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.)