The New Puritans Don’t Do Forgiveness

In an interesting article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum decries modern cancel culture, pointing out that some feel trapped in a world of unforgiveness. Who’s trapped?

  • An editor of the New York Review of Books that “was not accused of assault, just of printing an article by someone who was—Ian Buruma discovered that several of the magazines where he had been writing for three decades would not publish him any longer.” 
  • Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer (and a political liberal) posted a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter protesters had set the courthouse on fire after the killing of George Floyd, he discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would not sing it.
  • Alexi McCammond was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue, and then people discovered and recirculated on Instagram old anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she had written a decade earlier, while still a teenager. McCammond apologized, of course, but that wasn’t enough, and she was compelled to quit the job before starting.
  • One former journalist told Applebaum that his ex-colleagues “don’t want to endorse the process of mistake/apology/ understanding/forgiveness—they don’t want to forgive.” Instead, he said, they want “to punish and purify.” But the knowledge that whatever you say will never be enough is debilitating. “If you make an apology and you know in advance that your apology will not be accepted—that it is going to be considered a move in a psychological or cultural or political game—then the integrity of your introspection is being mocked and you feel permanently marooned in a world of unforgivingness… And that is a truly unethical world.”[1]Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.

Applebaum calls the self-righteous mob the New Puritans, and they are professional shunners. When “sinners” offer the apologies demanded, they know they won’t be accepted. They truly are trapped in a world of unforgiveness.

Unbelievers talk about forgiveness, but mostly just to say that something or someone cannot be forgiven. Cancel culture is just the latest example of unforgiveness, but we have been an unforgiving people from the beginning. Outside of Christ changing us, how could anyone forgive a debt—and that’s what forgiveness is. An offender has a debt that only the offended can write off. How can anyone do that? Only believers can, and only believers that recognize they have sinned greatly against the King and inexplicably been shown mercy (Mt 18:23-35).

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:26–27 (ESV)

If you don’t understand and appreciate the gospel, you will never be a forgiving person. We who have been so generously forgiven, must generously grant forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an exclusively Christian virtue. I’ve seen marriages invaded by adultery fully restored. Not left in an uneasy truce, not left weakened and ill, but completely reconciled and whole. I’ve seen daily verbal assaults and general selfishness of a spouse forgiven. A marriage that should have so much distance after years and years of sin has become a glorious example of Christ’s love for the Church. I’ve seen siblings reconciled after incredible hurt has been done. Again, I’m not describing holding the offender at arm’s length after proclaiming forgiveness. I’m describing real reconciliation. Can your religion—or irreligion—do that? I don’t think so.

Have you ever thought about whom[2]Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4 you’ve sinned against most in your life? For me, it’s easy. I’ve been married 29 years, and while I’ve sinned against my parents, my siblings, and my own children, I’ve sinned most against my wife, and it’s not even close. Yet she is the one person I am closest to in this world. We are best friends. How? God has forgiven her, and therefore she regularly (often daily) forgives me. That’s the only explanation. So many marriages eventually crumble under the cumulative weight of each other’s undealt with, unforgiven sin. Why is ours stronger than it was before I started sinning against her almost three decades ago? There is only one answer—Christ-honoring, God-glorifying, Gospel-motivated forgiveness.

Real, genuine, biblical forgiveness is amazing. The world has nothing like it. They have no way of healing broken relationships. They continue to harbor bitterness. Only God could come up with forgiveness. The New Puritans don’t do forgiveness. They don’t do grace. They don’t do mercy. Aren’t you glad that God does all three, and because he does, we can as well?

References

References
1 Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.
2 Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4

“I Forgive You, but I Need to Establish Some Boundaries”

I’m teaching on forgiveness in a class full of freshmen, and it brings up interesting questions. For example, I was asked do we ever set boundaries with a person that we’ve forgiven? I think by that they meant that a person had sinned against them, they had forgiven the offender, but they didn’t trust them anymore. So are they justified in resisting restoring the relationship to it’s “pre-offense” status? Is it okay to put up some boundaries with this person?

One caveat for my answer is I will assume the offense is not a form of abuse. Abusive behavior has different dynamics—your greatest concern in that case is protecting the victim.

So with that caveat, I have two concerns with the question.

Boundaries Might Just Be an Acceptable Excuse to Avoid Actually Forgiving

Forgiveness is a step on the path to reconciliation. With many offenses, it’s equivalent to reconciliation. I’ve sinned against my wife hundreds of times, and her forgiveness has always reconciled us.

But what if you actually want to hold on to the hurt? In that case might you claim that you have forgiven them, but you need to set some boundaries? Those boundaries, coincidentally, will prevent you from fully reconciling. They will punish the offender for sinning against you. Remember that forgiveness is a promise not to bring it up to someone’s face, not to bring it up behind their back, and not to dwell on it. If you’re dwelling on it, you haven’t actually forgiven the offender. If you’re bringing it up to their face through an unnecessary use of boundaries, you also haven’t forgiven them. Really, you haven’t.

In fact, the use of boundaries can be a “spiritual” method to exact some revenge. And you and I don’t have the option of vengeance.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:18–19 (ESV)

So boundaries cannot be an excuse not to forgive the offender. You cannot claim you’ve forgiven him, but then refuse to work towards reconciliation; you cannot write them out of your life. Boundaries distance us from the offender. They don’t reconcile two people; they keep them apart. Is that what forgiveness should look like?

Or is your heart possibly deceiving you into thinking you forgave them, when you didn’t? You want to keep holding this sin against them.  

Boundaries Might Be the Idolatry of Self-Protection

Sin hurts. Sometimes it’s hurtful because of the surprise of who did it. Sometimes it’s hurtful because of the betrayal. In those situations and others we can become very self-protective. “They’ve blown it. I forgive them, but I won’t trust them again.” I understand that impulse, but we cannot worship the idol of never being sinned against that way again.

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Luke 17:3–4 (ESV)

Do you think that maybe on the third time in the same day a person might think, “I should set some boundaries so they don’t sin against me again”? But that’s not what Jesus says to do. He says forgive them and forgiveness is inherently risky. It means they might sin against you again. In fact, they might sin against you seven times in a day.

You cannot make not being sinned against an idol you worship. That type of self-protection could be a form of pride. “Nobody should ever sin against me that way.” Why? Are you so important?

It’s possible that the offender might sin against you again in a very similar way. If so, you confront them again, and if they repent, you forgive them. It’s not about protecting yourself from hurt. It’s not even about what’s best for the offender. It’s about glorifying God by being a generous forgiver (Eph 4:32).

We who have been forgiven so much cannot look for reasons not to forgive. The gospel demands more than that. Jesus forgave us much; we–by his grace–can do the same.

Do I Forgive the Unrepentant Offender?

Today my wife and I were getting in our 30 minutes of walking on a beautiful day here when a student stopped me and asked a question about forgiveness. His question was theoretical—he didn’t have a particular person in mind, but he asked whether Christians need to forgive someone that has not admitted their sin.

Forgiveness and Biblical Counseling go together like peanut butter and jelly. Of course, it’s been decades since I enjoyed that sandwich combination, but I hear people still like them. You can’t think of peanut butter without jelly and it’s the same with forgiveness and Biblical counseling. If I want to get onto a profitable rabbit trail in any of my counseling classes, I just have to present some question about forgiveness and the entire hour will be gone quickly. The question this student asked me is a frequent one, and good people take opposite positions on it.[1]Jay Adams in From Forgiven to Forgiving, says that forgiveness is only transactional as does Chris Brauns in his more recent book, Unpacking Forgiveness. John MacArthur in his book, The Freedom and … Continue reading

There are lots of passages on forgiveness in the New Testament that are relevant to this question, but first a definition. When I talk about forgiveness I mean a promise not to talk about his sin to his face, not to talk about it behind his back, and not to think on it.

Those that see conditionality as important to forgiveness can point to Eph 4:32.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV)

What does it mean to forgive as God forgives us? God certainly never forgives a person that doesn’t admit their sin; therefore, we shouldn’t forgive someone that doesn’t admit his sin—he doesn’t ask for forgiveness. You can add to this argument Luke 17:3-4 where Christ says,

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (ESV)

These two passages seem to indicate that forgiveness is not offered to an unrepentant offender, and those that believe this consider horizontal forgiveness (person to person) to be a transaction. If the offender doesn’t repent, the transaction of forgiveness cannot be completed. I don’t argue that ideally forgiveness should be a transaction between offender and offended, but the question is how does the offended respond when the offender doesn’t repent and the transaction cannot be completed? Luke 17:3 seems clear—if the offender just says he’s repentant (seven times in a day would indicate that probably the first time at least he wasn’t repentant), then you are supposed to forgive him. And it seems clear that the offender stating his repentance is required.

However, Eph 4:32 is not as helpful to their position as those that see forgiveness as a transaction seem to believe. Eph 4:22-24 talks about sanctification as putting off and putting on with renewed thinking and then the following verses give examples of what that looks like. So, put off lying and put on speaking the truth. Why? Because we are members of the same body. By verse 31 we have a list of sins that should no longer characterize us. We should be putting them off. Verse 32 then tells us what we should put on as corresponding virtues. The emphasis of Eph 4:32 is not on how stingy we can be with our forgiveness, but how generous we should be. As John MacArthur says,

“To make conditionality the gist of Christlike forgiving seems to miss the whole point of what Scripture is saying. When Scripture instructs us to forgive in the manner we have been forgiven, what is in view is not the idea of withholding forgiveness until the offender expresses repentance.” And, “The attitude of the forgiver is where the focus of Scripture lies, not the terms of forgiveness.”[2] John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 118, 119.

I agree and I would add the entire story of Mt 18:21-35. Christ’s response to Peter’s question in that passage is that Peter isn’t being nearly generous enough with his forgiveness if he’s refusing to forgive after 7 offenses. That’s being a stingy accountant, not a generous forgiver. And notice that Peter’s question doesn’t assume that the person you are forgiving is even asking for it. They might not be admitting their sin 7 times in the day, but Christians reflect on God’s great forgiveness of them and forgive others. They realize that compared to their sins against God, any, ANY sin against them is small and should be easy to forgive. The emphasis is on being generous with our forgiveness.

Sometimes forgiveness is transactional (ideally) but it’s always attitudinal. Sometimes it can only be attitudinal when the offender refuses to repent. I should work towards having an attitude of forgiveness toward my offenders whether they admit their sin or not.

Something Luke records in his gospel is important.

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Luke 6:27–29 (ESV)

Imagine a person that is hated, cursed, abused, punched, and stolen from, and all by the same person. How does a Christian respond to that? They love them. And in this passage love looks a lot like not holding their sin against their enemy, doesn’t it? I mean you’re blessing them, praying for them, and giving them your tunic. That sounds a lot like an attitude of forgiveness.

We can actually see this attitudinal forgiveness demonstrated by Jesus on the cross. When they reached Calvary and Jesus was crucified, Luke records Jesus saying,

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34a (ESV)

Was Jesus actually forgiving the sin of people that hadn’t repented? No. Christ was praying that they would be brought about to a position of repentance. Christ was not forgiving their sins, but He was demonstrating a forgiving attitude, an attitude that longs to complete the transaction if repentance is offered.

Does a Christian need to forgive someone that has not admitted their sin? They need to have an attitude of forgiveness while they pray for the offender to repent so that the transaction of forgiveness can be completed. But if the offender never repents, the Christian can follow the example of Jesus and maintain a forgiving attitude towards those that have sinned against him. From the offender’s perspective, it’s indistinguishable from transactional forgiveness. In other words the offended Christian can forgive him.

References

References
1 Jay Adams in From Forgiven to Forgiving, says that forgiveness is only transactional as does Chris Brauns in his more recent book, Unpacking Forgiveness. John MacArthur in his book, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, says forgiveness is conditional sometimes and unconditional other times.
2 John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 118, 119.

Some Questions About Forgiveness

It’s quite common for teaching about forgiveness to lead to more questions about forgiveness. I wanted to include some of them here. Forgiveness requires real biblical wisdom in the specific details of a person’s life. Hopefully these will be a help to you.

What’s a Definition of Forgiveness?

The definition of forgiveness is promising…

Not to bring it up to the person’s face

Not to bring it up behind the person’s back

Not to dwell on it

This is not original with me, but I like this definition because it lines up with how God forgives us.

What If You Didn’t Sin, but They Are Offended? Should You Ask Their Forgiveness?

For example, someone expected you to call them while they were in the hospital, but you didn’t. They are angry with you for not calling. In fact, they’re giving you the cold shoulder. You didn’t promise you’d call them, but they expected you to. Is that sin? Probably not.

So the break in the relationship is real, but the sin is not. Do you ask forgiveness just to reconcile? One question to ask is who has sinned in this relationship? It’s not you; it’s them. They didn’t get what they wanted and now they are responding sinfully.

You shouldn’t ask forgiveness in order to appease someone. Forgiveness is not mine; it’s God’s. He invented it we could say. I cannot use it for whatever I want. Don’t use forgiveness as a gimmick. Don’t use it to patch things up unless you think you have actually sinned. Don’t cheapen it.

So what can we do in those situations?

•If it’s a pattern, we can confront their sin.

•I’ve said, “I wish I would have done that” because I really do wish that. If it would have prevented them getting offended, I really do.

Do You Need to Forgive God?

Some Christians will recommend that you pray and forgive God for certain tragic events. For example, if your child is born with a serious and terminal health problem, you might need to forgive God for that.

God is the absolute standard of right and wrong. He never does wrong. He is not unjust. Therefore, it’s blasphemy to accuse Him of doing wrong to you by telling Him you forgive Him.

The reason we would think that God has done wrong is because things didn’t turn out the way we thought they should turn out.

We are told that everything that happens in a believer’s life is for their good (Rom. 8:28-29). Therefore, when “bad” things happen in a believer’s life, the proper attitude is one of thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:18).

So it’s always wrong to be angry with God—to think we need to forgive God—but it’s right to bring our questions to God with a heart of faith. The Psalms are full of questions to God when life seems inexplicable. However, they brought their questions to God in faith. They didn’t accuse Him of wrongdoing, but they did have doubts about His dealings. They moved towards God, not away from Him. We should too.

Do You Need to Forgive Yourself?

Maybe you’ve heard this view before—that you need to forgive yourself. What you did was so horrible that it demands not just God’s forgiveness and the offended person’s forgiveness, but you must also forgive yourself.

Do you know what the Bible says about forgiving ourselves? Nothing. It doesn’t show up in either example or command. Scripture teaches vertical forgiveness—God forgiving us. It teaches horizontal forgiveness—us forgiving others. But it doesn’t teach internal forgiveness. Clearly that is significant. It indicates that this idea of self-forgiveness didn’t come from careful study of Scripture but from somewhere else.

So, when someone tells us that “I just can’t forgive myself,” can we help them? Yes. Someone that expresses this thought may actually be telling us something else.

They might be expressing an inability or unwillingness to receive God’s forgiveness. We say this because we really doubt that God has forgiven us.

They may not be willing to acknowledge the depth of their sin. Sometimes this means “I cannot believe that I did that.” This is a form of pride; as if this type of sinful failure was beneath me. It’s an indication of self-righteousness and a lack of realistic self-knowledge.

They may be venting regrets for not achieving a certain cherished desire. I had an opportunity and I threw it all away. When desires are thwarted, the result is self-reproach and a case of “if only I had….” In this case a more careful use of language is helpful. They should say, “I regret how I blew that opportunity.”

Self-forgiveness is unbiblical because you are the offender, judge, and the forgiver. Only Jesus Christ can fill all three roles. When you or I do it, we are trying to be God.

Do You Love the Gospel… More?

Been reading a book on forgiveness by Gary Inrig and one of the chapters I read recently was based on the biblical account of Jesus visiting Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 6:36-50. It’s different but similar to how Jesus talks about forgiveness in Matthew 18. Simon the Pharisee isn’t rude, but also isn’t welcoming to Jesus. He doesn’t think he’s (Simon) much of a sinner. Jesus tells a story and Simon correctly understands it. Read the passage to get up to speed.

Here’s the bottom line. Those love the gospel best that know their sin best. If you don’t think you’re much of a sinner, then you don’t think much of the gospel. I mean you like it, but you’re not amazed that Jesus could forgive you. If, however, you rightly understand your sin, then you love the good news. Which means that our appreciation of the gospel should always be growing as we grow in our understanding of our sinfulness. If my greatest appreciation for the gospel is from years ago when I got saved, then I’m not growing in my knowledge of God’s Word.

So, is your love of the gospel growing?

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