A Brick in the Valley


On Bitterness and Conditional Forgiveness
June 9, 2007, 4:26 pm
Filed under: Forgiveness

Biblical forgiveness is conditional.  We offer forgiveness to all. But, forgiveness does not happen apart from repentance.  Here is an excerpt from my writing.


. . . People often appeal to this agreement in forgiveness debates.  Whenever I teach that forgiveness should not be automatic, someone plays their trump card, “That approach would lead to bitterness.” 

The premise is, “If I can establish that your position causes bitterness, I will have proven you wrong.”

Of course, bitterness is bad.  But, conditional forgiveness (not automatically forgiving) does not lead to bitterness.  As I have already said, we must follow the example of God who does not forgive everyone but does offer grace to all.  The offer of grace to everyone, regardless of the offense, is no more bitter than the father who wraps presents and puts them under the Christmas tree hoping that his child will accept the gifts.  Grace is the free offer of a present to all people regardless of what they have done.  Forgiveness, and a restored relationship, is what offenders will find inside if they choose to open the package

But, I digress.  The point here is that bitterness is to be avoided like the bubonic plague.

And, yet there are so many bitter people.  In fact, one of the reasons we agree that bitterness is bad is because we witness what it does to people.  We all know sour people who yell at children who cut through their yards, kick dogs, and talk with red faces at church business meetings about insignificant issues.  They are cynical at work and unappreciative of how they have been blessed and they resent the successes of others.

The Wicked Witch of the West, for instance, was bitter.  If nothing else, her vendetta against Toto proves the point: “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.

But, before we begin to feel too self-righteous because we do not terrorize munchkins or light scarecrows on fire, we need to remember that even a little bitterness is bad.  We have all stewed about some injustice.  And, so bitterness begins.  No one immediately climbs on a broomstick and hires a bunch of flying monkeys.   Small traces of pouting are the seeds from which a root of bitterness germinates.  And, bitterness kills.

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4 Comments so far
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Chris, a few years ago a fellow Christian did me a serious wrong, and refused to communicate with me any more. I went through a difficult time, and was beginning to become bitter, but friends from church encouraged me to forgive that person and prayed with me that I would be able to do so. It was not easy, but as a result I was able to let go of the wrong which was eating me up and get on with my life. But that person has never accepted my forgiveness, or at least never said that to me, in nearly five years. Were my friends wrong to advise me to forgive? Should I take the issue up again, say that my forgiveness should be only conditional, and so null and void because the condition has not been met? Yes, this person could now turn and belatedly forgive, but what if they had died without accepting forgiveness? It seems to me that you are encouraging me to return to the bitterness which must flow from continuing to hold on to the matter as not forgiven. But I will not do so because I do not believe that this is the biblical teaching.

Are you really interpreting Matthew 6:12,14 as “forgive others when they repent”? Jesus said “forgive others when they sin”, with no mention of them repenting, compare also Mark 11:25 which refers to “anything against anyone” with no repentance condition. In Matthew 9:2 and parallels the paralysed man was forgiven without repenting. In Matthew 18:21 and Colossians 3:13 there is again no mention of repentance. And, more theologically, in Colossians 2:13 we read that God forgave us our sins when we were still dead in our sins, before he made us alive (the aorist participle makes this clear), so before we were able to repent.

So I really don’t think you can maintain your position that God forgives only those who repent, and that we should do the same. Of course in some sense the process is only complete when it is accepted. But it is not merely a conditional offer when it is not accepted. Yes, it is like wrapping a present and putting it under the tree. But it is not a present which can be taken back if not accepted. The giver has given the present irrevocably, the forgiver has forgiven the sin irrevocably, and whether the offer is accepted or not is a matter only for the recipient.

Does this mean that there are forgiven people in hell? Well, there are certainly people to whom God has offered forgiveness, to whom he has said that the road to heaven is open to them because in Christ the price has been paid. If they choose to reject that offer and take themselves to hell, that is their problem. I don’t intend that as a definitive answer to issues of predestination and limited atonement, but it seems to me a more logical and biblical approach than the one you are taking.

Comment by Peter Kirk

I have been through similar things as your difficulty with a friend. Wow, does it hurt. And, bitterness is awfully tempting.

As you know, it comes down to a matter of vocabulary. I believe your approach was effectively right. But,l I would say that you “offered him forgiveness” or had an attitude of forgiveness rather than that you forgave him. Yours is to wrap the package. But, forgiveness does not happen until he accepts.

Suppose that you had another friend who offended you, but who repented. How would you distinguish between the two?

The stock answer today is that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Hence, you forgave both, but only reconciled withe one. The problem with that way of saying it is that the Bible does not say it that way. I don’t think biblical forgiveness happens apart from reconciliation.

So, while it is a matter of definitions, I think it is important that we define words the way that the Bible does.

I think your last paragraph answers your own questions. God offers forgiveness to all, but not all accept. So, I agree with that paragraph.

Comment by cdbrauns

Chris, thank you for your response. Well, perhaps it is a matter of vocabulary. But for me there is a real difference between forgiving, which is a matter for one party only, and reconciliation, which is a mutual matter. I am working on my own post on this issue, so watch my blog, or your trackbacks.

Comment by Peter Kirk

[…] and I believe rightly so. But Chris has reaffirmed this aspect of his definition in a post On Bitterness and Conditional Forgiveness, in which he argues that Biblical forgiveness is conditional. We offer forgiveness to all. But, […]

Pingback by Speaker of Truth » What it means to forgive




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