Should Forgiveness be "Unconditional"?

The forgiveness controversy

Back in 1999, I preached a series on the subject of forgiveness. Many folks in our congregation had never heard the approach I took. A number commented that they heard Christian leaders on the radio or in magazines take the opposite position during the weekdays between my sermons.

The world and much of evangelicalism believe that we should forgive unconditionally. Secular psychologists and popular preachers have formed an alliance that intimidates many of us from even considering the alternatives. Yet many Bible teachers believe that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. I am in the latter group.

Bible-believing Christians agree that we are to forgive others as God forgives us. If you believe God forgives unconditionally, this would logically lead you to Universalism, the belief that everyone is saved; no one is under the wrath of God because God’s wrath is not directed toward those who are forgiven. If God forgives unconditionally, then none are unforgiven. Most evangelicals recognize that multitudes are lost, yet many say that God forgives unconditionally. Do you see the contradiction here?

That the Lord does not forgive unconditionally is clear in Scripture: “Surely at the command of the LORD it came upon Judah, to remove them from His sight because of the sins of Manasseh… and the LORD would not forgive…” (NIV: 2 Kings 24:3-4).

So lets set aside our preconceptions and consider what the Bible actually teaches about forgiveness. See if my points are validated by God’s Word.

The manner of forgiveness

First, we are to forgive others in the same manner God forgives us. Ephesians 4:32 reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

God’s condition for forgiveness

Second, God’s manner of forgiveness requires our repentance. Acts 3:19 gives us a taste of Apostolic preaching: “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord….” Note that repentance (a change of mind, including regret for sin) is the required condition for God’s forgiveness. God does not hold us to a higher standard than He holds Himself. His grace extends only to those who repent; He does not expect us to be more gracious than He is.

In Acts 8:22, after Simon had sinned by seeking to buy the Holy Spirit, Peter rebuked him with these words: “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.” Note that forgiveness is neither presumed nor assumed. It is conditioned upon repentance.

So if we forgive as God forgives, and God forgives in response to repentance, logically we are to forgive others when they repent.

Levels of forgiveness

Third, we must ask the question, “Forgiveness at what level?” When we turn from our sins (repent) and turn to Christ, all our sins are forgiven: past, present, and future—at least, as far as salvation goes. Nothing can take us out of God’s hand. We are given the righteousness of Christ and the seal of the Holy Spirit, and we are already legally seated in heaven (Ephesians 1-2).

Even though we cannot lose our salvation, we can lose our fellowship with God. When the believer lives in rebellion against God, sin blocks his ability to communicate with God (Psalm 66:18) and places him in a position to be disciplined by the Lord (1 Cor. 11:32). If we grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30)—the One who assures us of our salvation (Rom. 8:16)—we could logically lose our sense of assurance as we quiet His voice.

How do we remedy this situation? 1 John 1:9 makes it clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” To my way of thinking, this implies that if we do NOT confess our sins, he will NOT forgive us our sins. If God forgives us unconditionally, the verse becomes meaningless.

Sometimes forgiveness involves God not zapping people physically here on earth. I think that when Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who crucified Him, He meant, “Don’t zap them.” His example clearly makes a distinction between sinning in ignorance (“for they know not what they do”) and sinning with full knowledge.

Forgiveness in relationships

Fourth, we must boldly apply these concepts to our relationships. If others confess how they have sinned against us, we are obligated to initiate the forgiveness process. That does not mean we immediately trust them, for credibility can only be restored through faithful behavior over time. Sometimes credibility can never be fully restored. In such a case, forgiveness (a restoration of relationship as if the offense had never occurred) can never be complete.

Jesus put it this way: “So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Although shorter accounts of Jesus’ teaching could be wrongly interpreted to suggest unconditional forgiveness, the longer passage in Luke presents a more detailed truth and qualifies our obligation to forgive.

We cannot always simply choose to forgive; forgiveness can be a struggle that may take a long time; it sometimes involves a process of sorting through emotions and moving gradually toward forgiveness (complete reconciliation). Sometimes we might need to say, “With God’s help, I will try to forgive you, but I am not there yet.” Honesty is crucial at this point. Christians who believe they must immediately forgive an offense often become good liars—to themselves first, and then to others.

Even when someone does not repent, it is often in our best interest to let a hurt go, if we can. We should do so because we know that bitterness drains us and keeps us from enjoying the life God has given us. We should not do so out of false guilt, but for our own benefit. Do not confuse this with genuine forgiveness, which brings complete relational restoration.

I have seen people horribly victimized and then plagued by guilt because they cannot seem to forgive the one who abused them. This guilt adds to their heavy burden. Often such guilt is unwarranted because the offender has not even requested forgiveness or evidenced genuine repentance. Sometimes people simply do not want to forgive because they are grasping for control—withholders of grace. Forgiveness evens the score, and some of us want the advantage and excuse of being a wronged person.

God recognizes that some situations are so evil that it is natural for us to want to get even. God Himself is a God of justice, so since we are in His image, we desire justice. Paul wrote: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21). Find consolation in knowing that God will hold everyone accountable; none can evade Him.

I have presented what I believe to be the correct teaching of Scripture about forgiveness. My challenge to you is to study the Scriptures and test the above, especially since my understanding is the minority viewpoint. If you disagree with me, I’ll forgive you!


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (in 1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed later felt a call to ministry and enrolled at Moody Bible Institute (B.A., Pastoral Studies/Greek). After graduating, he served as pastor of Victory Bible Church of Chicago (a branch work of Cicero Bible Church) and married Marylu Troppito. In 1983, the couple moved to Kokomo where Ed began pastoring Highland Park Church, where he still serves. Ed and Marylu have two adult children, Hannah and Luke. Ed loves to write. He has written over 500 weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and populated his church’s website with an endless barrage of papers. You can access them at www.highlandpc.com.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

R. Pittman brought up these verses:

Quote:
"And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses. [emphasis added ](Mark 11:25-26)."

correlate with

"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew6:14-15)."

"So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses (Matthew 18:35)"

At this point, we are dealing with something broader than forgiveness, but the nature of Jesus' teachings recorded in the Synoptics in general, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. I am going to be lazy because my book deals very much with this. So let me quote myself. The advantage is that I agree fully with myself at this time! Smile

From my book, The Midrash Key, p. 93

Quote:
The reader must remember that Jesus is reducing detailed teaching down to general, "hands on" principles. He is demonstrating how Torah passages could be expanded and applied to life in his day. These condensed, black and white generalities provide a starting point, not necessarily an ending point. They are not complete treatises, but wise sayings which sometimes must be weighed against other wise sayings.
We have no idea how many minutes of conversation are not recorded between Matthew 5:41 and 5:42 or 5:43, so we must assume that these are summaries of longer discussions. It is unlikely that Yeshua rattled off these truisms in machine-gun like rapidity.

From The Midrash Key, pp. 49 and 51

Quote:
If we read The Sermon on the Mount aloud, it would take approximately 11 minutes. Christ probably spoke 3 to 4 hours, but even if he spoke as little as two hours, where is the full text? This leads us to an obvious conclusion: the words we have in the Gospels are summary highlights. ..
Yeshua simplifies the principles behind these Deuteronomy passages to make them “hands on,” readily accessible for daily life. Rabbinic summations made mitzvot user-friendly, but they were never intended to replace the more detailed teaching of the Torah. Both Jesus’ words and the Torah will never be destroyed; the Scriptures teach that there is a sense in which the Law has passed away, yet there is another sense in which it is eternal and relevant.

Put simply, these are statements of the general principle or attitude we are to take, not detailed treatises. Much like "give to everyone who asks of you" or "seek and you shall find."

"The Midrash Detective"

Greg Long's picture

This has been helpful to clairify in mind:

Forgiveness, which is necessary for reconciliation, can only be granted when it is sought.

When forgiveness is not sought, it cannot be granted, and the relationship is not restored. However, Jesus still requires us to love our enemies, so the person offended should still love the offender.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

RPittman's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
R. Pittman brought up these verses:

Quote:
"And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses. [emphasis added ](Mark 11:25-26)."

correlate with

"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew6:14-15)."

"So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses (Matthew 18:35)"

At this point, we are dealing with something broader than forgiveness, but the nature of Jesus' teachings recorded in the Synoptics in general, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. I am going to be lazy because my book deals very much with this. So let me quote myself. The advantage is that I agree fully with myself at this time! Smile

From my book, The Midrash Key, p. 93

Quote:
The reader must remember that Jesus is reducing detailed teaching down to general, "hands on" principles. He is demonstrating how Torah passages could be expanded and applied to life in his day. These condensed, black and white generalities provide a starting point, not necessarily an ending point. They are not complete treatises, but wise sayings which sometimes must be weighed against other wise sayings.
We have no idea how many minutes of conversation are not recorded between Matthew 5:41 and 5:42 or 5:43, so we must assume that these are summaries of longer discussions. It is unlikely that Yeshua rattled off these truisms in machine-gun like rapidity.

From The Midrash Key, pp. 49 and 51

Quote:
If we read The Sermon on the Mount aloud, it would take approximately 11 minutes. Christ probably spoke 3 to 4 hours, but even if he spoke as little as two hours, where is the full text? This leads us to an obvious conclusion: the words we have in the Gospels are summary highlights. ..
Yeshua simplifies the principles behind these Deuteronomy passages to make them “hands on,” readily accessible for daily life. Rabbinic summations made mitzvot user-friendly, but they were never intended to replace the more detailed teaching of the Torah. Both Jesus’ words and the Torah will never be destroyed; the Scriptures teach that there is a sense in which the Law has passed away, yet there is another sense in which it is eternal and relevant.

Put simply, these are statements of the general principle or attitude we are to take, not detailed treatises. Much like "give to everyone who asks of you" or "seek and you shall find."

I'll need some time to chew on this. I'm looking forward to reading your book. Although I don't know exactly the direction you're going, I have come to the conclusion that one of the most overlooked and underrated views was Jesus in the Wisdom Tradition of Israel (Luke 11:31). I have been doing a serious study of Proverbs and Jesus' NT teachings for over three years now. IMHO, many of Christ's teachings fall right into the pattern of OT wisdom literature.

Matt Walker's picture

Pastor Vasicek:

Here is what you wrote: "The 2 Corinthians 2:7 passage is a corrective because the offender had proven himself sincere, and now the church was to forgive him in the fullest sense. 2 Corinthians 2:10 suggests that forgiveness was something that occurred after a time of withholding forgiveness. But note that the church was working through the situation. They started off WRONGLY by forgiving him immediately, in my interpretation, being proud of their willingness to accept such a wrong (I Corinthians 5:2). "

But how is 2 Corinthians dealing with forgiveness? Had this man offended people in the church? Was his sin directed at them? His incest was against his father and certainly against God. The "forgiveness" Paul is referring to here is restoration, not forgiveness as we've been speaking of it. Moreover, they were not forgiving him his sin before hand. They were tolerating it. That's not forgiveness in any sense of that word.

To the guy who earlier posted something to the effect that we have to love our enemies but don't have to forgive them (even allowing for the convoluted exegesis of Christ's statement on the cross or Stephen's statement at his stoning)...come on....really? How do you love someone and withhold forgiveness?

...on to better things. Would you be willing to turn our attention to 1 John 1:9?

Here are my questions. (1) If we don't confess our sins, then are they unforgiven? Are we to be held accountable for them? In other words, if I apply the logic that has been happily spread on Luke 17:3 where "IF he repents, then forgive" is taken to mean also that "IF he does not repent, then do not forgive," then does 1 John 1:9 infer that "if I do not confess my sins then...they are not forgiven?

(2) If forgiveness is tied to our salvation (as has been repeatedly argued in this thread by those who do not hold to what is being called "unconditional forgiveness") then are all those unconfessed (and therefore unforgiven) sins liable against us?

(3) If forgiveness is not tied to salvation, then how can one come to the conclusion that God's forgiveness of sin and mans' forgiveness of man are anything alike?

By the way...I've enjoyed this conversation. It's been helpful for me. I hope that's true for others, even if you think I'm a complete nut-case. Smile

Ed Vasicek's picture

Matt Walker wrote:
Pastor Vasicek:
But how is 2 Corinthians dealing with forgiveness? Had this man offended people in the church? Was his sin directed at them? )

Matt, some good questions! The answer to this one is "yes." When we sin in a grievious way, we sin not only against an individual and God, but we also "leaven" or bring disgrace on our church and sometimes even Christianity at large. In my understanding of the passage, Paul is teaching us that when a member of our church does something this evil, it defiles (leavens) the entire congregation, which is why it must be corrected or removed:

Quote:
1It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife.
2You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst....
6Your boasting is not good Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?
7Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.

IMO, this means that he also sinned against the church, which is symbolized by celebrating the "Feast of Unleavened Bread" where leaven represents sin, particularly detestable sin.

Quote:
Moreover, they were not forgiving him his sin before hand. They were tolerating it.

They were practicing a low-level of forgiveness, IMO, forbearance (overlooking), which is for minor weaknesses and sin when they should have been offended. The Corinthians were wrong for refusing to be offended when they should have been. They were comfortable with this man. If the man had sinned, they got angry, and then they decided to overlook the sin without his repentance, they would be in the same condition. Technically you may or may not be right, we do not know. The point I was trying to make is, they should be offended and unwilling to forgive until the man repented.

Quote:
To the guy who earlier posted something to the effect that we have to love our enemies but don't have to forgive them (even allowing for the convoluted exegesis of Christ's statement on the cross or Stephen's statement at his stoning)...come on....really? How do you love someone and withhold forgiveness?

I already dealt with this above, although the many postings make it tedious to find. I do not believe the crowd that crucified Jesus was held blameless, just that they were forgiven for what they were Ignorant of (and only that), namely, crucifying the Son of God. They continued to be accountable for crucifying and mistreating an innocent man, I believe. I do acknowledge that God has a different standard for sins of ignorance. In Acts 2:36, for example, Peter holds the Jewish crowd responsible for their part.

God loves us without forgiving us if we do not respond to faith in Jesus, does he not? I can have an argument with my wife and not forgive her for a time but I still love her. Same with my kids, fellow Christians, etc. We all have those times. The shorter the better! But they do co-exist.

Quote:
Here are my questions. (1) If we don't confess our sins, then are they unforgiven? Are we to be held accountable for them? In other words, if I apply the logic that has been happily spread on Luke 17:3 where "IF he repents, then forgive" is taken to mean also that "IF he does not repent, then do not forgive," then does 1 John 1:9 infer that "if I do not confess my sins then...they are not forgiven?

(2) If forgiveness is tied to our salvation (as has been repeatedly argued in this thread by those who do not hold to what is being called "unconditional forgiveness") then are all those unconfessed (and therefore unforgiven) sins liable against us?

(3) If forgiveness is not tied to salvation, then how can one come to the conclusion that God's forgiveness of sin and mans' forgiveness of man are anything alike?

Well, I can only answer according the my theological beliefs. I do not think I John 1:9 refers to salvation at all. Other texts demand faith and repentance for salvation, which is similar. But as one who believes in eternal security, I do not think we can lose our salvation. I John 1:7-9 refers to the sins of the saved person. If I am walking with the Lord "in the Light," I still sin and most of my sins I am completely unaware of ("I know not what I do"), so the blood of Christ cleanses me from those without my awareness (I John 1:7). If we think about all the thousands of sins of omission we commit, we are rarely alerted to them. But we still sin (I John 1:8), But the sins I know of hinder my fellowship with God, and those I must be confessed to be restored to close fellowship (I John 1:9) as I understand matters. Then I am forgiven in that the tensions between myself and God are removed. Sort of like that old song, "Nothing Between My Soul and the Savior."

The reason man's forgiveness and God's are alike are in the realm of relational forgiveness. I John 1:9 is about our relationship to God. The Scriptures tell us to forgive others AS God has forgiven us, in LIKE MANNER, in my understanding. He is the model, and his relationship to us as believers is familiar and Christianity 101. We enter the Christian life by faith and repentance, and we restore broken fellowship with God by repentance (confession). So it is not rocket science. We take what is already familiar and we apply it to others.

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

RPitman said:

Quote:
Although I don't know exactly the direction you're going, I have come to the conclusion that one of the most overlooked and underrated views was Jesus in the Wisdom Tradition of Israel (Luke 11:31). I have been doing a serious study of Proverbs and Jesus' NT teachings for over three years now. IMHO, many of Christ's teachings fall right into the pattern of OT wisdom literature.

A term I like is, "Rabbinic Summations." The rabbis tried to distill the Torah to useful, "hands on" principles that could be applied more broadly than their original contexts. I suspect you will like the book Smile

"The Midrash Detective"

RPittman's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
RPitman said:

Quote:
Although I don't know exactly the direction you're going, I have come to the conclusion that one of the most overlooked and underrated views was Jesus in the Wisdom Tradition of Israel (Luke 11:31). I have been doing a serious study of Proverbs and Jesus' NT teachings for over three years now. IMHO, many of Christ's teachings fall right into the pattern of OT wisdom literature.

A term I like is, "Rabbinic Summations." The rabbis tried to distill the Torah to useful, "hands on" principles that could be applied more broadly than their original contexts. I suspect you will like the book Smile

Writing in his commentary on Proverbs, Derek Kidner says that the wisdom literature is for daily living concerning those things that slip through the wide mesh of the law and are missed by the broadsides of the prophets. To the Hebrew mind, I understand wisdom to be the skill for living life well, not intellectual knowledge. Too often, I think, we are preoccupied in the search for profound theological ideas that we neglect the practical aspects for daily living.

Ed Vasicek's picture

RPittman wrote:
Ed Vasicek wrote:
RPitman said:

Quote:
Although I don't know exactly the direction you're going, I have come to the conclusion that one of the most overlooked and underrated views was Jesus in the Wisdom Tradition of Israel (Luke 11:31). I have been doing a serious study of Proverbs and Jesus' NT teachings for over three years now. IMHO, many of Christ's teachings fall right into the pattern of OT wisdom literature.

A term I like is, "Rabbinic Summations." The rabbis tried to distill the Torah to useful, "hands on" principles that could be applied more broadly than their original contexts. I suspect you will like the book Smile

Writing in his commentary on Proverbs, Derek Kidner says that the wisdom literature is for daily living concerning those things that slip through the wide mesh of the law and are missed by the broadsides of the prophets. To the Hebrew mind, I understand wisdom to be the skill for living life well, not intellectual knowledge. Too often, I think, we are preoccupied in the search for profound theological ideas that we neglect the practical aspects for daily living.

Yes, I agree. But the Jews sought to make Torah commands "hands on" by summarizing them succinctly and embracing the principle behind the command. I am talking about how those wise sayings were developed by the rabbis, and I propose that their origin is the Torah.

"The Midrash Detective"

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