Forgiveness: Contemporary Teachings

Forgiveness is a big subject in christian literature.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8)
There is a way that seems right to man, but the end is the way of death. (Proverbs 14:12, margin)

Forgiveness has always been a big subject in Christian literature. That's because the Bible exhorts Christians to exercise forgiveness, even for the most heinous transgressions.

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. (Colossians 3:13)
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Contemporary forgiveness teachings fall primarily into two camps, each with its own specialized experts. The first is characterized by its psychological approach and emphasis on personality; the second on its traditional approach and emphasis of earning heaven or God’s favor. Importantly, the leaders in both the camps claim their teachings fall squarely within the perimeter of the scriptures. Yet their ideas behind the purpose of forgiveness are canyons apart.

The Psychological Camp

The roots of this camp’s teachings stem more from psychological principles than they do from scripture. The Bible is more or less a spiritual backdrop to the believer’s emotional issues. This camp’s maxim is: forgiveness is more important for what it does for you than what it does for your offender. It views forgiveness itself as a simple act of the will. The heavy lifting comes on the back end: healing the believer's damaged psyche with a hodgepodge of verses mixed together with psychological counseling, treatments, and therapies.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, the fruit of this paradigm is a self-centered martyr complex.  

"God, look at me. See how much damage he's caused me? See how hurt I am? How can anyone bear this? But God, I've forgiven him. Why? You said I must forgive him. So I called him and told him that I had forgiven him. But what am I supposed to do with all this pain? Help me, God, get over this pain. Oh, the pain."

"Oh, honey. Look at you. How are you holding up?"

“It's okay. I've forgiven him. You know, I had to."

"Honey, with what he did to you? You could forgive him like that? I don't know how you did it. "

"The Lord says I have to forgive, so I did what I had to do. The Lord will help me get through.”

"Well, you're a strong one. I just don't see how anyone could live through that, let alone forgive. I’m so proud of you.”

Second it smacks against the Bible’s warnings against self-exaltation.

everyone that exalts himself will be humbled; but everyone that humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:14; cf. James 4:10)

This approach doesn't humble the believer, it exalts his personal psychological drama above everything else.

The Law Camp

The second camp approaches forgiveness, not as a means of psychological healing, but as a means of earning heaven, or God's favor. It's summed up this way: 

If we hold fast to an unforgiving spirit . . . we will not be forgiven by God. If we continue on in that way, then we will not go to heaven, because heaven is the dwelling place of forgiven people —A prominent theologian

This teaching gets a lot of traction because it's based on a red-letter statement just after the Lord's Prayer (which is not actually a prayer, but we'll get to that in a minute). 

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive yoiu; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14–15)

The question is, does this scripture apply to twenty-first century New Testament believers? The answer is no. 

In second Timothy, Paul writes that not only are the scriptures are God-breathed, but also that they need to be handled skillfully.  In other words, a klutzy Word-handler could find himself in all kinds of doctrinal trouble if he doesn't watch out. (Think snake handling, for instance.) And that's where New Testament believers would find themselves if they began thinking they were going to miss heaven because they failed to forgive someone. (A believer gains heaven by being born again.)

So, what was Jesus talking about in Matthew 6:14–15? The fact is, he wasn't pontificating a universal truth; he was advising his Jewish disciples how they ought to pray and act under the Law. 

Going back to the incarnation, Jesus was born a Jew under the Law (Gal.4:4), and circumcised the eighth day (Luke 2:21; Levitcus 12:3). He entered his public ministry as a prophet to the Jews ("I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" Matthew 15:24), and all of his disciples were Jews. Jesus was born a Jew for several reasons, not the least of which were to become Israel's Messiah and to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) to save the world. 

When his disciples asked him, "Teach us how to pray," he responded with what we've come to call the Lord's Prayer. 

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done as in heaven, so in earth. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. (Matthew 6:9–13)

He tagged his eye-for-an-eye forgiveness on the end of “for ever and ever.”

While contemporary Christians cite the Lord’s Prayer by rote, it really isn’t a standalone prayer at all. It’s a sketch for the kind of praying Jews were supposed to do living under Moses’ Law. Below is the Old Testament scriptural support for each of Jesus’ phrases.

Our Father (Isaiah 63:16; 64:8)
Which art in heaven (2 Chronicles 20:6; Psalm 115:3; Isaiah 57:15, 66:1)
Hallowed be thy name (Leviticus 10:3; 22:32; 2 Samuel 7:26; 1 Kings 8:43; 1 Chronicles 17:24; Nehemiah 9:5; Psalm 72:9; 111:19; Isaiah 6:3; 29:23; Ezekiel 36:23; 38:23; Zechariah 14:9; Malachi 1:11; 4:2)
Thy kingdom come (Daniel 2:44, 7:13, 14, 27; Psalm 2:6; Isaiah 2:2–4,9:6,7; Jeremiah 23:5; Zechariah 9:9, 10)
Thy will be done (Psalm 4:3; Ezra 7:18; Daniel 4:35; Psalm 143:10)
As in heaven, so in earth (Daniel 4:35; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 103:19–22)
Give us this day our daily bread (Proverbs 30:8; Exodus 16:16; Psalm 34:10;Isaiah 33:16; Ezra 3:4)
And forgive us our sins (Exodus 34:7; 1 Kings 8:30–50; Psalm 32:1, 103:3–12, Daniel 9:4–19; Jeremiah 31:34, 36:3; 2 Chronicles 6:21)
for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. (Nehemiah 5:12, 13; Genesis 50:17; 1 Samuel 25:28, 29; Deuteronomy 15:2)
And lead us not into temptation (Isaiah 3:12, 9:16; Proverbs 16:29; Psalm 27:11, 125:5; Genesis 22:1; Deuteronomy 8:2; Proverbs 30:8)
But deliver us from evil (1 Chronicles 4:10; Psalm 121:7, 8; Jeremiah 15:21; Psalm 56:13)
For thine is the kingdom (1 Chronicles 29:11; Psalm 145:13; Daniel 4:34, 35)
And the power (1 Chronicles 29:11)
And the glory (1 Chronicles 29:11; Daniel 7:14)
For ever and ever (Daniel 7:18)

We understand that this outline concerns prayer under the Law not just because of context, but also because it isn’t prayed in Jesus’ name. Forgiving others so your Father will forgive you falls into the same category: it was a prescription for Jews living under the Law, not a universal truth for all men everywhere at all times. 

Jesus’ resurrection ushered in a new covenant and a new paradigm of forgiveness, one that fulfills the second half of Colossians 3:13’s “just as the Lord has forgiven you, you must also forgive.” 

The Lord didn’t forgive us by a simple act of his will and then resign himself to dealing with the psychological drama on the back end. Nor did he forgive as a means for personal gain. He undertook the unimaginable mission of sending his Son as a mediator for us, lost sheep as we were, who could offer up his own righteousness to bring us new life. And that’s also exactly how New Testament forgiveness works.


GospelPeter Smythe