This is a paper I wrote for my Systematic Theology class on the topic of ‘forgiveness.’ I removed some parts for the sake of this being a blog post and not a book. I interact quite a bit with the book ‘Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds‘ by Chris Brauns. It’s a good book, more than I give it credit for in my paper. That author knows way more about forgiveness than I currently do, but I think I give him a fair treatment nonetheless. I also cite ‘Evil and the Justice of God‘ by N.T. Wright because it is apparently impossible for me to write a paper without citing Wright…
I hope the essence of my logic is clear, but if it’s not please feel free to comment and question.
The Problem With Forgiveness
Forgiveness is almost as difficult to define as it is to do! It swirls with emotions, dabbles in various doctrines, elicits different reactions to a single situation, and seems to fly in the face of justice. Forgiveness tries to repair broken relationships like all the kings men and soldiers try to piece together Humpty-Dumpty. To those on the outside, it seems calm and tranquil- simple even! But for those who dare to attempt it, the turmoil is mind boggling. The pain can run very deep, and forgiveness often seems unattainable. Issues of repentance, justice, and interpersonal-relationships create a quagmire of problems. The goal of my paper will be to share a biblical view of forgiveness which resolves most of this turmoil. I will do so by defining ‘biblical forgiveness,’ applying that definition to an example from my own life (removed from blog post), and stating how my definition relates to other important Christian doctrines (removed from blog post). Throughout the paper I will reference ‘Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds’ by Chris Brauns, a thorough work with more in it on forgiveness than I could possibly ever address in one paper.
‘Biblical Forgiveness,’ A Definition
‘Biblical forgiveness’ is not the same as a simple dictionary definition of forgiveness. It attempts to reconcile all the language used of forgiveness in the Bible and to state the parameters of what they all share in common. Brauns has a very helpful appendix on the biblical words used for ‘forgiveness’ on pages 213-218. His approach to defining forgiveness is how I began myself, by piecing together the biblical material and finding the essential elements which come to bear in a finalized definition. Thus, I define biblical forgiveness as the outworking of a Christ-like disposition of gracious, merciful, and unselfish love by the offended toward the one(s) who violated a biblical principle against them, in order to restore a God-honoring relationship. This will result in the offended naming and shaming the evil done to them, working through the consequences of that evil in order to restore a proper relationship, and not allowing the evil to determine the kind of person they will become. Biblical forgiveness is the predisposition and resulting actions of the offended Christian to their offender. It is something Christians must embody and then live out when they have been wronged in a biblically definable way, for it is the embodiment of Christ in their lives.
Brauns defines forgiveness as “a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.” There are certainly areas of overlap between our definitions, but also areas of disagreement. To work both areas out, I will first address how we agree and then review my essential problems with Brauns’ definition.
The absolute best thing Brauns does in his book is lay the foundation of Christian forgiveness in God’s forgiveness. He does so very clearly in chapters two and three, it is the ‘key principle’ in defining biblical forgiveness. God forgives us graciously but not freely, God’s forgiveness is conditional, it is a commitment, it begins and works toward reconciliation, and it does not free the forgiven from all consequences. On pages 121-125 Brauns works through Matthew 6:14-15, 7:1-2, and 18:23-25 to show how Christians absolutely and without question must forgive because of the massive debt God forgave of them. Since he derives these principles, which I do not entirely agree with, from how God forgives mankind in Scripture, our method of defining forgiveness is the same.
In chapter five, Brauns also develops a point with which I agree full heartedly, that is: biblical forgiveness is more than a feeling. A chart on page 65 lays out the differences between therapeutic forgiveness and Brauns view. There are specifically two points I agree with here: a biblical standard must have been broken for forgiveness to even be an option and forgiveness is a commitment to pardon the offender. Forgiveness cannot be done when the offended makes it all about themselves. It is about the offended person and how they relate to their offender. Brauns and I will disagree on how that goes down, but for now we agree that therapeutic forgiveness is a cheap knock-off of biblical forgiveness in that it is entirely self-motivated and thus self-defeating by denying the relational dimension of forgiveness.
There are other key aspects of biblical forgiveness Brauns covers, for which I must applaud him. On page 79 he discusses the importance of humbleness as an attitude of the heart. A humble Christian is able to nip conflict in the bud, or seek resolution quickly after conflicts occur. Forgiveness only happens when the offended has a humble heart. Pride is the enemy of humbleness, and thus also forgiveness. Pride will blind the offended, making it impossible to see past having been wronged. They become so inwardly focused they cannot think of anything but themselves, and forgiveness is far from the mind. Vengeance, however, readily lends itself to fill the space. This is one of the reasons why the love of others is so critical to my definition of biblical forgiveness; it banishes the possibility of pride.
The most enlightening portion of Brauns book, I thought, was chapter eight and his six steps in identifying if an offense should be pursued or if it should be dropped. In my definition, this is the starting point for how Christians outwork their Christ-like disposition. The six steps are all inwardly focused, to ensure the offended’s positions are biblically sound: their position before God, their attitude toward their offender, and their perception of the situation. The steps are: ensuring there is not an offense the offender must first repent of, working through the problem to establish the offended was in fact wronged according to a biblical standard, establishing how important the offense really was, establishing if the offense is a pattern of behavior by the offender, seeking wise and confidential advice from one or two others, and, lastly, learning the offender’s current life situation. These things will form the way in which forgiveness should be manifested, either by dropping the offense all together, tempering the confrontation by various degrees, or flat out confronting the offender.
Another well thought out piece of forgiveness by Brauns, which I found very helpful, was on the topic of bitterness- the battle for the mind. Resisting bitterness as people of forgiveness is very important in both of our definitions. For Brauns bitterness deteriorates the commitment to forgive key to his definition. For me, it deteriorates the disposition of gracious, merciful, and unselfish love. In both examples bitterness has a negative impact on the mind and actions of the offended toward their offender.
Although I found Brauns’ definition useful, and the outworking of his definition to be both insightful and packed with biblically based advice, I developed my own definition to correct some of the errors I perceived. Actually, there is only one disagreement worth addressing, but it manifests itself in various ways. Brauns states that forgiveness is conditional upon the repentance of the offender. The offended person should not forgive their offender if their offender refuses to repent. The offended must offer forgiveness, but they need not actually forgive. This is so important to Brauns that he makes it a critical part of his definition of forgiveness: “to pardon graciously those who repent.” He derives this belief from his understanding of how God forgives, which is based on his understanding of salvation, justification, and propitiation. He argues those who do not repent of their sins against God are damned because they are unforgiven by God. Christ’s work of the cross did not appease God’s wrath, they do not stand justified before God, and they are not saved. God graciously offers forgiveness to such people, but does not forgive them until they repent. By saying this, Brauns makes forgiveness dependent on the actions of the offender, the sinner. However, forgiveness cannot be shackled in such a manner! To do so reduces God’s glory by making a God-honoring relationship impossible in unrepentant situations. Ultimately, it belittles God’s power. Hell becomes a place God is forced to put people against his own will. God gets what he wants, and what he wants is a relationship that brings him glory with every single person he ever created, even those in hell. He does so by forgiving us all regardless of repentance on our part. Although repentance is the best response to being forgiven, it is not the only response which glorifies him. Forgiveness is the totally under control of the offended and it always results in the glory of God.
For Brauns, forgiveness will and must result in repentance, thus making repentance the goal of forgiveness. For me, forgiveness will and must result in the restoration of a God-honoring relationship. Repentance is the best possible option but not a necessary one. The question I must grapple with is ‘Does God send people he forgave to hell?’ I posit that condemnation to hell is the only God-honoring relationship possible between God and his unrelentingly unrepentant offenders. Only the Holy Spirit can convict the hearts of the unrepentant to repentance, thus pulling them out from their downward spiral into hell. For Christians, this means we should treat the unrepentant as non-believers, as Matthew 18:25-27 concludes. This is a God-honoring relationship between believers and their unrepentant offenders. The Christian relates to the unrepentant offender by pitying them, sharing the Gospel with them, not giving up hope, and praying that the Spirit would soften their hardened hearts. In doing so, Christians embody forgiveness by offering forgiveness. When they embody Christ’s forgiveness in such a manner they are a people of forgiveness through and through. They truly have forgiven those who offended them and God is glorified.
Justification and propitiation are parts of the offer of forgiveness. As I define it, to offer forgiveness is to forgive. To be offered forgiveness is to be forgiven. It is up to the offender to accept their status as one forgiven and allow the restorative work of forgiveness to benefit them. Forgiving is not conditional on the part of the offended, they must do it and it will always be to their benefit. For that same forgiveness to also benefit the offender, they must repent. Thus repentance is conditional for the offender in order for them to benefit from being forgiven. Repentance is conditional, not forgiveness. This is the heart of my disagreement with Brauns.
God forgives all mankind through Jesus Christ his Son by covering the offenses of mankind against him through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Mankind is justified before God through Christ as a condition of that forgiveness. In denying the reality of being justified, denying the reality of forgiveness Christ has inaugurated for all mankind, God distances the unrepentant from himself, and they from him, and thus maintain a God-honoring relationship between them, despite unrepentance. The ultimate end of such a relationship is hell. It is not the desirable end for those God has forgiven, but it is where God wants them, and they want themselves. The unrepentant before God fail to realize the reality that they are forgiven in Christ. Justification means nothing to them; they are not saved because they did not repent.
As I define forgiveness, God through Christ worked out his disposition of gracious, merciful, and unselfish love toward all mankind in order to restore a God-honoring relationship with us all. God named and shamed the evil done to him, working through the consequences of our sin, ultimately on the cross but also as a father disciplines a beloved child. God did not allow our sin against him to change him by belittling his love, power, or ultimate glory. This is how Christians must also forgive their offenders.
I am indebted to Chris Brauns for guiding me to a better understanding of what biblical forgiveness. I had not realized how muddied my own thoughts were on the subject, and in wrestling through his work I believe I have developed a better definition of biblical forgiveness than both him and I began with. My definition of biblical forgiveness is the outworking of a Christ-like disposition of gracious, merciful, and unselfish love by the offended toward the one(s) who violated a biblical principle against them, in order to restore a God-honoring relationship. This definition clears away the confusion surrounding forgiveness and answers many of the hard questions. I demonstrated this by comparing and contrasting it with Brauns’ definition in Unpacking Forgiveness, demonstrating it in a personal story (removed from blog), and by integrating it with other doctrines of Christian theology (removed from blog). Christ forgave all mankind by dying on the cross and desires their repentance so that they may benefit from God’s gracious love. May Christians have the same attitude toward their enemies, embodying the teaching of 1 Peter 3:9 and Romans 12:14-21 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…”
 N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2006), 152.
 Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, 155.
 Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds (Crossway Books: Wheaton, 2008), 55.
 Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, 44.
 Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, 45-49.
 Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, 81-83.
 Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, 47, 57, 141-152.
 Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, 51, 55.
 Matthew 18:15-17, understanding ‘Gentile and tax collector’ through passages such as Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 5:27-32.
 Romans 5:9, 6:10; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21.