Before leaving the great state of Colorado, for years I met each Friday morning with two dear friends and fellow brothers in Christ. Whether praying together, studying Scripture together, or just enjoying the company of each other, I looked forward to our meetings. At one point we agreed to invite one other person to join us, himself the pastor of a new church plant. Typically we would open up our time sharing how our week had gone. One meeting, the new member said that his week included an argument with his wife and, after realizing he was wrong, he apologized to his wife. Almost immediately another member in our group asked “But, did you ask for her forgiveness?”
After a pregnant pause and startled look (think deer in the headlights), the pastor admitted he had not asked his wife for forgiveness. Although many years ago now, I will likely not forget that moment. It highlights the profound and important difference between apologizing for our wrongdoing versus asking for forgiveness. The former typically expresses some kind of regret, whereas the latter suggests an action will be taken to right a wrong committed. Apologies, like “I’m sorry,” may show regret for what has been done, but asking for forgiveness includes at least an apology and a commitment not to do again what has been done to cause the offense.
As promised in my previous post I offer some quotations from the second half of Miraslov Volf’s outstanding book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace.
Before I do, however, I would like to go on record as saying (not sure who’s actually keeping records) that the jury is still out whether or not I agree entirely with all that Volf has written. For example, I see no reason why most of what he has said could not be couched in the notion of God offering forgiveness without going the extra distance in maintaining that God actually grants forgiveness before repentance. Despite my occasional reservations, this book, along with Chris Brauns’s Unpacking Forgiveness, simply must not go unnoticed. It parses out virtually every conceivable relationship between forgiver and forgiven, offender and offended and provides some practical and profound advice. Moreover, Volf’s explanation of Christ’s substitutionary satisfaction on the cross as the basis for our ability to forgive is priceless (pp. 141-151). Readers will undoubtedly come away with a well-informed and richer understanding of what it means to be “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Volf maintains forgiveness is logically and theologically primary. It takes first place in God’s activities and must do so in ours. His reasoning goes something like this:
- repentance does not cause forgiveness
- repentance is the consequence of forgiveness
- forgiveness is not conditioned by nor the cause of repentance
- forgiveness precedes creation
- being forgiven is not the same as forgiving
- forgiveness => [gives rise to] repentance => restitution => reconciliation
To support these claims, Volf states in various places:
The apostle Peter wrote that destined as God’s Lamb “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20) … God decided to redeem the world of sin before the Creator could lay down its foundations. Each of us exists because the gift of life rests on the gift of forgiveness.
God doesn’t angrily refuse forgiveness until we show ourselves worthy of it by repentance. Instead, God loves us and forgives us before we repent … God’s forgiveness is not reactive.
Forgivers’ forgiving is not conditioned by repentance. The offenders’ being forgiven, however, is conditioned by repentance — just as being given a box of chocolate is conditioned by receiving that box of chocolate. Without repentance, the forgivers will keep forgiving but the offenders will remain unforgiven, in that they are untouched by that forgiveness.
Offenders often seem unable to redeem themselves on their own. They need help from the victims of their misdeeds. By forgiving, victims enact a divine kind of love toward their enemies — and help overcome evil by the power of good. But both parties need to participate in the process for it to be complete … Forgiveness does not cause repentance, but it does make repentance possible.
[Forgiveness is] not primarily to benefit ourselves … In the Christian account of things, we forgive because we love — specifically, because we love our debtors, our offenders, and even our enemies. The same love that motivates forgiveness pushes forgiveness not just from exclusion to neutrality, but from neutrality to embrace …. Forgiveness doesn’t stand alone, as a punctual act or even as an isolated practice. Rather, it is embedded in a way of life that is committed to overcoming evil by doing good. That’s how Luther interpreted “forgetting” in the phrase “forgive and forget.” Not to count the offenders guilty and not to press charges against them is important but insufficient. Luther insisted that you should “load” the enemy “with kindness so that, overcome with good [Romans 12:21], he will be kindled with love for you.”
When God forgives, offenders need to respond in faith and repentance. But what if they don’t repent? Like a package, forgiveness will then be stuck between the sender who dispatched it and the recipient who refuses to receive it …
For the Christian, forgiveness never involves just two parties, the offender and the offended. Forgiveness necessarily involves God, too.
For Christians, forgiving … always takes place in a triangle, involving the wrongdoer, the wronged person, and God. Take God away, and the foundations of forgiveness become unsteady and may even crumble …. God is the God who forgives. We forgive because God forgives. We forgive as God gives. We forgive by echoing God’s forgiveness. So to understand our own forgiving, we need to start with God’s …
Because God has forgiven, we also have the power to forgive. We don’t forgive in our own right. We forgive by making God’s forgiveness our own.
All sins against us are also sins against God. Every wrong committed against a creature is a sin against the creator.
On justice and the possibility of forgiveness, Volf says:
If on the bottom line of our lives lies the principle that we should get what we deserve, whether good or ill, forgiveness will sit uncomfortably with us. To forgive is to give people more than their due, it’s to release them from the debt they have have incurred, and that’s bound to mess up the books.
Once a culture has become litigious, forgiveness starts making less and less sense … To forgive, we need an environment in which forgiveness is valued and nurtured …. Do you want to become a forgiving person? Seek the company of forgiven forgivers.
God didn’t just say, “I forgive you.” Fundamentally, forgiveness is not about saying something, not even about putting something into effect by speaking. It’s about doing something. When God forgave, he “put forward” Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement …. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” ([Romans] 5:10). Forgiveness takes place through Christ’s death.
Finally, Volf beautifully captures the necessity of maintaining our continued need for forgiveness and God’s continued granting of forgiveness:
The Christian tradition has always maintained three propositions simultaneously. Proposition one: No matter how good our inclinations, thoughts, deeds, or practices are, before the eyes of the all-knowing and holy God, we are always sinners, all of us, victims included. Proposition two: No matter how evil our inclinations, thoughts, deeds, or practices are, we always remain God’s good creatures, all of us, offenders included. Proposition three: No wrongdoing is an isolated act of the pure evil will of an individual; it is nourished by our sinful inclination and reinforced by a sinful culture …. All of us forgive as sinners, not as the righteous. All of us receive forgiveness as God’s good creatures, not as despicable devils. This knowledge should counter the pride of any presumed innocence on the part of forgivers.
Volf concludes by noting that Christians are not called to forgive only, but to forgive well. We cannot merely “dispense forgiveness without any regard for how it is received by the offenders.” Since forgiveness is a gift, we must be concerned for the offender and, unless and until we hold them accountable through lovingly offering the gift of forgiveness, it will always remain incomplete. To forgive well is to move from the offense => forgiveness => repentance => restitution => reconciliation => peace.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece.
This book does not look like an easy read (at least not for me ☺), but after reading your review I really did get the sense that Volf has captured in a special way the abounding grace and loving kindness of God.
However, I walk away with some serious questions. Here’s what strikes me…Is Volf saying that because I, as a believer in Jesus, am united with Christ on the basis of Calvary that I am therefore to forgive unconditionally anyone who has offended me? Am I understanding him correctly? If he is saying that then I am not in agreement with him at all. God’s forgiveness is conditional upon repentance and faith in Christ. If I am to forgive as He forgives then the same pattern has to take place. I acknowledge the “mystery” of predestination and his supporting verse of I Peter 1:20 “ before the foundation of the world” but ultimately, there are too many scriptures that run contrary to his premise that “God loves us and forgives us before we repent”. What about in the book of Acts when Peter preached and said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” The ones who responded were “called” but they had to repent and receive forgiveness first. No?
I also considered this…If in fact that is what Volf is saying then I think a very dangerous door opens up – and that would be the potential to argue that one day everybody will be saved. That obviously can’t be right. How would Volf respond to Paul when he talks about bearing with patience objects of wrath prepared for destruction? What would Volf say about God loving Jacob but hating Esau?
All that said, I will acknowledge that it did get me to think in a deeper way about being in that “posture of grace” that Brauns describes towards those who have offended me.
Thanks again for sharing this! I do appreciate how your thoughtful attention to those dealing with this topic.
Blessings to you and your family!
I believe that forgiving someone who has wronged you is extremely important, but incredibly important to do- it is good for the soul to be able to let go and release ugly feelings, and forgiveness is the way.
I just recently read a book titled, “Murder by Family” written by Kent Whitaker. This man writes a story about his journey to forgiveness after finding out that his oldest son has murdered both his wife and son. Incredible story. Mr. Whitaker story was a real inspiration to me; if he could forgive someone for doing something so horrible I ought to be able to forgive others who have done things to me that are not even near as badly as this. He is a true example of forgiveness!
Thanks, Paul for that detailed post! I’m going to have to read this a few times, print it out, meditate upon it.
Thanks for commenting on this post and for the book recommendation.
While no one could deny that forgiving others has residual affects for the forgiver, I would suggest that is not the end of the story. As I said here “It may be psychologically attractive to believe that God “forgives and forgets,” but it’s not theologically accurate or biblically responsible. What should make me feel good is that God can know my every sin for eternity and still choose to grant forgiveness to me! This is the God of Scripture and this is the God we love and worship. Only a God who is eternally gracious yet eternally mindful of my sin can eternally forgive but not forget.”
Moreover, as Chris Braun’s book shows, a kind of therapeutic forgiveness is not the biblical picture. Forgiveness, as a gift, is intended to benefit the offender, not just the offended. See my review.
Finally, as Volf has argued, God is not a “doting grandparent” who simply lavishes forgiveness without respect to punishing wrongdoing. God does not “affirm [the world] indiscriminately.” Although “emotional healing is a good thing,… [it] is not the main purpose of forgiveness. To forgive means to forego a rightful claim against someone who has wronged us. That’s a gift we give not so much to ourselves but to the one who has wronged us, whether we are emotionally healed as a result or not” and “there’s no way to give the gift of forgiveness without the sting of condemnation. We accuse when we forgive, and in doing that, we affirm the rightful claims of justice” (Volf, p. 169).
To be sure, as forgivers we benefit. But the gift of forgiveness is far greater in scope than any benefit we receive in offering forgiveness, since it benefits the offender, satisfies justice (upon reception manifest in repentance), and sets the stage for reconciliation and peace.
By all means, feel free to record your meditations here, should God’s Spirit move you in that direction.
Without question this topic has immense import for us both!
Freely we have received and freely we must [for]give.
Love you, man!!
Howdy Christina (that’s “Texan” for “Greetings and grace to you,” I think!)….
Sincerely appreciate your thoughtful response and taking the time to read this rather lengthy post. The carefully nuanced ways in which Volf has “unpacked” forgiveness (thanks, Chris Brauns!) makes this a worthy read. I would not categorize it as difficult or academic, but it certainly is not bedtime reading. The moderately sized sections allow the reader to digest in reasonable chunks without getting weighed down in elaborate arguments.
[Incidentally, I would greatly value Chris Brauns’s counsel here as I embark on my reply, should he have time.]
Your first question is rich theologically and I’ll take a stab at it. The short answer is “Yes” Volf is saying on the basis of our forgiven status in Christ, then we must forgive before repentance. Volf goes the full distance and maintains we must grant forgiveness, even when the offender has not repented. This is where I, too, would part ways with him.
At the same time, I do not want to miss any teaching from God’s Word or Spirit to me by holding a hard and fast line of withholding forgiveness at the expense of harboring ill will or resentment in my heart. As I mentioned in a previous review of N. T. Wright’s book, where we align ourselves on the fulcrum between leaning too far backward in justice or too far forward in grace will miss the biblically responsible mark, as I see it.
First Peter 1:20 was key here for me and provided some theological insights I had not thought of previously. The chronology of it all necessitates that we think carefully how God sets the stage for forgiveness. Clearly it was in God’s eternal plan that he offer (note I did not say “grant”) forgiveness by Christ going to the cross. Of course, granting forgiveness requires the condition of repentance upon the offender. [Repentance, too, is God’s gift see Acts 11:18] Yet, as I have argued elsewhere, God both sets the conditions and ensures the certainties of history by enabling and inclining the human will to fulfill all that he has ordained to be, including repentance and the offer of forgiveness.
Thus, God did not, on any contingency of human “free will,” passively predict the outcome of the cross. Instead, he actively chose to provide the means of forgiveness by offering Christ as the Lamb of God “before the creation of the world.” That God is finally responsible for everything in this universe is how Paul can say with full confidence under God’s inspiration that we were chosen “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” We participate, but God enables. Sanctification is not entirely monergistic (involving one agent only) but synergistic (involving two or more agents). Augustine says it best, “Without God we cannot; without us God will not.” In some sense, every command issued to believers to live a holy life assumes we have the capability to carry out that command. Yet, Scripture also insists that it is God who, by his grace, initializes and accomplishes everything that is holy in us (Philippians 2:13).
And so, Volf’s theological insights suggests to me that since God offered the means of forgiveness before any offense had occurred, then I too must do likewise. But, I would say that the granting of forgiveness must not take place until the condition of repentance has been met (contra Volf and pro Brauns). The important insight here is: whether or not repentance ever takes place, my most holy responsibility is to prepare my heart to actively and sincerely offer forgiveness, just as God has done for me “before the creation of the world.”
In Volf’s defense, he does say that forgiveness is not complete without repentance. The offended forgive, whereas offenders receive; repentance is the fruit of that reception. Unless and until both parties (actually three, including God) do their part, then forgiveness remains partial.
As for universalism: Bam! [Thanks, Chef Emeril!] You touched on a topic that raised not a few flags for me as I was reading through Volf. His writing is cryptic in this regard and I’m unclear on where he would stand. But, I do not adhere to any notion that all will be saved, nor that hell is temporary (a form of annihilationism). As you note, if God forgives everyone in advance before they even exist, then Hell would be empty. In your spare time (wink) check out my Is Hell Going Out of Business?”.
This is a very long answer to your concerns and insights. Hope you find it useful!
Cheers from heaven,