What Does It Mean to “Receive” Forgiveness?

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 the heart.

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 sanctified.”

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.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to What Does It Mean to “Receive” Forgiveness?

  1. Esther says:

    Interesting questions. I’ve also wondered how Jesus forgave people – the paralytic, for instance – before he died. He does not say anything about his death being necessary for forgiveness to occur, nor do his opponents assume that some kind of transaction needs to take place before sins can be forgiven (they attack Jesus’ identity (“only God can forgive sins”), not the lack of necessary conditions).

    I have always understood Jesus’ statement as appealing to the magnitude of God’s mercy being the basis for why we should forgive others, rather than a literal “If you have a hard time forgiving those who have wronged you, the Father won’t forgive you either.” Kind of like his statement to the effect that “he who does not forsake everything and hate his own life cannot be my disciple.” Even the disciples – who were clearly disciples – didnt live up to that all the time. They left their jobs to follow Jesus, sure, but they also all abandoned him at Gethsemane. And for us today for whom following Jesus is not as concrete (concrete != easy), how many successfully let go of our earthly attachments to follow The Lord? In other words, just as detaching from temporal things to cleave to eternal things is a process and a struggle, so too is forgiving others. But not being perfect in detachment or forgiveness doesn’t bar is from the kingdom, as long as we take seriously our Lord’s admonitions to strive for those.

    At least, that’s what *I* think. 🙂


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Esther. Two thoughts:

    1. Your point about the paralytic reminded me of an excellent book I recently read, Exploring Christology and Atonement, by Andrew Purves. It went into the possibility of how Jesus’ life, not just his death, related to the atonement, and that could relate to how Jesus could forgive the paralytic even before he died. The book didn’t go into the technicalities of this, but I found that to be an intriguing point.

    2. I was reading James McGrath’s blog—-and I forget which post I saw this under—-and a commenter was contrasting Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man being ashamed of those who are ashamed of him, with how Jesus reached out to Peter after Peter denied him. This commenter was saying that Jesus was nicer than Matthew made him out to be. I somewhat agree with you, though: once these rules are brought into a human filter, they are not as harsh.


  3. Esther says:

    hi James!

    1. I 100% agree that Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection – not just his death – play a role in the atonement, though I am not ready to explain how.

    2. Good example of the point I was trying to make! 🙂


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