John Piper on Forgiveness

Yesterday, I compared Jewish and evangelical Christian ideas about forgiveness. Today I want to look at some of controversial conservative evangelical theologian John Piper’s writings on forgiveness.

Piper conceptualizes sin as an offense committed primarily against God, and not against one’s fellow humans. As a result, his teachings on forgiveness center on God’s forgiveness, leaving out almost entirely any need to ask those one has wronged for forgiveness. When Piper does talk about forgiveness between humans, he focuses primarily on the victim’s need to forgive the one who wronged them, and he leaves out any obligation for the perpetrator to make amends.

The problems with modern evangelical ideas about forgiveness run deep.

In a 2009 audio, Piper responded to this question, posed to him by a follower:

Is it possible to be repentant and forgiven for something without telling anyone you did it? Or is confession to another person a necessity?

Note the assumptions at play in this question. The person posing it is asking whether they should also confess, yes, but they’re operating on the assumption that forgiveness comes from God alone, and not from the person who was wronged. Anything else is ancillary. There’s also no suggestion here that the confession would need to be to the person who was wronged. Certainly, not every evangelical Christian sin involves wronging a person (as opposed to what I like to call “thought crime”), but the framing still feels off.

How does Piper respond?

Well, the short answer is that confession to another person is not an absolute necessity. If you were to have a lustful thought and then a heart attack, you wouldn’t go to hell if you were born again.

Here we go with the thought crime! One problem I have with evangelical Christianity is how very many “sins” there are that hurt no one at all. God forbid someone have a lustful thought. Still, don’t get distracted by the details—notice that Piper says directly that confessing your sin to another person “is not an absolute necessity.” You don’t have to confess your sins to anyone at all to be forgiven by God.

Let’s turn our mind’s to yesterday’s post, which centered on the story of a woman named Jane, who was drugged and raped by a seminary student at the evangelical college she attended. According to Piper’s logic here, this seminary student could be forgiven by God for drugging and raping Jane without saying anything at all to Jane, and without admitting his wrongdoing to anyone else. The fundamental assumption here is that Jane’s rapist sinned against God, rather than against Jane. It is God whose forgiveness he needs to ask.

Of course, Piper isn’t done yet.

I think a person who is asking this question may be operating under a kind of mechanical notion of the way repentance towards God and confession of our sins towards others works. And I would like to relieve that person of that mechanical notion.

This is promising, let’s hear it.

But really more helpful might be to ask, What is the role of confession to other people? When should you do it, and why would that be helpful?

James 5:16 is the key text there: “Confess your sins to one another … that you may be healed.” So something really valuable happens when we confess our sins to one another.

The focus feels wrong here—confess your sins that you may be healed. That sounds rather self-serving. Remember, one of the things I covered in yesterday’s post was the Jewish emphasis on making amends for wrongs you have done to other people. This is about as opposite from that as you can get. But then, Piper is talking about confessing your sins to others, and necessarily the one you wronged, and he’s using passages that ultimately became the foundation for the Catholic sacrament of confession to a priest.

What about a person you have wronged?

If you sin against another, the Bible is pretty clear that you shouldn’t first go to the altar, but first go and get it right with your brother before you go to the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). So confession is crucial at that point to another person.

But even there I don’t want to say it’s absolute, because my guess is that the thief on the cross had offended so many and hurt so many people when he became a Christian and he had no time to make any of it up. He went straight to heaven half an hour later, as Jesus said: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

So it is not an absolute necessity, but it is very healing for relationships.

Here again, apologizing to a person you have wronged is not necessary to obtain forgiveness—but, Piper says, it’s “very healing for relationships.” Piper mentions the passage in Matthew about making it right with your brother before going to the altar, but skims over the passage such that he barely touches on it. What is the impact of Jesus saying they should first go and make it right with their brother, before going to God? Isn’t this something Piper should talk about?

I’ve been reading more by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman recently, and one thing he points out is that the New Testament, and even the Gospels, are a mix of older beliefs and newer beliefs, collected together in sometimes idiosyncratic ways as Christianity developed during its first eighty years or so. I suspect that the Matthew passage mentioned above is closer to Jewish teachings at the time, an early tradition that was perhaps something Jesus actually said; if I am right, over time this teaching was ultimately marginalized as Christian theology developed, and granting forgiveness to those who called upon his name became one of Jesus’ central attributes.

Suffice it to say, Piper informs his followers that asking forgiveness from those you have wronged is a good idea—“it is very healing for relationships”—but that it is not necessary for attaining forgiveness, which comes from Jesus alone.

Let me give you another example of Piper’s views, from another post. In this post he informs his followers that if they will not forgive others, they will go to hell. But I want to focus on one paragraph, and I want you to read it thinking about Jane’s situation. Piper is trying to show how ridiculous it is for a Christian to not want to forgive someone who has “offended” them. His argument is that however much another person has committed an offense against them, they have committed far more offense against God, who has already forgiven them freely.

I mean, how in the world could I hold a grudge against somebody when I have not been offended nearly like God has been offended — so highly that he has to pay the life of his Son in order for me to be forgiven? That is exactly the point of Matthew 18 with the parable of the unforgiving servant — which is like a parabolic form of Matthew 6:15 — where the servant owes the king a billion dollars. It is just off the charts what he owes, and he gets forgiven freely. But then he goes out and he feels it so little; it means so little to him that he strangles his fellow servant for ten dollars. And when the king hears about it, he sends him to jail. And Jesus concludes that parable like this: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

Piper’s argument is that whether someone else has talked behind your back or drugged and raped you, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the wrong you have done God. It is wrong to “hold a grudge” against a person who has wronged you, in other words, because you have wronged God far more than this person has wronged you. This cannot be a healthy thing to tell a rape victim.

In another piece, Piper answers a question about what to do if someone has wronged you, but has not admitted their wrongdoing and asked forgiveness. Piper doesn’t mince words.

So here we are told how to relate to a person who is not repenting, not recognizing any wrong being done, or maybe they are and they are glad they are doing it. And the answer is: Don’t return evil for evil. Rather, bless them. So it is not an issue of the fullest kind of forgiveness. You could call it, maybe, one-sided forgiveness. The Christian is choosing not to be the punisher, but treating the other person better than they deserve — in a sense, as if they hadn’t been hurt.

And again I say, this sounds like a horrible thing to tell a rape victim.

I’m reminded again of the story I covered in yesterday’s post. Jane wrote that her pastor called her in to go over the things she would need to do to continue attending college there, and that when he did he had her sit next to her rapist, in the same room with her, so that he could talk to both of them. Jane’s body was awash with adrenaline. She was absolutely panicked. And no wonder! Trauma does things do us. You can’t just say “he has admitted he did wrong and God has forgiven him” and expect the person he drugged and raped over the course of several days to sit nicely in the room with him, talking through the issue with him calmly and rationally. That’s not how trauma works. It’s not how bodies work.

So much of what Piper says reflects no understanding of how trauma works that I’m left to wonder whether theologians are expected to know anything about psychology or counseling. If

Okay, one more excerpt from a Piper piece on forgiveness:

Our moral indignation because of a terrible offense done against us does not evaporate just because the offender is a Christian. In fact, we may feel even more betrayed. And a simple, “I’m sorry” will often seem utterly disproportionate to the painfulness and ugliness of the offense.

But in this case we are dealing with fellow Christians and the promise of God’s wrath against our offender does not apply, because there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” … It looks like they are going to get away with it!

Where shall we turn to assure ourselves that justice will be done — that Christianity is not a mockery of the seriousness of sin?

The answer is that we look to the cross of Christ. …

The suffering of Christ was the real punishment and recompense of God on every hurt you have ever received from a fellow Christian. Therefore, Christianity does not make light of sin. It does not add insult to our injury.

On the contrary, it takes the sins against us so seriously that, to make them right, God gave his own Son to suffer more than we could ever make anyone suffer for what they have done to us. If we go on holding a grudge against a fellow believer, we are saying in effect that the cross of Christ was not a sufficient recompense for the sins of God’s people. This is an insult to Christ and his cross you do not want to give.

I … what?

Let’s return to Jane’s situation. Her rapist admitted to their pastor what he did and apologized to her for it. Sort of. Not really. It was all done very badly. But still, he admitted he did wrong! And, per Piper’s view, he is forgiven by God. Because, Christian. He will suffer nothing for what he did—and he need suffer nothing! It’s a-okay that he gets to drug and rape people, blame them for what they wore, ask God’s forgiveness, and get off scot free. And why is that okay? It’s okay because Jesus was tortured to death on the cross, and somehow that makes it okay.

There’s nothing here about making amends. Nothing. Piper says you should confess your sin to the person you wronged because “it is very healing for relationships,” but that’s it. You don’t need that person’s forgiveness. You don’t need to make anything right. All you need is God’s forgiveness. In fact, Piper has a devotional titled “How to Ask Forgiveness” that says not one word about asking fellow humans for forgiveness. Sin is primarily a wrong done to God, not to other people.

There is nothing that could go wrong with this line of thought, nothing at all.

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