One of the contemporary church’s pillars of thought is the recent notion that our chief business as Christians is forgiveness—forgiveness of everyone, all the time, without exception, and without confession or repentance as a prerequisite. In its present form, it appears to be just another version of what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” He defined this phenomenon as follows:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, is baptism without church discipline, is communion without confession of sins, is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living and incarnate Jesus Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge, 15th ed. Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1985, 14).

Christian counselors and motivational speakers today advise us that our responsibility is to forgive all those who do us wrong. We are called upon to forgive immediately, without waiting for the offender to ask for forgiveness, or even before he senses the need for it. We’re reminded, “We’re all sinners in God’s sight. All sin is equally bad.” Or, “If we don’t offer this kind of forgiveness, then God will not forgive us,” and, “Jesus’ blood covers it all anyway!”

So we are encouraged to say, “I forgive you,” or, “You are forgiven,” long before there is the slightest indication that the person in question even wants it. In so doing, we think that we’re being like Christ. Thus we reach the false and dangerous conclusion that we shouldn’t discipline the wrongdoer in the church but rather forgive and forget, because this forgiveness and unqualified acceptance might bring him to repentance.

Bad theology like this, based on the shakiest of foundations, has served to sap the church’s vitality and its will to carry out discipline. Think about this: Did Jesus impart forgiveness to those who hated and killed him even before they asked for forgiveness?

Jesus loved those who persecuted him and was perfectly ready to forgive them at a moment’s notice. He was prepared to forgive his killers and, in the largeness of his heart, they could have been wholly and eternally pardoned for their profound sin. He asked the Father to forgive them and to be lenient toward them because they weren’t really aware of all that they were doing. They weren’t fully cognizant of the magnitude of their actions when they crucified him. This much seems certain.

Yet was their guilt removed because Jesus asked the Father to forgive them?

If you examine the entire New Testament understanding of guilt and forgiveness, it becomes clear that there is no forgiveness and can’t be any forgiveness without confession of sin and some indication of a penitent heart. In the Gospels, Jesus granted forgiveness to any and all who really wanted it. He’s the same today.

In the Old Testament book of Judges 10:10–14, for example, it’s very clear that God doesn’t always grant forgiveness just because confession occurs. God actually rejects the confession and withholds forgiveness unless the confession of sin is truly from the heart, indicating a genuine sorrow for it and desire to be free from it. Only when we truly want to be forgiven, are prepared to confess and openly acknowledge our sin, and intend to turn from it with the help of God, are we absolved of our guilt and its consequences.

It’s probably true that some of those responsible for the cruel torture and execution of Jesus were later sorry for what they had done and wanted to be forgiven for it. We may assume that such people could have been behind the scenes, just as the apostle Paul (then “Saul of Tarsus”) once stood by and approved the execution of Stephen in Acts 7. There is no evidence, however, that Jesus’ plea for mercy upon his persecutors resulted in their blanket forgiveness. It was conditional on their later coming to a place of genuine remorse, confession, and repentance.

Neither did he turn to the criminals crucified on either side of him and say, “By the way, I know you didn’t ask for it, but you are forgiven anyway. I’ll see you both in paradise.” Rather, he turned to the one who offered some indication of a repentant heart and declared that he would be in paradise with him that very day. In the words that the criminal spoke to Jesus, he seemed to indicate that he was fully aware of his guilt, that he justly deserved his punishment, and that he was sorry for his life’s choices. Jesus perceived in his limited confession a contrite heart, and for his ounce of confession and repentance, he received a ton of forgiveness. It was a moment of exquisite irony when Jesus granted to him all that the religious people standing around the cross strove a lifetime (in vain) to achieve by means of prideful self-effort.

As believers, we are expected by Jesus to be prepared to forgive our enemy the very moment he asks to be forgiven. This is probably what is meant by that part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). If we refuse to forgive others their offenses against us, then we can’t expect God to forgive us ours. Our unforgiveness clogs the channel of grace that is intended to pour in our direction. We’re expected to be ready to impart with eagerness and gladness our forgiveness to those who act hatefully toward or harm us whenever and as often as it is genuinely requested. As Jesus explained:

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times a day, and comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.
Luke 17:3–4

The general rule of forgiveness and its prerequisite is spelled out clearly in the First Letter of John:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9

At the heart of this debate over forgiveness is the confusion between kindness, or love toward one’s enemies, and forgiveness. Let me illustrate this with a story that has been used by some Christian writers to validate forgiveness prior to confession—the plot in Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables.

Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, is renowned for his love and compassion toward his parishioners as well as his kindness to the poor. One evening, a desperately hungry man arrives at his door. The man is a hardened ex-convict who has spent the last nineteen years in prison. His name is Jean Valjean.

Valjean is surprised by the bishop’s care for him and repays him by slipping out in the night with his host’s silverware. Early the next day, he is caught by the police and returned to confront the bishop. Myriel shocks both Jean Valjean and the police by saying that he had freely given the silverware as a gift to Valjean and further chides him for having forgotten the silver candlesticks. As the thief departs, the bishop tells him that by accepting the candlesticks, he has promised to live an upright life. Some time later, Valjean does repent and is radically transformed by the unrequested and unexpected “forgiveness.”

It’s one of the great stories in the history of literature (one of my favorites), but let’s not forget that it’s a work of fiction. Although loosely based upon a real person, Jean Valjean didn’t exist. Hugo could just as easily have made him say, “Thanks, chump, I’ll take the silver,” and use it to finance his next heist. (Of course, this would have made a much less interesting plot!)

If Hugo was illustrating any point of Christian theology in this story, it would be Jesus’ instruction on exemplifying the presence of the Kingdom of God by taking moral control of a personal violation. In Luke 6:29 Jesus states that if someone takes your cloak, then give him your tunic also. If someone forces you to go one mile (probably a reference to carrying a Roman soldier’s heavy equipment), then turn the tables, take charge of the situation, and carry it a good distance farther (Matt. 5:41). If someone strikes you on the cheek, then offer him the other cheek as well (Lk. 6:29).

Such behavior may drive them crazy enough to ask why you’re doing it! In these several ways, malice is absorbed, the moral tables are turned, and good is done in the place of evil. Such actions serve to bump the bully out of the way and place you in the driver’s seat. These aren’t so much cases of instant forgiveness without confession as they are examples of Christlike kindness designed to produce the will to repent. The apostle Paul tells us clearly that it’s God’s kindness (not his blanket forgiveness) that’s intended to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

The point for Jesus is willingly giving away more than what is taken. The motive for such action is godly care for the offender and earnest desire to see him bend his knee in contrition. Like God, we’re to be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Lk. 6:35). No doubt it requires a forgiving spirit (the spirit of Christ in us) to pull this off, but it’s not in itself an illustration of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the word we use to name the completed transaction of a gift desired and a gift given.

Just as bitterness and unforgiveness block the flow of God’s forgiveness toward us, much the way fatty deposits caused by high cholesterol impede the flow of blood, so deliberate kindness to our enemies is like the medication that dissolves the deposits and clears the veins.

Let’s get things in the right order: kindness, repentance, and forgiveness. If there is no other plan offered to us to get right before God and one another, we shouldn’t try and create another one just to make everyone feel better.

We do need to work through all the stages of getting rid of any root of bitterness, anger, unforgiveness, and so forth, for no Christian can hold onto these feelings and stay clean before God. This needs to get settled with God even if the person who offended us never cares enough to ask for forgiveness. This can’t be stressed enough. We can’t wait for the other person to become gracious and humble. It may never happen. It usually doesn’t. Our personal healing can take place as we turn over our pain and resentment to our Father in sincere prayer for the one who has harmed us. Our attitude of forgiveness toward our enemy registers instantly with God.

However, it doesn’t make sense to say, “I/we forgive you,” to someone who hasn’t asked to be forgiven. The sentiment is perhaps well-intentioned and praiseworthy, but ultimately only God can forgive sins because it is he and he alone who is the ultimate victim of sin, even sin that is directed toward us.

The buck stops with him.

Unless he forgives, there is no forgiveness, and we are led by the Scriptures to believe that he doesn’t forgive unless there is first some desire to be liberated from sin. It would be just as meaningful for me to pronounce forgiveness to the unrepentant person, as it would be to declare my golden retriever the Queen of England!

The person who suffers a wrong in the church and immediately imagines himself to be the final dispenser of forgiveness is foolishly trying to play the role of God. A severe wrong is done to the offender by making him think that all is well just because the victim says that it is. With this form of cheap grace, his sinfulness is never taken seriously. His behavior is brushed off as, “Oh, that’s just the way Jack is.” He is never given the opportunity to have his sins cleansed by the pure mercy of God. He is never called upward to spiritual maturity and the fullness of faith. What the “cheap forgiver” thinks he has done in the name of Jesus turns out to be a great disservice to the guilty person.

Without his asking for forgiveness, if I say to the guilty chronic offender, “I forgive you,” what he’s likely to conclude is, “I’m forgiven.” This is the worst thing that can happen to him. He’s fooled into thinking that all is well when it isn’t. The stain doesn’t go away just because we want it to, or just because we say that it does.

Sometimes this misguided action is the result of our earnest, professionally led reconciliation processes. We short-circuit God’s plan of bringing people to new life and spiritual health by dismissing their sin before they’re even given a chance to feel sorry for it and to deal with it. We have made ourselves feel better by giving out free passes to the offender while shutting him out of the grace offered by God through the gifts of confession and repentance. Full, bold church discipline is in many cases the only prescribed route of true reconciliation and restoration, not special “sin-discounts” handed out by the well-meaning believer.

When the apostle Paul was personally wounded and his ministry hurt by an apparently unrepentant man named Alexander, Paul didn’t say of him, “I forgive him anyway,” but rather that the Lord would reward him according to his works (2 Tim. 4:1).

The human side of biblical forgiveness involves a mysterious and profound moral transaction, not some cheap, fast food approach. It is a gift of incalculable worth given by one person to another. It is something offered willingly by one and received joyfully by another. Unless both sides of the transaction are wholly involved in the offer and the reception, the full transaction hasn’t occurred.

Nothing real has happened.

Forgiveness hasn’t taken place.

Just because one party or the other refuses to play the necessary role, either of offering forgiveness or asking to be forgiven, we don’t have the right to bypass the only mechanism that works. In particular, we have no authority whatever, nor should we encourage others, to “dump” forgiveness on the unwilling, resistant recipient in the name of some sloppy sentimentalism soaked in Christian terminology.

We do recognize the offended person must have some avenue by which to exit the cycle of bitterness and hurt, even when the offender is unrepentant. A repentant spirit is probably the exception, not the rule. But we can’t be held hostage by this.

On a separate timetable, the victim must work through the issue of forgiveness before God and actively pray for the victimizer, preparing to offer forgiveness the moment it is asked for. Even if it is never requested, this step makes the way clear between the wounded person and their God. Should we be merciful and forgiving people?
Yes! Should we withhold forgiveness from those who need it? Never! Do we need to be free of bitterness and resentment toward those who hurt us? Always!

But are we called upon to declare people forgiven before they even desire it or ask for it? Absolutely not!

We are required only to clear away the moral debris between us and God, to be ready to offer forgiveness to the offender, to pray for our enemies and those who use and abuse us, and then earnestly to hope for the day when they come to us and ask for our forgiveness. If the latter never happens, then it is entirely God’s issue, not ours.

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