Saturday, May 29, 2010

Forgiveness without Repentance?

Q. When Jesus prayed on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do", did God immediately forgive mankind for rejecting and killing his Son?
A. No

It has become popular to tell victims to "simply forgive". Thus the Catholic church for decades told its victims to forgive and not demand punishment of the priests who had sexually molested them. At the other end of the spectrum, pastor Brian Zahnd writes in Charisma magazine (May 2010 page 48) that the church of the 21st century should, "position ourselves on a platform of radical forgiveness", "lay down our rights and in love, simply pray, 'Father, forgive them' ". This is partly good but when there is no mention of repentance of the perpetrator nor justice for the victim, then it is a distorted Christianity. In his latest book, "Unconditional?" he even goes so far as to re-label Justice as Retaliation and Revenge.

In fact, when anyone says, "simply forgive", then it is sometimes a sign that they themselves are complicit in a cover up or have not come clean on their own sins. God is angered by abuse and atrocity. Righteousness and Justice are the foundations of His throne (Psalm 89:14). It takes courage and risk to demand justice for the victim, to insist on repentance from the perpetrator.

It seems to me that there are three stages in forgiveness. I do not know whether the original Greek 'recognizes' the subtleties, but I think that there are distinctions in how the word is used.

Willing To Forgive stage: personal willingness to forgive; the victim is able to say mentally and in his heart, "I forgive you".
Justice stage: society seeks justice for the victim. society punishes the wrongdoer.
Transactional Forgiveness stage: forgiveness as a transaction. the perpetrator repents. He goes to the victim and asks for forgiveness. the victim says, "I forgive you" to the wrongdoer. The wrongdoer experiences forgiveness as a transaction.

Biblical proof that repentance is required:
1) In the question above, God did not automatically forgive mankind for murdering His son. Remember this point: Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and also that God always answered Jesus' prayers.

He answered Jesus' prayer by rending the veil in the temple that separated God and man. Then in Acts through the Holy Spirit, the disciples set out to preach the gospel. Observe what the gospel is:
  • Acts 2:38
"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins..."
  • Acts 3:19
"Repent then and turn to God so your sins may be wiped out.[forgiveness]".
  • Acts 5:31
"that He might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel."
  • Acts 8:22
"Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you."

God did not say, "Everyone gets a free pass to heaven - I forgave everyone at the cross". We preach that without repentance, a person's sins are not forgiven, he is unsaved and goes to hell. God sends people to hell even though he was willing to forgive at the cross.

2) Jesus famous parable on forgiveness:
(Matthew 18 23-35)
"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[g] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

If you notice, each time the phrase, "he begged" is used of the indebted. This is repentance.
The king did not automatically say the first time, Ok, I forgive him his huge debt - go tell him he doesn't need to repay me. Each time, there was a begging for mercy - or repentance. Only then, Transactional Forgiveness happened.

3. Luke 17:3-4. Jesus himself said: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
  • Jesus' parable is entirely consistent with God's forgiveness of sins - that repentance precedes forgiveness and transactional forgiveness is different from willingness to forgive.
  • It is important to realize that the Willingness To Forgive stage must be reached by the victim otherwise there will be no forgiveness from your heart when the perpetrator repents.
  • Also, being offended (wounded pride) is not the same as offense (crimes and offenses) which are sins.
  • Forgiveness means reconciliation. How can you have reconciliation when the villain does not acknowledge wrongdoing?
What constitutes repentance. a mere display of sorrowful emotion? I dont think so. With John the Baptist and the Pharisees, he asked them to bring actions ("fruits") that demonstrated repentance. With Zaccheus the tax collector whose life was transformed after meeting Jesus, he determined that he would repay anyone four-fold whoever he had wronged. In other words, Repentance is genuine willingness to accept the punishment for a sin; it is not a show of contrition to escape punishment!

Two further questions:

1) If my wrongdoer does not admit wrong, should I still have a relationship with him, pretending as if nothing happened?
2) What about justice? Can one forgive and still demand justice?

1) Proverbs says, "Love covers a multitude of sins". "A sensible man ignores an insult.". Many times, it is best to overlook or ignore when someone sins against you. But if you are grieved or your loved ones are harmed and the matter cannot be put to rest, then one follows Matthew 18. It is clear that if the wrongdoer does not admit wrong, then he is out of relationship - an outsider or outcast.

(Matthew 18)
15"If your brother sins against you,[b] go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'[c] 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

 A 2) Justice is executed by the system that society institutes. God requires this regardless of whether the victim forgives or the wrongdoer repents.  It seems to me that the victim can still press for justice and yet have "willingness to forgive" in his heart, as long as there is no repentance.
Here is where I am uncertain:
Can a victim be willing to forgive yet demand justice?
However, Society may allow for room for leniency if there is forgiveness by the victim - however scriptural backing for this is unclear to me.

update: finally it seems that Pope Benedict - after personally facing the risk of arrest and prosecution for crimes against humanity for his role in the abuse cover-up is seeing the light. He said, "Forgiveness cannot be a substitute for Justice". Yesterday, he begged God and his victims for forgiveness for "the sins of the priests".
update 08-22-2010. Unfortunately it seems this was short-lived; When police raided the bishop's offices in Belgium to investigate child-abuse claims, the pope issued a condemnation of the justice department's action and made an outcry.

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