Must a Christian Forgive Unconditionally?

Must a Christian Forgive Unconditionally? January 2, 2017

Must a Christian Forgive Unconditionally?

Believe it or not, I have found this to be one of the most controverted subjects among Christian ethicists. Must a Christian forgive unconditionally? Or may he or she hold back forgiveness until there is repentance shown? I have struggled with this question much.

Some years ago well-known and highly regarded Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes, author of at least one book about forgiveness, gave lectures at the seminary where I teach. I had the privilege of spending some quality time alone with him. At least one of his lectures was about forgiveness and he strongly asserted that a Christian must forgive others unconditionally.

A few years later another well-known Christian ethicist, David Augsburger (both he and Smedes taught at Fuller Seminary), came and gave lectures at the seminary. He also talked about forgiveness and strongly asserted that a Christian is not obligated to forgive others unconditionally.

Needless to say, some people were more pleased with Augsburger’s assertion than with Smedes’s. Many, however, agreed more with Smedes.

So who’s right—Smedes or Augsburger?  This is one of those important questions that I suspect will never get fully resolved “this side of eternity” (to use the old “language of Zion”).

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Both sides point to Jesus who said that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us (a warning found in all three synoptic gospels). However, nowhere in Scripture, to the best of my knowledge, does it explicitly say that we must forgive others unconditionally. The above referenced saying of Jesus indicates to me that God’s forgiveness is conditional, not unconditional. And it does not say we must forgive unconditionally. On the other hand, Jesus, on the cross, asked God to forgive his tormenters and executioners “for they know not what they do.” That points to unconditional forgiveness.

Apparently, as in so many cases, Scripture itself does not settle the question definitively. That’s what keeps Christian theologians and ethicists employed. As I tell my students every semester “Scripture is not as clear as we wish it were—about many things.”

It is my opinion that God does not expect us to forgive others unconditionally, but neither does he expect us not to forgive others unconditionally. In other words, it may be good to do it, but it is an act of supererogation, not an act of required or expected obedience. In other words, it’s not a sin not to forgive someone unconditionally, but it may be better to do it. Better for whom? Possibly for us. Not forgiving even an unrepentant person can be a real drag on the enjoyment of life. “The best revenge is to live well.” And to forgive unconditionally.

There may be cases, instances, however, where forgiving unconditionally is not best—for the offending person and for society. Let’s think of an extreme example. To forgive a rapist may not be helpful to him or to anyone—without his sincere, heartfelt repentance and deep expressions of sorrow and regret—to his victim and to everyone his crime and sin hurt. (Even with repentance, of course, he must suffer consequences. Here I am not talking at all about retributive justice, only about personal forgiveness.)

I often think it is in offending persons’ best interest to require them to ask for forgiveness as a condition of forgiveness—when the offending action is a profound betrayal. On the other hand, simply to forgive and move on, by which I don’t mean forgetting, is often in the offended and/or betrayed person’s best interests.

I have found it impossible to judge fellow Christians who have been profoundly betrayed for not forgiving unless and until the betrayer sincerely seeks forgiveness. On the other hand, I pray for the strength of character and will to forgive my betrayers unconditionally as Jesus did while being tortured to death.

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