A Brick in the Valley

Does Conditional Forgiveness Lead to Bitterness
February 19, 2008, 10:42 am
Filed under: Forgiveness

If this is the first post you are reading, then it might not might make sense unless you read some of the previous ones on whether or not forgiveness is conditional, including Tim Challies post on the subject.

Here, the question is, “Does conditional forgiveness lead to bitterness?”  I spend a pretty good chunk of Unpacking Forgiveness on that subject. . . here is a brief excerpt.

Some would argue that “automatic forgiveness” or unconditional forgiveness is the key to avoiding bitterness.  In part, the argument here goes back to the matter of defining forgiveness.  Those who argue for automatic forgiveness generally define forgiveness psychologically or therapeutically – – forgiveness is seeking to feel bitter according to that line of thinking. 

And, if that is your definition, then the only way to avoid bitterness or negative feelings is to forgive.  But, the Bible always presents forgiveness as something that happens between two parties.  Fundamentally, forgiveness is not a feeling.

In reality, I believe that the notion of automatic forgiveness fosters bitterness. We are created with a standard of justice written on our hearts.  When we forgive someone who is not repentant, then we are acting in a way that is unjust.  Deep down, we are saying that forgiveness must sometimes happen at the expense of justice.  . ..

On the other hand, when we recognize that those who have offended us will face a just God, it is at that point that we will begin to feel true love and compassion for them. . .

The Bible teaches that God’s people who were involved should all trust God to deal justly with the perpetrators.

. . . Christians should offer grace to all people.  We should wrap up forgiveness as a present and make it available to anyone who will accept, regardless of the offense. It is not the offense that conditions forgiveness, but the repentant heart. Whether or not they unwrap the present and accept the gift so that forgiveness takes place is up to them.

[1] See also “Faith in Future Grace vs. Bitterness,” in John Piper, Future Grace (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1995), 261-271.


6 Comments so far
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I thank you for your deep insights and questions in the important topic of Forgiveness.

I question the need for repentance in someone else’s heart….I can forgive fully without it. I feel it is between that person and God whether repentance happens. It is actually not my business. My business is whether or not I am holding any burdens in my heart between another person and myself. It is up to me to release them, so that I can experience the unconditional love that God has for me and share it with the world.

Perhaps this is also what you are saying, in a slightly different way….

ps – what is your name?

Comment by Ana

Ana – – thanks for your encouragement.

First, my name is Chris Brauns. I am a pastor in Stillman Valley, IL. In fact, I had a meeting with our Deacons tonight which is why it took me so long to respond. Our church web site is http://www.theredbrickchurch.org. If you click around you can eventually see a brief blurb about me there.

(My wife and I have four children ages 13, 11, 10, and 5).

As for your pot, we are saying similar things. But, it is important to use biblical words in the same ways that the Bible uses them. So many people are saying that God forgives unconditionally. Biblically, to be forgiven, means to be pardoned or released from guilt. And, Scripture is clear that if we don’t have saving faith, we are not forgiven by God.

Interpersonally, we must have an attitude of forgiveness to all. We must have a disposition of grace. But, forgiveness is a present that must be received.

Of course, I am boiling down here, what took me a good part of a book to say in Unpacking Forgiveness.

Comment by cdbrauns


How would describe Joseph’s offering of forgiveness to his brothers? Would this be conditional or unconditional? THanks for your help. Rusty

Comment by Rusty Trubey

In the first place, it was gracious. Right?

Ultimately, I think it was conditional. His brothers, and Judah, in particular had worked through a process of repentance.

But, it makes me squirm (and I’m the one starting this dicussion so I deserve it) to dissect the Joseph narrative in quite that way. Above all it is so full of grace and Joseph’s confidence in the providence of God.

Of course, if you teach on forgiveness, we must start with the Cross. But, after that, the Joseph story may be the richest ground in the Bible. Personally, it has helped me so much.

What do you think? Do you think it was conditional?

Comment by cdbrauns


Well, from the text in Genesis 45, Joseph clearly demonstrates an attitude of forgiveness. In v. 5, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” In v. 14, “Then he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept on them, and afterward his brothers talked with him.”

Now, it might just be me, but this hardly seems like a person who hasn’t forgiven. Of course, we have only what is written in the text and can’t really presume what it doesn’t say (that maybe his brothers asked for forgiveness when they talked). However, it isn’t until Chapter 50:15-21, that the text says his brothers repent.

To me, Chris, this is a powerful story of someone who has unconditionally forgiven.

Also, do you think the father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) would have forgiven his son even if the son didn’t ask for it? It was the father that made the first move, out of compassion, toward the son (v. 20).

I’m struggling with this whole thing and still trying to figure it out. I know it has no eternal significance, but I get tremendous value out of the deep thinking and reflection.


Comment by Rusty Trubey

Rusty, you are doing the right thing.

I think the prodigal is easier. He came to his senses, repented, and went home.

I do think it is eternally significant for reasons which I describe in my book. But, I don’t think the different in what I sense your position is and mine is too different. I like how Piper talks about this area (along with a lot of other ones!) . . .see others on forgiveness and the quotes I put up.

For sure, Joseph had an attitude of forgiveness before they repented. But, Joseph’s relationship with them was far different given their contrition.

But, this is where we have to be careful with narrative. Clearly, God’s forgivness is conditional.

Yet, you would be suprised how many argue that God forgives unconditionally.

Do you have a blog? I would like to read it.

Comment by cdbrauns

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