The Charleston Tragedy – Is Forgiveness Required?

Are Christians always obligated to forgive every debt or every transgression against them?

Although there is considerable doubt in my mind about the need to forgive apart from contrition, one thing that is clear in the Bible is that we are to love our enemies.  Maybe this is what these families are trying to do in a round-about way?  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45).  This is proof that we are the children of God.  

 

The response of the families of the victims in the recent tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, is commendable.  I have nothing but admiration for them and for the city as a whole. Their reaction has been praised by both Christian and secular wings of society.  I certainly admire these people who want to do the right thing before God.  They have responded in the best way they know how.

However, this calamity reawakens an old theological issue that has bothered me for years. Are Christians always obligated to forgive every debt or every transgression against them?  What does the Bible teach about forgiveness? Let me mention a few texts that push me to rethink the whole issue of forgiveness.

  1. One passage that constantly stares me in the face is Luke 17:3 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Forgiveness here is not automatic but conditioned upon repentance.
  2. The Jews who were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ were told that their forgiveness was conditioned upon repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).
  3. God forgives us because another has paid our penalty.  Christ was our substitute.  A substitute payment is required.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.  Someone has to pay.  Here again, forgiveness is conditioned upon our debt being paid. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph 1:7).
  4. In one kingdom parable there is forgiveness of a debtor by a king after a plea that the king “have patience with me and I will repay you everything” (Mt. 18:26).  The king in essence absorbed the debt as he had compassion on the debtor.  Again, there is no such thing as a free lunch.  As the forgiven debtor failed to show the same compassion for his own debtor after a similar plea, Jesus condemned him for his unforgiving spirit.  The relevant point here is that in both cases there is sorrow and contrition on the part of the debtors.
  5. Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles “so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18).
  6. John tells us that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God only forgives us when we first confess our sins in humility.
  7. When Jesus was on the cross he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). It is interesting to note that Jesus had the power to forgive sins, but here he does not forgive them, but rather pleads for the Father to forgive them. It may be that many of these Jews were forgiven as they repented on the day of Pentecost.
  8. When Stephen was put to death he did not say that he forgave his executors, but rather he pleaded for God’s mercy upon them and said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). Again, I think the assumption was that Stephen hoped they would repent and God would forgive them.

The Bible is clear that the granting of forgiveness is dependent upon either an act of repentance or contrition in the heart of the debtor.  My question is this: If God does not forgive apart from repentance on the part of the sinner, then are we obligated to do more than God?  I think not!

The fearful warnings in the Bible about a non-forgiving spirit assume first that there has been a spirit of repentance and contrition on the part of the transgressor.  When that condition of repentance has been satisfied, then may God have mercy on our souls if we refuse to forgive!  “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:15).  If we fail to forgive, our claim to salvation is demonstrated to be spurious.

So why is this need so prominent in modern America to forgive murderers who have not repented of their sins?  What are we to make of it?  Is there a spiritual need for it?  Does it fulfill some therapeutic necessity?

First, I think it may be a result of a poor theology that has been taught in the church.  It may be the result of the thinking that Jesus died on the cross for everyone and therefore everyone has been forgiven.  We just need to accept it.  That’s what faith means in many circles.

Maybe it is being confused with a real need to rid ourselves of bitterness when someone takes the lives of our loved ones or transgresses against us.  “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph. 4:31).  We cannot live with bitterness.  It will destroy us. The families must rid themselves of bitterness and resign themselves to the will of God; and then wait on the civil magistrate to carry out the proper punishment.

Although there is considerable doubt in my mind about the need to forgive apart from contrition, one thing that is clear in the Bible is that we are to love our enemies.  Maybe this is what these families are trying to do in a round-about way?  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45).  This is proof that we are the children of God.

Lastly, it should be remembered that punishment in the matter of a capital offense is a judicial act to be carried out in the name of God by the civil magistrate.  Technically, individuals, families or clans have no power to forgive and therefore must not usurp the power of the state to carry out justice in the case of a criminal offense. The civil magistrate must carry out the will of God.

The offense is not only against those murdered and their families, but it is a threat to the very fabric of society itself.  It endangers the security and peace of the social order.  This is another reason why the civil magistrate must execute justice.

There is a need for vengeance in the heart of man because we are made in the image of God.  These families have not sought their own revenge, but are leaving vengeance to God.  Maybe this is what they are really doing by declaring their forgiveness?

Both the families of the victims of those murdered and the City of Charleston have exhibited admirable character.  Whether their theology of forgiveness is right or not, I must let the Bible be the judge of that. We all have to deal with transgressions against us, and we need to know how to respond in a way that honors Christ.  This is where the rubber meets the road for every Christian.

Larry E. Ball is a Honorably Retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.