To forgive in the right way, you must believe rightly about hell.
If I was asked to layout the areas of systematic theology/doctrine which most immediately come to bear on unpacking forgiveness I would begin with these.
- Doctrine of Salvation (soteriology): We are to forgive others as God forgives us. This means we must begin with the Cross and understand with clarity how God forgives, if we are to know how to forgive others.
- Providence refers to the word theologians use to describe the truth that God is directly involved in history and is working all things together to accomplish His purposes. Firmly owning providence will allow us to say with Joseph that though someone may have intended to harm me, God is using it for good.
- Doctrine of Last Things (or the future work of Christ, Eschatology) with an emphasis on hell. Believing what the Bible says about hell is foundational to the area of forgiveness for at least two reasons.
First, the Bible often encourages believers to take comfort in the fact that God will deal justly with evil people.
“The assurance of God’s ultimate justice (then) frees radical love (now).” John N. Day
“. . . it is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter from prison to Eberhard Bethge.
Second, the Bible motivates offended people to forgive by teaching that a Christian who is unwilling to forgive someone who has offended him or her, should fear for his or her soul. Saying, “I will never, ever forgive that person is much like saying, “I’m planning on going to hell.” (Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:35).
It is in this latter area that Western Christians are most deficient. Believers in our culture may summarize the doctrine of salvation and the centrality of the Cross on some level (though they don’t apply this to forgiveness nearly enough).
People will often say, however glibly, that God works all things together for good.
But, as Al Mohler explains here, many Christians increasingly question an orthodox understanding of hell (that unbelivers will suffer eternally).
The less people are willing to accept what the Bible teaches about hell, the more vulnerable they are to bitterness.