I would like to interact with a couple of statements that I read recently about forgiveness.
A. Christian apologist Nick Peters wrote a post entitled “Can I Be Forgiven?”
Peters refers to Jesus’ parable about the unmerciful servant in Matthew
18:21-35. In this parable, a king forgives the debt of a servant who
owed him ten thousand talents. That very same servant then turned
around and refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a much
smaller amount. When the king heard this, he was outraged at the
unmerciful servant and handed him over to torment in jail. Jesus says
that God will do this to those who do not forgive their brethren from
Peters says the following:
“The servant in this case was forgiven by the king of a debt that he
could never ever hope to repay. It was totally canceled and what is the
response by the servant? He shows unforgiveness to another servant. Why
would he do this? Chances are he didn’t really believe the king had
forgiven him so he did not really receive the forgiveness. This can
remind us of what was said in the sermon on the mount after the Lord’s
prayer. If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father in Heaven
will not forgive you your sins. As C.S. Lewis says, there is no
indication he does not mean what he says. This is because this is the
ministry of reconciliation that’s taking place.”
Peters questions whether the unmerciful servant had truly believed
that the king had forgiven him of his debt, and Peters believes that
this may be why the unmerciful servant was unwilling to forgive. The
unmerciful servant could not pass on what he did not believe he himself
had received: mercy.
B. I reviewed a book, The Christian Life,
by Steven A. Hein. The book is a Lutheran discussion of salvation. My
impression, right or wrong, was that the book was contradictory, in
areas. The book was saying that people in hell are actually justified
and forgiven. “Why are they in hell, then?”, was the question that was
in my mind. A Lutheran, Bror Erickson, commented as follows under my Amazon review:
“It’s objective justification. There isn’t anything contradictory
about it. It is just the fact that Jesus died for all the people that
inhabit hell. They are forgiven. They are justified. But they refuse it.
It’s like having money in a bank account you don’t know about, and so
you are still in debt. The people are justified, they aren’t
C. Did the unmerciful servant truly not believe that he had received
the king’s forgiveness? Are people in hell forgiven? I have my
doubts. In my opinion, the unmerciful servant was aware that the king
had forgiven his debt: as far as the unforgiven servant was concerned,
he did not owe the king money anymore, and he went happily on his way.
The problem with the unmerciful servant was that he failed to extend
that same kind of forgiveness to someone else. The unforgiving servant
failed to internalize the forgiveness that had been shown to him.
What about the people in hell? I have a hard time accepting the
concept that they are suffering punishment in hell, while in a state of
being forgiven. If they were forgiven, why would they be suffering
punishment in hell? If I no longer owe a person money, that person will
not exact my debt from me, right? Even if I refuse to be forgiven and
still think that I have to pay the debt off myself, that person will not
exact my debt from me, for, as far as that person is concerned, I do
not have to pay. I guess I would be punishing myself in that case,
rather than being punished by the one I owed. Is that what Lutherans
think is going on in hell?
D. I think that what often happens is that evangelicals try to
reconcile different passages of Scripture. For example, II Corinthians
5:19 states that God “was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting people’s sins against them” (NIV). I can understand how a
Lutheran like Steven Hein could conclude from this that God has forgiven
everyone on account of the death of Christ: that God no longer holds
sin against people. At the same time, you have Jesus’ statement that
God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark
11:25-26). Is that consistent with the idea that God has forgiven
everyone? Not really.
I do not want to imply that all, or even most, evangelicals believe
that everyone has been forgiven, or to lump Peters together with Steven
Hein and Bror Erickson. For many evangelicals, people actually receive
forgiveness when they trust Christ for salvation, indicating that not
everyone has been forgiven by God, that unbelievers are still in their
sins. Still, even these particular evangelicals have to address
apparent tension within Scripture. There is Paul’s presentation of
justification (forgiveness) as something a person enters at faith (maybe
baptism, depending on how one interprets Romans 6), something that
entails a change of status in which a person goes from being a child of
wrath to being a child of God. And there is Jesus’ statement that God
will not forgive us if we do not forgive others. A number of
evangelicals interpret Paul to be saying that forgiveness is a free gift
that one can receive by faith, by simply accepting God’s free gift.
Jesus, however, seems to suggest that strings are attached.
Are these two concepts consistent? Many Christians would say that
they are, and their reasons for their positions are not too bad. I am
not entirely convinced by evangelicals who try to mesh Jesus with Paul
by saying that those who do not forgive others have not truly accepted
forgiveness from God. But there are Christians who question whether
Paul viewed grace as truly free, or who note that even Jesus manifests a
belief in forgiveness coming through the death of Christ.
There may be overlap between Jesus and Paul on forgiveness. There
are many times, however, when I identify with what a skeptic (or
spiritual person burnt out by Christianity) one time posted: that part
of the problem is that people are trying to harmonize Jesus and Paul,
when the two of them are saying different things.