Defining Forgiveness


Return of the Prodigal, Robert Barnum

Over the last months I’ve been thinking a fair bit about forgiveness. A couple of years ago, I preached on Jesus’s words about forgiveness in Matthew’s gospel, and the reaction surprised me (although it shouldn’t have). Folk are wary of forgiveness, mainly I think because of cheap and easy definitions of what forgiveness is – what you might call under-developed theologies of forgiveness. These theologies of cheap grace do not seem to to concern themselves with repentance for sin, or notions of justice, when it comes to forgiveness. It ought to at least give us pause for thought that God himself places responsibilities on offenders: ‘if we confess our sins’ writes John, ‘he is faithful and just to forgive us’ (1 John 1:9). There are ideas of repentance and justice right there. If our ideas of forgiveness don’t include these, they easily become charters for further cycles of exploitation, anxiety and damage.

At the other extreme are over-developed theologies of forgiveness that take away the challenge of forgiving the real people in our own lives who have offended against us. Jesus words are clear: if we do not forgive, we won’t be forgiven (Matt 6:15). We can place so many caveats on forgiveness that we are really just concocting get-out clauses for the painful business of forgiving those who have hurt us, damaged us, broken us.

You might put it like this: over-developed definitions of forgiveness produce excuses; under-developed definitions of forgiveness produce abuses.

So, I was really helped by a definition of forgiveness in Bryan Maier’s book Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach (Kregel, 2017). I reproduce it here:

To put it all in one comprehensive statement, my full exposition of “I forgive you” might go as follows:

Because of your repentance and the fact that the price of your sin has been paid (by God), the effects of your sin against me have been substantially healed, and your repentance has stopped the previously hostile messages to me, your sin can no longer damage me. Since you are taking responsibility for your sin I no longer have to make up distorted reasons why it happened, and that is good for both of us. Finally, our relationship is now different and I agree to treat you in light of this new relationship (p.115).

I think that’s really helpful, especially the focus on ‘hostile messages’ and the need for repentance and responsibility. The book sets out the challenge of forgiveness but also sets out, alongside, the need for a framework of repentance, healing, and importantly, safety.