Sunday, May 10, 2009

Forgiveness and Community

At the Lifeway book store at Moody Bible Institute, I recently bought a book entitled Death by Church, by Mike Erre. Mike is a teaching pastor at Rock Harbor church.

There's a lot of quoteworthy material in the book, pertaining to various problems in the modern church. Here's a perceptive quote, from page 114, which I found particularly interesting:

Pastoral ministry has now been reduced to marketing and psychotherapy --- disciplines that both concentrate exclusively on the individual. The message of the gospel is treated the same way. The American gospel concerns itself solely with the inner, private world of people as they exist in relation to God. There is usually no talk of community, tradition or public accountability. (After all, who are you to stand between me and God?) Faith exists as a private exercise, a personal option, an individual choice.
The problem with the approach to ministry described in the preceding paragraph, is that such an approach does a poor job of resolving the myriad human problems which are relational in nature.

Ironically, the end result is that such an approach doesn't even work very well in terms of addressing problems concerned with individuals. The state of mind of an individual who has been harmed by the sins of others cannot be divorced from the larger context of the community in which that individual lives, if one wishes to accurately perceive the problems of that individual and the solutions to those problems.

I am thinking, in particular, of the way that many people define our obligations and relationships with one another in relation to the extremely important issue of forgiveness.

There are many Christians today who, based on the correct observation that God's love for mankind is unconditional, and based on erroneous interpretations of certain passages of scripture pertaining to forgiveness, have concluded that God's forgiveness of sinners is likewise unconditional, and that our forgiveness of others who have sinned against us should therefore also be unconditional.

This teaching (found in books such as Forgive and Forget by Lewis Smedes) contradicts the scriptures, which clearly teach that God's forgiveness of sinners is predicated on the willingness of such sinners to ask for forgiveness and to repent.

If forgiveness were unconditional, then defiant and unrepentant sinners would nevertheless go to heaven. There would be no hell. That's the gospel of wishful thinking (otherwise known as "universalism"), not the gospel of Jesus Christ which is found in the Bible.

From Forgiven to Forgiving, by Jay Adams, is a book which provides a welcome antidote to the fallacies advocated in such books. Here's a link to an interesting related blog post also written by that author.

In particular, some people seem to have missed the point with regard to the primary reason for forgiveness. They have taught that the primary function of forgiveness (or at least one of the primary functions) is to serve as "therapy" for the sake of the forgiver. (That's why I was reminded of this subject when reading the preceding quotation by Mike Erre.) In other words, people who teach this doctrine believe that the forgiver forgives for his or her own sake (e.g., to enable the forgiver to "find closure" and "get on with life"), not for the sake of the person being forgiven or for the sake of the relationship between the offender and the offended party.

On the face of it, that's nonsense. Tell me: Who is the primary beneficiary when God forgives a sinner? God? Or the sinner?

The answer is obvious: The sinner is the primary beneficiary. God needs no therapy. God is Lord of the universe.

I'm not denying that God's heart is broken (to put things in somewhat anthropomorphic and therefore inaccurate terms) when we sin against God. But there is a reason God's heart is broken by our sin, and the reason isn't that his feelings have been hurt. The reason is that God earnestly, even passionately desires intimate relationships with all of the people God has created. Sin makes such relationships impossible, because God is a holy God. Sin thwarts God's desire for fellowship with people. Therefore, God offers forgiveness, for the purpose of a restoration of the fellowship relationship between God and the forgiven sinner.

Notice that I said that God offers forgiveness to all sinners (which is within his power to do, without compromising his holiness, because of the atonement of Christ's sacrificial death on the cross). I didn't say that God grants forgiveness to all sinners.

It would be nonsensical to say that God had forgiven a person, but that God had sent that person to hell nevertheless. What would be the point of forgiveness if it did not alter one's eternal destiny in the slightest?

God is indeed an incredibly loving and merciful God, and he is willing to forgive us, if we will only call on the name of Jesus Christ and ask for forgiveness. But that "if" is all-important.

If we could be forgiven without repentance, where would be the incentive to repent? There would be none. The same principle is equally applicable to human relationships. Unconditional forgiveness has the effect, intentional or not, of encouraging people to continue in their self-centered patterns of behavior. Such forgiveness was correctly described as "cheap grace" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and as "sloppy Agape" by others).

I have actually heard some Christians say that forgiveness is completely separate from the issue of reconciliation. They will tell you that one can forgive others, without the expectation that such forgiveness will result in reconciliation.

When one meditates on the fact that God's forgiveness of sinners is offered to us for the precise purpose of reconciling sinful man to a holy God, it boggles the mind to think that anyone would think that human forgiveness would be any different in that respect.

True reconciliation requires honesty, because the perpetuation of lies prevents the kind of emotional and spiritual intimacy which is the object of reconciliation. If one has to deceive one's self in order to believe that a level of trust has been restored in a particular relationship, then the so-called reconciliation is pointless.

Repentance does not offer any 100% guarantees (because even repentant people are fallible, and may yet sin again), but it does offer a foundation of understanding which makes eventual and total reconciliation possible. Without such a foundation, there is no logical reason for forgiveness.

It is an enormous disservice to Christians who have been harmed by other Christians or by others to essentially tell them to sweep all of the very real issues which hinder the process of reconcilliation under the rug and pretend that issues which have not been resolved have been resolved. Such false and irresponsible counsel constitutes an abdication of the moral responsibility which rests upon church leaders to hold Christians accountable for their actions. In the final analysis, it even constitutes an abdication of their responsibilities to offending parties, because failure to hold such people accountable hinders them from engaging in the acts which are necessary in order for them to experience the benefits of genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. The process of genuine spiritual and emotional growth is hindered when people are not held accountable for their actions.

In Mike Erre's book, he talks extensively about a "disparity between belief and behavior" which characterizes the lives of many professing Christians. That's easy to understand, when one considers the exceedingly harmful results of church practices based on a false understanding of forgiveness. Such a doctrine negates the possibility of the "public accountability" Erre talks about in his book.

True forgiveness which is offered to all, but which is actually granted only to those who meet the necessary condition of repentance, respects the needs of others in the community who might conceivably be hurt in the future by similarly hurtful acts. Unconditional forgiveness fails to respect those needs, inasmuch as it fails to uphold the common-sense principle that there is a connection between actions and consequences. Therefore, any definition of Christian discipleship which does not include the necessity of holding people accountable for their actions is a definition which is based on a failure to understand the idea that the kingdom of God has ramifications for communities, not just for self-centered individuals.

None of the aforementioned ideas negate the very real biblical responsibility of Christians to forgive others who sin against them and who then ask for forgiveness. The "seventy times seven" scripture still applies, because that scripture pertains to the infinite number of times we are required to forgive genuinely repentant people, not to the conditions under which people should be forgiven.

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