Many teach that Christians should unconditionally forgive grave offenses regardless of whether or not the offender is repentant. Yet, as I argued in Unpacking Forgiveness, this is not biblical.
To be sure, Christians should unconditionally adopt an attitude of forgiveness. We ought always to “wrap the package” of forgiveness. But if the other party refuses to open the present, then forgiveness has not taken place in its fullest sense. (See others on conditional forgiveness).
While automatic forgiveness sounds like an antidote to bitterness, this is not the case. Those who try and simply dismiss grave offenses, apart from resting in the justice of God, often encounter emotional and theological problems. Here is an incomplete list of problems that sometimes arise from unconditional forgiveness.
1. Unconditional forgiveness builds bitterness.
All image bearers are hard-wired with a standard of justice. To tell someone to completely forgive a grave offense, apart from repentance on the offender’s part, teaches that justice is cheap. This, in turn, may lead to bitterness. See, for example, Packing Unforgiveness.
2. Unconditional forgiveness implies and leads to universalism.
Universalism is the teaching that all are saved regardless of whether or not they believe in Christ. Clearly, it is an un-biblical doctrine (John 3:36). Yet, given that the first principle of forgiveness is that we are to forgive others as God forgave us (Ephesians 4:32), it is a small step from saying that everyone forgives everyone unconditionally , to saying that God forgives everyone unconditionally. What we believe about interpersonal forgiveness is often read back into the doctrine of salvation.
3. Unconditional forgiveness compromises the testimony of the Church.
A number of years ago, in a Wall Street Journal article, Dennis Prager expressed his frustration over the cheap forgiveness espoused by many Christians. Prager wrote:
The bodies of the three teen-age girls shot dead last December by a fellow student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold before some of their schoolmates hung a sign announcing, “We forgive you, Mike!” They were referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the killer.
This immediate and automatic forgiveness is not surprising. Over the past generation, many Christians have adopted the idea that they should forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel and whether or not the evildoer repents.
The number of examples is almost as large as the number of heinous crimes. Last August, for instance, the preacher at a Martha’s Vineyard church service attended by the vacationing President Clinton announced that the duty of all Christians was to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who murdered 168 Americans. “Can each of you look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and forgive him?” the Rev. John Miller asked. “I have, and I invite you to do the same.”
Though I am a Jew, I believe that a vibrant Christianity is essential if America’s moral decline is to be reversed. And despite theological differences, Christianity and Judaism have served as the bedrock of American civilization. And I am appalled and frightened by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.
Prager’s frustration is understandable. What sort of testimony does the Church maintain when Christians issue blanket statements of forgiveness? This does nothing to point people to God who is both loving and just.
4. Unconditional forgiveness fails to point an onlooking world to the Cross.
Forgiveness is free. But it is not cheap. Grave offenses present opportunities to show that all have sinned and are in need of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is received only if we turn to Christ in repentance. It is more appropriate when we are wounded deeply to proclaim the Cross then to say we automatically forgive.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned that , “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” He pointed to the severe consequences of teaching cheap grace in Nazi Germany writing:
But do we also realize that this cheap grace has turned back on us like a boomerang? The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and the unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was rarely ever heard.
5. Unconditional forgiveness removes the urgency of being reconciled with the offending party
If forgiveness is a private affair, then there is no need to ever interact directly with the one who has caused the injury. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “I have forgiven her, but I will never talk to her again.” Such an approach does not embody the forgiveness granted by the Lord who welcomes sinners into His loving arms.