“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.”Henri J. M. Nouwen
Scott wrote about The 4 Big Lies of ‘Christian’ Therapeutic Moralistic Deism (2020 November 19). It is no coincidence that two of these four big lies are related to forgiveness because being forgiven and having the ability to forgive others are central qualities of Spiritual Regeneration. These two lies were…
- You must learn to “forgive yourself”.
- Unconditional immediate forgiveness for anyone who sins, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how heinous the crime, no matter whether or not they have repented. Conflating the lack of doing this with “holding a grudge”– which is a clearly enumerated sin.
In the first, Scott argued that only God and/or the person who was wronged have the place of extending forgiveness.
Concerning the second lie, Scott stated that repentance must predicate forgiveness.
“God forgave me long before I repented; in fact, he’s forgiven me for every sin I’ve ever done and ever will do most of which I don’t even know I committed/will commit. We are supposed to emulate Christ and forgive those who trespass against us.”
In response, Sharkly pointed out that God forgives from the standpoint of eternity, but we do not.
Deep Strength added that God raises the bar under the new covenant which requires us to surpass our own standard of love, forgiveness, etc. and emulate Christ.
I believe all these viewpoints are accurate, but not very precise. So let me reframe these statements within the proper contexts.
Misconceptions about Forgiveness
There is a widespread idea that forgiveness is essentially the same as choosing to forget what happened and “move on”. This simple expression of forgiveness may be sufficient for smaller offenses that arise due to inconsideration, ignorance, or immaturity on behalf of the offender.
Ephesians 4:1-6 and Colossians 3:12-14 state that Christians should take this approach towards one another. Proverbs 17:9 says, “Whoever conceals an offense promotes love…”. Proverbs 19:11 describes this approach as discreet and glorious! (So this is one way to glorify God.)
I say that this simple act of grace should be commonplace within a body of believers. Again, this is concerning small faux pas that everyone commits on a daily basis, e.g. spilling someone’s drink, stepping on someone’s toe, minor bad decisions made through misinformation, etc. This all assumes that the offender carries no ill will.
But in response to larger offenses, especially willful offenses, doing forgiveness this way is like Gaslighting yourself – a self-imposed psychological denial that the wrongdoing ever occurred. This is where this particular understanding of forgiveness loses traction because it turns the graceful forbearing defendant into a wimpy doormat who’s out of touch with reality. If he doesn’t draw some sort of boundary, this flaccid response is little more than an open invitation to be used, discarded, and trampled upon, again and again, by all the careless, greedy cads of the world.
In addition to the common misconception of forgiveness described above (i.e. denial and avoidance), most people don’t even know what true forgiveness looks like. People have the notion that forgiveness should necessarily restore the relationship to what it was before the offense.* My experience tells me this is just not true. Sometimes forgiveness requires you to cut that person out of your life.
And worse, there is a common misbelief that the measure of restoration that is achieved through forgiveness is indicative of the authenticity of the forgiveness. That is a backward understanding of forgiveness. In reality, the need for forgiveness is an indicator that the relationship is already broken. Forgiveness may ameliorate the consequences and bring peace, but in no way guarantees a restoration of all that was lost through the transgression. If you understand this correctly, then you will realize that Christ did something really amazing in that He accomplished both — He absorbed the consequences and restored our relationship to God!
We were alienated from God. Jesus forgave all through His sacrifice. But not everyone will cash in on that. Some people hate Christ because He forgave them.
* The way that forgiveness is offered (not the intensity of effort) makes a big difference in the outcome of the relationship. This is a huge topic deserving of a separate post.
A better approach to forgiveness (although this is not complete in itself) is to take responsibility for what has happened and “roll with it”. This is essentially what Jesus did when He died for our sins — He took responsibility for it. This approach is much more powerful and effective, but most people cannot accept this concept of forgiveness because it requires real work and sacrifice. Yet, this is what it means to overcome.
The way I understand it, the reason why Jesus asks us to forgive others, is not for the offender’s benefit, either material or spiritual, nor to “change the world” as salt and light emissaries of Christ, but simply so that we will not get bogged down in bitterness, which is the enemy of faith itself; No faith, No forgiveness! This is why Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-15, “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.“
Whenever someone has wronged you, you are faced with a choice. As the saying goes, Don’t get bitter, get better!
Is Forgiveness Transactional in Nature?
The question of whether repentance and forgiveness are transactional in nature is not an easy one to answer. In fact, this question was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.
- Catholics insist that confession and penance must be made to the established church.
- Calvinists would say that repentance is divinely orchestrated, and that humans have no control over this process.
- Non-Calvinistic Protestants would say it is a conscious decision.
Ed Hurst wrote,
“I’m pretty sure the common Protestant expression “getting saved” does not mean the same thing it did in the New Testament. I agree that spiritual regeneration takes place outside the time-space continuum, and that the defining moment for us as individuals is when we become aware of it. It’s not a transaction. Thus, my group emphasizes the image of feudal commitment from the heart, which is what faith meant in the Bible, and that it is its own reward.”
I believe that forgiveness is not transactional for a technical reason. A transaction is a mutual, willful agreement of sorts. But forgiveness and repentance take place in the realm of the heart.
The larger argument that repentance is necessary for forgiveness to reach its conclusion is only partly correct, depending on the context. Consider the following truth statements.
- Repentance invites forgiveness. God always forgives. Man only forgives sometimes.
- Forgiveness invites repentance (when it is done right and it has the power of God behind it). God can forgive in this manner, but not everyone responds. Man can forgive in this manner provided that he has great faith. Again, not everyone responds.
In short, making the choice to forgive, done between two humans, is where the spiritual ‘transaction’ of the heart begins. Within this context, a ‘transactional’ forgiveness must be properly understood. If a person wrongs you and then repents, then extending forgiveness to that person should establish your spiritual authority as the morally superior person, especially if you must assume certain responsibilities in doing so.
The issue of forgiveness is much bigger than what most people recognize, because Repentance and Forgiveness are central to Spiritual Regeneration.
In summary, the purpose of forgiveness is…
- To glorify God.
- To avoid bitterness and preserve your faith.
- To increase your moral agency and fortitude.
- To teach you where and how to draw boundaries.
- To prevent you from succumbing to a victim mentality.
- To test your faith as an overcomer who cannot be easily defeated by an offense.
The proper expression of forgiveness with respect to the context can be summarized as follows.
- Between believers, forgiveness of small offenses is commanded by Christ as an expression of love.
- Between believers, forgiveness of major offenses is required if the offender repents. This could be tritely described as ‘transactional’.
- Between a believer and a non-believer, forgiveness can be ‘transactional’ if the offender repents, but if not, then the believer must embrace a more difficult form of forgiveness by accepting the outstanding responsibilities for the consequences of the offense. Sometimes, this may require extreme measures, such as pursuing a lawsuit, making a change in one’s life plans, or rejecting all future interaction with that person.
- God’s forgiveness is not ‘transactional’, simply because God operates from an eternal time-space continuum. Non-Calvinistic Protestants have the notion that God’s forgiveness is not transactional, but the Calvinists may have a better view on this point, in that they recognize that repentance and spiritual regeneration (AKA the “born again” experience) is merely the moment when the believer realizes God’s forgiveness.
- Σ Frame: Forgiveness – The biggest obstacle in overcoming my parent’s divorce (2010 March 3)
- The Cut (Cari Romm): Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State (2017 January 11)