Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Part II)

"Forgiven" by THomas Blackshear
“Forgiven” by Thomas Blackshear

This is the second of a 3-Part review of Dr. John Macarthur’s “The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness.” You may read Part I here.

Marie Notcheva ©

Picking up from where I left off yesterday, let’s continue with a biblical look at horizontal forgiveness (“forgiving one another, just as in Christ God has forgiven you”, Eph. 4:32.  Beyond being obedient, or being painfully aware of the huge debt that was forgiven us by God, a form of forgiveness can be done for purely selfish reasons. To be free of anger – simply to be free of it – for yourself.

This is a point that both Macarthur and Jay Adams in “From Forgiven to Forgiving” touch upon. Prevailing “wisdom” in the Church today maintains that forgiveness is “a gift you give yourself” (Joyce Meyer et. al.) and is for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver. While it’s true that emotionally one will have an easier time if he/she is not nursing a grudge or cultivating bitterness, that is not the primary reason we are called to forgive. So what IS the impetus to be lavishly forgiving? Because God said so. He lays it on as a command.

Love that is Neither Humanistic nor Self-Serving

To make forgiveness into something we do to bless ourselves is to undermine the authority of God in our lives. It is to downplay the sovereignty of Christ. Turning a God-ordained command into a suggestion for feeling good about ourselves (self-esteem gospel, anyone?) is to cultivate a humanistic, man-centered outlook rather than a Christ-centered one. Adams, in particular, attacks the notion that we extend forgiveness to benefit ourselves. Again, let’s start from this premise: God commanded us to forgive. God’s in charge; not us. Therefore we do what He says and forgive.

When you resolve in your heart to obey God and forgive, don’t feel badly if you lack warm fuzzy feelings for your nemesis; just resolve in your heart to let the offense go and allow God to deal with both him and you. It is important not to let bitterness grow. 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.

Wow, five paragraphs in and I haven’t even gotten into specifics of the book yet. Let’s start with this quote:

“For a Christian to be willfully unforgiving is unthinkable. We who have been forgiven by God Himself have no right to withhold forgiveness from our fellow sinners.” (p. 97)

The Rod of Discipline

Macarthur then devotes 10 pages to exegeting the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-27). The point of that parable is the infinite enormity of our sin debt to God, how the “debt” our fellow sinners “owe” us pales in comparison, and how we are to reflect the King’s gracious character out of sheer gratitude. Since God’s judicial forgiveness is not conditional upon a sinner’s subsequent behavior (He does not “withdraw” salvation), the severity of the king’s punishment here actually illustrates how God will discipline unforgiving believers.

“Though the guilt of sin is forgiven so that it will never be an issue in eternal judgment, God may permit the consequences of sin to be even more severe, in order to motivate a sinning believer to obey. Because unforgivingness is so completely foreign to what Christians should be, Christ applies this threat particularly to that sin (v. 35).”

Scripture upholds that God does, indeed, discipline as sons those He loves.

Here are my notes on that chapter:

Parable of unforgiving servant – “10,000” (talents) – derived from same word in Greek as “myriad” – expresses idea of incalculable debt. Underscores infinite amount of debt, as in our sin-debt to God. We can’t repay it. King’s reaction = the very picture of what God does on behalf of every sinner who repents. When we realize the enormity of our debt, the hopelessness of our true spiritual condition before the King, the only appropriate response is to do as the servant did – fell prostrate before the king, in desperate plea for mercy (which neither he, nor we, deserve). King elevates him to position of unmerited favor (this is definition of grace).

So…unforgiveness of others represents lack of appreciation, an awareness of what we’ve truly been forgiven. We underestimate our own enormous debt to God, freely and compassionately forgiven, by “choking and demanding” our fellow sinners repay us. By the world’s standards, we do have a legitimate and rightful claim on what is “owed” us. Forgiveness makes no sense. But when we really see ourselves as the first servant, guilty of an infinitely more grave debt to the King, debts against us pale in comparison. It’s when we move away from the feet of the King – or the foot of the Cross – that the unforgiving, fleshly spirit which demands it’s “rights” to restitution sneaks in. Scripture makes clear that God takes this seriously.

This grace from God should make us “profoundly grateful, and also profoundly merciful” (p. 106) “In effect, the unforgiving servant had placed himself above the king….God Himself will employ harsh measures when necessary to correct a disobedient Christian. The harshness of His discipline is a measure of His love for His people and His concern for their purity.”

The “torturers” = rod of God’s discipline. So the lesson of parable is this: Christians who refuse to forgive others will be subject to the severest form of discipline until they learn to forgive as they have been forgiven. (pp. 110-111)

“Christians who fail to show mercy will be subject to divine chastisement without much mercy. That is the whole message of this parable. I am convinced that multitudes of Christians who suffer from stress, depression, discouragement, relationship problems, and all sorts of other hardships experience these things because of a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness from the heart would liberate the person immediately from such “torturers” – and glorify God in the process.” (P. 112)

Is Forgiveness Unconditional?

Now we need to tackle perhaps the toughest issue, and the one that has historically been the biggest obstacle to me: biblically, do we need to forgive when the offender does not repent? In a sense, yes; although there are certain situations where unconditional/unilateral forgiveness is not possible.

Macarthur and Adams somewhat differ on this point, as Adams views forgiveness as a bi-lateral transaction of sorts. He contends that “forgive as you have been forgiven” indicates that without repentance, no forgiveness can take place (no one would argue that repentance is a condition to our receiving God’s mercy and divine forgiveness). However, Macarthur points out that the point of that command, as well as similar exhortations throughout Scripture, is to be lavish and abundant in our forgiving (as our Father is), and thus glorify God. Furthermore, he points out, “covering another’s transgression is the very essence of forgiveness.” (p. 121). Mark 11:25-26 speaks of immediate, unilateral forgiveness – no formal meeting/transaction required. As Bill Fields writes, “God does NOT forgive where there is no repentance but God does show common grace and mercy as HE invites sinners to HIM through Godly repentance.”

This is probably the most difficult aspect of forgiveness to accept and allow to manifest in our lives. However, Scripture makes it clear that it is better to suffer a wrong patiently for the sake of righteousness than to exact re-payment. Before reading these two books, I was convicted on this point from a biblical counseling worksheet that listed all the verses dealing with anger, forgiveness, and how we are to relate to other people (believers as well as non). Although the word “forgiveness” does not appear in many of them, it is abundantly clear from the wording how God expects us to treat our enemies – with love and forbearance.

Where Macarthur and Adams Differ…..

The main difference between John Macarthur and Jay Adams’ view of forgiveness is that Macarthur believes, in the majority of cases, the Christ-like standard compels us to forgive unconditionally whether the offender repents or not. He is careful to explain that the offender is still under God’s judgment, as all sin is ultimately against God; but we are expected to relinquish him or her in our own hearts.

Macarthur points out that usually offenses are injurious to our pride and are personal disputes that an outsider might consider petty. Sometimes, particularly in the Body, it is necessary to confront in love, but in Macarthur’s view the vast majority of times confrontation is neither necessary nor desirable. The Bible urges us to “cover in love” such occasions. Jay Adams, the founder of the nouthetic counseling movement, takes a slightly different stance. He points to the Matthew 18 process as a standard for interpersonal confrontation (Macarthur says it relates primarily to the church discipline process) and believes loving confrontation followed by sincere repentance is a prerequisite to forgiving.

To be sure, while Adams contends that true forgiveness cannot take place until there is repentance (and it is technically not possible for a non-Christian to repent), the “to forgive or not to forgive?” question almost becomes a matter of semantics, because nowhere does he advocate shunning or mistreating an offender. Nor does he rationalize holding onto a grudge, nursing bitterness, or repaying in kind. To do so would, of course, be patently unbiblical. So, while he dismisses apologies as meaningless and precludes true (horizontal) forgiveness from the unrepentant, he would agree that we are to love our enemies and do good to those that hurt us.

The Heart of the Matter

On the surface, Adams’ “formula” sounds like a good loop-hole for the unforgiving…but riddle me this: how, exactly, do we love on the offender, do good to him or her, and refuse to allow resentment to take root in our heart, while not forgiving? Sounds pretty much like forgiveness to me, even if Adams chooses not to call it such. No matter how you slice it (and we are using the Sword – the Word of God to do the slicing), we cannot get around our call to love, pray for, and refuse to harbor ill will towards those who hurt us.

Tomorrow I’ll lay out circumstances where unconditional forgiveness does not apply. However, since most offenses we have to deal with are of the personal variety, I felt it important to discuss why God gives us no justification for being unforgiving over such affronts. (Even the “eye for an eye” command was given to prevent civic justice from becoming excessive; it was later perverted to apply to cases of personal vengeance.) It was this misapplication that Jesus was addressing in Matthew 5:38 when He laid down the Law of love.

Conclusion coming tomorrow…


One thought on “Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Conclusion) |

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