Derek: We frequently hear today references to unconditional love: “God loves unconditionally,” and so on. What do you think about this idea of unconditionality?
Ligon: Derek, I think, first of all that Don Carson has done a good job of addressing this in his little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, because the statement that God loves unconditionally is sometimes thrown around, fairly loosely, with the best of intentions, highlighting an important aspect of the truth about God’s love to us, that is, God does not wait for us to better ourselves to the point that we are deserving of his love. If we had to condition God’s love in that way, he would never love any of us. I think that is what some people are graspingly trying to say.
But the statement taken by itself that God loves unconditionally is unconditionally incorrect. So the problem is all human love comes with certain conditions. Think of a marriage contract, there are conditions that must be fulfilled by both partners. And if those conditions are not fulfilled in some cases, it constitutes a legitimate ground of the dissolution of the relationship. And so there are conditions attached to the profession of marital love. I think when we carry that back to the issue of God’s love, there are better ways of expressing the fact that God’s love is not evoked by any inherent deserving in us, but which is, in fact, self-generated and expressed without reference to our worthiness, our qualifications, our deserving, our loveliness, acting on or conditioning that love. And, consequently, when we are called upon as Christians to love unconditionally, that confusion sometimes comes along with it.
And so I think there are better ways, again, of talking about how we are to love. If you were sitting down with a parent who was constantly undermining his child’s confidence by a refusal to compliment and a propensity to always criticize, it would be very tempting to give that parent a lecture in unconditional love. But I think it would actually be more helpful to say that you are not asking the parent to abandon discernment or even standards of judgment, but to be mindful of the importance of building up this child positively, while at the same time being appropriately informative in areas where the child needs to improve. And so the whole category of unconditional love sometimes lends itself to this general evangelical malaise which believes that any oughts or obligations or standards in Christianity is the hallmark of horrible legalism that needs to be expunged from our Christian experience. So, I think for all those reasons it has been unfortunate how the language of unconditional love has been used, both in regard to God and in regard to Christians. If that is clear as mud, tell me.
Justin: The best thing I’ve read on this issue is David Powlison’s essay, “God’s Love: Better Than Unconditional” (found in his book, Seeing with New Eyes). Powlison explains the true things associated with the concept of “unconditional love”: (1) conditional love is a bad thing; (2) God’s love is patient; (3) true love is God’s gift, and (4) God receives you just as you are. But he also points out that (1) there are more biblical, vivid ways to capture these truths; (2) unmerited grace is not strictly unconditional; (3) God’s grace is intended to change people; and (4) unconditional love carries cultural baggage. In its place, Powlison advocates “contraconditional love.”
If you receive blanket acceptance, you need no repentance. You just accept it. It fills you without humbling you. It relaxes you without upsetting you about yourself—or thrilling you about Christ. It lets you relax without reckoning with the anguish of Jesus on the cross. It is easy and undemanding. It does not insist on, or work at, changing you. It deceives you about both God and yourself.
We can do better. God does not just accept me just as I am; he loves me despite how I am. He loves me just as Jesus is; he loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.
This love is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it “contraconditional” love. God has blessed us because his Son fulfilled the condition I could never achieve. Contrary to what I deserve, he loves me. And now I begin to change, not to earn love, but because I’ve already received it.
Derek: There is a connection between that question and a narrower questions and that is the relationship between conditionality and forgiveness. There are two texts. One is Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” with the conditionality of repentance present in that case. Then in Matthew 6:14, 15, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” What sort of response do you have to the idea that forgiveness must be unconditional?
Ligon: This is a question that many Christians have never thought through. I think that Christians who have themselves harbored unjustified bitternesses and have been unforgiving in places and in ways that they should have been forgiving, often when they are confronted with and gripped by the radical teaching of Christ on forgiveness, out of sorrow for their own sin, read Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in such a way that they understand it to mean that forgiveness is an automatic obligation in every circumstance, irrespective of the repentance of the other party. And, again, I think that that is a mistake. I believe that forgiveness always has in view reconciliation, and reconciliation is always two-sided. So if there is not a repentance corresponding to a forgiveness, then very often there is an impossibility of reconciliation. I think that whatever we think about forgiveness, forgiveness is a component to what is a larger picture, and the larger picture is reconciliation. And reconciliation is necessarily two-sided. Consequently, I think it is important for us to talk about both forgiveness and readiness to forgive. There may be circumstances where a reconciliation is impossible, but a readiness to reconcile can still be present with a believer. Consequently, I would want to make that distinction when I was counseling a believer who was in a circumstance where there was not a present possibility of reconciliation of the relationship. Instead of telling them that they need to forgive or they will become bitter, I think I would rather say that you need to be ready to forgive and not to be captured by your bitterness.
I think you and I have had a conversation before where counsel had been given to a Christian that if he didn’t forgive “such and such,” then he would become bitter. Meanwhile, there was no repentance on the part of the other party. And, yet, the believer was being counseled, “you must forgive or you will become bitter.” And I think the point that you made in that context was, (1) forgiveness is not just something that we do for therapeutic benefit, and (2) there are cases in which to call upon forgiveness when there is no repentance on the other party is to denigrate the seriousness of the offense which has been committed and to ask a believer to take lightly that reality of sin. And, so, I think it is more helpful in that case to talk about a readiness to forgive in case of repentance rather than to talk about an unconditional forgiveness.
Justin: In the best cases, I believe the attraction to the notion of “unconditional forgiveness” is built upon a desire to obey verses like: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger . . . be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph. 4:31) or “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15). The problem is that “unconditional freedom from bitterness” is equated with “unconditional, automatic forgiveness.” In other words, many lack the conceptual category for someone who loves his enemies; puts away his bitterness, wrath, and anger; puts on Christ and the fruit of the Spirit—and yet at the same time withholds judicial forgiveness in the absence of the required repentance, all the while yearning for biblical repentance.
Dr. Duncan says it well: we must always be ready to forgive and reconcile. But there is a serious danger that insisting on automatic, unconditional forgiveness will inadvertently cheapen a costly act.
Derek: How much forgetting is involved in forgiving? And is that what God actually does?
Ligon: Well, obviously, because God is unchangeable and omniscient, there is sense in which he doesn’t ever forget anything. When we speak of forgetting, colloquially, I think we are talking about that circumstance in which a person has a really hard time getting over an issue. They have done their best to try and forgive and be reconciled, but there is something that is sticking in their craw.
Now, from the divine standpoint, I think it is important for a believer, for instance, to understand that though God knows everything that the believer has ever done, yet God’s forgiveness is without reservation. There is not something sticking in God’s craw with regard to his forgiveness of the believer, because of the completeness of the satisfaction of Jesus Christ. It’s not because the sins that the believer has committed are inconsequential. They are not inconsequential; they are very consequential. But it is the fullness of the price and the merit which Christ has paid and performed on our part and God’s acceptance of it in our stead that makes his forgiveness as without reservation. So when you come to passages in the Bible where the Scripture writers talk about God casting our sins behind his back and remembering them no more, it is not that God had a sudden slip of amnesia - it is that he has put out of heart and mind anything that could be an obstacle to right relationship between him and the forgiven sinner.
Now, I think it is exceedingly hard for believers to forget in numerous circumstances. You have, no doubt, counseled believers whose children have been abused and who have courageously and Christianly forgiven in the case of the repentance on the part of the person who has committed the act. But at one level, it is their duty to continue to be vigilant about those facts. I am thinking about a case right now where a relative of a congregational member sexually abused a congregational member’s daughter. It would be inappropriate for them to forget that fact and to put their child back into a circumstance where that could happen again, even if a genuine forgiveness has been extended in the case of repentance on the part of the offending party. I would not want Christians to think that they were guilty of some grievous sin if there was a recollection that they found very difficult to be able to expunge from their minds. I think the importance is, and I think you have put it strikingly before when we have talked about this, that in the case of the most atrocious crime, when repentance is proffered, then the Christian has an obligation to be forthcoming with forgiveness and whatever wrestlings we go through to expunge from our minds the effects of the offense, the important thing for us to do is to be ready to reconcile, to be ready to forgive when that moment of repentance comes.
Justin: When thinking about “divine forgetfulness,” I find it helpful to think about its converse: “divine remembrance.” We see the concept, for example, in Genesis, where God “remembers” Noah and the animals in the ark (8:1), and then puts the bow in the sky in order to “remember” his everlasting covenant (9:15-16). The language, of course, is anthropomorphic, conveying God’s judicial, covenantal care and commitment. God does not literally “remember” his people and his promise in the way that we suddenly remember that we have an appointment today! The same is true with the “forgetting” involved in God’s forgiving. It is not that he literally is unable or unwilling to bring our sins to mind—but rather that in his sovereign goodness and grace he does not use them to condemn us.
If we expect absolute and literal “forgetting” to be a part of human forgiveness, then we are unnecessarily setting ourselves up for failure. But we must teach and model judicial, covenantal forgiveness in response to repentance—we must forgive, as we have been forgiven.
Derek: We’re obviously talking about big sins requiring specific acts of forgiveness, but there is a culture in the church generally I think where certain Christians take offense at almost everything and, therefore, create another culture where a cycle of offense and forgiveness becomes almost a neurosis.
Ligon: One response is that the Bible makes it very clear in the issue of relationships there are at least two ways that we are to proceed. One of these we should proceed with far more often than the other, and that is the biblical category of allowing love to cover a multitude of sins. The other is the process - and even the official process - of forgiveness and reconciliation that Jesus talks about both in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 18.
But the whole process of both private and corporate church discipline and mutual accountability is one way in which reconciliation is affected in the church. But, especially, the public aspect of that and the formal official aspect of that ought to be rare compared to the private process of reconciliation. And then, both the public and private process of reconciliation ought to be rare in comparison to the times that the believer allows love to cover a multitude of sins. So that there doesn’t have to be a process of cataclysmic confrontation and excruciating reconciliation on every minor thing that comes along in the Christian life. If Jesus had confronted the disciples that way, the Gospels would read like, “Peter, stop that.” “John, you are wrong. Be reconciled.” They would just be filled with constant challenges on Jesus’ part. But Jesus is a kind and forbearing father in the faith, was patient and allowed love to cover a multitude of sins. So that certainly ought to obtain in our own Christian experience.
When we see a person who is constantly and easily offended, we also recognize there immediately a person for whom the grace of the gospel has not come home adequately.
Justin: The sin of “victimology” is an epidemic both in the wider culture and in the church. And I think you’re both right to connect this to the attraction to—and demand of—easy forgiveness.
In his book, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, Gregory Jones has a chapter on what he calls “therapeutic forgiveness.” I think he’s spot on when he writes, “Though forgiveness should be at the heart both of Christian theology and the practices of Christian community and life, it has largely been co-opted by the therapeutic grammar of modern Western life” (p. 47).
Now at the risk of appearing to pick on people, here’s an illuminating exchange between Brian McLaren and an Emergent guy who was offended that McLaren once said that those who talk about the “postmodern church” are being “ridiculous.” To my mind, this is a good example of being easily offended and demanding repeated apologies:
Q: I found your piece uncharacteristic. You are normally careful not to use inflammatory language, but you called talk about the “postmodern church” ridiculous. Wasn’t that kind of harsh?
A. I regret using that word. I’m sorry for offending or hurting people.
Q: You put people like me in a really tough situation. On our website, we refer to ourselves as a postmodern church, so now we have been judged by you as ridiculous.
A: Again, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure you have good reasons for using that terminology on your website, and I don’t criticize you at all.
Q: I thought you were all about the postmodern church. Why would you say there aren’t any?
A: I guess I was having a bad day. I think everyone can relate to having a bad day.
Q: Is that your only excuse? What was giving you a bad day?
And later in the interview:
Q: That’s exactly what was discouraging. Here I am, trying, doing my best, and you call what I’m doing ridiculous.
A: I’m so sorry. That’s not what I intended.
Q: You should be more careful.
A: Yes, I should. But I think you’ll agree, as I said in the article or whatever it was: having postmodern churches isn’t the point.
Derek: What are some of the consequences in the case of someone who offers repentance and seeks forgiveness, but that forgiveness isn’t given? What are the consequences for both sides, but especially for the one who doesn’t give forgiveness?
Ligon: Well, let’s assume that we are talking about a professing believer who is for whatever reason reluctant to and refusing to offer forgiveness. Jesus’ words are terrifying that if you do not forgive, neither will the Father forgive your trespasses. Obviously what Jesus is saying there is not that God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon and conditioned by our forgiveness of others and in some way that we earn or condition our salvation and his mercy to us. What I do think he is saying is that those who have received gospel forgiveness are invariably and universally affected by that in their conduct towards others. So that having received mercy, they are merciful. Hence, if that situation was forever unresolved, it would be an indication of a heart unchanged by grace.
Now, you and I both know plenty of Christians who have wrestled a long time with those kinds of things. I would want to be very patient, especially in catastrophic circumstances with a believer wrestling to forgive. But is a real part of the gospel working out in the Christian life.
Justin: I would lead the one refusing forgiveness to Matt. 18:21-35 where Jesus gives the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Note that God expresses his “anger” at the unforgiving servant, calling him “wicked.” Jesus is warning that divine punishment awaits those who have received forgiveness but refuse to grant it to others. Jesus’ words here could hardly be more seriously or sobering, and those who have been truly forgiven will tremble at the consequences.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
. . . 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
You also asked about the flip side: what are the consequences for the repentant person who is not granted forgiveness? Few things are more painful than turning from sin only to find reconciliation rebuffed. Those who find themselves in such a position should exercise prayer patience, offer gentle encouragement for the offended party to practice biblical reconciliation. Church discipline may be appropriate at some point. Do note, however, Paul’s qualifier in Rom. 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). And in 2 Cor. 13:11, he says that we are to “aim for restoration”—but doesn’t promise that it will always happen.
Derek: What about a husband who commits adultery and asks his wife to forgive him and she does. But can she still sue him for divorce?
Ligon: I think that situation is parallel to other situations where a person violates law and there is a just penalty that the law has established for that particular crime. And the act of repentance, or the giving of repentance or the offering of repentance, there may be some cases in which that repentance mitigates the legal consequences, but there may be other situations in which that repentance does not in any way mitigate the legal consequences. And so, I could see a husband saying to an unfaithful or a wife saying to an unfaithful husband, “I will not bear this against you,” but still terminating the relationship in certain circumstances. I could also see other circumstances in which there would be reconciliation effected by the forgiveness that is offered. I have with much joy seen that happen on many occasions. But, again, you are going back to the situation of a child abuse. There may be a genuine repentance on a part of a person and there may be a genuine forgiveness on the part of the parent towards a person who has committed sexual abuse against a child and yet there may be legal ramifications and consequences in which that parent is called upon to give testimony in a court of law. I don’t think that is a contradiction of their forgiveness.
Derek: To those Christians who find granting forgiveness difficult, when genuine repentance has been offered and forgiveness asked and they find the granting of the forgiveness difficult, what counsel do you give them?
Ligon: I think Alexander White would counsel us to look hard at our own hearts and our own sin and to study how much the Lord has had to forgive in us and how much the Lord continues to have to forgive in us. And then to turn our eyes to the Savior and study how much he was ready to overlook in his disciples and how much he was ready to forgive his disciples. And then to look at our Savior’s costs and see how far he was ready to go in order to affect, not only our forgiveness, but our reconciliation with God. And then to ask how pleasing it must be to our Heavenly Father when we walk in the way of our Savior in extending gospel forgiveness to others and bearing the cost to some extent, ourselves. As always happens in all forms of forgiveness, but in some it is more tangible and visible than others.
I think you have to meditate on those four things a lot, especially if there is a heart that feels easily offended and has a hard time letting go of those offenses. I think those four things have to be meditated upon.