This Christmas we once again celebrated the arrival to earth of the Messiah, whose mission was to achieve forgiveness of the sins of humanity. Naturally, then, the Advent season should prompt us to reflect on our own sins as well as how we may “pay forward” Christ’s work to others. This involves forgiving one another’s sins.
But to what extent should we forgive others? Should our forgiveness of others’ sins be unconditional? There is some debate about this among Christian theologians and ethicists. For example, Doug Geivett maintains that forgiveness is properly premised on the repentance of the offender, and the writer of this article takes the view that a Christian may forgive the unrepentant but need not do so. Similarly, Roger Olson maintains that unconditional forgiveness is a supererogatory act (above and beyond the call of duty). Then there is Lewis Smedes who took the view that the Christian should be willing to forgive unconditionally. I’m inclined to agree with Smedes, maintaining that the Christian should always and in every case forgive those who sin against them, whether or not they ever repent or apologize. While we have a duty to confront those who sin against us, their failure to repent is not grounds for our withholding our forgiveness. (Also, importantly, this view does not entail that we must maintain a relationship with those whom we forgive.)
Here are some reasons why I take this position. First and foremost, there is the model of Christ’s unconditional forgiveness. Jesus forgave even those who were crucifying him, obviously without repentance, praying “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). This a major reason why I find it difficult to imagine that on Judgment Day Jesus will say to me, “You know, Spiegel, one thing you really got wrong is you were just too forgiving.” I certainly can imagine Jesus correcting us for failing to confront people for their sin (cf. Mt. 18:15-17). But rebuking us for being overly forgiving strikes me as absurd.
Secondly, God’s commands to forgive others are unqualified. The Apostle Paul tells us to “Put on . . . compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12-14). This point is powerfully illustrated in Jesus’s parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, which concludes with an absolute injunction to forgive others and a sobering warning of coming judgment “unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).
Thirdly, consider the Golden Rule. All of us desire to be forgiven by others when we sin against them and not only when we apologize. We naturally desire grace in such cases, the extension of mercy even prior to our repentance. After all, it is sometimes such mercy which prompts our repentance and a deeper resolve to live rightly. Therefore, if we should treat others as we would want others to treat us, then we should extend forgiveness unconditionally.
Finally, forgiving others unburdens one’s soul. Nothing oppresses the mind like a grudge, which as someone once said, is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Unfettered resentment corrodes the soul and adversely affects one’s relationships and personal well-being, while forgiveness is beneficial to one’s mental health and physical health. So forgiveness is very much in one’s own self-interest.
Many Christians maintain that forgiveness is properly contingent on the offender’s confession or apology. Why? I believe one reason is the sheer difficulty of forswearing condemnation of someone when they have been abused or otherwise treated in a severely unjust way. It is not easy to surrender resentment in such cases, which is why absolute forgiveness is an act of profound faith and, therefore, a blessed thing, worthy of eternal reward.
Perhaps another reason is that forgiveness seems to let a person “off the hook” and leaves them somehow unaccountable for their sin. But this is not so, since we are all subject to God’s judgment in the end, as we are told repeatedly in Scripture. In Ecclesiastes are told, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14). Similarly, Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Even if I am completely forgiving of someone, that person still must give account to God for what they have done to me. And this should be a great solace to us, further inducing us to freely forgive others.
Like everyone else, this past year has provided me with plenty of opportunities to be resentful and hold grudges against those who sinned against me. But I rest in the knowledge that God is a perfect judge. Whether I forgive someone, God will still punish or discipline the offender, perhaps even severely. As Jeremiah says, “The Lord is a God of retribution; he will repay in full” (Jer. 51:56b). How could my personal condemnation or grudge ever improve upon God’s perfect justice anyway? This is another reason that resentment is a fool’s game.
This year I have spent a lot of time meditating on Psalm 37, which begins with these powerful lines:
Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun. (Ps. 37:1-6)
These are reassuring and inspiring promises, which effectively fuel the Christian’s will to forgive. In the end, God will have his perfect way with the wicked as well as with misguided fellow believers who sin against us. And if we really have been treated unjustly, he will vindicate us eventually (as he did Joseph in Genesis 50, Daniel in Daniel 6, and, of course, Jesus himself). So we need not fret that justice will not be done or that evil will triumph. God will set things right. Let us forgive unconditionally, then. To do so is an act of great faith, guaranteeing reward in the next life and peace of mind in the present.
Eric B Rasmusen
Very good. I agree that we must forgive unconditionally. This is actually one of the commands, I think, that is for our own good as well as for the good of others and God’s glory. If I don’t forgive, my resentment has a hold on me, and my desire not only for justice but for revenge, and since we usually can’t get adequate revenge, and often can’t get adequate justice, that leads to bitterness.
What is much tougher is the matter of justice. I should forgive the man who molests my child— though that is difficult, and I probably wouldn’t be able to— but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t press charges. I should want him to be deterred from molesting other children. That is one reason why we have public prosecutors, who will prosecute even if the victim doesn’t want to. (It isn’t just that the victim is biased; the judge and jury are enough to deal with that, since the prosecutor, public or private, just provides the evidence and reasoning but not the conclusion).
If it’s an actual crime, then it’s easy to let the police and prosecutor deal with it, and the duty of the victim is to forgive personally while at the same time cooperating with the police. Usually it’s not a crime. Then it gets difficult. Maybe there will be no justice unless the victim “prosecutes”. That is the hardest case, because it is much harder to forgive if you are having to publicize and think about the offense and identify the perpetrator and suggest his punishment. It is much better if someone else does it– even a friend, but ideally a stranger who is doing it out of pure desire for justice, not revenge, or even better, an enemy who is not unhappy to see your pain but desires justice for you anyway.
For this reason, I think we all should be looking out for people who have been treated unjustly, so we can lift the burden of justice from them and take it on ourselves.
Interesting discussion! Thanks for this! A philosophical account of the nature of forgiveness would also be interesting (and not just when it’s appropriate). At the end of the day, it would seem that forgiveness is more definitively about the person offended (suspending feelings of anger or resentment), than the offender. Intriguing!