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Many Christians, influences by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. But if we start with a biblical notion of God’s forgiveness, we see that such a view falls short.

The offer of forgiveness is unconditional (for God, and it should be for us), but forgiveness itself is conditioned upon repentance. We must always be open–and even, in God’s grace, become eager–to extend forgiveness, but we (like God) can only forgive the truly penitent. No bitterness either way. No revenge. But forgiveness, and the reconciliation that should follow, is a commitment to those who repent.

Chris Brauns explains:

This book has argued that forgiveness should be defined as a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.

In contrast to this definition, forgiveness would be alternatively defined according to a therapeutic approach. In the therapeutic line of thinking, forgiveness is a private matter that means shutting down anger, bitterness, and resentment. In other words, Christians should always forgive automatically. Because therapeutic forgiveness is based on feelings, it posits that people may even find it necessary to forgive God.

Ultimately, the question for the reader must be this: which definition do you think is more biblical? This is not a theoretical question that can be avoided. Life is relationships. In a fallen world, relationships get damaged and broken. What we believe about forgiveness will determine whether or not we can move forward for God’s glory and our own joy. (Unpacking Forgiveness, 72-73).

Overcoming anger and resentment is important, but forgiveness is something more, something different, something that involves two parties instead of one.

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32 thoughts on “What Is Forgiveness?”

  1. Eric says:

    Finally some biblical sense in regards to forgiveness. I hear so often uber-spiritual sounding stuff about forgiving people…people who are uninterested in any kind of reconciliation. Now of course we don’t store up bitterness in our hearts towards the unrepentant, and have hears ready, willing, longing to forgive. But to just give it out unsolicited is not right. Are we more charitable than our Lord? Does He forgive those who refuse to turn and come to Him? Though we know His heart is ever ready to forgive and be reconciled with all who call on Him.

  2. Brian says:

    How does this work when, as is many times the case, the supposed offender has no knowledge of having offended the offendee. There are many folks waiting for a repentant offender to come to them, when in truth they were not offended. God is always right in His judgment that someone has sinned against Him, not so with us.

  3. James Hakim says:

    Kevin, I think that one of the main problems here is that we are using the term ‘forgiveness’ to describe two different things, with opposite conditions.

    On the one hand, the refusal to harbor bitterness does not require repentance; it is unconditional.

    On the other hand, reconciliation is an exchange that requires repentance–and it is in fact unloving to attempt it in the absence of repentance. It may make us feel magnanimous, but it despises the offenders soul, as he continues under both the guilt and power of his sin.

    Your post (I haven’t read the entire book from which you quote) seems to say that we must choose between one or the other. I think that Scripture speaks to both. The refusal to harbor bitterness isn’t something that pop psychology invented.

    I benefit from your ministry in print and on the web, brother. God gladden and strengthen you in Christ,

  4. “…but forgiveness itself is conditioned upon repentance. We must always be open–and even, in God’s grace, become eager–to extend forgiveness, but we (like God) can only forgive the truly penitent.” I’d like to see scriptural back-up for this please!

  5. Wesley says:

    “but we (like God) can only forgive the truly penitent.”
    I dunno about this line. In regard to forgiveness and reconciliation, i don’t know if we can join the two as you seem to do here. I appreciated MarkyMark’s (Driscoll) differentiation in that forgiveness only requires you to release the other of punishment and/or reckoning for the offence against you while reconciliation requires both the offender and the offend-ee. Ergo, forgiveness is always possible while reconciliation is not, for penitence and owning of the truth of the offence are required for the offender to join in on this dance.
    Just a slightly different way to see it, but necessary i think. I see -of course – that, with God, forgiveness is conditional upon repentance of sins cf. 1 John 1:9, but there is also the truth that we were saved before we repented so that we would have the desire TO repent of our sins cf. Rom. 5:8.

    Jessica A. Kent:
    Try Eph. 4:30-32, Col. 3:13, Matt. 6:12, 14, 15 as a beginning biblical justification.

  6. Bob says:

    You’re saying we should withhold forgiveness in the absence of a penitent heart? Really? Maybe for reconciliation, but not for forgiveness.

    “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”

    Help me understand how that quote involves two parties and is predicated upon repentance.

  7. LoisW says:

    Yes, to the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. The Biblical command is clear: we must forgive, 70 x 7. The reason? Because we have been forgiven. Christ teaches this clearly in the parable of the unjust steward who begged for and received mercy in regard to a huge debt, then went out and demanded payment of a small debt from another.

    We forgive because we have been forgiven. We forgive not because we understand and excuse, but because a wrong needs forgiveness. We forgive not for our emotional equanimity, but because we are commanded to. Grateful for your making that point, Kevin.

    And our forgiving each other is necessary to our enjoying communion with the God who has forgiven us, as our Lord Jesus says, in his setting out of the pattern for praying.

    In sum, we forgive because we have been forgiven; we ask for God’s forgiveness because we have forgiven others, and so show that God has done a work in our heart.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The book Kevin referenced, Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns is excellent. I recommend it heartily and it clarifies the complex questions that can and do arise, particularly when one of the parties is unrepentant and seemingly spiritually blind to their sin issues.

  9. Susan says:

    Additionally, I hope the author of the book has pointed out that nowhere in scripture are we told to ask the person we have wronged to forgive us. Some use this to quickly put the ball in the other’s court. We are told to confess, period…….not to then require the forgiveness of the other. Often this only cheapens the confession.

  10. Kevin DeYoung says:

    James, yes, part of the problem is a different definition of forgiveness. We should refuse to harbor bitterness in every instance. Blessings on your work.

  11. Inchristus says:

    If I may….Read the article on “Forgiveness” from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (see especially section 4). See also my review of Chris Brauns’s book (here), a synthesis between Brauns’s work and N. T. Wright’s (here), and my two posts on Miraslov Volf’s work Free of Charge (here and here).

  12. Chris Brauns says:

    This guest post I wrote for Vitamin Z points to a number of forgiveness links (some of which are on my site).

  13. Andrew says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Surely John Macarthur is not arguing unconditional forgiveness (contra Adams) because of the influence of pop psychology.

    Are you familiar with the biblical arguments for unconditional forgiveness and what are your thoughts?


  14. God has an incredible sense of humor…Our family has been in the trenches for close to 10 years due to my daughter’s drug addiction. Granted, there were issues leading up to that and I’ll take some of that responsibility, but suffice it to say the back and forth dealing with DHR over custody in this family also involved my biological father and the child he had with the woman he left my mother for.

  15. I didn’t get to finish what I started…In any event…this “sister” and my daughter managed to have custody removed from us in 2005 and the children ended up in foster care, but nine months later they were returned to us. Now, six years later, they did it again. While I thought DHR was working toward reconciliation, it was right the opposite. My daughter was in rehab and all that time this person was wooing her and DHR and going behind my back to have my granddaughter removed. However, God used in for my good to get me back in line with Him. Just wanted to share with a portion of an email I sent to my daughter last night when she wanted to sneak the children over here today…I told her it would be best to wait and let the court handle it, but this was part of what God gave me earlier… Now, I’m not sure if there is any hope for reconciliation, but I’m open for it. I prayed about all of it Wednesday, and this is what God gave me in my quiet time from, Experiencing God Day By Day.
    “And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him.” 2 Corinthians 5:18 “As Christians, we are appointed as ministers of reconciliation. Once Christ dwells within us, we become His ambassadors, and we entreat others to be reconciled to Him…Broken relationships are the epidemic of our day. Sin alienates family members, separates friends, divides churches, and destroys marriages. Sin creates mistrust, jealousy, hatred, and greed, all of which devastate relationships. Only Christ has the remedy for the disastrous effect of sin on human relationships. As His ambassadors, we are to take the message of reconciliation to a broken, divided world. We urge reconciliation first with God, and then with each other. How tragic when God’s messengers of peace harbor enmity toward each other. It is a travesty to carry a message of love and yet be filled with hatred. If there is someone whom you refuse to forgive, your message of reconciliation is hypocrisy. The evidence that you are a disciple of Jesus is that you love your fellow Christian. In each of your relationships, make certain that your actions share the love and forgiveness that reflect what you received from God. Then you will not only speak the message of reconciliation, but you will live it as well.” “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35
    This is from my devotional Thursday,
    ” Now, if that won’t make you shiver in your shoes, socks, or bare feet, I don’t know what will…Just sayin’! Well, in any event, last night Roger and I went to the Amazing August event at our church. Rick Burgess spoke. He’s a local radio personality, from the team “Rick and Bubba,” I think they’re syndicated so you may have heard of him. Anyhow, after he entertained us for a few minutes, he finally got started preaching and when he did, he started with the scripture I used yesterday, “For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.” 2 Corinthians 5:10. Now, personally, I think my Father was giving me assurance that I was on the right track and paying attention to His guidance in my life. Why? Because several days ago I sent an email to my daughter simply stating that I had forgiven her. That was when God showed me what it would take for this family to be healed. The rest is entirely in His hands.”
    Get it? Forgiveness has to be deep down…total, not just words, no room left for revenge. How can Susie be God’s messenger when she literally creates mistrust, jealousy, hatred, and alienates family members from each other and can’t forgive? I honestly do not understand! I want to…I really, really want to understand. Go back and reread that section…never mind, I’ll copy and paste it here…for you.
    “If there is someone whom you refuse to forgive, your message of reconciliation is hypocrisy. The evidence that you are a disciple of Jesus is that you love your fellow Christian. In each of your relationships, make certain that your actions share the love and forgiveness that reflect what you received from God. Then you will not only speak the message of reconciliation, but you will live it as well.” Now remember, I didn’t write that, it came from another source…not me!

    Jessica, I don’t want your children – no way – not ever again. It just hurt…really hurt, you knew it would. I found the letter you wrote while you were at the lake – that hurt…I understood, you were hurt. I understand anger, I understand frustration. I don’t understand revenge. Never have. Don’t want to. I know forgiveness. You may not be aware of that. Let Danny Champion or Chris live with you and Shaun if Cody or Callie are hurting, and then put them out when Cody or Callie start behaving badly and suffer the consequences.

    After I’ve died, unfortunately, you will become aware of just how much I have forgiven you for and loved you in spite of. Then, my precious girl, you will spend many days wishing you still had me around to talk to about whatever Callie and Cody are going through because I will be one of the few people who knew them back when…and knew you back when…

    See, there is only one person living who knew me back when…and that is Sharon Bowman…Susie don’t know me…she never took the time. She was only interested in herself. Always has been, and always will be. God forgive her and me, but she is the sick one.

  16. Lori says:

    Jesus said in Luke 17:3-4: If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times a day, and seven times comes back to you and says “I repent,” forgive him.
    Paul says in Colossians 3:13 to forgive as Christ forgave us.” Christ forgave us upon our repentance.

    When someone who has offended us will not repent we can easily become resentful and eventually bitter. When that happens, I need to struggle in prayer for God to help me let the bitterness go, even though there is not resolution with the offending party. Is this a type of forgiveness? I am not sure, but surely it is necessary for our relationship with Christ to be pure. We are also told to love our enemy, not like them. And it is a command, not a suggestion. Not easy to do most of the time, but not impossible.

    Having said all this, I find it hard when someone continues to be abusive and personally offensive to be reconciled to them, even though they repented. Also, many people will come and ask forgiveness, but not necessarily be repentant.

    It would be very helpful to have an accurate definition of forgiveness in the original Bible language. Anyone know?

  17. Lori says:

    Okay, I looked it up. According to Vines, there are several words for forgiveness. One means to release from punishment or a debt. It also says “Human forgiveness is to be strictly analogous to Divine forgiveness,” e.g., Matt 18:21,22. The conditions are repentance and confession, Matt. 18:15-17; and Luke 17:3 (which I mentioned in my previous post).” Here is the link for the full explanation:

  18. Amen! Thanks for this post!

  19. Mike Grenier says:

    Kevin, would you be willing to do a follow-up post on how you go about reconciling Mark 11:25 and Luke 17:3-4? I think this would be a great service to the Lord’s church. It seems Jesus teaches that we should forgive individually (without repentance), as well as in those cases where the person comes to us in repentance. The question is – should Luke 17 be read as an “only if” or simply as an “if”? And if it’s to be read as an “only if”, then how do we account for Christ’s command in Mark to forgive before praying in what seems like a one-sided action? As an elder at my church, I’m struggling with how best to teach the biblical concept of forgiveness, given the well-meaning and different perspectives I see on it – even from within TGC and among the leadership of my own church. I don’t want to fall into an internal-only therapeutic “feeling-oriented” model for forgiveness, but then again I worry about the destructiveness of internal bitterness and anger if people think they can withhold forgiveness until the person approaches them in repentance. I just want to teach it biblically – and if I’m honest I see the merit in both positions on this topic. Thanks for considering. Many blessings.

  20. Meg Spierto says:

    When I first saw the blog post on forgiveness, I felt that it was one that I needed to read based on what God has been doing in my life recently. I found the proposed ideas of forgiveness to be very thought provoking. From the two definitions of forgiveness given, I would fall in the category that believes in the therapeutic type of forgiveness. After reading this article, however, I am somewhat unsure of my standpoint. The thought of only forgiving those who truly repent is something new to me. I may be wrong, but that’s what I got from the article; that God loves all, but he only forgives those who repent. This is an idea that has never crossed my mind, but the reality of life is that those who do not repent of their sins will not get to spend eternity in heaven. So how does this look in a Christian life? This whole idea could spark the wrong mindset in those who don’t use it properly. It may give one an attitude of superiority. It could also cause one to think that because a brother or sister does not repent, there is no need for generosity, love, patience, or any other kind of fruit we are to bear to God’s creation. We are still to love everyone as Christ loves us, but to grant true forgiveness only to those who sincerely ask. This foreign concept is tremendously interesting and to be quite honest, I am still not sure how I feel about it. I find myself wondering if I misunderstood the author’s point. If I read the article correctly then I would have to say that Biblically, I might have to agree with the idea of forgiving the repentant and loving all. If this is so, I, as well as many others, must change my therapeutic type view on forgiveness, being careful of the dangers that come along with it.

  21. SD says:

    Kevin, what does True Repentance mean? My wife and I have been in a disagreement for a long period of time over something I did to her and clearly I was wrong from my perspective and hers. While I have confessed to her and asked for forgiveness for specific past sins(Not adultery or porn FYI), her reaction was to broadcast it through emails to our children and others. I can forgive her for this. She continues to want to discuss every sin I have committed in our marriage against her, before our marriage, and from HER perception. Obviously there are now trust issues. I feel like she will only be happy with a website dedicated to my sin and repentance. I have read Unpacking Forgiveness and I am still not clear on this. My Christian counselor thinks that this will not end and she will continue to harbor these feelings unless she truly forgives me and also forgives someone that hurt her many years ago before our marriage. It sounds complicated and it is, but should it be?

  22. Kevin DeYoung says:

    SD, sounds like a serious situation that should involve your pastor or elders. They can sort through the particulars in a way no one online can. As to the more general question, if you search for “godly grief” in the search window of this blog you’ll find two articles I wrote about the difference between worldly grief and godly grief.

  23. Marie says:

    This biblical truth about forgiveness needs to be preached more. We not only have ‘cheap grace’ we also have ‘cheap forgiveness’. Seems people love anything that is easy and brings a visible sainthood on the ‘gracious’ forgiver. REAL forgiveness is a ton harder and invites misunderstanding even persecution from others and there is usually no ‘glory’ involved. Movies like ‘Amish Grace’ dont help matters. You will very rarely hear any preachers teach what real forgiveness according to Gods word is. Do we think we are higher than God? He always requires repentance before forgiveness but we somehow think we are more spiritual and evolved than that?? It’s a kind of arrogance blapshemy thinking that. LOVE YOUR ENEMIES by all means, but forgiveness ALWAYS requires TWO parties and ALWAYS requires repentance from the offender.

  24. John says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with DeYoung (and Braun, although I have voiced frustration with parts of Braun’s book).

    I’ve learned that sound-bite theology is very difficult to combat. A singular verse tossed your direction with a pointed question is almost always a lost point. But in total, I think scripture weighs heavily in favor of DeYoung’s position. It’s difficult when you’re immersed in the culture to shed its impact, but I think that “easy grace”, “easy faith”, “easy fill-in-the-blank” is the flip side of “unconditional forgiveness”. If I was a universalist, I think I’d need to adopt that position. But I’m not. The fact that Jesus will return waging war with justice and a sword coming out of his mouth likely indicates that not all will be forgiven, even by the one who died to secure that possibility.

    By all means tend to your own heart. But personal bitterness and resentment can be left behind without also leaving behind the testimony of scripture.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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