Forgiveness and repentance (part 5): The pastoral dimension (iii)

(Read parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.)

We come now to the third installment of our reflection upon pastoral issues and the fifth installment answering the question of whether forgiveness can or should only be extended when repentance has taken place.

Let’s begin with an unusual, but not unheard-of, situation: someone sins against you; when challenged, they repent, but later withdraw that repentance either explicitly or by their actions. How are we supposed to address this situation if forgiveness is based on repentance?

When we forgave someone, we cancelled their debt against us. It no longer exists. Forgiveness is not merely the suspension of a debt, but its annihilation. Certainly when God forgives us, he removes the debt and the guilt entirely and completely. It is not left floating around somewhere where it could be reattached to us, but it is gone. Like Elvis, it has left the building, and (perhaps unlike Elvis) has ceased to exist in the process.

How, then, should a person act when they have good reason to believe that they were the subject of false repentance? Do they reinstate the debt (with a new one added for the sin of false repentance)? But how is that possible? The debt was cancelled, not merely suspended; it no longer exists. Or are we able to raise it from the dead, so to speak? Taking this option subverts the entire concept of forgiveness, changing it from a permanent liberation from sin’s hold to a permanently provisional suspension of enacting one’s rights as the one offended against. This really is ‘cheap grace’.

Or do we claim that it is impossible to reinstate guilt once it is forgiven? But then, if we don’t pick up the debt again on a case of false repentance, how does that work? We cannot (or must not) forgive when the offender has not repented. But if he or she not only sins and does not repent, but adds to that unrepented sin the further sin of deceiving us into thinking they have repented when they haven’t, then we can (or should) forgive. Taking this option means that unrepented sin can and should be forgiven—but only when the offender manages to pull off a second sin to add to the first. Again, someone may want to champion that, but at least acknowledge that it is very weird.

I suggest that, as with dealing with the multitude of small sins of omission and commission in the family that we looked at in a previous post, this is a pastoral scenario that ‘no forgiveness without repentance’ is completely unable to address. To put it more positively, don’t sweat it if you forgive someone and later have reason to think that they never really repented. You’re not the mug in that scenario; they are. You are not faced with a choice between conniving at their sin or trying to create ex nihilo a guilt that you absolved. Your forgiveness was genuine and pleasing to God. Just move on from where you are now.

This leads to a related problem: what do we do when the person ‘repents’, but their repentance in no way seems to match the severity of their sin against us? It’s not false, but it’s seriously dodgy—the kind of repentance that ‘fell off the back of a truck’.

Faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains (Matt 17:20), but is repentance really supposed to work the same way? Are we supposed to think that as long as there is any genuine remorse at all, it doesn’t matter how grudging or reluctant the apology, how few tears the offender sheds, how little their heart is weighed down by the seriousness of their action, or how quickly they want to move onto being reconciled; there needs to be full and wholehearted forgiveness by the ones they harmed?

This is a regular problem when it comes to being sinned against—the complete mismatch between how the offender and the offended judge the seriousness of what occurred. The offender, when they finally recognize they did something wrong, looks at what they did, takes into account all the mitigating circumstances and generously rates it, on a ten-point scale, as a ‘3’ in severity. They’re repentant, but only in proportion to their perception of the seriousness of what they did. The offended has been as conservative as the facts allow, and they are reluctantly forced to judge that, on a ten-point scale, the sin committed was something close to ‘infinity’ in its seriousness. And so the offended is given the sort of repentance fit for a parking offence when they are looking for the sort of repentance suitable for a crime against humanity.

Let’s assume that in such a situation, somehow repentance works like faith, and a mustard seed is enough. A person should accept a ‘category 3’ repentance as coin for a ‘category infinite’ sin. A little repentance warrants forgiveness for a lot of sin.

I will note in passing that we have to toss out a Reformed distinction between faith and repentance almost entirely to make this assumption. Faith works, no matter how small or faulty it is, because faith does nothing in itself; its power comes entirely from its object—the crucified and raised Lord of glory, who is offered to us in the promises of God. Repentance, however, is a work; its efficacy depends entirely upon the person doing the repentance. They need to change—break from the previous actions and way of life, change to a new pattern and make suitable amends for their earlier actions. Recompense is an essential part of repentance. Repentance’s efficacy depends entirely on our efforts to repent in line with our wrong acts. It is, theologically speaking, a ‘work’. So (as I will try and show when we turn to the question of whether God’s forgiveness is based on our repentance) I find the existence of this whole debate bizzare when conducted between people who all claim to be Reformed. But be that as it may, let’s run with the assumption that any repentance is ‘good enough’ to warrant our forgiveness for the moment.

So any repentance, no matter how inadequate in proportion to what has been done, should be accepted as sufficient for total forgiveness. Fine. But surely an inadequate repentance, even though genuine and therefore meriting forgiveness for the original act, is itself a new sin against the offended person? To not grasp the magnitude of one’s crime against another correctly is itself a new crime. That’s why it can be so painful for someone when their offender continues to behave as though he or she did nothing wrong. The lack of recognition and acknowledgement of the wrong done constantly adds to the original sin with each interaction that pretends as though nothing is out of place. And a second-rate repentance is a member of this set—an example of not sufficiently acknowledging the seriousness of the wrong done. To give someone a repentance that falls short of the gravity of your original act against them is to offer them a further wrongdoing. It really does add insult to injury.

So if we forgive on the basis of repentance, then we are left with having to forgive the original sin, but then having to withhold forgiveness for the poor repentance until that poor repentance has been the subject of appropriate repentance (and if the person doesn’t get that right, then that second round of repentance is going to need yet another round of repentance, and we’re going to keep doing this until you get it right! [“I can be here all night! Have I made myself clear Private?”]).

In fact, the problem is even worse than that: given how our sinful hearts work, it is entirely possible that it wasn’t just the offender who sinned in his or her repentance by underestimating how much repentance was needed; it is also possible that the one offended against has treated it as far more serious than it truly was—and that too is a sin that needs to be repented of and forgiven. Hence what both parties need is a spiritual director—some kind of neutral, wise, properly graced individual (let’s call this person a ‘priest’, for want of a better term) who can listen to the whole situation and make some judgements as to who did what, who is in the wrong at which point, and exactly how much contrition (oh, I’m sorry, that was a bit of a Freudian slip there, wasn’t it? I meant to say ‘repentance’; that’s so much more evangelical and Reformed) each person owes the other before they have paid off their debt. (Whoops! Did it again. I meant to say, “has met the conditions whereby forgiveness is now allowed to be offered”.)

Here again, I’d suggest that there is a better, more evangelical and Reformed way to address this pastoral issue: just forgive the person. Forgive their sin, and forgive them for their inadequate repentance. Ask God to forgive you for any offence you took that was above and beyond what the offence genuinely was. Forgiveness works best as a way of life—both offered and received. Their obligation is to repent; your obligation is to forgive. And here—as with one’s responsibilities in marriage or in authority-subordinate relationships or, really, with any relationship—to say that your obligations do not kick in until the other person has fulfilled theirs is the recipe for a truly zero-sum universe. Decoupling your forgiveness from their repentance frees you from having to peer into their soul to determine whether the repentance is either genuine or sufficient. You can forgive freely and from the heart without having to take it back, or get caught up in the question of whether they have repented enough. Your obligations are yours; their obligations are theirs. But if you think that your obligations are linked to theirs, then you both get bound rather than liberated.

Justification by grace through faith alone offers us more than a path to heaven; it also carves out a place whereby we can treat each other radically differently. It is not merely soteriology; it also has profound ethical implications. Since God has forgiven us in Christ, we too are now in a position to forgive one another sincerely and from the heart.

(Read part 6.)

9 thoughts on “Forgiveness and repentance (part 5): The pastoral dimension (iii)

  1. Thankyou for this. We were struggling with this issue in my bible study the other day.

    It just seems so strange to not forgive if the offender doesn’t repent. But I guess God only forgives us if we ask him to – otherwise we are still in our sin.

  2. Hi Prue,

    You’re welcome for the post.  If I’ve understood your observation correctly it is an important insight.

    God doesn’t forgive people who don’t ask for forgiveness.  He doesn’t forgive in the absence of faith – which, I think I would want to say is what ‘asking for forgiveness’ means when it comes to us and God.  God promises to forgive, we trust him and his promises, we are forgiven.

    Craig Schwarze and I wrestled with this issue a bit and how it might fit with the question of whether our forgiveness requires the offender’s repentance or not in the other thread:

    I think it’d be a fair summary to say that God only forgives people who want to be forgiven.  But that he forgives sins that we don’t want forgiveness for (either because we didn’t know we sinned, forgot we had, thought we actually were doing he right thing etc.).

    As you seem to imply, it’s then a bit tricky then to draw a straight line from God’s forgiveness of us to our forgiveness of each other on this specific issue.  God’s example at this point could possibly be invoked to support either us forgiving only when there’s repentance or forgiving even in the absence of repentance.

  3. Alex Greaves

    and Craig Schwarze

    have both gently requested that I interact with Luke 17:3-4 as it seems to be a fairly obvious repudiation of my position.

    This will be four or five comments long.  I toyed with making it two posts, but on reflection think this is better suited to the comment thread.  So the compromise is that I’m placing it here, in the ‘smallest’ currently active comment thread.  So, Alex and Craig, and others with an interest, here’s my take on Luke 17:3-4

    Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

    There is no question in my mind that this passage is an argument against the view I’m raising.  Obviously I don’t think it is decisive, but I can understand why someone thinks this passage, all on its own, settles the whole question.  Clearly I disagree, but to explain why is going to take a bunch of words.  I’ll start by raising some general principles about how we read the Bible that I think are relevant to the question.  Then we’ll look at Luke 17:3-4 in particular.

    The first issue is that there are two principles of how to read the Bible that are relevant for this discussion:

    1. Read the passage in its natural sense.

    2. Don’t read one passage in such a way as to be in conflict with other parts of Scripture.

    These two principles are, at times, in tension from our standpoint as readers

    Reading the passage in its natural sense means trying to understand it on its own terms – looking at context, genre, the original audience and the like. 

    Seeking harmony across the Bible means not ending up with contradictions between the passage in question and the rest of the Bible. 

    And so, sometimes the two principles can be in tension.  I might think, “Yes that’s the more natural reading, but it makes nonsense of the teaching of the rest of the Bible.” 

    When that occurs I have three choices:

    1. Run with what I think the teaching of the Bible as a whole is, and recognise that God hasn’t given me understanding of this part yet.

    2. Decide that this part is so clear that I have misunderstood the teaching of the rest of the Bible and so begin to try and reinterpret other passages.  So I’m confident about one bit, and find everything else contradictory/unclear.

    3. Run with what I think the teaching of the Bible as a whole is, and accept a reading of the passage that I think can be justified, but isn’t the most natural reading of the passage (the reading seems a little bit ‘strained’).

    There aren’t any ‘rules’ you can appeal to, to decide between the three options.  All three need to be on the table.  As a very general tendency, people with a preference for biblical studies tend to find strategy 2 attractive, while people with a preference for theology tend to prefer strategy 1 and 3.  But all three approaches should be live options, all the time recognising that the problem is not with the Bible, but with our limited wisdom and understanding.  And so approaching the issue with humility, not confidence in our ability to puzzle out a mystery.

    What I’m attempting here is an exercise in option 3: I’m going to try and show why my reading of Luke 17 is a bit strained compared to the ‘repentance necessary for forgiveness’ approach, but isn’t fatally so.  Most of us wouldn’t naturally get this reading just from Luke 17, but I think you do when Luke is placed in the Bible as a whole.

  4. The second issue is that sometimes what looks like a fixed condition in an ‘if-then’ sentence isn’t really that at all. Acts, and the Gospels, will at times say things where the natural sense is to take them as a fixed condition but most of us have rightly concluded that that’s not really what is going on.  Let me give three examples:

    Acts 2:38 reports that people were told to be baptised to receive forgiveness of sins.  This is a fairly straightforward indication that baptism is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness.  Yet, we read this as less precise than that – we read it more along the lines of how Calvin in Chapter three of Book three of the Institutes encourages us to read the Bible’s exhortations for us to repent in order to be saved – that the person who wants to be saved should start moving in the direction that salvation is taking them.  It looks like a strict condition, but it’s more of rhetorical flourish – a pointing out of the things that naturally go together.  And encouraging people to start living in a way that forgiveness opens up if they want God’s forgiveness.

    Jesus’ parables of judgement are, it is well known, overwhelmingly on the basis of works.  God will separate the sheep from the goats on the basis of what they have done.  Again, this seems to suggest, on a natural sense of reading, that works are necessary for final salvation, are in fact the ground of final vindication.  Yet, taken against the rest of Scripture, we don’t read them as such a precise description of the criteria and basis of salvation.

    In Mt 5:23-24 Jesus says

    “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. 


    While the sentence structure is different, the logic seems similar to Lk 17:3-4.  You are in the Temple, about to offer your sacrifices in fulfilment of the Law.  You remember your brother has something against you.  So you need to go and be reconciled to your brother and then come back and offer the sacrifice.  In other words, being reconciled to your brother is the condition that needs to be met before you can offer your sacrifice (and, by extension, any other sacrifices).  But what if he won’t forgive?  What if he holds onto the offence and will not reconcile?  Jesus doesn’t say, “Go and try to be reconciled – give it your very best shot and that’ll do.”  He says, “Go and be reconciled.”  And the fulfilment of that command is outside of our control – it takes two to be reconciled.  But I don’t know of anyone who seriously thinks that someone should have ceased their sacrifices in the Temple (including their sin offerings!) because someone else was persisting in their sin (the sin of unforgiveness).  We ‘get’ that this is a rhetorical flourish, a strong way of making a shot across the bow to people who find it hard to forgive.  It looks like a fixed condition, but isn’t quite what it appears to be on first or even second glance.

    In none of these three cases do we read the words ‘flatly’ – just according to their natural sense in isolation.  We are aware that God uses words with ‘texture’ – there’s rhetorical overstatement, imprecision, metaphor, and the like.

  5. The third issue, which connects closely with the second, is that God is speaking to sinners who find it hard to be godly, not to good people who just need information and then they can take it from there.

    I think this point really hasn’t taken hold of our culture of Bible reading the way it needs to – I learned almost everything on this by reading Calvin.  Calvin regularly argues that the Bible is not concerned to give us “The Truth” in some abstract, perfect, ‘how God sees it’ kind of way.  Scripture is concerned to give us the truth in a way that is suited for us – a way that edifies, a way that promotes the knowledge of God, and faith and repentance. 

    Sometimes that means that God doesn’t give high-falutin precise definitions that are really only of interest to a specialist in that field of knowledge.  So in section 6 of chapter 15 of Book 1 of the Institutes Calvin accepts that some of the Greek philosophers were quite right with their complex analysis of how the human soul and mind functions.  Nonetheless the Bible offers something simpler that would be of use to all Christians – not just those with a penchant for philosophical and scientific analysis:

      For the edification of the pious, a simple definition will be sufficient. I admit, indeed, that what they ingeniously teach on the subject is true, and not only pleasant, but also useful to be known; nor do I forbid any who are inclined to prosecute the study.

    He similarly seems to acknowledge in his commentary on Genesis chapter one that some of the Bible’s astronomical statements (such as there being an expanse above the earth that keeps the water away from us) aren’t in line with what common sense tells us but doesn’t see that as a problem.:

    Moses describes the special use of this expanse, to divide the waters from the waters from which word arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theater which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses.

    The Bible describes the heavens for the purposes of piety, for, in Calvin’s words, ‘the unlearned’, not for someone skilled in the science.  It describes the cosmos in a way that points to how we should trust, fear, and love God, not so much to describe accurately or precisely all the details of astronomy.  It just works with how it looks to the uneducated man on the street in the ancient world.  Not precision and accuracy for the clever and learned, but usefulness for the very least of Christ’s brothers is the basic principle for how the Bible speaks to us. 

    Sometimes this focus the Bible has means that God uses language in ways that cause problems if they are read as simple truth statements: “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off”.  That’s not precise information for good people wanting to know how to deal with their sin problem.  That’s a shot across the bow of people who are desperately evil and don’t realise that they have a serious and fatal sin problem. 

    And much of the Bible is like that – it’s true, but not in our scientific way that prizes accuracy and precision and sees truth as just passive facts waiting for us to make use of them.  Scripture is not primarily information on a page waiting for us to make us of it. It is preaching.  It is truth packaged and aimed at us to cause a result, to affect us, not simply enlighten us.  It is truth up close and personal, fighting hand to hand and liberating people locked up in darkness.  It often sacrifices some precision in the interest of its effect on the hearer.  It is not truth waiting for us to use it, but truth used by God to create a change in us.  It is a sword wielded by another, not a tool for us to use.  As the voice of God, it is our Lord, never our servant. 

    All of these principles need to be kept in mind when approaching Luke 17:3-4, I would suggest, and we’ll turn there next.

  6. With those three points in mind, here’s my take on Luke 17 and the thinking behind it:

    1. Sinners find it very, very hard to forgive.  How hard?  The twelve ask for their faith to be increased when they are taught on the topic (Luke 17:5).  So Jesus’ teaching on this matter is not primarily information for people who find forgiving others straightforward and just need a few details cleared up before they go about it, it is a shot across the bow – making people who do not want to forgive realise how much forgiving others is basic to being Jesus’ follower (hence Luke 17:6-10, with it’s statement that after we done everything commanded of us, we have only done what we ought to have done comes next). 

    Possibly even more than love, forgiveness is the Christian distinctive.  (And that would then fit Peter Jensen’s point I alluded to in my conversation with Craig Schwarze – it’s forgiveness that makes Christian love so distinctive and notable.  Christians are able love the way they do because they forgive the way they do.)

    2. Luke 17:3-4 is not answering the question, “Under what circumstances should I forgive?”  It is more making the point that Christian forgiveness has no limits and really needs to occur.  A person doesn’t use up their credit by making the same offence against us too many times. 

    That doesn’t mean that the passage can’t also make a point about the need for repentance as well.  It does mean that I am a little bit uncomfortable when this is the proof text of choice for advocates of the ‘repentance necessary for forgiveness’ view.  A passage focusing on getting us to see that our forgiveness isn’t to have limits (in how much we forgive) is used to establish a fundamental limit (in setting up a precondition).  That can be argued, but I really don’t like the way this passage gets pulled out to make a point it isn’t making more than it is used to make the point that it is making. (Although I accept that could be just what happens when you have a debate – you just have to make the case with the best tools to hand.)

    3. If repentance is necessary for our forgiveness of each other then why do some passages Mt 18:21-22, Mark 11:25 leave out the requirement?  (It should be noted that Mark 11:25 is a doozey of a problem for the other view – if the person has already repented, why on earth haven’t you forgiven already?  Why in a teaching on prayer do you raise the problem of unforgiveness in the face of repentance? ) 

    And why do we assume that the restrictive passage (‘if he repents then forgive him’) flows over to the unrestrictive passage (if he sins then forgive him) so that the requirement for repentance needs to be read in as implicit there too?  If I have a command that says, ‘love your own family,’ and a command that says ‘love your enemy,’ and a command that says, ‘love your neighbour,’ do I take the most restrictive love command (love your family) as setting the boundaries on my love, or do I think that the most expansive and least restrictive command (love your neighbour) is the primary command, and the more restrictive is making a subsidiary, complementary, point?  Do I say, ‘there a passages that say I need to be baptised for forgiveness of sins and those that don’t, so I need to read the condition of baptism in even when it’s not mentioned’ ? Maybe there is a sense in which forgiveness is conditional, and a sense in which it is not.

    4. Our forgiveness often comes in stages, especially when the other person isn’t repentant.  Down one of the spectrum forgiveness doesn’t look like much – I’ve just been sinned against, I’m still hurt, probably angry, and can’t not have those feelings.  The best I can do is just try and put that offense to one side and love you anyway, and fight against the pull of your sin against me making me want to make that the issue until you’ve repented.  Down the other end of the spectrum forgiveness becomes more or less indistinguishable from reconciliation.  My forgiveness is from the heart, your repentance is likewise, it’s a bit hard to tell the difference between my forgiveness and our reconciliation, to point out exactly where one ends and the other begins.  That spectrum of forgiveness will mean that it looks different down one end compared to the other, one end of the spectrum might be unconditional, and the other require some conditions to ever be fully realised.

  7. 5.  Luke 17:3-4 is likely less conditional than it looks.  That is certainly implied by verse 4:

    and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him

    In this verse, the offender isn’t said to ‘repent’, as he is in verse 3.  He’s merely said to turn to you saying, “I repent”.  And, he does so seven times in a day.  What sort of repentance is this, that he offends and claims to repent seven times in one day?  It is pretty darn useless repentance.  About the only difference between this repentance and a lack of repentance is you get to see the guy’s lips move on seven different occasions.  In verse 4 Jesus is entirely silent about whether he has or has not repented, and that gives that verse a very different feel from verse 3.

    So what looks like a strong fixed condition in verse 3 – rebuke, if he repents, forgive, is reduced, in verse 4 to ‘he offends you seven times, and comes to you seven times claiming that he repents’.  That is not ‘repentance as a condition’.  That is ‘making a claim to repent’ as a condition, at best.  The goalposts move from verse three to verse four.

    Putting it all together I’d say:

    Luke 17 is making a statement to people who find it hard to forgive (i.e. all of us) that takes account of our weakness in this area and works with it.  The kind of forgiveness being spoken of in verse 3 will look very similar to reconciliation.  The kind of forgiveness spoken of in verse 4 is going to look (especially once you get to the fourth or fifth time in the day of feeling like Charlie Brown with Lucy pulling the football away) a lot more like the kind of forgiveness that Jennie and I spoke about in our posts. 

    So I read Luke 17:3-4 a bit like this:

    If your brother sins, you should go and rebuke him and if he repents you really, really should forgive him.  It shouldn’t be a struggle, it should substantially reconcile you both.  That’s really just ‘basic’ to being Christ’s disciple. 

    But let’s say he sins against you seven times in the one day, and each time comes and just says, ‘I repent’ – so that it’s not really clear whether or not he has or whether he’s just mouthing the words.  Then you still need to forgive him each time.  It’s going to be harder, the forgiveness won’t ‘do’ as much, but you still must forgive him each time.

    What we have here are two ‘case studies’ from which we are to deduce a more general principle.  So let me offer the third case study not given in the passage and see how we should answer it given, not just verse 3, but verses 3 and 4 together: Say the offender doesn’t even say the words, “I repent”, do I still need to forgive him?  Is saying the words (when sinning against me seven times in a day suggests a certain hollowness to the words) the bare minimum criteria?  Or does the fact that other parts of Scripture record a similar teaching without the ‘and if he repents’ condition suggest that even if the words are omitted we should still forgive?  It’s just going to be even harder still, and will look even weaker and will fall even further short of its goal of reconciling you both.  (But seen correctly, it is no less gracious and glorious for all of that.)

    It should be clear what my answer is.  The trajectory from verse 3 to verse 4 in Luke 17 already pushes you in a ‘forgive even when they don’t repent’ kind of direction.  By itself, that doesn’t require my reading.  But I think when the other issues I’ve raised are factored in, it means that verse 3 is not necessarily in opposition to what I’m advocating.  Jesus starts there with sinners who find forgiving really hard, but moves on to a different criteria in the very next verse.  According to vs4 those who disagree with me don’t really need to wait on actual repentance before they forgive and are reconciled, they just need to wait until the person claims to have repented and then they must reconcile – even it happens seven times a day.  I don’t see a huge difference between that and forgiving as best you can (and striving to do better) even without repentance, or without even the claim by the offender to have repented. 

    Read in light of the rest of the Bible, Luke 17:3-4 is using a technique we should be aware of: God starts at a point where it hurts but we can swallow and say, “Yes Lord”.  Then he shows us that that is only the starting the point for how we need to approach forgiving others, and the demands he makes cut far more deeply into us.  And at that point, we copy the Twelve if we’re wise, and call out, “Lord increase our faith”.  And then go and do everything he commands of us, recognising that in doing so, we do nothing more than we should.

  8. Thanks for that Mark. Even before you had written your comments, I was coming to the conclusion that we cannot use Luke 17 to qualify every single other reference to forgiveness in the NT – the implications are simply too enormous for the whole thing to rest on a single proof text.

    I’m no longer convinced that Luke 17 is presenting a normative pattern at all – actually, as you point out, Jesus is clearly setting up a rather absurd and extreme example.

    I think I’m runing out of steam on this issue, though I might comment more on some future posts. It’s fair to say that I think Mark has carried the day – I’m certainly convinced that the idea that “we should only forgive when they repent” is fraught with problems. “Unconditional forgiveness” has some problems too, but they presently look less formidable to me.

    As I said in another comment, we need to spend a bit more time understanding exactly what sort of a moral debt is incurred when we are sinned against. This will help us to understand the true nature of forgiveness better. We also need to explore the complex interaction between objective forgiveness and the various feelings that attach themselves to us during the process.

    At some point I will probably have to write another article for SA, this one called, “Rethinking Forgiveness…Again!” But I’ll spend some more time meditating on these subjects first.

    I should also note that Mark has been a very pleasant debating opponent, and it’s been stimulating to watch him “do theology”.

  9. Hi Craig,

    A rest now mightn’t be a bad idea – you’ve done some really heavy lifting in talking through things like this, and people who have followed the discussion will be in your debt for being the guy doing the work.

    If you do nail further what is eluding you on the issue of the nature of forgiveness, then I think you’d have something quite special to offer – either on SA website or elsewhere.  I’d be keen to read it, certainly.

    Since we’re exchanging compliments at the end of a conversation, then I’ll ‘fess up that I was quite thrilled when you started to comment. 

    You’ve always struck me as generally displaying the characteristics we need for good theological discussion that genuinely edifies:

    1. Neither lazy or sentimental about issues nor a prima-donna about your own views, but prepared to think hard and able to think well.

    2. Genuinely concerned with life as it lived in this world, not in some abstract world.  You’re a realist, not an idealist.

    3. Profoundly submissive to the word of God.  You’re committed to the knowledge of God being in the driving seat, you’re not a pragmatist.

    I think your internet presence generally displays those qualities and I think in doing so sets up a great example of what we’re all trying to be. 

    As I think you were all of these (and more, but these stand out) in this conversation, it was a great privilege to chew over something so important with you.  Thanks for you efforts.

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