Forgiveness—What Does God Require? Unconditional Forgiveness?
“Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”
(Luke 11:4—Jesus’ teaching in “The Lord’s Prayer”)
I conducted the funeral for one of the victims of Orange County California’s worst mass murder—eight slain on October 12, 2011. In that sermon I said,
“I do not believe in unconditional forgiveness.”
A funeral director present who also was a Christian was so surprised and amazed at my words that he sent me an email!
I realize that this position is not the thinking du jour. But Jesus taught it! Forgiveness from God is conditioned on our generous willingness to be people of forgiveness (Matthew 6:12). If we exhaust the steps of reconciliation in trying to restore one who has sinned against us, that person is to be expelled from the church (Matthew 18:15-18). The church is thus to exclude, not forgive. If the one who wronged us repents, we are to forgive (Luke 17:3-4).
And we are to forgive “just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is not without satisfaction of his justice. Jesus Christ satisfied God’s justice as a sacrifice for our sins. Nor does God’s forgiveness come without repentance before God on our part.
The thinking du jour about forgiveness is this: when someone sins against us we should immediately forgive that person in our hearts.
The argument goes, why should you allow the villain to score a double victory against you? He sins against you. Then you allow his deed to eat away inside you, filling you with spite and bitterness. So you “forgive in your heart” for your sake! Forgiveness, then, is an internal thing, a form of self-therapy. It is not primarily a relational thing—something extended to another (that true forgiveness involves the heart is not to be denied).
Leave it to American Christians to turn a principle on relational restoration into a therapeutic principle of how to care for the self! But hey, we already did that when we turned the altruistic Second Great Commandment into a self-love motivator (“You can’t ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ until you first learn to love yourself.”).
No, we certainly ought not let a wrongdoer’s wicked deed eat us up inside. That’s why Scripture also says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” and, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:26, 31).
But this is not what it means to “forgive in your heart.”
Jesus’ followers are to forgive as God does—generously, willingly, readily, repeatedly, and taking the initiative with the wrongdoer. This may require restitution (or circumstances may call for a release from what is owed). It certainly requires genuine remorse and repentance by the wrongdoer.
Anything less is not God’s forgiveness working in us.