Conditional Forgiveness

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What is forgiveness? This question has been the topic of many conversations in our Sunday School class at church. It was not until last year that I realized that what I believed about forgiveness as it relates to God and me and what I believed about forgiveness as it relates to others and myself were at odds with one another. Then as I started studying Scripture more carefully and talked to my husband on numerous occasions about it, I realized I had been wrong.

Last week I saw a blog post on this very topic by Kevin DeYoung over at The Gospel Coalition. He also says we have gotten it wrong on this issue. He says that just like God’s forgiveness is conditional on repentance so also in human relations. I completely agree with him, and I hope you read what he says as it complements what I say in the rest of this post. Check it out here.

So how is forgiveness being taught in the church? From my reading, experience and talking to others who attend other churches, here’s my condensed, simplified version of what is generally being taught about forgiveness.

Forgiveness as it relates to God and humans goes something like this: Forgiveness is offered by God on condition of our repentance in order that we might be reconciled to God. We are the beneficiaries.

Forgiveness as it relates to humans with one another goes something like this: Forgiveness is given by the offended unconditionally with no repentance necessary by the offender. Reconciliation is not the ultimate goal. We simply forgive because it is good for us.

I’ve heard it said and preached often that you forgive so that you will feel better. Bitterness destroys YOU, so YOU forgive in order that YOU will be set free. Forgiveness is then reduced to something therapeutic and self-centered for the one offended. This teaching also says our unconditional love for our brother means our unconditional forgiveness of his offenses. Unconditional forgiveness is the more “loving” thing to do.

But is it really?

I think DeYoung explains very well in his post how this model of forgiveness of one another has its roots, not in biblical exegesis, but in pop psychology. This explains why the difference in models between forgiveness from God and forgiveness of humans mentioned above do not fit together, and in fact why they contradict each other. Why would God give us one model of forgiveness only to command us to do another model?

One strategy for the psychological model is to posit that this is the way God Himself operates, that is, He gives forgiveness unconditionally. When Scriptures are used, here are the ones. Luke 23:34 is probably the most quoted verse, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But what most lay people don’t know (and what preachers should know!) is that these words are not preserved in the best New Testament manuscripts (omitted by P75). This means that based on the evidence of textual criticism, this was most likely not an original saying of Jesus but rather something added much later. Even most conservative scholars agree on this! So without that piece of evidence, others turn to Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 where he prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” But this prayer is for God to have mercy on the sinner or offender. Stephen doesn’t pray, “I forgive them.” Interestingly, Saul is one of the ones for whom Stephen prays and who later experiences the great mercy of God (an answer to Stephen’s prayer!).

The problem for those who accept a psychological model is that the majority passages of Scripture that deal with God’s forgiveness also demand repentance. See 1 John 1:9 for one example, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The idea that God forgives without demanding repentance is entirely unbiblical. In fact it leads to universalism. Orthodoxy rejects this idea, as well as most church members (unless you are Rob Bell, that is).

So if there’s not good Scriptural support and we reject the idea that God’s forgiveness is imputed on a sinner without repentance, why does this psychological model continue to persist? Back to the loving thing to do…

In Matthew 18:15ff, Jesus is quoted as saying, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Jesus continues by saying that if he won’t repent, then take someone along with you. The idea is you continue to give that brother chances to repent, to receive forgiveness, and to “gain a brother,” that is, reconciliation. Then Peter asks how many times should one forgive one’s brother. Jesus says 70 times 7, hyperbolic language to make a point. He then follows up with an example or parable. In this parable forgiveness is presented in terms of debt. In both cases, the king and the wicked servant bring the debtor to themselves and demand that their debt be paid. Forgiveness is not something abstract but concrete. It is granted to the wicked servant or denied to the second servant.

If context determines meaning, and Jesus’ 70 times 7 answer is couched in between two examples of two parties coming together, then how can forgiveness, which is for the benefit of the brother who committed the offense, be given without that brother knowing it or asking for it?

The psychological model teaches you are to forgive in your heart whether or not the brother repents because forgiveness is for YOU and YOUR sake. Rather than this being the loving thing to do it is in fact the unloving thing to do. Why? Scripture teaches that when we knowingly sin against a brother we also sin against Christ. 1 Cor. 8:12 says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” If a brother in sinning against you means he has also sinned against God, then not going to that brother not only keeps him at odds with you but also at odds with God. But, rather, if you love that brother, then by pleading with him to repent you are also pleading that he repent of his sin to God! This is why Paul tells the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 5 to remove that brother engaged in sexual sin so that he might repent and be “saved in the day of the Lord.” The idea is that repentance is for the benefit of the offender! Because by repenting of our sin to our brother we area also repenting of our sin to God! You see how repentance is the loving thing to do and how not asking the brother to repent is actually the unloving thing to do? If you think repentance is unloving, then how do you reconcile God demanding repentance as a condition of forgiveness?

So what I suggest is we change the psychological model of forgiveness and make it compatible with the kind of forgiveness we see in Scripture. Forgiveness then is no longer understood as something we give ourselves, but as something we give to others who have offended us. We no longer define forgiveness as “not being bitter,” but as releasing that person from the debt they owe us. Forgiveness is no longer abstract but a concrete reality that results in reconciliation.

So what do you do while you wait for that brother to repent, assuming you have already gone to that brother? You, the offended one, are commanded in Scripture to not become bitter, not hold a grudge and not slander against that brother. We are commanded to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are commanded to stand ready to forgive. DeYoung writes, “Overcoming anger and resentment is important, but forgiveness is something more, something different, something that involves two parties instead of one.” When we forgive we do so because Christ first forgave us. And we forgive like Christ forgave us.

This conditional forgiveness model, thus, moves past the notion that we are all wounded individuals who are forgiving so that we will feel better. Rather, recognizing we are the same members of Christ’s body, we work together, repenting to one another, forgiving each other and thereby being reconciled to one another.

Let me leave you with this. A loved one in our extended family is not a believer. He heard a sermon recently on this very topic preaching this second model. After the service, he said something along these lines: So if God tells me I am to forgive everyone unconditionally like He forgave us then I’ve already been forgiven by God and don’t need to repent?

Do you see what we are communicating when we preach unconditional forgiveness? We are preaching backwards that God’s forgiveness does not require our repentance. This is one reason why this issue is so important to me! This psychobabble model of forgiveness has for too long been misconstruing the gospel that says: Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone by faith and through the repentance of sins.

I know this is a hot topic and one that stirs many emotions. What do you think about what I have said in this post? Have you ever thought about how we teach forgiveness between humans is actually antithetical to the gospel we preach of repentance of sins?

Review of Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood

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Introduction:

It’s been more than a year since Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood book came out. So why review this book now?

First, Evans keeps growing in popularity thanks to this book, which is a New York Time’s Best Seller. Since publishing A Year of Biblical Womanhood, her platform to write and speak on subjects such as Scripture, women in ministry, faith, etc., have grown to reach a much wider audience. Through the means of this book and her blog, Evans is becoming a formative voice for young evangelical Christians. Secondly, The only negative reviews and criticisms on this book that I have found have come from those in the camp which Evans criticizes in much of her book. I hope my contribution comes from the fact that I am neither strictly complementarian nor egalitarian (although I come closer to the latter than the former); therefore, my response will hopefully be more nuanced.

Synopsis:

Evans is a self-proclaimed “liberated woman,” having emerged from the fundamentalist, evangelical tradition of which she grew up in. After becoming frustrated with the views held by those in The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and others on the far right (as she sees it!), Evans decides to challenge the hermeneutic and thereby the adjective “biblical” they utilize for an interpretation regarding women. To achieve this she set aside one year to follow all the commands in Scripture for women—literally. Her book reads like a satire, showing through narrative and sarcasm how it is impossible and foolish to apply all the commands of the Bible literally and universally.

Another purpose for writing this book was to liberate women from the fears of getting Scripture wrong, Evans said during an interview on The Today Show. One way she accomplishes this goal in her book is by using comedy relief, a transparent writing style, and being open to discuss typical “forbidden” issues such as sex, fears of becoming a mother, etc. She also engages with her readers by using diary entries, photos and many personal stories throughout the book.

This book is divided by months, and each month of the year is given a chapter. She begins each month with a to-do list, concludes with a “read more” section that directs readers to her blog and a feature of a woman in the Bible. Instead of following all the biblical commands for women collectively for the year, with the exception of not cutting her hair, she divided the commands into months. She either kept the commands for an entire month or for a shorter length of time within the month. So, for example, she only practiced being modest for the month of March, and she only followed the “command” to praise her husband at the city gate (Prov. 31:28) on one particular day in the month of January.

Response:

First, in way of a positive review, I share in Evans’ grievance with those on the far right who fit Scripture’s picture of a woman into an image of a 1950s June Cleaver. She is right in highlighting the inconsistencies in the application of what women can and cannot do in Scripture by those in The Council of Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and the like. For example, some on the far right will make 1 Timothy 2:12-14 the guideline for women in ministry while not grapping sufficiently with passages of women prophesying, teaching, serving as deaconesses, etc. (see 1 Cor. 11:5, Judges 4:4 or Luke 2:36). I also agree with Evans that some women have gone too far in their application of Scripture. Evans summarizes one woman’s belief saying, “Ambitions that might lead a woman to work outside the home … constitute the kind of ‘evil desires’ that lead directly to sin.” She quotes another saying, “A young mother’s place is in the home, keeping it, guarding it, watching over those entrusted to her. To do otherwise will surely cause the Word of God to be blasphemed. Even if you could disobey God and it not produce visible ill consequences, it would only prove that God is long-suffering … but the judgment will assuredly come.” (pgs 23-24) These women whom Evans quotes, I believe, have it wrong.

While I sympathize with some of Evans’ criticisms, I had a number of concerns with this book.

First, Evans employs a classic liberal approach to Scripture. She calls this approach a hermeneutic of love, echoing perhaps back to St. Augustine’s hermeneutic of love for the neighbor. But the question is whose definition of love does Evans use? The one she seems to employ is not the one defined by God; rather it sounds more like something from Rob Bell’s Love Wins book. For example, she writes, “I … am no longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell.” What does she do then with John 14:6? Perhaps she is just being provocative here, which she tends to do a lot in this book, and in saying “different” she is referring to believer’s baptism versus infant baptism or Calvinism versus Arminianism. However, since she does not explain her meaning she is being unhelpful and setting up a broad understanding of love that is not consistent with Scripture.

Another common factor of classic liberalism is the tendency to interpret and apply Scripture with you, the interpreter, at the center. It is a humanistic approach. In conjunction with this is a tendency to replace a relationship with Jesus with a mystical spirituality, where the person’s spiritual journey is the most important aspect and Jesus is reduced from an incarnate, crucified, resurrected God-human to a “divine,” “a spirit,” “a presence.” Sometimes I felt as if I were reading Schleiermacher! Consider these examples. Evans writes, “And sure enough, I found myself connecting to that same presence that I encountered during contemplative prayer, the presence that reminded me that the roots of my spirit extended deep into the ground. I got less done when I worked with mindfulness, but somehow, I felt more in control” (page 29). And, “Instead, meditation filled me with a sense of security, strength, and unyielding resolve. As I prayed, it felt as though my feet were extending through the ground, growing into long, winding roots, while my torso stretched like a trunk, my arms and fingers extending like branches. With every prayer and every silence the image of a great tree returned to me again and again until I found myself sitting up straighter, breathing in deeper, and looking up. I don’t know for sure, but I think maybe God was trying to tell me that gentleness begins with strength, quietness with security. … Mastering a gentle and quiet spirit didn’t mean changing my personality, just regaining control of it, growing strong enough to hold back and secure enough to soften” (p. 16)

Count how many times the pronouns, “I,” “me” and “my” were used. Jesus is nowhere to be found; the interpreter takes center stage. This is also an example of spiritual mysticism. Scripture has no concept nor teaching about prayer the way Evans described it. And if so, Evans does not give a Scriptural model for it. Also, if context determines meaning, the God she mentions is not necessarily the God of Scripture.

There are many other examples I could cite, but I want to narrow in on one other significant example. During the month of January as Evans sought to follow the guidelines of Proverbs 31, she was told by one Jewish woman (who was not a student of Scripture but was simply Jewish) that Proverbs 31 is sung by her husband to praise her in everyday tasks. Proverbs 31 can be reduced to “eschet chayil” or valorous woman. Evans runs with this and then determines that Proverbs 31 should be condensed to a blessing we should give every woman – “a woman of valor.” Valor then is determined not by who we know (God) or what He does through us or what it has to say about wisdom but rather about what we as women do. “The woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor” (p. 90). She will continue with this idea throughout the rest of her book. When she gets to the chapter on justice and recalls her trip to Bolivia with World Vision, she spends pages 238-246 admonishing “women of valor” by what they had accomplished despite their poverty and with the help of World Vision. Jesus isn’t mentioned as having a part in this. Only at the very end of the chapter does she credit Jesus for His ministry to the poor.

Summary:

I think Evans’ lack of theological training and maturity is evident and problematic to her wanting to be taken serious in evangelical Christian circles. Instead of her offering work that is helpful to further along the discussion of women in Christian ministry, she widens the gap and confirms conservative complementarian belief that a woman’s place is in the home and not in biblical teaching. And irony above all ironies, I think that she is one woman who would do better to remain silent at this time.

30 for 30 goals: Final Report

When our friends the Beardens, my husband and I drove away from our home on February 4 for my 31st birthday dinner, one of the first things they mentioned were my 30 for 30 goals. Oh accountability how I loathe you! Especially when I have missed the mark. After running through my list, we determined that I accomplished about 66.6 percent of my goals (only later did I realize it was more like 56%). This percentage, they reminded me, would be considered a failing grade in school.

I never failed at school. In fact I never made less than a B. So to fail at something is pretty embarrassing for me (which is one reason I hate setting goals and New Year’s Resolutions in the first place). But that’s what God gives us good friends for. To keep us accountable, humble us and then laugh with us at our mistakes and failings.

One reason I did a 30 for 30 list was to have something fun I could do all year. I set some goals that were silly and easy to accomplish. But I also set some unrealistic goals or goals that I would have to try really hard to do.

So here’s my 30 goals again and my final report as to whether I accomplished each one or not. (Not in the way of an excuse, but two things happened last year that did hinder some of my goals. One, my grandmother died on March 1. I was very close to her and her death really affected me. I was in Texas during that time for almost 2 weeks. Secondly, I went to the doctor 11 times for a sinus infection/bronchitis last year. I see an immunologist and this is something we are working to correct this coming year.)

30 for 30 final report:

  1. Run a 5K. (I was so close. At one point I was running 2-3 miles, but never actually ran a 5K.)
  2. Get a massage. 
  3. Publish a second Bible study.
  4. Take Philip to a museum.
  5. Read and work through the Greek of one New Testament book. (I started 1 John with my husband but never finished.)
  6. Take a trip to visit friends outside of Birmingham.
  7. Read Lord of the Rings trilogy. (This is one I am most proud of!)
  8. Tell someone new about Jesus. (The one with the most eternal significance!)
  9. Lose one pant size. (No comment.)
  10. Speak at an event, retreat or conference. 
  11. Blog regularly. (I blogged more last year than the previous year but not enough to call it regular.)
  12. Learn to sew. (Got a sewing machine for Christmas! Maybe this year?)
  13. Go on a weekend “date” trip with my husband.
  14. Finish mine and Osvaldo’s wedding scrapbook. 
  15. Consistently update Philip’s baby book and scrapbook his first year. 
  16. Have an international over to our home for dinner. 
  17. Do a jigsaw puzzle.
  18. Paint one room of my house.
  19. Take a trip with my Supper Club friends. (Thanks to my friend Kaylie for getting married, we went to the beach for a girls trip prior to the big day!)
  20. Go to a college or professional football game. 
  21. Go to some place new that I’ve never been before. (We went to Pine Island in Florida this summer.)
  22. Learn Spanish. (Shamefully no since my husband is fluent.)
  23. Volunteer with a ministry in town. 
  24. Play Settlers often with friends and husband. (This should have been a gimme goal but no.)
  25. Make a new friend.
  26. Get out of debt. 
  27. Take lots and lots of pictures of Philip.
  28. Teach Philip a new truth about God.
  29. Give lots of kisses and hugs to my husband and son.
  30. Have a big 30th party — which is up to my husband.

Thank you to the faithful few who follow along with me as I blog and who have encouraged me in these goals. Thank you to the ones who helped make some things on this list possible and made doing these things much more fun and enjoyable than had I done them by myself. And a big thank you to my husband who I cannot imagine doing life without. God is good.

Love,

Kristen