WHY FORGIVENESS IS NEVER UNCONDITIONAL
This study is being produced in light of the question: How does a person deal with the past hurts of his life? There is a ground-swell in the counseling sector of the Christian community that says that one can only be free from the past on the basis of a unilateral, unconditional forgiveness of those who caused the hurts. (See Neil Anderson's The Bondage Breaker, pages 194-197, where bitterness is unnecessarily tied to the absence of forgiveness, as well as Jim Logan's Reclaiming Surrendered Ground, page 64, where the same error is committed.) We are living in a generation when people have an enormous backlog of significant pain that has been inflicted by others. As the level of pain increases, the diligence in a search for relief also increases. Believers ought to be in the forefront of the search--because believers, alone, have been empowered, and called, to love others and live for their deliverance. However, instead of being on the forefront, we find that much of the time we are piggy-backing on the efforts of the secularists who are getting their theories from a non-biblical source. However, many counselors who have tried to be faithful to the Scriptures and have sought to find God's answers are increasingly saying that deliverance comes from an active, unilateral, unconditional, forgiveness of everyone who creates pain--both in the past and in the present.
However, the supportive testimonies of those who have adhered to the counsel are piling up. Something seems right about what is happening because people are testifying of a new freedom in Christ. But, it probably isn't the unconditional forgiving that is producing that freedom.
Anecdotal "evidence" is almost never "proof" of the truth of a given claim. People can always come up with illustrations to attempt to "prove" their point of view. Ultimately, the truth of a claim is established when the Scriptures really teach it. What, then, is it that produces a sense of freedom on the heels of a response to this teaching of unilateral forgiveness? It would be a travesty to take away a method that seems to be bringing freedom to folks without replacing it with a more biblically legitimate one. So, we will attempt to do two things in this study: a) we will reveal the flaws in the unconditional forgiveness approach because, if it is flawed, it really will not produce lasting results; and b) we will attempt to provide a new model that fits divine revelation without reading psychological studies into it. So, the first part of this study will be an argument on why unconditional forgiveness is actually unbiblical. The second part will focus on what God has said about the past and how we are to deal with it.
THE FLAWS IN THE PRESENT MODEL
In any theological study (looking at a topic and trying to put the pieces together), the greatest danger is that we will simply take what we think is true and bend all the information so that it fits our grid. This is why there are such things as Theistic Evolutionists, Dispensationalists, and Calvinists; all of us are susceptible to being doctrinaire managers of data. Our calling is to be biblicists. If we are, we may also believe what Chafer or Calvin taught on any given topic, but we will be open to the correction of Scripture instead of tending toward managing the data.
Three things should go without saying, but don't: 1) that the proper method of Bible study is inductive (looking carefully into the details before making up an all-encompassing theory to explain all the details); 2) that the Bible never contradicts itself (so that it is fundamentally wrong to pit one text against another); and, 3) that most texts are not exhaustive in their presentation of the pertinent data (meaning that we must look into the whole range of biblical data before we decide that we really understand the issue).
In reference to #1 above: Most Bible teaching undercuts inductive study (we tell people what the Bible says and then, if we still have time, we take them to the texts and show them we were right). Most schools, churches, and seminaries teach theology first and hermeneutics and Bible study if they still have time left over. The reason this is done is that we are facing a task that seems insurmountable (preaching the Gospel to every creature) and we are facing a culture that demands immediate relief. There aren't very many people who are interested in learning how to study for themselves before they get the answers they want. So we look for fast solutions to difficult problems so that we won't get bogged down and get further behind. The problem with this is that if a person has been initially taught incorrectly, he/she may never see the error because it has become so much an ingrained part of their way of thinking. We have all been caught by this reality.
In respect to #2 above: Most debate over biblical themes ends up being a pitting of verses against each other. I have my set that proves my point and those who disagree have their set that proves their point of view. The only person who might have the accurate understanding is the one who can take each set and provide a comprehensive, unified, non-contradictory explanation that takes all the data into account.
In respect to #3 above: Perhaps the greatest oversight in dealing with texts is that we demand that any single text/context must carry all the weight of the debate. This is not the nature of biblical revelation. God reveals Truth in bits and pieces in a progressive way so that understanding develops along a progressive line.
ATTEMPTING A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Now, lest we step into this flawed methodology, let us consider the data, harmonize the contribution that each piece of data offers with all the other pieces, and then draw conclusions that fit. The question that we will primarily address is: What does the data have to say about whether forgiveness is unconditional or not?
EXHORTATIONS TO FORGIVE AS WE HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN
First, there are a couple of key passages which exhort us to forgive as we have been forgiven by God/Christ (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). The word translated as is used in several different ways: as a particle "indicating the manner in which something proceeds"; a conjunction "denoting comparison"; a word which "introduces the characteristic quality of a person, thing, or action, etc. referred to in the context"; "a temporal conjunction"; a "consecutive conjunction denoting result"; a "final particle denoting purpose"; a word which "introduces discourse"; or a word used with numerals (BAG, pps. 905-907). For the verses before us, the word is used to indicate manner. In other words "in the same manner as God has forgiven me, I am to forgive others". Thus, if the manner of God's forgiveness is unconditional (I didn't have to repent, believe, or do anything else, such as forgiving someone else), then, as God has unconditionally forgiven me, I must unconditionally forgive others. So, to make this position stick, it must be shown that God unconditionally forgives. If that can be shown, there is a danger that the devil will be in heaven with us some day, because the logical extension of unconditional forgiveness is universal salvation.
EXHORTATIONS TO FORGIVE IN ORDER TO BE FORGIVEN
Next, there are several passages which exhort us to forgive in order to be forgiven (Matthew 6:12-15; 18:35; Mark 11:25-26; Luke 6:37; 11:4). These passages are very explicit in that they tell us we will not be forgiven if we do not forgive. We must understand these passages as having been addressed to disciples (as their contexts clearly establish) because this is family truth. The Gospel is not, and never has been, that we are justified by forgiving those who have caused us injury. But, once justified, we have responsibilities as the children of God to carry the grace given to us to others. It is these passages which have been the primary basis for appeal to establish our obligation to unconditionally, unilaterally, forgive. This is, on the face of it, extraordinary simply because the conditionality of forgiveness is fundamental to the very heart of the texts. That these passages are turned into a demand for the unconditionality of forgiveness is remarkable. The primary text used in this regard is Mark 11:25-26. Since this is so, let us first look in a cursory manner at the other texts and then we will put in a bit more time on this one. These texts can actually be grouped into three units. There are two texts which are records of what we have come to know as The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6 and Luke 11); there is a text which arises out of that teaching because of the disciples' desire to understand just how far it goes (Matthew 18:21-35); and there is a text which simply refers to the concept of forgiveness leading to forgiveness (Luke 6:37). Interestingly, the Lord's Prayer texts (Matthew 6, and Luke 11) are given an extended treatment and illustration of meaning in Luke 17 and Matthew 18.
In Matthew 18 the issue is raised in answer to the disciple's question: "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?" So, both Matthew 6 and Luke 11 fit under the more detailed instruction of Luke 17 and Matthew 18. In other words, the less specific texts must harmonize with the more specific texts. [However, in regard to this issue, even the so-called less specific texts are pretty clear that forgiveness springs from the request for it. The Lord's prayer says "forgive us...as we have forgiven"--thus indicating that we are seeking forgiveness.] That the paucity of explanation is solved by longer texts is a critical point because of two issues involved in the question of forgiveness. The first issue is the prior context of Matthew 18. Before Peter raised the question of just how far this forgiveness thing goes, Jesus had said, "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." (Matthew 18:15; KJV)
This prior context meant that Jesus had been dealing with what to do when a brother sins against you. This is what raised the issue in Peter's mind. So Peter, wondering just where this was going, raised the question of extent. "How often...". Thus, Jesus' prior teaching had already established that a brother's sin was not to be dealt with by simply unconditionally forgiving him, but rather by confronting him, and forgiving him if he hear thee (which cannot but mean that he apologizes--i.e., repents). This prior context actually forbids forgiveness to be extended unless such repentance is forthcoming. [NOTE: if bondage to past pain is the automatic outcome of withholding forgiveness, this text actually puts us in the position of not being able to forgive and, thus, being inescapably committed to bondage. That makes the often taught cause-and-effect link between unforgiveness and bondage nonexistent]. Then, in the extended illustration of meaning that Jesus gave Peter in the following context (Matthew 18:23-35), He used the example of two men who were debtors. In both cases, the men who were in danger of their indebtedness bringing them to grief sought for opportunity to make the debt right. This must not be ignored by those who argue for unconditional forgiveness. So, Jesus' instruction to go to the offender (Matthew 18:15-17) and His instructional illustration (Matthew 18:23-35) both indicate that sin is not to be forgiven unless the offender seeks to be forgiven, or seeks to be given the opportunity to make restitution. In respect to the Lukan passages, interestingly Jesus taught in Luke 17 that sin was to be responded to with rebuke and rebuke was to be responded to by repentance. He actually said "...IF he repents, forgive him...". Unilateral forgiveness is disobedience. The conditionality of the instruction means something.
MARK 11:25-26 IN CONTEXT
So, what about Mark 11:25-26, as the primary text used to argue for unconditional forgiveness? The text says: "And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses" (Mark 11:25-26; KJV).
The argument for unconditional forgiveness is that this text says that whenever we are praying we are to forgive any and all who have injured us in some way (real or imagined). The facts seem to be that we are most likely praying alone and we must forgive without the offender(s) being present. Since the requirement is for whenever we are praying, we must unilaterally forgive in order to be forgiven by God. However, there is an alternative that allows us to harmonize this text with the rest of the New Testament. Otherwise it actually stands in opposition to the rest of Jesus' teaching and constitutes a real contradiction in the Truth. First, what is the context? The verse is couched within a paragraph in which the issue of faith is being addressed. Jesus had cursed a fig tree on His way into Jerusalem the day before (verse 14) and, this day, as they pass by again on the way into the city, the fig tree is totally withered (verse 20). This caused the disciples to marvel, and to comment upon it to the Lord (verse 21). His response was a call to exercise faith in God. Now, this call is set within the larger context of the chapter in which the issue is Israel's refusal to exercise such a faith. That refusal caused the cursing of the fig tree, as it was an illustration of the nation in its fruitless condition.
This means that Jesus is dealing with His disciples about the larger question of their fruitfulness before God; faith being the way that fruit will be produced. Thus, He urges them to be unlike the nation in its antagonism toward Him (verse 18). Our understanding of the verse before us must be guided by these contextual issues. Then there are two other textual issues: 1) the manuscript evidence for verse 26 is weak, indicating that it is very likely that Mark didn't write those words at all. This is important because the textual commentators say "its absence from early witnesses that represent all text-types makes it highly probable that the words were inserted by copyists in imitation of Matthew 15" (Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 110.). This means that copyists imported a foreign context. As we shall see, this is not very significant to this discussion, but it does show that we no longer have two verses; we have only one. To make a doctrine (unconditional forgiveness) stand on one verse of Scripture, and contradict many other texts in context, is extremely suspect. Of course, if God only said something once, it is still true, but most Bible students recognize that God said most things over and over in various ways so that we could understand. And, 2) in the preceding text of verse 24 we read: "Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive [them], and ye shall have [them]" (Mark 11:24; KJV).
This means that the contextual issue of fruitfulness before God is going to be accomplished in prayer as we are asking God for some favor. Because of that, Mark records Jesus as saying that when you are asking God for a favor, you must do so with no hindrance in your relationship with Him, i.e., your sins must be forgiven. Now, precisely because God does not unconditionally forgive, we must not be maintaining some attitude which He will not overlook when we come with our request. So, Mark records Jesus as telling us that it is very possible that God will not grant our request (and thus we will become unfruitful) if we have unforgiven transgressions blocking our relationship with Him. And what would keep our transgressions in an unforgiven state? The refusal to establish/maintain the attitude of forgiveness toward any who have transgressed against us in any matter. On a technical note, the imperative verb translated "forgive" is a present tense which indicates something more than what an aorist would indicate. An aorist would call for simply deciding to forgive; the present seems to call for the continual maintenance of a forgiving attitude--be forgiving. Thus I have said that the requirement is both to establish and maintain the attitude of forgiveness toward any. But, what is this requirement? Unconditional forgiveness? Not at all. He has already established that the reason for forgiving and maintaining an attitude of forgiveness is that forgiveness is not unconditional (God will not forgive if we do not forgive). Because God will not forgive those who do not establish/maintain a proper attitude when they come before Him, we must be forgiving. But toward whom are we to maintain this attitude? Any who have done anything to us and have an attitude that allows forgiveness to be granted. God will forgive us of any and all transgressions if we have an attitude that will permit Him to do so.
And what is that attitude? Being willing to extend favor to others while we are asking for favor for ourselves. So, we are required to forgive all others who have manifested that same attitude. This means they have sought our forgiveness. I hear the objections. You say, the text doesn't add that and have an attitude.... It simply says "...if you have anything against anyone...". What is my answer? Three things. First, there is nothing in the text that precludes the possibility that the offender has been rebuked by us and sought our forgiveness (something we would have done in obedience to Christ's instruction to us--otherwise we have sinned in our disobedience and created a barrier to our relationship to God). All other extended texts of the New Testament teaching on this matter say that if we have ought against our brother we are to confront him with it. Since this is the teaching in every extended record of Jesus' teaching on this issue, we are not remiss in assuming that this text allows that we have done that. But, even if we rebuke and receive a claim of repentance, there is no guarantee that we have forgiven. Nor is there any guarantee that even if we have forgiven, we might not return to an unforgiving attitude because of the recurring memory of the injustice. In either such case, we are told pointedly that our attitude must change. If we rebuked, received a profession of repentance, but we did not forgive, we must do so when we pray. And, if we actually did forgive upon the professed repentance, but find ourselves going back on it, when we pray, we must come back to the attitude of genuine forgiveness. These possibilities may actually explain why Jesus used the present tense of the verb because it implies more than a simple act of forgiveness as would be the sense of a simple aorist.
Second, consider the following verses:
"And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Matthew 27:37)" and
"And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Mark 15:26)" and
"And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Luke 23:38) and
"And Pilate wrote a title, and put [it] on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS" (John 19:19).
My question is: what did the sign over Jesus say?THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS
THIS IS (recorded by Matthew and Luke and omitted by Mark and John) JESUS (recorded by Matthew and John and omitted by Mark and Luke) OF NAZARETH (recorded by John and omitted by all others) THE KING OF THE JEWS (recorded by all four Gospel writers). Why did none of them record all that the sign said? The answer is that all writers select the information they use in harmony with the mental picture they want to create. That they omitted parts does not mean they were inaccurate or misleading. What they recorded was on the sign. Therefore, in respect to Mark 11:25, we must conclude that because that verse itself establishes the conditionality of forgiveness (the divine pattern for forgiving includes holding the offender accountable for his misbehavior: God does not forgive me if I do not forgive those who have injured me), Mark saw no reason to go further with words that all of the disciples had no need of hearing. The notion of unconditional forgiveness is not a first century idea. Most, if not all, men inherently know that forgiveness is not completely unconditional, though it is always gracious. Repentance does not obligate, so forgiveness is still gracious; but without repentance, forgiveness is not forgiveness. So, there is no need to include words to that effect, since all words have an extended, unstated, context within the realm of truth. Jesus' words in Mark 11 have to be understood in harmony with other revealed knowledge on the same topic.
And third, everywhere in the New Testament forgiveness is revealed to be something that can only be obtained by seeking it. It is conditioned upon that prerequisite. No where are we told that God will forgive what we don't want forgiveness for. Though unconditional forgiveness has surfaced in our generation because it has been misunderstood as a technique for getting rid of bitterness toward others, it is probably false. There are several reasons for this claim. Perhaps the most important is that the concept puts the cart before the horse. Bitterness does not arise from being unforgiving. Being unforgiving arises from bitterness. To try to treat the cause by dealing with the symptom is like taking an antihistamine to cure a cold. It does nothing to the virus, but it does let us go about our business as though we no longer had the problem. Unconditional forgiveness is like that--it lets us mask the problem so we can go on like we didn't have it anymore. But, beware, it will return because it is a false method of dealing with the issue. Therefore, Mark 11:25 does not stand against the other, more extended treatments of this issue. It simply doesn't verbally include all that they did. One verse can hardly do that. One verse might appear to say something other verses do not say, but we should never allow one verse to circumvent whole paragraphs which deal with the very same issues.
OTHER TEXTS IN THEIR CONTEXTS
I said earlier that without Mark 11:25 those who argue for unconditional forgiveness would have no argument. Since that text does not teach unconditional forgiveness, but rather its opposite, what about the rest of the New Testament? Consider Luke 17:3-4. It teaches the necessity of repentance. It is sometimes dismissed by unconditional forgiveness proponents with the words "When outside of the context of a rebuke--and an expected repentance--Jesus does not mention the debtor's repentance; He just says that we must forgive" (Jim Rogers, Common Practice, Vol. 1, No. 9, p. 2). My question is: where? This attempt to dismiss Luke's words also overlooks another very critical issue. The claim is that the discussion in Luke is set by Jesus in the context of a rebuke. This is a mistake. The discussion is set by Jesus in the context of "If your brother sins...". Jesus is not teaching that forgiveness is conditional only if you rebuke and expect repentance. Rather He is teaching that you are responsible to rebuke if your brother sins. If you do not do this, and later you have all manner of bitterness, it will not do to try to resolve it by unconditional, unilateral forgiveness. Forgiveness can only come after repentance and it is our responsibility to make that repentance possible by holding our brother accountable when he sins against us. So, Luke reinforces Matthew, and both teach the conditionality of forgiveness.
Then there is the reality that 1 John 1:9 teaches the conditionality of forgiveness. We will erase the impact of 1 John if we do not understand that God does not forgive when we refuse to repent. Also there is often an appeal made to both Jesus' words on the cross ("Father, forgive them...") and Stephen's words as he was dying as a martyr, whose cry to God is recorded in Acts 7:59-60: "And they stoned Stephen, calling upon [God], and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:59-60; KJV).
These two examples only say that Jesus and Stephen wanted these people to escape the consequences of their act. Our desire that people be saved is the same attitude. Neither forgave their killers; but both expressed the desire that God would forgive, i.e., do something to make it possible for those killers to escape. There is a great deal of difference between wanting someone to escape, and granting them the escape. Forgiveness grants the escape. But, no one escapes who does not repent of his sin. Both knew when they prayed that their persecutors would not escape unless something brought them to repentance. So Acts 7:60, though it does establish the heart of the martyr (wanting his persecutors to be saved), does nothing to establish unconditional forgiveness.
ALL THIS AND NOTHING YET ABOUT THE PURPOSES OF FORGIVENESS
This has become a long study already, but nothing has been said about the purposes for forgiveness. If forgiveness is supposed to reestablish broken relationships, unconditional forgiveness is obviously ineffectual and unbiblical. It takes two to tango. Unconditional forgiveness allows you to go on dancing, but it leaves you dancing with your own shadow. You still have no relationship with the offender. If forgiveness is supposed to release the offended from bondage to the offense and the offender, why does the Bible deny this linkage? If I rebuke my brother who sinned against me, and he refuses to repent, I cannot forgive him. I must, instead, go through a process of confrontation that will ultimately lead to his excommunication from the church if he persists in impenitence. This is the biblical requirement of Matthew 18. Does that requirement mean that my brother has the ability to bind me, in bondage to bitterness, by his refusal to repent? Of course not. There is no necessary link between the lack of forgiveness and the bondage of bitterness.
BUT WHAT ABOUT BITTERNESS?
Is it OK to be bitter and unforgiving? No, and yes. It is not OK to be bitter, but it is OK to be unforgiving. We are told to love our enemies; to do good to those who do evil to us; to refuse to seek vengeance; and to let no root of bitterness arise to defile us and those around us. We can do all of this without forgiving the impenitent. In fact, as we have seen, we are forbidden to forgive the impenitent because God does not. How can we be imitators of God as dear children if we do exactly the opposite of what He does? The objection will be raised: Then how do I deal with my bitterness? And my answer is this: Go to the Bible and look at the issue of bitterness and see what solutions are given to that problem. The interesting thing about most of the literature that ties bitterness to forgiveness is that there is no exegetical work done in the contexts of bitterness. So, I would like to point out a few things about the New Testament teaching regarding bitterness.
First, what is bitterness? The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) says that bitterness is an "incensed and angry attitude of mind which results in hostile, cruel, and (maybe most significantly) pitiless actions" (Vol. VI, pages 122ff). The New Testament only refers to the word "pikria" four times, but they are in highly instructive contexts. The first is Acts 8:23 in the context of a man named Simon Magnus who had been able, prior to coming to faith in the message preached by Philip, to do great works of power by which he achieved great acclaim from the people. However, his powers were upstaged by the power of the gospel and its messengers. When he attempted to buy the ability to exercise that power, Peter accused him of being "in the gall of bitterness".
This is an extraordinary context! It reveals that bitterness results from being demoted to insignificance in the eyes of people. When a man has the adulation of multitudes for an extended period of time, he becomes addicted to the accolades because the basic drive to possess status through performance (1 John 2:16--the "pride of life" is actually the "arrogance of functional capacity" or, "I am somebody because of what I can do") is such a fundamental issue of our spirits that addiction to praise is inevitable once we possess it and it possesses us. Thus, Simon, having been reduced to the level of everyone else around except the apostles, sought to restore his status by purchasing the ability to impart the Spirit. That this is the most likely interpretation of this text is easily illustrated. For example, many people think that bitterness results from being significantly hurt by someone. But, that is not a necessary link. When someone inadvertently hurts us, we do not become bitter. When someone injures us for our good (like a surgeon cutting us up and subjecting us to all kinds of severe pain), we don't get bitter. We only get bitter when someone hurts us and it was obvious that they wanted to. What does this mean? It means that we were not important to them and that our feelings were insignificant to them. It is this, not the actual injury, that results in our bitterness. Therefore, it is not injury that results in bitterness; it is being treated as insignificant. And the relationship of bitterness to the slight is directly proportional to how humiliated we were by the slight. If the person who treats us as insignificant does so in private, our bitterness only simmers; but if he/she does it openly in public so that we are humiliated in the sight of many, our bitterness boils.
Another illustration comes from my own experience. For several of my teen years I hated my father and the reason was that I never sensed any approval by him of me. He never said he loved me; he never applauded any of my efforts; and he has never hugged me that I can remember. But when I became a believer in Jesus, my desperate need for approval from my earthly dad receded in the face of the enormous love of my heavenly Daddy. As my demand for dad's approval diminished, so did my hatred for him. And, as it turned out, the more I flourished in the love of my heavenly Daddy, the more my earthly dad began to approve of me and give me his respect. Today I love my earthly dad. He never apologized to me for never hugging me; he never apologized for never showing his approval; he probably didn't even know that I thought he was failing me. But, the real problem was that I had an ego that demanded stroking and when I didn't get stroked, I got bitter. When my demandingness ceased because God met my need, so did my bitterness. Bitterness doesn't come from being hurt. It comes out of the context of our demand to be treated as significant and others' refusal to meet that demand.
The woman who has been raped, or the child who has been molested, is not bitter because of the physical pain; bitterness exists because the act was so demeaning--it reduced the victim to total insignificance in the eyes of the perpetrator. This is where bitterness comes from.
We see this in two of the other three New Testament contexts where bitterness is mentioned. In Ephesians 4:31 Paul puts bitterness in the grocery list with anger, wrath, clamor, evil speaking, and malice. All of these issues are what I call "agenda-frustration" issues. We only get angry, wrathful, clamorous, and wicked-tongued with people who are in our way. When we have an agenda, those who oppose us gather to themselves our bitterness. Why? Because they are telling us by their opposition that they think little of our agenda, and that interprets in our minds to their thinking little of us. So, when we make our agenda equal to our identity, opposition results in bitterness. And in Hebrews 12:15 the context is dealing with the whining that goes on among people who have a theology of God's love being equal to His willingness to pamper us and spare us pain. So we get angry when we suffer--and our anger is toward God. In that context we are commanded to stop all the self-pity, and to be sure that we do not allow the root of bitterness to spring up. Thus, because the context is about the linkage in our minds between God's love for us (His value of us; our significance to Him) and our suffering, and because what is going on is that we are saying He doesn't love if we have to suffer, bitterness is a real possibility--because bitterness springs from being treated as unimportant. In order to keep bitterness from developing we must not link our suffering to our perception of God's love. He loves us. Calvary says so. Our suffering doesn't change that. Therefore, we can remain unembittered.
Remember the disciples who were beaten by the Sanhedrin and went away rejoicing because they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus' sake. Since they knew God valued them so highly and believed in them so deeply that He would allow them to suffer for Jesus, they rejoiced in the face of humiliation and pain. They were not bitter because they were valuable to God in their own eyes. They believed in the significance He had assigned to them by the demonstration of His love and were kept from bitterness.
So, let us now return to the issue of the lack of linkage between bitterness and forgiveness. Bitterness is not a problem of unforgiveness. Unforgiveness in the face of repentance is a problem of bitterness. The cart has been put in front of the horse. Bitterness is a problem of self-righteousness (coming short of the grace of God--Hebrews 12:15) and unbelief with its consequent anger with God and men for putting us in the place of having to endure pain. At the root is the spirit of self-deification in unbelieving self-righteousness. This same root may cause me to refuse to forgive my repentant brother, but unconditional forgiveness will do nothing about that. In fact, unconditional forgiveness will actually make me more self-righteous and proud of my forgiving spirit when, in fact, I may be guilty of simply refusing to obey Jesus and rebuke my brother when he sins against me. I find it uniquely interesting that bitterness in the Bible is not tied in a cause and effect way to the lack of forgiveness. I wonder why so many of our latter day Bible teachers have jumped on this unbiblical unilateral forgiveness concept.
Another objection may also arise: what if I am bitter and the thing done is now irreconcilable because the offender is dead or beyond my ability to contact him? That is not a problem, since forgiveness is not a solution. If I have sinned in not dealing with a problem correctly when it occurred, I must seek God's forgiveness for my sin. Belatedly dealing with sin usually leaves some lingering consequences, but bitterness shouldn't be one of them simply because bitterness isn't caused by the lack of forgiveness.
THE CENTRAL QUESTION
This entire debate can be put in perspective with this question: How is it that I have no problem with others who have not hurt me (even though they have hurt others by their sins), but I find myself in bondage and bitterness toward those whose sins hurt me? That I am in bondage and bitterness means that I still want to be higher than God in order to be pain-free. The problem with the bondage of bitterness is a lack of Godly love, not a spirit of unforgiveness. If I loved as He does, I would be free from bondage and bitterness even in those cases where people will not allow me to forgive them. So, the solution to bitterness is love that springs as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and from an appreciation of the gracious love of God for me (1 John 4:7-16). If I love, I will desire to forgive, but I will not do so unless repentance has been professed.
IF IT IS NOT A CORRECT METHOD, WHY DOES IT SEEM TO WORK?
This brings us to a question that was raised at the beginning: if unilateral forgiveness is not biblical, why do some people seem to find so much freedom from practicing it? There are several things that can be said in answer. First, many people do not know what forgiveness really is. If you ask ten people what they mean when they forgive someone, you are likely to get a hodgepodge of answers. For some, forgiving is releasing bitterness. Therefore, since they think this way, if they say they are forgiving someone, they mean that they are no longer going to harbor bitterness toward them. If this is what they mean, God knows it. Since He is opposed to harboring bitterness, when He sees that they are committing to releasing that bitterness, He restores to them the joy of His presence and fellowship. He doesn't pick about words, but goes on what He sees in the heart. God has never waited until we had the understanding to cross all the t's and dot all the i's. He has ever responded to what He sees in the heart. So, someone will say: Then, it can't be all bad to tell people to unilaterally forgive those who have hurt them. Well, you certainly won't hurt the person who understands forgiveness as releasing bitterness. But what about those who have a more biblical concept of forgiveness and I tell them that they will be in bondage until they unilaterally forgive? Because that is not true, my lie (even unintentionally promoted) may actually throw them into confusion and spiritual declension.
For others, unilateral forgiveness is an easy way out of the difficult issue of relationships. Confronting a brother who has sinned is not easy. For some personality types, it is so impossible that only complete dependence upon the Spirit will enable them to obey the requirement. Since this is so, the concept of unilateral forgiveness actually lays the groundwork for disobedience. Then real bondage has occurred. Instead of faithful obedience that permits God to bring a solution, many people will use unilateral forgiveness as a way to never confront a problem and find God's solution. In this case, unconditional forgiveness as a concept has destroyed the one whom it was supposed to help. Error often does just that.
For yet others, forgiveness is absorbing the injury without retaliation. For these folks, forgiveness is actually simply refusing to take vengeance. Since God is supportive of that decision, those who do it under the mistaken notion that it is forgiveness are supported by Him just because He reads the heart and does not require perfect understanding before He supports the desire to obey. Actually, this last concept of forgiveness is less about absorbing the injury (if sin has occurred, the injury has been inflicted and the victim has no choice at all about whether he will be injured or not) than about deliberately choosing to accept the loss without demanding the right to take vengeance in the matter.
And so on it goes. Some people will actually be greatly helped by the concept of unconditional forgiveness because they have a faulty notion of forgiveness (they have confused it with another really legitimate biblical concept). But others may be significantly injured by the concept because it is, in fact, untrue. Thus, if they understand forgiveness as the Bible teaches it, they may find themselves under significant confusion when pressured to unconditionally forgive. In fact, the false notion that bondage results from a lack of forgiveness may actually put them into a bondage that they were not in before. This means that what we really need is a clear understanding of just what biblical forgiveness is. That way we will also know what it is not.
SO, WHAT IS FORGIVENESS?
There are several parts to biblical forgiveness. The first, and most important, is the divine intent in forgiveness. What does God accomplish through forgiveness? The answer is resounding throughout the Bible: God restores broken relationships by forgiveness. This is fundamental to biblical revelation about this issue. All other aspects of forgiveness are secondary to this objective. Obviously restored relationships cannot exist in the presence of bitterness, so bitterness has to go. But as the horse in this matter, it has to go first before the cart of forgiveness can be pulled into place. Just as obviously, restored relationships cannot exist if there exists a demand for retaliation. Vengeance has to go. Likewise, relationships cannot exist if there is a usurping of position taking place between the persons involved. If I want to be God, Who will God be? If I am unwilling to take my place as servant to God and my brother, biblical relationships are impossible. So forgiveness includes humility. And so it goes. Whatever the offended party requires to restore the broken relationship is involved in forgiveness. The offender is tied up in repentance issues--whatever he must do to attempt reconciliation through justice and humility. Unfortunately, in these days, the purpose of forgiveness has been shifted from the other-focused issue of restoring relationships to the me-focused issue of solving emotional bondage problems. Obviously, God wants us to be free--but free within the boundaries of real forgiveness (which inescapably involves repentance). A healthy relationship cannot exist within the dungeon of bondage, but forgiveness is geared primarily toward relationships and maybe not at all toward emotional hangups.
There are a lot of other, more biblical, concepts that deal with how I respond to the pain inflicted by others (love, grace, humility, longsuffering, patience, doing good to those who do evil to me, praying for those who have sinned against me, etc. etc.). We need to return to biblical categories and let each pull its own weight rather than trying to get forgiveness to carry the whole load.
This has not been an exhaustive treatment of forgiveness, though it may have been exhausting. It was only designed to address the issue of whether forgiveness is ever unconditional in the Bible.