Sunday, June 08, 2008

Wise Words Concerning Forgiveness

One of these days, I'm going to get around to writing a book or booklet entitled "Ten Sins of The Modern Church". (Or maybe another number. The number "ten" sounds good in a title, but it's rather arbitrary. There are so many sins which could be listed in such a book that it could conceivably grow considerably before the project is completed!)

One of the sins which I would list and discuss in the book consists of the teaching of the heresy which says that God's forgiveness, like God's love for mankind, is unconditional. That teaching, in my view, owes more to self-centered wishful thinking than it owes to the scriptures.

The best book which I've read on that subject would have to be a book, by Jay Adams, entitled From Forgiven to Forgiving. I highly recommend that you buy and read that book if you really care about dealing with the sins which others have committed against you (and with the sins which you have committed against others) in a godly and biblical manner.

Jay Adams is not the only one who took a strong stand against the aforementioned heresy. The 15th chapter of the book All of Grace by the famous evangelist Charles Spurgeon was entitled "Repentance Must Go With Forgiveness". In that chapter, he wrote the following:

Repentance must go with remission, and you will see that it is so if you think a little upon the matter. It cannot be that pardon of sin should be given to an impenitent sinner; this were to confirm him in his evil ways, and to teach him to think little of evil. If the Lord were to say, "You love sin, and live in it, and you are going on from bad to worse, but, all the same, I forgive you," this were to proclaim a horrible license for iniquity. The foundations of social order would be removed, and moral anarchy would follow. I cannot tell what innumerable mischiefs would certainly occur if you could divide repentance and forgiveness, and pass by the sin while the sinner remained as fond of it as ever. In the very nature of things, if we believe in the holiness of God, it must be so, that if we continue in our sin, and will not repent of it, we cannot be forgiven, but must reap the consequence of our obstinacy. According to the infinite goodness of God, we are promised that if we will forsake our sins, confessing them, and will, by faith, accept the grace which is provided in Christ Jesus, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But, so long as God lives, there can be no promise of mercy to those who continue in their evil ways, and refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing. Surely no rebel can expect the King to pardon his treason while he remains in open revolt. No one can be so foolish as to imagine that the Judge of all the earth will put away our sins if we refuse to put them away ourselves.
As Spurgeon points out, the biggest problem with the teaching of the heresy of unconditional forgiveness is that it removes the primary disincentive which would otherwise inhibit people from committing sin.

Ironically, forgiving unrepentant sinners is very similar to a refusal to forgive those who choose to repent, in terms of how the two approaches affect the future actions of those who have sinned.
If we refuse to forgive those who repent, then they are likely to conclude that there is no point in repenting (since there are no conceivable benefits associated with repentance), and they are therefore likely to keep right on sinning.

If we forgive people regardless of whether they repent or not, then they are likewise extremely likely to conclude that there is no point in repenting (since they can obtain the benefits of repentance without actually repenting), and once again, they are likely to go right on sinning.

Therefore, either extreme serves the interests of the enemy (also known as Satan), not God. By definition, any approach to sin which encourages people to keep sinning and which discourages them from ceasing to do so is contrary to the moral will of God, and is therefore a form of sin in itself.

The scriptural pattern (which Jay Adams discusses at length) is that we are supposed to hold people accountable for the sins which they commit. But that's impossible if one defines forgiveness and our related obligations in such a way that the only appropriate response to sins is to sweep them under the rug and pretend they never occurred.

That's exactly how the Catholic church responded when it was made aware of the egregiously sinful sexual abuses committed by numerous Catholic priests. The hierarchy was more concerned with public relations than with restoring the purity and integrity of the priesthood, so bishops and cardinals swept those sins under the rug and hoped that they'd never be discovered. Of course, they were discovered anyway, and the public relations disaster was far more immense than anything which would have occurred if they'd simply taken their moral responsibilities seriously right from the beginning.

Have you ever wondered why the Mafia seems to be strongest in cultures (specifically, Italian and Irish cultures) where Catholicism is the dominant form of Christianity? There is very little doubt in my mind that there is a connection between the practices of the Catholic church and organized crime, in terms of how the Catholic church tends to handle sin. In the Catholic church, sins are confessed to a priest in a private confessional booth. Regardless of the gravity of the sins being confessed, they are never brought into the light of day so that those who have committed those sins are held accountable by the larger church community. Requiring that people say their "Hail Marys" after sinning is hardly a strong disincentive to commit similar sins in the future. When absolution from sins as egregious as murder is available to all who would perform the simple rituals prescribed by their priests, it should hardly be a surprise that lawlessness prevails.

I am by no means saying that all Catholics are gangsters, or even that all Catholics support criminal activity. What I'm saying, though, is that I think that there's something about the Catholic confessional which, rather than encouraging people to strive to live holy lives, inadvertently gives those who fear genuine repentance a good excuse for continuing to sin.

What I think is particularly telling is the number of Mafia lords who have continued to regularly attend mass and to act as if they think they're good Catholics. For example, "My Jesus Mercy" is the phrase engraved on Al Capone's headstone. Al Capone had better hope that Jesus shows him a lot of mercy on Judgment Day, because Capone certainly didn't show much mercy to his enemies here on earth! Nor did his lifestyle even remotely qualify as a Christian lifestyle. Of course, I'm not discounting the possibility that he might have genuinely repented at some late stage in his life. However, there doesn't seem to be any serious historical evidence to suggest that he did so.

Catholics are hardly the only people who are guilty of promoting the heresy of unconditional forgiveness. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out forcefully against what he called "cheap grace". Wikipedia contains the following summary of his arguments:

One of the most important parts of the book deals with the distinction which Bonhoeffer makes between "cheap" and "costly" grace. But what is "cheap" grace? In Bonhoeffer's words: "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." Or, to put it even more clearly, it is to hear the gospel preached as follows: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship.

In contrast to this is costly grace: "costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." "

Bonhoeffer argues that as Christianity spread, the Church became more "secularized", accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. In this way, "the world was Christianized, and grace became its common property." But the hazard of this was that the gospel was cheapened, and obedience to the living Christ was gradually lost beneath formula and ritual, so that in the end, grace could literally be sold for monetary gain.
"Accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society" could be described as "syncretism" (defined as "the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion"). Syncretism can be seen in its extreme forms in the blending of Christianity and pagan religions, creating weird and unbiblical hybrid religions such as Santeria. I distinctly remember the news headlines pertaining to ritual human sacrifices, committed in the eighties by the devotees of an offshoot of Santeria. (Buried Secrets is the title of a book which discusses those murders, committed by Adolfo Costanzo and his followers.)

Costanzo's murders were committed in the Spring of 1989. A year later, I attended the Music In The Rockies, sponsored by the GMA (Gospel Music Association). I'd looked forward to that event with great anticipation, but it ended up being one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life as a Christian.

One of the people I met at that seminar was an overrated Christian musician named Don Francisco. During the seminar, I attended one of Don's classes. During that class, Don talked about the negative aspects of the Christian music industry, saying that a lot of Christian musicians had been hurt and burned as a result of their experiences with that industry (and, by implication, with the Church).

Naturally, I thought that this meant that Don would be somewhat sympathetic when I told him about some of my own negative experiences, specifically in relation to a pastor who had slandered me from the pulpit and falsely accused me of just being involved in music ministry for the money. (At some later time, I will very likely post an article which will discuss that incident in greater detail, but doing so in the context of this article would only be a distraction.)

When I spoke with Don Francisco about the matter, my intention was not to engage in unbiblical and destructive gossip. My intention was simply to share my perspective with regard to a problem which Don had acknowledged and addressed earlier that day.

The reaction I got from him was nothing like what I'd expected to get. Don looked at me and pronounced, "You've got a problem with forgiveness!" Did he say this in a calm, gentle and loving manner? Not on your life! I've seldom seen someone whose eyes burned with such anger --- one might even say hate --- as he spoke to me.

Now, maybe it's just me, but it seems to me that the whole point of being a forgiving person is to love others as Christ has loved us. Therefore, preaching forgiveness with hatred burning from one's eyes strikes me as a contradiction, to put it mildly. I wanted to reply, "Maybe, but you clearly have a problem with loving your brothers and sisters in Christ, among whom I am one."

Do I have a problem with forgiveness? It depends on whether or not one agrees with the proposition that Christians are obligated for forgive people unconditionally, even though it's clear from the scriptures that Christ does not forgive us unconditionally.

The Lord's Prayer says, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Now, to me, that word "as" means "in the same manner, and to the same extent, as".

In other words, God will only forgive us when we ask for God's forgiveness if we are equally willing to forgive all of those who ask for our forgiveness.

If I unconditionally forgive everyone who has ever sinned against me, will that obligate God to forgive me even though I remain equally unrepentant of my own sins? Of course not.

The scriptures make it clear that God's forgiveness is conditional. There are no exceptions to that principle. If there were exceptions, then that would mean that heaven would be populated, in part, by unrepentant and therefore rebellious sinners.

If God's forgiveness was unconditional, your next door neighbor in the afterlife might conceivably be an unrepentant Adolph Hitler, an unrepentant Pol Pot, an unrepentant Josef Stalin. I don't know about you, but that sounds more like hell than heaven to me.

Some people have naively asked how a loving God could send anyone to hell. I ask how a loving God could do otherwise. To refrain from punishing evil people would be to spit in the faces of all who have suffered unfairly as a result of the evil acts of such people. It would make a mockery of justice. Yes, God is a loving God, but He is also a just God. The two qualities are not at odds with each other. On the contrary, true love (for the victims of injustice) demands true justice.

The truth is that God is under no obligation to forgive any of us. The fact that God offers forgiveness to those who are willing to repent is a testimony to God's generous spirit.

God's conditions for forgiveness are very easy to meet, and can in no way be considered to be tantamount to earning one's salvation by means of good works, but that doesn't change the fact that there are conditions. We must humble ourselves, acknowledge our unworthiness, and ask for God's forgiveness! If feasible, we must demonstrate that our contrition is genuine by making restitution, and by doing everything we can to abstain from such sins in the future. That's not a whole lot for God to ask of us.

There is a clear parallel between the manner in which God forgives us and the manner in which he expects us to forgive those who have sinned against us.

God is always ready and willing to forgive all of those who ask for His forgiveness, so we should likewise be ready and willing to forgive all of those who ask us for forgiveness. But it seems both unreasonable and unscriptural to argue that we are obligated to do what even God himself is unwilling to do. If God himself refuses to forgive those who do not repent, then why should we feel an obligation to do so?

In fact, the end result of such unconditional forgiveness would be to condone the very sins which have caused us harm (and, in the process, to maximize the likelihood that others will be harmed in a similar manner by those who have not been held accountable for their actions). To effectively condone sin in the name of fulfilling our scriptural obligations would be to pervert and distort the gospel beyond recognition.


William J. Tasker said...

Matthew Chapter 5 seems to contradict your thoughts and Luke 6:27 does as well. Having any kind of bitter thoughts toward someone inside will fester and hinder your relationship with God. That's my own personal belief anyway and has been the experience of my life. I don't suppose Jesus had a nice look on his face when he chased the vendors out of the temple. Sometimes rebukes are pointed. Please prayerfully consider these things. God bless.

Mark Pettigrew said...

Thanks for sharing your views, William.

But this post was not about the subject of bitterness. The post was about the naïve and potentially dangerous view that people could receive forgiveness from one another without ever asking for forgiveness from those they had injured.

God forgives us, but only because we ask Him to do so. That has nothing to do with earning our forgiveness. It's about being humble enough to admit that one has erred.

I invite you to read "From Forgiven to Forgiving".

I've certainly read both Matthew and Luke, and I can't recall ever reading anything there to contradict the views I expressed in this blog post.