Entering Advent: Repentance and Forgiveness (II)

As we pick up on this discussion of repentance and forgiveness, it is important to understand that repentance and forgiveness can be performed unilaterally.

For the victim, forgiveness offers freedom. Again, we must disagree with those who teach that forgiveness must not be granted without repentance. To insist that the victim withhold forgiveness until the offender repents actually serves to victimize the offended person twice: first by the offense itself and second by holding the victim in thrall to the offender by keeping her attached both to him and to the offense until he chooses to repent—which he may never do. Indeed, in some cases, people have been victimized by offenders who have died: Are they never to enjoy the peace that comes from forgiving the other?

No, the victim can cut herself or himself loose from the burden and corrosion of anger, vengeance, fear, and other horrible feelings arising from the offense by sincerely forgiving the offender. She is now free to walk away from this horrible part of the past and heal.

Similarly, an offender can truly repent whether or not the victim will forgive. In fact, a scandalous teaching of the Christian faith is that one can repent of one’s sins before a third party and receive forgiveness. The victim herself doesn’t even need to be there. How can that be right?

The “third party,” of course, is God. For God can forgive sins, since he is the one ultimately against whom we each sin. He is our Creator, toward whom we primarily owe proper attitudes and behaviour. And it is to God that the Bible primarily tells us to repent. (Check it out: the Bible says surprisingly little about repenting to each other, and a lot about repenting to God.)

Therefore, as the main party involved, God is empowered to forgive sins unilaterally. And the amazing fact of the gospel is that he wants to do so, for every one who will repent and trust him to do so.

Yet full shalom requires more than one-way forgiveness or one-way repentance. Beyond the offender and the offended is a third element in this situation, namely, the relationship between the two of them. The relationship must be repaired. And God longs to facilitate that.

So he commands us to repent to each other, as well as to him (Matt. 5:23-26). So he commands us to forgive each other. And so he promises to restore all damaged relationships to a state of shalom, whether in this life or in the life to come.

The cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love thus appear here, at the heart of the gospel. Repentance and forgiveness demonstrate faith: in each other and especially in God, who commands them.

They demonstrate hope: in a fresh start and thus in the future, both short-term and long-term.

And they demonstrate love: not warm feelings, to be sure, which may or may not arise in the situation, but the essence of love is there, which is to go beyond dealing out “just deserts” to give to someone more than he or she deserves.

Repentance and forgiveness together are among the greatest gifts we can give to another person. They are among the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves. And they are among the greatest gifts we can give to God, who longs for us to be reconciled to each other and to him.

As we enter Advent and look forward to celebrating God’s great gift of the Christchild, can we try to give the gifts of repentance and forgiveness more freely? Can we summon up the courage to to ask for these gifts more freely?

For by repentance and forgiveness is the only healthy way we can go forward into the future—individually and together—with realism, faith, hope, and love.

Let us pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven,…forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us….

0 Responses to “Entering Advent: Repentance and Forgiveness (II)”

  1. David Guretzki

    John, thanks for your thoughts. I wondered if your blog was in partial response to my article recently in Faith Today. I was alerted to your comments by a friend so I thought I would respond briefly.

    We agree on many points–like the need for realism in repentance and forgiveness, that simple forgiveness does not cut one loose of bitterness, that forgiving and forgetting simply doesn’t work, etc. I also agree with your reading on Luke 17: It is clear that what is spoken of there is that if someone repents, we are obligated to forgive. As I wrote in FT, “As Jesus says, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:4 NRSV). So Jesus is not encouraging one-way forgiveness at all but, rather, that forgiveness should not be withheld from those who repent. Thus, Matthew 18 more accurately speaks to those who think (like Peter did) that there must be a point where forgiveness can legitimately be withheld. But Jesus’ answer is clear: No – not if there is repentance.”

    Though I’d like to engage you more fully, busyness of this time of year prevents me. But three quick points for now:

    1) In the previous post you cite Col 3:13, commonly used as evidence of a kind of unilateral forgiveness. Unfortunately, the KJV translation has unduly influenced the translation tradition. The word here is not the typical word for “forgive” (aphiemi), but “charizomai” (“deal graciously”). The imperative is “to deal graciously with one another as God has dealt graciously with us,” not to ‘forgive’ (aphiemi). I observe how often in the Bible forgiveness is consistently coupled with repentance. For example, see Leviticus 4 where it is consistent that first awareness of sin and acts of repentance occur, then the promise of forgiveness is made, 4:13-19 (awareness and acts of repentance) -> 4:20 (promise of forgiveness).

    2) You say, “God is empowered to forgive sins unilaterally. And the amazing fact of the gospel is that he wants to do so, FOR EVEYONE WHO WILL REPENT AND TRUST HIM TO DO SO.” (My emphasis). Help me to understand how how you see this as supporting unilateral forgiveness. If God wants to forgive, but requires repentance on our behalf, how is that unilateral forgiveness? The desire to forgive and the act of forgiving are not the same. I agree that he wants to, but does he without repentance? Beyond this point, if God can forgive unilaterally, then why doesn’t he do so for the sins of the whole world? Isn’t the end result of a doctrine of unilateral forgiveness universalism? If God can forgive unilaterally, however, and he doesn’t, then why doesn’t he? What keeps him from doing so? It would seem to me to be arbitrary that God would unilaterally forgive some but not others.

    3) How do we deal with the conditional clause of 1 John 1:9? If we confess (agree with God on our sin–repent) our sins, he is faithful to forgive…etc.? This is clear first class condition. To quote an old Puritan, Thomas Watson, “Why does not the apostle say that if we confess he is merciful to forgive our sins? No; he is just, because he has bound himself by promise to forgive such. God’s truth and justice are engaged for the pardoning of that man who confesses sin and comes with a penitent heart by faith in Christ.” [Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance]
    So the condition here is our confession of sin. His faithfulness and justice has to do with keeping his promise, that he is near to those who are contrite in heart (Psa 51:17; Isa 57:15; James 4:7-10).

    Blessings to you this Advent, John.

    David Guretzki, PhD
    Briercrest Seminary

  2. John Stackhouse

    Wow, Brother David: If this is your level of engagement when you’re busy, what’s it like when you’re not?!

    First, I’m not replying to a column you wrote in Faith Today magazine. If I were doing that, I’d say so. I was recently asked to preach on forgiveness, and I enjoyed reading my friend Miroslav Volf’s book on it a while ago, hence the blog entries.

    Second, I think it’s important to distinguish, as neither of us do, between God’s forgiveness–which is ultimate and thus takes care of not only God’s side of it, so to speak, but the objective damage to the situation–and our own.

    We can forgive someone else whether he repents or not. We can decide not to keep re-membering his evil deed and keep holding it against him. Of course we can! You produce no arguments, scriptural or otherwise, against this idea.

    God, however, is the Keeper of the Universe and thus cannot forgive in the ultimate way he does–as in “wipe the slate clean”–unless there is repentance. His heart can be willing to forgive, and it is, but he can’t literally decide not to re-member our sin if we will not lay it down, forswear it, and avail ourselves of his redemption.

    It is this distinction that keeps the idea of unilateral forgiveness from leading to universalism. We human beings are called to forgive no matter what. In this, we resemble the loving heart of God that wants always to restore relationships to shalom.

    But God is in charge of the whole system, so to say, and thus cannot forgive in the total sense without us repenting and receiving his mercy: otherwise, the situation is still ruptured, with God willing to forgive but with us recalcitrantly refusing to be reconciled to him.

    Since you properly ask me to consider one implication on the divine level of what you take my position to be, namely universalism (and I have tried to show that universalism does not follow from my view), I ask you to consider an implication of your own view on the human level, namely, that we are forever shackled to offenders who do not repent AND that we are forever able to enjoy the dark pleasure of NOT forgiving until there is repentance. To say so seems to me to be psychologically, ethically, and spiritually perilous.

    See how busy I am, too? I was only able to write this much!


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