Friday, June 20, 2008


I have, as of late, been doing a lot of thinking on the topic of forgiveness. There is a common idea in the world today that when a person is wronged he must simply "let go" and forgive the person who wronged them, regardless of the offenders actions or repentance. This idea of forgiveness has made its way into the Church. I cannot count the times I have been told to forgive so and so for something even when that person is still unrepentant over the wrong committed. I want to respond to this understanding of forgiveness by showing that: 1) God does not forgive this way and 2) God does not tell us to forgive this way.

It seems pretty basic that God forgives sinners based on condition. The most obvious one is the death of Christ. Christ had to die in order for God to forgive sinners. God did not, because he cannot, simply sweep sin under the proverbial rug. I think this condition will be without any objections. The next few conditions, however, might be.

Before I get into the next two conditions I want to make it very clear that I am a Reformed Christian who holds to all five solas of the Reformation. The reason I begin this way is because when I list the next two conditions for divine forgiveness, some might think I am going against the five solas. But to the contrary, I am in fact holding them up and putting them on display by affirming the next two conditions.

So what are these conditions? Simply put these conditions are faith and repentance. To my mind the Bible seems very clear that a sinner must repent and believe in Jesus Christ in order to be forgiven of sins. Luke 24 sets forth this idea, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." Many more texts could be given to show that sinners must respond to the gospel in order for forgiveness to take place. After all, is this not the point of sola fide (through faith alone)? Indeed, we are justified through our faith alone.

Another qualification is in order. These two conditions, repentance and faith, are in no way meritorious. That is to say, the conditions do not in any way earn or merit forgiveness for the sinner. These conditions are gifts given by God to the sinner. However, these gifts are nevertheless conditions that the sinner meets to be forgiven. The sinner must exercise faith in Christ to be forgiven; the sinner must repent to be forgiven. Both of these are done by the sinner as preconditions (things that must happen before) for divine forgiveness.

With this short sketch of the conditional nature of divine forgiveness, we turn to a key text on personal forgiveness. Luke 17:3-4 speaks directly to the way Christians are to forgive. “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him.” The first thing of note from this passage is that the Christian posture should always be a readiness to forgive. As people who have been forgiven so much, we ought to be quick and ready to forgive. However, this text also points that there is a precondition to personal forgiveness (actually it gives a few), namely repentance. In other words, in order for true biblical forgiveness to take place, the offending party must repent of the sin committed. If true repentance takes place, then the Christian is obligated to forgive.

However, based on the divine example and the words of Jesus, a Christian is not obligated to - and I would argue cannot - forgive unless the person who has wronged them repents of the offense. This seems to be the teaching of the Jesus and the example set forth by God himself.


  1. I am in agreement with you, Josh. I have to wonder whether the type of forgiveness you're trying to address (can I call it "easy forgive-ism"?) is an old notion or one which is fairly new...? I mean, at first glance, it sounds like a very modern, psychologically-based position than one based on Biblical exegesis. It makes sense, doesn't it? Modern psychology sees forgiveness as mentally healthy, and therefore they believe it should take place whether or not the other party has repented or said they are sorry. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to radio talk shows like Dr. Laura (back when she was on the air, anyway) where she would advise someone to forgive their cruel stepfather from years ago or whatever even though he's not sorry and they're not talking. It's simply based on psychology rather than exegesis, that's what I'm really trying to say.

  2. Parker,

    I tend to agree with you. I have not in anyway done the studying that needs to be done in order to know the roots of "easy forgive-ism," but I think modern pop psychology is a good canidate for it.

    What do you think of my take on divine forgiveness being conditional?

  3. Well of course it's conditional. What do I look like, an arminian?

    Look, as far as I'm concerned, the only people who can consistently believe in unconditional divine forgiveness are Universalists, but they have problems of their own. Even arminian hypothetical universalists must still believe in a condition for forgiveness (namely, faith).

  4. Parker,

    I am glad you brought up universalism. I was going to bring that up in my post, but I thought it was too tertiary to the point I was trying to make. I agree completely with you that unconditional forgiveness leads to universalism.

    But is also can lead to hyper-Calvinism, particularly, the view that we are eternally justified. That is, all the elect have been justified from eternity. For them there are no conditions that need to be meet in order to be justified. What do you think?

  5. I guess hyper-calvinism is the other end of that same spectrum, and I hadn't really considered it, but of course you're right about that.

  6. Parker,

    Nothing with me is "of course." But thanks for the vote of confidence.

    How "off" do you think the unconditional forgiveness view is? Are you thinking it is as off as oneness Pentecostals (non-Trinitarians) or say something like Arminianism? Just wondering what your thoughts are.

  7. Josh, I'm reading and thinking more about this, so this is not a complete answer. My only question right now is how does Jesus statement, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," fit in. He is clearly asking God to forgive an unrepentant people.

  8. Josh,

    Great question. I really did not think how that verse would apply to this.

    The first thing I would note is that the verse you quoted is a textual variant. This part of verse 34 is not in some of the best manuscripts. We could get into that more if you want. I tend to think this phrase is not in the original.

    Second, if this is original, I am not sure that Jesus is actual asking the Father to forgive them. It could be that he is using hyperbole to make a point. I am not a huge fan of this take, but it is an option. Or it could be the case that forgiveness is different when a sin is done that they do not know they are committing. This again seems unlikely.

    This verse causes problems in a few other areas of of theology as well. For example, the atonement. Did Jesus die for this sin they are committing? If so, can Jesus die for only some sins of a person? Can a person be forgiven by God apart from faith? These difficulties, on top of the textual evidence, lead me to think this phrase in not original.

    I hope a gave us a few things to talk about.

  9. Well, if you're asking whether I think the unconditional forgiveness view (not universalism) is heretical, I'd be hesitant to say so. I am known for crying "heresy" occasionally, but that's usually when the open theists slip into class and want to co-exist with me.

    On matters such as this, I would consider someone who believes that we ought to unconditionally forgive others definitely in error. I'm not so prone, however, to declaring something like this heresy as I would if someone was screwing up on the essential nature of God Himself.

    Look; when it comes right down to it, it's like you said: we should always be ready to forgive. After all, if the perfectly Holy One has nothing to hold against you or I, then how can we - sinful and wretched violators of His perfect law - expect to have anything we can hold against anyone else, regardless the severity of their sin.

    But if I've done something horrible against you, it would be highly unusual and presumptuous (even sidestepping the careful argumentation you presented) for you to come up to me and say, "You know, Adam, even though you stole my Stray Cats LP from my house while I was sleeping, I want you to know that I forgive you."

    It would especially not make any sense whatsoever if I a) denied taking the record, or b) wasn't sorry at all for wronging you.

    A sin must be admitted to before it can be addressed; that's just real life, and as you've shown, it's the same way God expects to deal with our sins against Him.

  10. Josh:

    I am always skeptical when people choose to exclude (or include for that matter) disputed parts in the middle of a theological discussion.

    At any rate, what do we do with Stephens (undisputed) comment in Acts 6?

    “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”

    It is, in fact, this statement which prompts many to include the statement of Jesus from the cross. Either way, Stephen is making what appears to be a plea for God to forgive men who are arguably not repentant.

  11. Steve,

    First point that needs to be made is that I have, for about 3 years now, thought that the verse in question is not original. I did not just throw it out because it did not fit my "theology." There is very little textual support for the phrase and no good textual support of it. If you would like to give some textual reasons why it should be thought of as original I am all ears.

    Second, as with the words of Jesus, the words of Stephen present the same problems. Can God forgive a person for only some of their sins? On what basis can/does God do this? Can we be forgiven without faith? These difficulties seem to huge for a single verse to over turn the rest of the biblical witness. If you, or anyone, responds to these comments made here and the comments by me above, please wrestle with these difficulties. I genuinely want to know what others think of the difficulties I have raised with the interpretation given of these two similar passages.

    So what do we do with Stephen's prayer? Well a few thoughts. The first and most obvious is Stephen said a prayer and God is not obligated to answer it. Stephen wanted them to be forgive, but because of the reasons given in the original post, God did not grant the prayer. We need to keep in mind that Acts is a historical work. It only recounts what did happen and not what should happen. In other words, Acts is not didactic teaching. All Stephens words show us is that Stephen said this prayer. It does not tell us that this was a good prayer and/or a prayer that we should prayer. Further, Acts does not in anyway lead us to think that this prayer should be the basis for our theology of forgiveness. Stephen wanted to die is a gracious and humble manner that would be a witness to the men killing him. He did that by these words. But I am not convinced that we ought to build our theology of forgiveness on this passage.

    Last thing, once Jesus' words were brought up, I knew that someone would bring up this verse.


  12. Alrighty,

    1) I agree with the essence of the post, we ought not to forgive a sin unless one repents of the sin, although we ought to have a spirit of forgiveness towards them (that is we don't hold grudges or are mad at them because they don't repent).

    2) Josh Walker - Textual Variants --> you are treading on a slippery slope worrying so much about textual variants. They are the way of liberalism coming out of the 19th Century attempting to debunk the innerrancy of Scripture. So be careful about wanting to get rid of parts of Scripture. :)

    3) Josh Reiger - Jesus' plea to the Father on the cross is a plea from His human nature. We see in Mark 2 that Jesus has the power to forgive sins (in His divine nature). Thus, He could've done the same on the cross, but He doesn't. He pleas to God knowing that if they do not repent their sins cannot be forgiven.

    4) Steve - Stephen in Acts 6, is the same thing, just as we would plea that God would forgive the sins of anyone/everyone/non-christians, so Stephen cries out to God here.

    5) Remember Scripture interprets Scripture (Sola Scriptura). None of the passages (Christ on the cross, Stephen in Acts 6) are contrary to the rest of Scripture, including Luke 17. We must reconcile the two.

  13. Andrew,

    Thanks for the warning. But I can assure you that I will never remove the Word of God. I love the Word of God. It is the only source for life. The great thing is that the verse is questions is not the Word of God. Or at least, the textual evidence points in that direction. So, you can rest easy knowing that I will never become a liberal and I will never take away from God's Word.

  14. So, Josh, what you are saying is that Stephen, who gave this great speech to the Jews so that they were enraged with his accurate portrayal of their spiritual condition, who then (as Scripture states) filled with the Holy Spirit saw the glory of God and Jesus his savior standing at God's right hand, who cries out to God "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," is THEN bereft of the Holy Spirit so that he says "Lord, do not hold this sin against them," in contradistinction to EVERYTHING else found in Scripture?

    Calvin, himself states that we "must always set Stephen before our eyes for an example." Stephen is calling out to God and pleading with him that he would not leave these men in their sins, but would have mercy and forgive them. Surely, no other manner of forgiveness is assumed than that they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. And, because Saul was among them, we can be sure that God did hear his prayer (though we must be careful to assert that Stephen was anything more than apart of the means which God used in the conversion process of Saul).

    ALL of the Bible is authoritative. Whatever conclusion you come to with regard to forgiveness, it MUST include the statement of Stephen. Come on, Josh, he was FULL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT!

    As for the textual variant issue, I would like to point out that the reason many Bibles include the text, rather than just throw it out, is because the sentiment accords with what they find in Scripture (namely Acts 7). So, while there may be some discussion as to whether or not Jesus said those words from the Cross, it is included because they felt it was a biblical statement to make.

    p.s. you know I love you

  15. edit the above:

    though we must be careful to assert that Stephen was anything more than apart of the means which God used in the conversion process of Saul


    Though we must be careful NOT to assert that Stephen was anything more than A PART of the means which God used in the conversion process of Saul

  16. Steve,

    You said, "Surely, no other manner of forgiveness is assumed than that they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ."

    If you think, as this seems to say, that the only way for forgiveness with God is believe (and repentance) then what is your problem with my post? This is the whole point of the post. Forgiveness only comes, on our part and Gods', when the offending person repents and believes. If you agree with this, why bring up Stephen?

  17. Josh, I can honestly say that I was wrong, you were right. Now, what most people on reading these comments do not know is that we have been having discussions on and off line about this. I post this here so you can have record of it :)

    You are correct: is someone sins against me and I go to them and they do not repent I cannot forgive them. Forgiveness must occur in the context of repentance.

    Perhaps what was in the back of my mind was the concept that, among brothers, love is to cover a multitude of sin. I should not confront every wrong that brothers and sisters in Christ commit against me. God has forgiven them, and in the case of minor grievances that should be good enough for me. Obviously, it takes wisdom to discern what are and what are not love-coverable sins.

    Finally, while my whole life is to be characterized by repentance (who says I don't like Luther?), we also must realize that my forgiveness by God is not conditioned upon repentance from a specific list of sins, but a general turning away from a life bent towards sinning. I should repent of my sins specifically, and ask for forgiveness of them specifically. But that is a far cry from saying that until I repent of a particular sin that God has not forgiven me for that particular sin. Isn't that Roman Catholic dogma?

    Now, certainly, this was not what you were saying. But, then, we can conceive of a situation where God forgives me based on my general evangelical repentance and not on a specific act of repentance in response to a particular sin. Is it not possible then, among brothers and sisters, to do something akin to forgiveness by choosing to allow love to cover sin? I would be willing to state that this is not, per se, forgiveness. But what is it?

    I guess what I am saying is that in certain cases, among brothers or sisters where the sin is minor, we can simply "let go" and (insert term here).

  18. Steve,

    I agree with you. Let that be on the record. :)

    I think that the love covering over sins is a good thing to bring up. I am not sure how this all works out. I am not sure if forgiveness is what it is called. Maybe christian charity. Not letting the small sins damage the relationship. But if a "small" sin is done again and again, it may be the sign of a deeper issue that needs to be addressed for the relationship to be healthy. I think it is safe to say that wisdom is needed and we can mess up in making the call. But the fact remains, as we both have said, that biblical forgiveness must be proceeded by faith. The rest of the conversation is working out the sticky parts.

  19. Brandon,

    Have you read the book? What view does Jay Adams take on this?

  20. I haven't read it yet, but I want to. He defends and explains practically your position.

  21. How you get from this:

    "Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him.”

    To this: "a Christian is not obligated to - and I would argue cannot - forgive unless the person who has wronged them repents of the offense. This seems to be the teaching of the Jesus and the example set forth by God himself."

    ... reflects a true excercise in inserting your own opinion into a verse which obviously does not comment on whether repentence is a precondition for forgiveness. Certainly it is possible that repentence is a precondition given this verse... but the verse in no way logically necessitates this. It is equally possible that repentence is not a condition given this verse... and the fact that this verse is the ONLY support that you mention for the idea that repentence is a precondition, makes your analysis suspect. Either provide more evidence that repentence is a precondition or admit that scripture is silent as to this point. But don't act as if a verse logically necessitates something which it does not. Your readers are not all that ignorant. (I don't intend a negative tone in this by the way, so please don't read one into it.)


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