Posted on January 28, 2009
Unpacking Forgiveness: A Gift to the Church
A courageously corrective, biblically responsible, pastorally sensitive, and immensely practical gift has been given to the Church. Unpacking Forgiveness offers a long overdue look at forgiveness and Chris Brauns has provided a solid framework in which to understand this central doctrine of our Christian faith. Though not a full-blown theology of forgiveness, the author employs a keen theological understanding in applying forgiveness across the brokenness of human relationships.
First, and perhaps most important, Chris Brauns makes the important distinction between offering forgiveness and granting forgiveness. At all times, believers must be willing and able to forgive. Like a gift, forgiveness should be offered to an offender. However, before forgiveness can be granted, the biblical requirement of repentance must be met. Although this distinction is practically on every page, it is particularly clear in Brauns’s treatment of Jesus’s cry from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34; also Stephen’s parallel prayer in Acts 7:60; cf., pp. 145ff).
Throughout my reading, a matrix of relationships kept surfacing between key categories related to forgiveness. Consider these equations: Forgiveness minus repentance equals cheap grace without reconciliation. Repentance without forgiveness equals bitterness and resentment. Forgiveness with repentance equals reconciliation. Yet, reconciliation may include negative consequences that may be necessary under certain circumstances. I only wish that Brauns had dealt more fully with Numbers 14:20-21, which is a powerful text showing that forgiveness can be granted but consequences remain. Nevertheless, he handles this matrix nicely and the reader goes away both satisfied and challenged.
Chapter ten, “What If I Won’t Forgive?” struck me especially hard and shows an astute connection between forgiveness and eternal consequences. It was a sharp reminder to me that granting forgiveness is no small thing. While preparing for a sermon many years ago entitled “Is Hell Going out of Business?”, I was deeply moved by the reality of eternity without God. Brauns insights here brought back many of those emotions I experienced during my weeks of preparation. This chapter clearly shows us that we must take Jesus seriously when thinking about withholding forgiveness and the reality of Hell. Writing on eternity without God is a courageous thing to to do in a day when “Hell” is out of vogue.
How to hold an offender morally responsible in grace and love without becoming revengeful or bitter is woven into every chapter. The entire book spells all of this out with sound and wise Scripture support. Chapter thirteen, “How Can I Conquer Bitterness?” is devoted to providing some excellent advice and places Brauns’s pastoral skills squarely in the light of God’s grace.
Equally important are his thoughts on “theraputic” or “psychological” forgiveness where believers seek to grant “automatic” forgiveness because it somehow helps them cope with their offense. He insists this is wrong-headed and even unjust, since no repentance has taken place. Although I fully agree, I would also argue that forgiveness, as a gift, is intended to benefit the offender, not just the offended.
I could go on, but this review has already gone on too long. Unpacking Forgiveness is packed full of wisdom, sound advise, and solid exposition. I wholeheartedly recommend it to all. I pray the Church receives this gift and unpacks it to the glory of God. To learn more about Chris Brauns, see his blog.