Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Conclusion)

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

This is the Conclusion of a 3-Part review and analysis of the points raised in Dr. John Macarthur’s “The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness”. You may read Part II here.

by Marie Notcheva ©

After laying the groundwork of the Atonement as the basis for our unmerited forgiveness, Macarthur opens his chapter “Just as God Has Forgiven You” by using the December 1997 Heath High School shooting in Kentucky as an example of Christians extending unilateral, Christ-like forgiveness. The Paducah students were meeting for prayer in a school corridor when a fourteen-year-old freshman opened fire, killing three students and seriously wounding five more. Macarthur notes that many of the survivors and families of victims expressed forgiveness and no desire for vengeance, including a girl with a severed spinal cord who sent the following message from her hospital bed: “Tell him [the assailant] I forgive him.”

This is unquestionably a case of Christ-like behavior on the part of those injured, but it was an interesting example for Macarthur to choose. A different aspect of the story undermines a condition for forgiveness, and was, in fact, unscriptural.

Not long after the shooting, I remember reading an article in the Reader’s Digest questioning the validity of the outpouring of forgiveness at the school following the murders. The author, an Orthodox Jew, made the valid point that the students immediately hanging up posters and signs in the high school proclaiming “We Forgive You” actually had no right to do so – the crime had not been against them. Furthermore, he asserted, it is not in God’s nature to let such a gross crime and unrepentant killer go unpunished (God is an avenger of injustice). If there were to be forgiveness, he contended, it could only be extended by the victims or families of the casualties themselves.

That Jewish journalist was absolutely right.

Macarthur lays out situations under which unconditional forgiveness is not appropriate, or even possible biblically. He writes:

“There are times when it is necessary to confront an offender. In such cases, unconditional forgiveness is not an option. These generally involve more serious sins – not petty or picayune complaints, but soul-threatening sins or transgressions that endanger the fellowship of saints. In such situations Luke 17:3 applies: “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” In such cases, if a brother or sister in Christ refuses to repent, the discipline process outlined in Matthew 18 applies….”Some take the position that this [Eph. 4:32 & Col. 3:13] teaches forgiveness should always be conditional. Their rationale goes like this: God forgives only those who repent. Therefore, if we are going to forgive in the same manner as we have been forgiven, we should withhold forgiveness from all who are unrepentant. Some fine teachers hold this view. For example, Jay Adams writes:

‘It should go without saying that since our forgiveness is modeled after God’s (Eph. 4:32), it must be conditional. Forgiveness by God rests on clear, unmistakable conditions. The apostles did not merely announce that God had forgiven men…Paul and the apostles turned away from those who refused to meet the conditions, just as John and Jesus did earlier when the scribes and Pharisees would not repent.’ (page 34)

“There is some merit in Adam’s position. There are times when forgiveness must be conditional, and we shall discuss that issue before the close of this chapter.” (see below)

“I have great respect for Adams and have recommended his book on forgiveness as a helpful study on the subject. On this issue, however, I must disagree with the position he takes. To make conditionality the gist of Christlike forgiveness seems to miss the whole point of Scripture. When Scripture instructs us to forgive in the manner we have been forgiven, what is in view is not the idea of withholding forgiveness until the offender expresses repentance.”

A fellow Christian wrote (in response to the above – I’m re-posting the quote in full): I agree with Adams’ stance, especially in view of the Luke passage where Jesus say “IF” your brother repents then you are to forgive him. I don’t think we are precluded from forgiven an unrepentant person, but I also don’t think we are required to forgive someone who is not remorseful. For example, everyone says to forgive the 9/11 terrorists, but they wouldn’t even seek forgiveness had they lived.

Absolutely “forgiving” the 9/11 terrorists falls outside the biblical parameters, for several of the reasons listed below. On top of everything else, this was a matter of criminal law and the courts have the God-ordained authority to sentence them. However, generally these aren’t the types of situations where we’re tempted to be unforgiving.

Macarthur spends a full chapter discussing church discipline, emphasizing that it should always be done in love and seeking to restore the wayward Christian – it is not punitive or vengeful. I don’t want to spend time discussing the church discipline process, except to add that I completely agree with it, and if it were done correctly there would be fewer lukewarm believers and scandals in churches. However, for the purposes of this series on forgiveness, I’d rather focus on the interpersonal implications. So here are some guidelines for when confrontation is necessary, and things must be set right for forgiveness to be extended:

 If you observe a serious offense that is a sin against someone other than you, confront the offender. Justice does not permit a Christian to cover a sin against someone else. I can unilaterally and unconditionally forgive a personal offense when I am the victim, because it is I who then bears the wrong. But when I see that someone else has been sinned against, it is my duty to seek justice. (Exodus 23:6; Deut. 16:20; Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 59:15-16; Jeremiah 22:3; Lam. 3:35-36.

– When ignoring an offense might hurt the offender, confrontation is required. (Gal. 6:1-2).

– When a sin is scandalous or otherwise potentially damaging to the Body of Christ, confrontation is essential. (Hebrews 12:15).

– When there is a broken relationship between Christians, both parties have a responsibility to seek reconcilliation (Luke 17:3; Matt. 5:23-24).

Again, Macarthur emphasizes that Christians should be prepared to suffer wrong rather than cause reproach. Most of the cases where we are unforgiving are over personal affronts and hurt feelings; not over matters of eternal significance. (This theme resonated with me – this is the type of unforgiveness I’m prone to carry). Even knowing that the offender must ultimately repent to get right with God, in view of the enormous grace poured out on us, we should be ready to lay aside our grudges and “starve” those bitter feelings – even without a formal declaration of repentance. Confronting every little thing (even repeat offenses) will cause more relational problems than it will solve – just think of this dynamic in a marriage. (“Honey, you left your socks on the floor again. That’s the third time this week. You need to repent and seek my forgiveness.”)

Choosing to Lay Aside the “Right” to Vengeance

When I think of a gracious response and the ultimate “covering” (as opposed to confrontation), I recall Christ’s first post-resurrection words to the disciples in the Upper Room, after they had all left Him high and dry: “Peace be with you.” (If someone pulled a stunt like that on me, you’d better believe they’d be hearing about it!) Although the disciples were certainly repentant, we have no reason to believe Jesus brought up their cowardice to shame or confront them. He graciously forgave and instantly restored. That is to be our model, insofar as it depends on us (Romans 12:18).

Is it not possible that Christ’s words from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34) stunned and softened the hearts of the soldiers and enraged crowd (many of whom repented and were saved 7 weeks later, on Pentecost)? Could not Stephan’s amazing plea in Acts 7:60 “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” so impressed the complicit Saul that he later would recall what selfless forgiveness looked like?

Undeserved forgiveness – when we willingly give up our “rights” for Christ’s sake – is often a way in which God will glorify Himself. In his sermon “Forgiveness Made Easy“, Spurgeon declares:

“Brother, the most splendid vengeance you can ever have is to do good to them who do you evil, and to speak well of them who speak ill of you. They will be ashamed to look at you; they will never hurt you again if they see that you cannot be provoked except to greater love and larger kindness.”

“Self-pity is an act of sinful pride. The wounded ego that cannot rise above an offense is the very antithesis of Christlikeness.” (Macarthur, p. 168) “Forgiveness frees us from the bitter chains of pride and self-pity.” (citing Joseph’s reaction to his brothers) Satan takes advantage of an unforgiving spirit and “devours” people. Sometimes, believers rationalize their unforgiving spirit over relatively minor offenses by reasoning that God (who hates injustice) would never want them to suffer injury and forgive offender unconditionally. But Christ had another point of view for His followers: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first….No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18, 20).

Sin is an attack on the moral government of God; not just a personal affront. Yet Christ Himself was willing to lay aside His right to vengeance (the only One who truly had a claim to justice) on Calvary. Although He never relinquished His deity, He deferred judgment in order to glorify God – through some of them repenting and coming to salvation. That’s the perfect model right there (and we endure far less injustice than the Lord did in His suffering). Spurgeon says, in the same message:

“And this forgiveness on God’s part was most free. We did nothing to obtain it by merit, and we brought nothing wherewith to purchase it. He forgave us for Christ’s sake, not for aught that we had done. True, we did repent, and we did believe, but He gave us repentance and faith, so that He did not forgive us for the sake of them, but purely because of His own dear love, because He delights in mercy and is never more like Himself than when He forgives transgression, inequity, and sin.”

Repeat Offenders – Enough is Enough! 

I don’t know that I’ve ever had someone sin against me and then come back contrite, only to do it all over again….but hypothetically speaking, how would I react? As a former addict (set free only by the sheer grace of God, I might add), I have been on the receiving end of this kind of mercy myself, and therefore can easily concur with Macarthur on this point:

“Someone might ask, ‘Who in the world would commit the same offense seven times in one day and then profess repentance after each time? Here’s the point: this sort of behavior is precisely how we sin againstGod. We sin; then we express sorrow for our sin and seek God’s forgiveness; then we turn around and commit precisely the same sin again. Anyone who has ever been in bondage to a sinful habit knows precisely what the routine is like.

Does God forgive under such circumstances? Yes, He does. And since His forgiveness sets the criterion by which we are to forgive, the standard is set blessedly high. What may seem at first like an impossibly unfair and unattainable standard is in fact wonderful news for anyone who has ever needed to seek the forgiveness of God for repeat offenses. Jesus is teaching here that the forgiveness we extend to others should be as boundless as the mercy of God we desire for ourselves. That shatters all the limits anyone would try to place on human forgiveness.” (page 102).

Jesus understood and seemed to be alluding to the human propensity to want mercy for ourselves, but judgment for others. Hence His warning, “By the same measure you judge, you will be judged”.

Additional Benefits of Forgiveness

Towards the end of the book, Macarthur devotes a chapter to the blessings of forgiveness, although as stated at the beginning, emotional benefits to the obedient servant should not be the focal point of forgiving one another – submission to an all-holy God is the issue. He attributes all kinds of physical/social problems in an individual to unforgiveness, which he compares to “a toxin”. Macarthur candidly states that most of the counseling cases he has seen are related in some way to unforgiveness in the life of the counselee. Lastly, before an excellent appendix on correct understanding of the Atonement (why the Ransom and Governmental Theories are heretical), Macarthur includes a chapter entitled “Answering Hard Questions About Forgiveness.” He deals with queries such as “what is the difference between true repentance and a mere apology?” (genuine repentance entails an admission of wrongdoing and a plea for forgiveness); “To whom should we confess our sins?” (to God and the affected person or people); “should I confess my affair to my wife?” (yes); and “how should we handle repeat offenses?” (read Luke 17:3-4).

Quite honestly, I was a bit disappointed in this last chapter, as none of the questions seemed particularly “hard” to me and he just covered the same ground Jay Adams had in “From Forgiven to Forgiving“. I could think of much harder questions about forgiveness to ask, but fortunately the Bible (and Macarthur’s helpful exposition of key passages and principles) has helped me to answer them on my own. Overall, “The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness” is an excellent book, not only for biblical counselors but for all Christians to add to their libraries.


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