Must a Christian Forgive Unconditionally?

Must a Christian Forgive Unconditionally? June 5, 2021

Must a Christian Forgive Unconditionally?

This is a question many Christians (setting aside others in order to focus on people who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ) forgive others unconditionally?

This is a question that has haunted Christian ethics for ages and different Christian ethicists have offered opposite answers.

To make the question “come alive,” here is a (possibly) hypothetical scenario (but one that many Christians have faced in specific ways):

One Christian leader, highly regarded as having integrity, commits an egregious act of dishonesty to harm another Christian’s reputation. He knowingly lies and spreads the lie. The victim of the Christian leader refutes the lie and asks him to retract it and apologize. The perpetrator of the blatant lie declines to retract it or apologize—even after being asked directly twice.

The lying Christian leader goes on to become one of the best-known and most highly regarded Christian ethicists. He is publicly hailed as a “man of great integrity.” The victim of his lie watches and waits, occasionally reminding him of his perfidy, but he never hears back.

One day the lying Christian leader, now famous due to even secular media attention, comes to speak at an institution where his victim works. The victim, a devout Christian, asks the man’s handlers to set up a one-on-one meeting so that the two can work things out. He gets no response.

*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.*

Here is the question that bedevils not only this hypothetical scenario but many others, including real, similar situations: Must the Christian victim of the famous Christian leader’s public lying forgive him unconditionally?

Some years ago I read and heard speak two opposite answers from two very influential and highly regarded Christian ethicists. Both taught at the same evangelical seminary! Both had written influential books on forgiveness. I met both and put the same question to them—separately.

One insisted that it is always the Christian’s duty to forgive others unconditionally. The other one insisted that it is not necessarily the Christian’s duty to forgive unconditionally. The second one argued that forgiveness can be made contingent on the perpetrator acknowledging the wrong and asking for forgiveness. After all, he said, God does not forgive unconditionally.

Or does he? The first Christian ethicist pointed out that Jesus, on the cross, asked God the Father to forgive those who were crucifying him—unconditionally. The second Christian ethicist pointed out that Jesus did not offer all of humanity, sinners all, unconditional forgiveness. That would mean universal salvation—technically, at least, a heresy in Christian tradition. Paul did not forgive Barnabas but rejected his companionship. In the Great Judgment Christ will not forgive all unconditionally.

This is a great dilemma and one that has so consumed Christian ethicists’ attention that they have, for the most part, given up trying to answer it. Does it even have an answer? One would hope so!

My own opinion, tentative and open to correction, is that in the (possibly) hypothetical situation described above, the victim need not forgive the perpetrator unless he acknowledges the wrong done—not only to the one victim but almost certainly to others as well—and asks forgiveness.

However, if the perpetrator of the lie(s) does acknowledge the wrong done and asks for forgiveness, it is the victim’s Christian duty to offer forgiveness fully and freely without requiring anything else.

I will raise one other, related question. In the (possibly) hypothetical scenario (or scenarios like it), would the victim of the lie be justified in exposing the now famous Christian ethicist’s perfidy? Imagine he, the victim, has the proof and knows that the lying ethicist cannot defend his earlier lie. And he has never acknowledged it or apologized for it. People now think the liar is a man of great integrity—as he may be (assuming he has changed).

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