and have Jesus executed, the chief priests uttered one of the most, if not the most, blasphemous statements recorded in Scripture. I believe John wanted his readers to hear the irony. They were trying to force Pilate’s hand by making him choose between Jesus and Caesar. They wanted Pilate to know they stood firmly with Caesar, and if he chose Jesus, then he would be committing treason. And in so doing, they denied the God they claimed to worship.

As I read and and listen and ponder the discussions involving our national politics I fear the church is sinking to the level of the chief priests. Just consider – the Chief Priests were the visible connection between the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Moses and David and all the prophets toward God. They maintained the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly worship in the Temple. They were the mediators between the nation of Israel and God. And yet, when their position was challenged, when they feared losing their power, they did not defer to God for their protection, but to a Roman emperor. The death of the Son of God did not matter so long as they maintained their grip on power – and undoubtedly the physical benefits that were attached to their position.

And so today, when challenged by economic problems, or political problems, or ethical problems, the church is not responding with the message of the gospel – it is responding by clinging to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or some undefinable right or freedom. When we do that we are simply and plainly repeating the cry of the Chief Priests. Jesus is on trial each and every time we are faced with a choice between the way of the cross or the way of the world, and by appealing to some form of human government or secular philosophy we betray our Lord and savior.

When Jesus confronted the disciples with a particularly hard teaching, whether it was stated or not, a question was attached – do you want to follow the world, or do you want to follow me? On one such occasion Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go -you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67) Even though his faith was imperfect, Peter got the point. Once you commit to following Jesus, everything else pales in significance.

When we confess that Jesus is the Lord of our life, when we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died to set us free, we are making a profound political statement. That statement is somewhat hidden in our language, but in the first century the word Lord was attached to only one person – the Roman emperor. To call Jesus Lord was to make a politically subversive – read treasonous – statement. It could, and sometimes did, result in the death of the one making the statement. A person did not make that confession lightly. It had radical implications for the way one lived his or her subsequent life.

Today, when a person says they can be a Christian if their constitutional rights are protected, if certain laws are passed or are not passed, if a certain political party is in the seat of power, if the tax code is changed to their benefit, if they are allowed to write or say or protest, if they can benefit from the system of supply-side economics, or any one of a dozen other ifs, then what they are saying is that there is something that stands between them and Christ. They are saying they have no king but Caesar.

On the other hand, the apostles had no right to bear arms, they had no right to free speech, they had no right of a fair trial, they had no right of free assembly, they faced confiscatory tax laws, they faced summary execution on the accusation of treason, they enjoyed neither the protection nor the blessing of their national government. And they not only survived – they flourished. They had no Lord but Jesus Christ.

“We have no king but Caesar.” Those are chilling words. The cold harshness cuts like a knife. John intended it. He wanted his readers to hear that blasphemy.

Are we willing to hear it today?

Definitions – Baptism

One of the most frustrating parts of my job, or ministry, is the fact that I deal primarily with words. Words, and the associated concept of language (the combination of words, grammar, tone, inflection) are a slippery thing. I grew up learning that many words have both denotation (how they are defined in an authority such as a dictionary) and a connotation (how they are actually used, which might be in a  very different sense from their denotation). It takes no great skill to know that the connotative meanings of words change every generation or so, but now even the denotative meanings of words are changing. It is getting to the point that I’m not really sure what I am talking about even when I use the words that I think I know what they mean.

Since this is a blog about all things theological, let us take a word about which probably everyone has an opinion concerning what it means: baptism. In the expansive world of Christianity there are essentially two broad understandings of baptism – one sees the word applying primarily to infants, and one sees the word applying exclusively to believers in Christ. For both groups the concept of faith is critical, for the one it is the faith of the church (and primarily the parents and god-parents), for the other it is the faith of the individual which is controlling. For the first group baptism marks the security of the individual until the point he or she can voluntarily assume an individual faith (confirmation), and is a removal of the effects of original sin; for the other it is the actual moment of the profession of individual faith, and is associated with the removal of actual sin. But beyond these stark differences between these very different understandings of baptism, there is also profound differences among those who profess to be adherents to believer’s baptism. (As I am not personally associated with a group that practices infant baptism, I will refrain from commenting on any real or perceived differences in that group.)

Some adherents of believer’s (adult) baptism hold that baptism is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin; others believe that a person’s sins are forgiven at the moment of faith. Baptism in that case is simply a formality, a physical act that demonstrates one’s willingness to be a part of a specific church. Thus, even within the camp of “believer’s baptism” there is a huge gulf – one group believes it is absolutely necessary; the other group views it as a nice gesture, but one that is not to be considered critical. Let us proceed even further. Many within the “believer’s baptism” group hold that a candidate for baptism must be baptized at the specific moment (or as close to it as possible) that a decision to be baptized is reached; others believe that a period of preparation, or “catechism,” must be observed in order to fully prepare the candidate for the waters of baptism. This catechism can be days, weeks, months or even years in length.

The mode of baptism is fervently disputed: some will argue that baptism must be full immersion in water; some will argue that a candidate who enters a baptistery and has water poured over his or her head has been baptized; and obviously those who accept infant baptism will accept a few ounces of water gently poured over the head of the infant as proper baptism. And, not to be ignored, even the wording used in the event of baptism is debated. Must it be in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” or will the name of Jesus suffice? Does the name of God, Jesus, of the Holy Spirit have to be mentioned at all? If the trinitarian language is used, must there be three immersions (or effusions) or is one adequate? Who is authorized to baptize? Must the ceremony be “officiated” by a priest, pastor, minister, elder or deacon? Can a female perform baptisms? What if a baptism is performed by someone who is later found to be apostate – is the legitimacy of the baptism somehow connected to the faith (and orthodoxy) of the one who performs the baptism? If so, how far back do we have to go in order to establish the legitimacy of the one doing the baptism?

All of this preceding wandering through the hermeneutical wilderness was to illustrate one simple point: asking a person whether they have been baptized is a considerable effort in futility. Only if they say “no” has there been any clarity achieved. If the answer is “yes,” then were they baptized as an infant or as a believer? Were they baptized because they had some ecstatic feeling of “oneness” with Christ, or were they baptized because they felt the crushing weight of their sin, or were they baptized in simple obedience to Christ? Were they old enough to understand the meaning of sin, or of faith in Christ? Were they immersed, or dribbled on, or just sprayed on?

As I have stated elsewhere, beyond some very basic (and I believe, scriptural) stipulations, I tread very lightly when it comes to “evaluating” or “judging” someone’s baptism. I hold that a candidate for baptism must be old enough to be considered responsible for his or her actions (and I am personally hesitant to follow the practice of baptizing pre-teens). I also understand baptism to be a full immersion (we do not just throw some dirt on someone’s forehead to “bury” them), and I expect a candidate for baptism to be able to express repentance for a real separation from God, and an adult commitment to obey and become a disciple of Christ (I don’t think anyone fully understands those concepts when they are baptized, but there must be some fundamental understanding, otherwise all we are doing is getting someone wet.) These, I aver, are the only basic requirements for baptism found in the New Testament.

It’s all very simple, and at the same time terribly complicated. After all, it all boils down to how we define baptism, right?

The Strange Words of Jesus

Some meditative thoughts following my daily Bible reading for today –

If you attempt to keep up with modern trends in American Christianity (as I feebly do), you are aware that today there is a great deal of talk about being spiritual, but not necessarily religious. (This distinction screams for a post on definitions of words, but that will have to wait for another day). What I want to point out is that the very use of the term “spiritual” as is used in today’s vernacular is so utterly opposite of what Jesus demanded. You see, today we can be “spiritual” and not give up anything – in fact, being spiritual means that we get to have, and get, and get, and get, and get. Being spiritual means we are healthy, wealthy, and wise, and any sign of infirmity of mind, body, or bank account means that we are just not spiritual enough. There is just far too much “J” in this concept, and that “J” stands for Joel Osteen and not Jesus.

Just look at how the word is understood: churches that grow are spiritual, churches that stay the same (or, heaven forbid, shrink) are worldly. Athletes that win the Super Bowl are spiritual, athletes that are perennial cellar dwellers are worldly. Preachers that “grow” churches are spiritual, preachers that labor in small, nondescript congregations are worldly. Yikes! – Jeremiah was the poster child of worldly failure!

Now, understand – I am not promoting apathy. Some churches that shrink do so because they are worldly. Not every athlete on a losing team is spiritual. And some preachers are failures because they have sold their soul to the world, and congregations can sniff that out.

But I am only too aware of congregations who grow by leaps and bounds because of the star status of their preacher, not because of spiritual health. I am only too aware that some athletic teams win because their system is built on cheating and rigging the game, not on the depth of their spiritual acumen. Some preachers climb the ecclesial ladder by kissing feet – not by washing them.

Three times in Luke 14:25-33 Jesus specifically said that certain people could not be his disciples. Read the passage – certain people could not be his disciples! People who love fame and popularity, people who refuse to walk in the shadow of their own death, people who cannot renounce their own importance – these people cannot become, or remain, disciples of Jesus.

There are all kinds of markers for what Americans consider to be a life of spirituality. Strangely, I see very few of them consistent with what Jesus considered to be markers of spirituality.

It just seems like every day I want to climb the ecclesial ladder. Every day I want someone to recognize my brilliance, my importance. Every day I want to have someone say – “wow, look at him – he must be spiritual because of what he has.” And, virtually without fail, I open my Bible and I read where God says, “Argh, you have it all wrong again! You climb higher by descending lower. Listen to my Son.”

I want to be spiritual in my quest to be a disciple, but I hope that no one thinks that I am spiritual. Because, I think that if someone thinks that I’m spiritual, I have probably become an enemy of the one who is my master.

The “Age of Accountability” [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Logic and illogic have a certain symbiotic relationship. Often we think very carefully and long about something, and then act in such a way that is laughably illogical. Yet, when confronted with our illogical behavior, we argue that it was the most logical thing to do that we could possibly imagine.

I think of that conundrum when I ponder one of the most difficult questions a minister is ever asked – how old should a person be before he or she is baptized? I guess I should say this is only a difficult question for a minister who serves a church that rejects infant baptism. A “pedo-baptist” does not have to worry about that question – just bring the infant to the font whenever all the family can be together. But for “credo-baptists” (those who withhold baptism until there is a measure of faith), the question gets significantly more sticky.

The answer for many “credo-baptists” is, “when the person has reached the age of accountability.” That answer, I am becoming more and more convinced, is as clear as mud. It really does not solve any question, and even raises more, at least in my mind.

First, let me say that it does offer some form of assurance – we withhold baptism until a person is “accountable” for either their sins or their confession of faith. But which is it? When does a person become “accountable” for their sin? Or, when does a person really become “accountable” for their confession of faith? If we answer with a specific “age,” then it appears to me that we have answered the question for everyone, for all time and eternity. Let’s just put an age here – say, 12 or 16, or 20 or even 30. Before that age no accountability, after that age, accountability.

But that is not how we work the game. We immediately shift to the person’s (and I suggest here it is usually a young person) state of mind. So, we say age of accountability, but we invariably end up arguing level of maturity. Now here is where it really gets interesting for me.

As a culture we are in the process of raising the age of assumed maturity, while in many churches we are in the process of lowering it – even to the point of virtually erasing it. Consider the following:

  • The age of consent for consensual sex is no lower, and often above, age 16.
  • Most states require drivers to have reached their 16th birthday before unrestricted driving privileges are granted, some even older.
  • The minimum age for voting is 18. This is also the age for a person to volunteer for the armed services without parental permission.
  • The minimum age to legally purchase and consume alcohol in most jurisdictions is 21.
  • Many jurisdictions will not impose the maximum penalty for certain crimes committed by those under 18 because, and underline this, the brain of a juvenile is simply not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.

And, yet, preachers are routinely baptizing children as young as 8 or 7 or even 6 because “they are just so mature.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t get this?

Would we allow such a “mature” child to make his or her decisions regarding sexual activity? Would we give allow such a child to vote? Would we hand them the keys to our new SUV? Would we give them a $20 bill and tell them to go buy some suds for their birthday party? Would we incarcerate a 10 year old in an adult correctional facility if they had a pound of marijuana they were attempting to sell?

The answer to any of these questions is an incredulous NO! We recognize that an 8 or 7  or 6 year old could never be expected to make such decisions – that is why they are safely protected in our homes by (at least supposedly) mature adults.

But we give a child a Bible and a chart of little arrows or a chain reference of the “gospel plan of salvation” and if they can answer a few perfunctory questions we whisk them off to the church and dunk them in the baptistry as fast as we can (we dare not allow them to die in-between the decision and the dunking!)

Is it possible to teach that we are stressing the importance of baptism when in reality we are doing everything in our power to minimize it?

One of the most difficult conversations I have had the misfortune of having is the one where an adult comes to me and tells me that they do not believe their baptism was “effective.” They were baptized, they know, but have come to recognize that the real motivation for their baptism was peer pressure (girlfriends can be really effective preachers!), parental pressure (dad really wanted to be an elder!) or my favorite – communion pressure (who doesn’t want to have crackers and grape juice at half-time!) It is an agonizing question. Six months or so earlier there was no doubt, but now the questions and the fear are palpable. If I answer, “you need to be baptized” I am invalidating what scores of people would have argued was certifiable rock solid truth – a young person was a baptized believer because he/she answered the questions correctly and said the right words. If I tell the person “no, you have no need to be baptized” I am invalidating their fears and doubts, thus calling into question the very maturity they were supposed to have demonstrated at their baptism. So, I never answer the question – I make them answer it. Almost always the person ends up saying, “In truth I was never baptized because of my faith and to acknowledge my sins, and I want to make that confession now.”

I want to add here that I believe every Christian at some point questions the reason why they were baptized. I know I have – and it troubles me. I have talked to scores of Christians who have confessed the same fear. We cannot always dwell on the peak of Mt. Assurance. My wife taught me a very solid practice to share with those I baptize – immediately go home and write a letter to yourself, detailing what, and why, and when you decided to become a Christian. Then, when these doubts surface, you can read your letter to yourself and decide anew whether the decision was one of faith – or of surrendering to some ghastly emotional blackmail. I wish I had that advice when I made the decision. At my age, it is really hard to crawl back into my struggling, adolescent mind.

Never-the-less, I have come to regard the issue of the “age of accountability” (a profoundly uncertain inference) as a red herring. There just is no such animal in the Bible. A person should be baptized when he or she can act with enough maturity that they, as well as the entire believing community, can be assured that they are aware of the seriousness of the commitment of baptism, and that there are no other illegitimate pressures being placed on their decision.

I must add here that I wish a plague of biblical proportions be inflicted on every summer Bible camp and every minister that views “camp conversions” as anything other than group hysteria. Let’s see – let’s place a bunch of hormonally driven, sleep deprived pre-teens in a remote destination and in an exceedingly artificial situation and then preach the fire of hell so hot it singes their eyebrows and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

Answering a few academic questions doesn’t cut it. Being able to draw a little diagram with a few arrows and some squiggly lines doesn’t cut it. Being cut to the heart because of a reality of separation from God does count.  Counting the cost of surrendering our life to Christ does count. We are not told that anyone in the New Testament was baptized for any other reason. We should not be guilty of promoting anything less.

If we teach that the baptism of an infant is without meaning, for heaven’s sake let’s stop baptizing infants!

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.