Christian Counseling: Forgiveness: What Does God Really Say About It?

"God won't forgive me, if I don't always forgive others. Besides, I need to forgive so I can be released from anger." I have repeatedly heard these words from so many Christians, whether in person, in print or in a sermon. Only once have I heard that forgiveness is not absolutely unconditional, and that was from author Gary Chapman in a radio interview with Focus on the Family. It is also fairly briefly mentioned in his book The Five Languages of Apology. I have not heard the same from anyone since.

I have never believed in absolute unconditional forgiveness, nor have I found such in the Bible. Though I admit it sounds so wonderful, I wanted to believe it. And there is a sense of it in that Jesus unconditionally died for our sins, but forgiveness must be appropriated to the individual or theologically we end up with universalism (God forgives everyone and all go to heaven). What I have found is numerous believers locked into a common pattern of repeatedly forgiving an offender, due to resurfacing and unresolved emotions, such as: strong grief, anger and the sense of injustice. They tell themselves if they truly forgave they shouldn't reexperience negative feelings or thoughts. I agree, true forgiveness emotionally releases one to care for the welfare of the offender. Yet their unwanted feelings keep coming back. The reason they state is that they are human, and the right thing to do is forgive again.

Very, very rarely do I find anyone willing to question if that theological belief is correct (truly Scripturally-based and the clear and only intention of God) or responsible for the emotion impasse and conflict of repeated forgivers of the same offense. Only rarely have I found others who deeply research the subject beyond a book or article or two.

There are numerous Bible references regarding forgiveness, which I cannot fully cover here, but I will review a few of the ones that raise questions about the existence of absolute unconditional forgiveness (AUF) (meaning everyone should always forgive every offense, regardless of whether the offender confessed and repented or not):

1. (Deuteronomy 29:20) ‘“The Lord shall never be willing to forgive him... and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven.”’

2.  (Psalm 109)  It is too long to record here, but the essence is that David does not forgive a friend who turned against him. Instead, he prays for God's vengeance without being remorseful for his attitude or prayer, nor does God challenge him in that regard.

3.  (Jeremiah 18:23) “Yet You, O Lord, know all their deadly designs against me; do not forgive their iniquity or blot out their sin from Your sight.” Jeremiah goes on to ask for specifics regarding their punishment. There is no forgiveness from him or God and He fulfilled the prophet's prayer of vengeance in full, as recorded in subsequent chapters.

4.  (Matthew 6:15) "'But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.'" This is most frequently used to support AUF. What is often missed by readers is that God is modeling the withholding of forgiveness, proving here God's forgiveness is conditional. It is understood to mean, He refuses to forgive those who have no heart for forgiveness. Why would He ask us to AUF if He doesn't?

5.   (Matthew 12:31) "'but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven.'" Some wrongly say this refers to rejection of salvation, but the words are clear in the Greek and English--don't attribute evil to the Holy Spirit who is good, i.e., by calling Him a devil.

6.   (Matthew 18:15-17) ‘“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one ortwo more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”’ Where is AUF?

7.  (Luke 17:3,4) ‘“If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘Irepent,’ forgive him.”’ This is the essence of God's intended process for forgiveness. We always get ready to forgive another's offense, but grant it only when an offender confesses and repents. Otherwise, his sin remains. Is this not what is required of all who come to Jesus for salvation, first, confess one's sins and second, turn away from continuing them? Is anyone forgiven or saved without confession and repentance? Why wouldn't God simply give AUF?

8.  (Revelation 6:10) "'How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" The question come from saints, who could be you and I, who were killed during the great tribulation (7:13,14) and stand in heaven before Jesus and the Father and eagerly ask for vengeance. Again, where is AUF? God doesn't expect it from the saints, nor does He give it Himself without confession and repentance!

There are many more Biblical references, points and questions that can be raised. Such as, if one righteously withholds forgiveness, how does he or she then manage grief and anger without it being harmful? The answer to this and other questions is offered in a more detailed article on forgiveness that can be found in our Shop on the website entitled, Theologies That Wound:  A Study of Biblical Forgiveness (25 pages).

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