Misconception Monday on a Tuesday? Blasphemy! It’s my own fault for having written the whole outline to an article yesterday morning but failing to remember it was just an outline after all, and not a full post, so that when I went to publish it last night, I was disappointed. Since I had the day off yesterday anyway, today is basically Monday. Choose for yourself which of those excuses you find more forceful.
Today, I want to look at forgiveness. And fittingly, a misconception about it. I’ve never written an article in the form of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, but this whole topic works very well with the format. (If you are unfamiliar with it and have trouble following it, here’s a primer.)
Can we grant full forgiveness to someone who doesn’t repent?
Objection 1. It seems that we can forgive without demanding repentance, because people do it all the time. It is seen as a righteous act.
Objection 2. You need to be able to forgive those who you can’t see again (e.g. who are dead), so we must be able to forgive without demanding repentance.
Objection 3. Forgiveness helps the person wronged so they don’t hold a grudge, so it seems we should forgive even without repentance.
Objection 4. Jesus Himself says “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” So it seems we ought to forgive even without repentance.
On the contrary, God Himself demands repentance as a prerequisite for granting His forgiveness. “Unless you repent, you too will perish” (Luke 13:3)
I answer that there are multiple kinds of forgiveness. The sort of forgiveness which grants full restoration is called exoneration. This kind of forgiveness requires repentance. It simply cannot occur without both parties being fully involved, because it is a restoration of a relationship. A relationship cannot be restored if one party is unwilling to acknowledge a breach. At best, a relationship of this sort could be abusive.
It is also possible to ignore small offenses and especially those done unintentionally. A person can also have a forgiving attitude, such that at the moment of genuine repentance from the offending party, they are quick to genuinely forgive. This is how Christians ought to live. Dr. Stephen Marmer has a short presentation on Dennis Prager’s PragerU site that describes an approach consistent with ancient Judaism which breaks forgiveness into three types.
Since hatred can damage one’s own soul if directed at others (who are made in God’s image and thus His reflection), it is good to fight the temptation to hate those who do wrong to us. When evil is done to us, we deserve (through justice) some sort of restitution. However, giving up this demand and releasing the person who has wronged us from the responsibility of providing restitution can help us move past the wrong.
Reply to Objection 1. People who say they forgive those who don’t repent can’t possibly mean full forgiveness, but a lesser kind. They demonstrate a forgiving attitude, which is indeed righteous, and they are well-prepared to act rightly if repentance ever occurs. This is a way of loving one’s enemy, which is itself a righteous act.
Reply to Objection 2. The lesser sorts of forgiveness can be given to those who can’t receive full forgiveness (e.g. who are dead). Even if the person can never repent, they can be released of their duty to provide restitution and we can fight the urge to remember them with hatred.
Reply to Objection 3. Lesser forms of forgiveness and having a charitable attitude take the burden away from those who are wronged, even without repentance. But they aren’t full forgiveness. As has been discussed several times already in this article, there are many ways for the person wronged to avoid any further damage even if the other party refuses to repent.
Reply to Objection 4. Jesus also teaches that ““If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Clearly, he can’t mean both things at the same time in the same way, since they contradict. Jesus in His teaching is perfectly consistent: full forgiveness requires repentance, because full forgiveness is restoration. Without repentance, restoration is one-sided and incomplete. Jesus on the cross isn’t giving a thorough lesson in how forgiveness and repentance works. He’s demonstrating His love for a fallen world and those who don’t realize the gravity of what they’ve done. He demonstrates His love, not a process for forgiveness that trumps His far more thorough teaching during His ministry.
We are reassured of this because His apostles don’t transform this declaration of love into a new teaching on forgiveness. For the rest of their writing in the New Testament, they always make repentance a prerequisite for forgiveness. If we took His declaration on the cross as His standard for forgiveness, we are left with some massive theological problems. We must deliberately disobey Him in regard to forgiveness and we must set ourselves up as more forgiving than God Himself, who does require repentance. In matters where we aren’t completely sure of one interpretation or another, it’s always best to err on the side of some small confusion than on the side of total exegetical chaos. Life is messy; we ought not make it incomprehensible from our efforts at cleaning up the mess.
See this article by Wintery Knight for more information. And go follow his blog!