Recently, it appears that forgiveness of everyone, all the time, without exception, and without confession or repentance has become a Christian prerequisite. In its present form, it’s just another version of what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” He defined it as follows:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, is baptism without church discipline, is communion without confession of sins, is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living and incarnate Jesus Christ.
I think the confusion for most people today is the difference between “forgiveness” and “readiness to forgive.” One is an action, or transaction, and the other is an attitude. Thus many Christian counselors and motivational speakers today advise us that our responsibility is to “forgive” all those who do us wrong. We are called upon to forgive immediately, without waiting for the offender to ask, or even before he senses the need for it. We’re reminded, “We’re all sinners in God’s sight. All sin is equally bad.” Or, “If we don’t offer this kind of forgiveness, then God will not forgive us,” and, “Jesus’ blood covers it all anyway!”
So we are encouraged to say, “I forgive you,” or, “You are forgiven,” long before there is the slightest indication that the person even wants it. In so doing, we think we’re being like Christ. So we reach the false and dangerous conclusion that we shouldn’t discipline the wrongdoer in the church but rather forgive and forget, because this forgiveness and unqualified acceptance might bring him to repentance. Bad theology like this, based on the shakiest of foundations, only saps the church’s vitality and its will to carry out discipline.
But what about Jesus? Did he forgive those who hated and killed him even before they asked for it? Jesus loved those who persecuted him and was perfectly ready to forgive them at a moment’s notice. In the largeness of his heart, they could have been wholly and eternally pardoned for their profound sin. And he asked the Father to forgive them and be lenient toward them because they weren’t really aware of all that they were doing, of the magnitude of their actions when they crucified him. This much seems certain. Yet was their guilt removed because Jesus asked the Father to forgive them?
If you examine the entire New Testament understanding of guilt and forgiveness, it becomes clear that there is no forgiveness and can’t be any forgiveness without some indication of a penitent heart. In the Gospels, Jesus granted forgiveness to any and all who really wanted it. He’s the same today.
It’s probably true that some of those responsible for the cruel torture and execution of Jesus later repented of what they had done and wanted to be forgiven for it. We may assume that such people could have been behind the scenes, just as the apostle Paul (then “Saul of Tarsus”) once stood by and approved the execution of Stephen in Acts 7. There is no evidence, however, that Jesus’ plea for mercy on his persecutors resulted in their blanket forgiveness. It was conditional on their later coming to a place of genuine remorse, confession, and repentance.
Neither did Jesus turn to the criminals crucified on either side of him and say, “By the way, I know you didn’t ask for it, but you are forgiven anyway. I’ll see you both in paradise.” Rather, he turned to the one who offered some indication of a repentant heart and declared that he would be in paradise with him that very day. Jesus saw in his limited confession a contrite heart, and for his ounce of confession and repentance, he received a ton of forgiveness. It was a moment of exquisite irony when Jesus granted to him all that the religious people standing around the cross strove a lifetime (in vain) to achieve through prideful self-effort.
As believers, we are expected by Jesus to be prepared to forgive our enemy the very moment he asks to be forgiven. This is probably what is meant by that part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). If we refuse to forgive others their offenses against us, then we can’t expect God to forgive us ours. Our unforgiving attitude clogs the channel of grace that’s supposed to pour in our direction. We’re expected to be ready, even eager and glad, to forgive those who act hatefully toward us or harm us whenever and as often as it is genuinely asked for. As Jesus explained:
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times a day, and comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.
The general rule of forgiveness and its prerequisite are spelled out clearly in the First Letter of John:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
-1 John 1:9
At the heart of this debate over forgiveness is the confusion between kindness, or love toward one’s enemies, and forgiveness. Just as bitterness and lack of forgiveness block the flow of God’s forgiveness toward us, much the way fatty deposits caused by high cholesterol impede the flow of blood, so deliberate kindness to our enemies is like the medication that dissolves the deposits and clears the veins.
Jesus taught that we are to exemplify the presence of the Kingdom of God by taking moral control of a personal violation. In Luke 6:29 he says that if someone takes your cloak, then give him your tunic also. If someone forces you to go one mile (probably a reference to carrying a Roman soldier’s heavy equipment), then turn the tables, take charge of the situation, and carry it a good distance farther (Matthew 5:41). If someone strikes you on the cheek, then offer him the other cheek as well (Luke 6:29).
Such behavior may drive them crazy enough to ask why you’re doing it! In these several ways, malice is absorbed, the moral tables are turned, and good is done in the place of evil. Such actions bump the bully out of the way and place you in the driver’s seat. They aren’t so much cases of instant forgiveness without confession as they are examples of Christ-like kindness designed to produce the will to repent. The apostle Paul tells us clearly that it’s God’s kindness (not his blanket forgiveness) that’s intended to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
The point for Jesus is willingly giving away more than what is taken. The motive for this godly care for the offender is an earnest desire to see him bend his knee in contrition. Like God, we’re to be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:35). No doubt it requires a forgiving spirit (the spirit of Christ in us) to pull this off, but it’s not in itself an illustration of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the word we use to name the completed transaction of a gift desired and a gift given.
The person who suffers a wrong in the church and immediately imagines himself to be the final dispenser of forgiveness is foolishly trying to play the role of God. He doesn’t consider that he’s doing the offender a severe wrong by making him think that all is well just because the victim says it is. With this form of cheap grace, the offender’s sinfulness is never taken seriously. His behavior is brushed off as, “Oh, that’s just the way he is.” Thus he is never given the opportunity to have his sins cleansed by the pure mercy of God. He is never called upward to spiritual maturity and the fullness of faith. What the “cheap forgiver” thinks he has done in the name of Jesus turns out to be a great disservice to the guilty person.
In other words, if I say to the guilty chronic offender, “I forgive you,” what he’s likely to conclude is, “I’m forgiven.” This is the worst thing that can happen to him! He’s fooled into thinking that all is well when it isn’t. The stain doesn’t go away just because we want it to, or just because we say it does. Sometimes this misguided action is the result of our earnest, professionally led reconciliation process. We short-circuit God’s plan of bringing people to new life and spiritual health by dismissing their sin before they’re even given a chance to feel sorry for it and to deal with it. We have made ourselves feel better by giving out free passes to the offender while shutting him out of the grace offered by God through the gifts of confession and repentance. Full, bold church discipline is in many cases the only prescribed route of true reconciliation and restoration, not special “sin-discounts” handed out by the well-meaning believer.
When the apostle Paul was personally wounded and his ministry hurt by an apparently unrepentant man named Alexander, Paul didn’t say of him, “I forgive him anyway,” but rather that the Lord would reward him according to his works (2 Timothy 4:1).
The human side of biblical forgiveness involves a mysterious and profound moral transaction, not some cheap, fast food approach. It is a gift of incalculable worth given by one person to another. It is something offered willingly by one and received joyfully by another. Unless both sides of the transaction are wholly involved in the offer and the reception, the full transaction hasn’t occurred. Nothing real has happened.
So, should we be merciful and forgiving towards people?
Yes! Should we withhold forgiveness from those who need it? Never! Do we need to be free of bitterness and resentment toward those who hurt us? Always!
But are we called upon to declare people forgiven before they even desire it or ask for it?
We are required only to clear away the moral debris between us and God, to be ready to offer forgiveness to the offender, to pray for our enemies and those who use and abuse us, and then earnestly to hope for the day when they come to us and ask for our forgiveness. If the latter never happens, then it is entirely God’s issue, not ours.
From the soon to be released, second edition, These Sheep Bite: A Fearless Guide to Church Leadership.