Rob Bell and the question of forgiveness for the unrepentant

Chris —  April 5, 2011

One of the points I argued in Unpacking Forgiveness is that forgiveness cannot happen completely apart from repentance. Christians ought always to have an attitude of forgiveness.  But, forgiveness is about the restoration of a relationship and if the offending party is unrepentant, then forgiveness cannot fully take place any more than you can shake hands by yourself.  The offended Christian wraps the package and offers it freely.  Yet, the gift needs to be received. For more on this point, see this post.

Conditional forgiveness flows out of the biblical principle that we are to forgive one another as God forgave us (Eph 4:32).  God only forgives those who turn in repentance from their sins and receive the gift of eternal life. I’m not alone in taking this position!, see also A.B. Caneday, “Being forgiving doesn’t always mean forgiving.”

A point I have stressed in writing and speaking about forgiveness is that if we insist on unconditional interpersonal forgiveness, then some will inevitably argue that God forgives unconditionally apart from repentance and faith.  Those who insist on automatic forgiveness can easily end up arguing that God should also automatically forgive.

This progression is seen in Rob Bell’s thinking.  In Velvet Elvis, Bell asserted:

Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for (Bell, Velvet Elvis, page 146).

This is a very problematic statement. The idea that someone can be forgiven by God, yet still go to hell, eviscerates forgiveness of any biblical meaning.

Now in Love Wins (188-189), Bell has taken the next step when he argues that on the Cross, Jesus granted unconditional forgiveness apart from repentance or faith on the part of those who crucified Him.

Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it.

Done. Taken care of.

Before we could be good enough or right enough, before we could even believe the right things.

Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up – – God has already done it.

But, should we accept Bell’s premise that Christ granted forgiveness? As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus wasn’t granting absolution to those who crucified Him – – he wasn’t saying unilaterally that they were forgiven.  He was praying for their salvation.  Scripture is clear that this prayer would only be answered if they believed in Him.  Otherwise, the wrath of God would remain on them (John 3:36).

Bell insists he does not believe in universalism (the teaching that all people are saved).  Yet, when  he argues that Christ granted forgiveness unilaterally on the Cross and extends that forgiveness to all people, apart from belief, then it’s hard to see how this is not universalism.

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10 responses to Rob Bell and the question of forgiveness for the unrepentant

  1. Yes, well said on the points about Bell. I’m curious about your view on forgiveness expressed above. I haven’t read your book, but do you address the issue of not holding a grudge, or letting a root of bitterness grow in the heart? Is this what most people might mean when they use the language about forgiveness? You’re basing your view of forgiveness on what God does in redemption, that’s good,…I need to think a little more before I say any more. Good post, God bless.

  2. Scott, I do address those points. Christians cannot harbor bitterness or grudges. Like Christ, we must offer forgiveness and be full of grace.

  3. I need to read the book. So how does not being bitter differ from forgiveness? I see the key, as you said above, is in the restoration of the relationship. We can’t forgive the unrepentant because the relationship can’t be restored if the offending party is unrepentant. I’ll read the book rather than take up your time.

  4. Are you familiar with Neil Anderson’s “Freedom in Christ” stuff? Your view would contradict his as I believe I remember that a major part of the freedom he teaches about comes from “forgiving” even when it is one sided. I’m just trying to figure out if there is a problem with definitions or biblical understanding.

  5. Scott, I’m aware of that book, but I have not read it. It’s been quite some time since I looked at any of Neil Anderson’s stuff.

  6. Chris already said this, but I second the motion: read the book! What could be more important to a Christian than understanding forgiveness? And the Church today is so very confused about it. Chris’s book is the most important book I’ve seen in the last couple of years. Thanks again, Chris, for writing it!

  7. Christ’s words from the cross were a prayer. If this prayer for forgiveness related to salvation was answered, and faith comes by hearing, the people at the cross were saved /forgiven when they “repented and believed in the Gospel” through the preaching of the apostles. It is false to believe that God would forgive anyone, whether sinners for salvation or Christ-followers without repentance/confession (I John 1:9). Even Joseph didn’t forgive his brothers until they confessed to him: Genesis 50:17)

    But love is the key issue. While we wait for the offender to repent (Luke 17:3), we must progress to loving the offender. This is unconditional. When we arrive at this point then we can truly forgive from the heart when the offender repents.

  8. Scott,

    Not being bitter happens when one has love from the Holy Spirit for the offender. Since you don’t have to forgive until the offender repents, you don’t have to be bitter if you love. God is not bitter because sinners don’t repent and he is not bitter toward Christians who don’t confess/repent. Why? Because He loves them all the time, unconditionally.

  9. Ray, thanks for stopping by.

  10. Ray

    This post was sometime ago. I have since read the book and therefore understand Chris’s argument. In my comments above I was not unsure of the difference between bitterness and true forgiveness, but rather curious about how Chris dealt with it in his book.

    I would agree that God is never bitter (about anything), but I wouldn’t agree with you on why He isn’t. God surely is loving, but more importantly He is good (which is where His love originates) and rightly entirely happy about who He is. He has no motivation to wounded pride or prideful self-pity, etc. The universe, and man, does not exist because God was lacking anything, but rather it is the overflow of His delight in who He is. He ultimately profits nothing in His being from the worship of His creatures (which does not mean that He doesn’t desire it or enjoy it, just that He doesn’t need it). Also, God’s providential will is never adversely affected by sin as He is sovereign over all. We honor His wise providence for us when we offer grace and forgiveness, bearing no grudge, trusting that even in the pain of the hurts others cause us He is working for us and in us a good end.

    It really all boils down to trust, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for the post.