by Marie Notcheva
Some time ago, I read John Macarthur’s book on forgiveness, along with several appendixes and sermons on the subject by Charles Spurgeon and Alexander MacLaren.
This will not be a typical book review, as I’d like to get into some of the topics Macarthur brings up in a bit more depth and compare/contrast his views to what other Bible teachers have to say. As always, our ultimate authority is to be the Scripture, and fortunately systematic theology is an area in which Macarthur excels. Scripture must always be interpreted in light of other Scripture; a key point when discussing a matter such as forgiveness. Cherry-picking verses from here and there can give us a skewed view of God’s will. Unforgiveness and the human desire for vengeance is an age-old scourge – as much a part of our fleshly nature as it was 2,000 years ago.
In the first chapter, Macarthur lays out the truths of God’s mercy and justice as great virtues, and how through the Atonement both are satisfied. This is presumably not new to his readers, but it is impossible to get an accurate view of just how much we’ve been forgiven without looking at divine redemption. As Jerry Bridges writes elsewhere, ‘sin is cosmic treason’ and we are accountable to a thrice-holy God. Unable to seek God on our own initiative, God initiates and obtains the sinner’s reconciliation, while extending the offer to all.
All Are Called and Offered Mercy
Admittedly, Macarthur is more staunchly Calvinist than I (try as I might, I cannot become a true 5-pointer; it seems somewhat unbalanced to emphasize Romans 8:30 to the expense of Acts 2:2, John 5:40 and 2 Peter 3:9). It was very tempting to get caught up in the mental gymnastics of monergism vs. synergism once again, but the best explanation I’ve heard so far is that it is a mystery how our will works within the confines of God’s sovereignity. He elects, calls and does all of the saving; we are responsible for our own response and repentance. He gets all the glory, as repentance is a gift freely given anyway.
God has laid out very specific commands to His children in His Word, and understanding the nuances of Limited Atonement, fortunately, isn’t one of them. However, if we accept so great a salvation as fact, talking doctrine will get us nowhere in a hurry. Applying it (namely, forgiving as we’ve been forgiven) is a must. And NO, I’m not saying sound doctrine doesn’t matter – it’s crucial. But the main reason it is so important that we be doctrinally sound is so we can BE the salt and light God requires, from a heart that is pure, undeceived, and fully devoted to following Christ.
1 Peter 2:24 reminds us that God has redeemed us in order that we may live righteously. In view of this, and in light of the substitutionary atonement (linger at the Cross), unforgiveness = extreme ingratitude. My words; not Macarthur’s. In fact, I will probably quote him extensively as I write this series, but mostly the impressions God laid on my heart were insights into the deeper application of the truth he lays out. After discussing imputation (God put Christ’s righteousness to our credit), he states:
“That means our forgiveness is not dependent on some prior moral reform on our part. Every believer is forgiven immediately, just like the thief on the Cross. No works of penance are necessary, no meritorious rituals. Forgiveness costs us nothing, because it already cost Christ everything.”
He then goes on to explain how a true conversion will inevitably result in a changed life, as we are conformed to the image of Christ. The Bible makes no allowance for what’s sometimes called “cheap grace“, although naturally we still fall and require constant forgiveness. He discusses the need for ongoing forgiveness in light of 1 John 1:9 onward. The difference between judicial forgiveness (when we come to God for salvation) and parental forgiveness (restoration of fellowship, the “foot washing” Christ discussed at the Last Supper) is the fact that God does discipline His children in love. The difference between God’s wrath and fatherly displeasure should be apparent to the born-again believer, so I won’t spend extra space on it.
“As Christians, we should be obsessed with forgiveness, not vengeance.”
After making the case for how much and how unilaterally God has forgiven us, Macarthur makes this striking statement. Looking at the whole of Scripture – not just the New Testament – we see that it is better to suffer a wrong for righteousness’ sake, not take offense, and be quick to forgive. Why? Because it is a reflection of the very heart of Christ, Who is One with the Father.
“Whereas Abel’s blood (and the blood of other martyrs) screams for vengeance, Christ’s blood pleads for mercy.”
Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a deliberate choice that runs counter to our bitter feelings, which tell us to dwell on an offense. Tomorrow I want to discuss when forgiveness should be instantaneous and unilateral, in what sense it applies to unbelievers, and what Matthew 18 and Luke 17 mean. Stay tuned.