I have a problem in keeping up with my reading. I open a good book, start in with good intentions of covering a lot of ground, and then smack! I get stopped in my tracks by some really, really good piece of insightful wisdom – a blog post enters my brain, and I have to stop everything, go in to my study, and write the post. That’s what just happened, so here we go.
Forgiveness is much easier when there is justice. In fact, we might even be justified in saying that forgiveness requires justice. Here is the paragraph that sprung this gem on me. It is by Herman Bavinck and it comes from volume four of his Reformed Dogmatics:
Forgiveness is not natural….Pagans pictured the gods as human, endowing them with such passions as jealously, spite, and vengeance, and therefore could not grasp the sublime idea of a free and gracious forgiveness….This pagan notion witnesses to a greater seriousness and sense of truth than the shallow idea that forgiving is natural for God, just as sinning is normal for humans. People who know themselves somewhat also know how terribly difficult true and complete forgiveness is, and how it can only be granted after a serious struggle with oneself. Certainly an assortment of sinful attributes such as envy, hatred, and vindictiveness, which cannot be part of God’s character, play a large role here. But there are also countless cases in which forgiveness is simply impossible and impermissible. When our honor and good name, our office and our dignity, have been publicly assaulted, no one is prepared to forgive without public redress, merely on the basis of a private apology and confession of wrongdoing. And when actionable crimes have been committed, the civil government is called, not to forgive but to punish, since as God’s servant it has to uphold justice and does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13).
Opposition to the expiatory sacrifice of Christ [i.e., people who say that the Cross of Christ is a horrid thing that only a wicked god would require], usually supported by an appeal to the parable of the prodigal son [i.e., the father “simply” forgave him with no punishment], accordingly arises from a total denial of the value of justice as well as of the very idea of forgiveness, for forgiveness in the true sense of the word precisely presupposes justice and stands or falls with it.
Let’s repeat that. Forgiveness in the true sense of the word precisely presupposes justice and stands or falls with it. This is why Paul marvels at the wisdom of God shown in Christ:
Rom 3:25-26 whom [Christ] God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
For God to remain just (righteous), and still justify sinners, justice had to be answered. That answer was given on the cross where Christ paid the full price for our sins. God’s justice will not be compromised. The demands of His holy Law had to be met. God did not simply say, “aw shucks, let’s just forget about it.” Nope. Impossible. God will be God.
Now, let’s bring this truth home and apply it. You have all of these churches and Christians and church leaders laying the forgiveness thing on abuse victims. They must forgive their abuser. After all, Christ has forgiven them, so who are they to refuse to forgive? And yet a person who has been subjected to the terrors of abuse is a person who has suffered great harm and wrong. Such a person needs justice to heal. Make no mistake, a desire that justice be done and applied is NOT a sinful desire to exact personal vengeance. No. It is the Spirit within us hungering and thirsting for righteousness. And it is the Spirit of God in us that is also making us balk at simply saying, “well, ok, shoot, let’s just let bygones be bygones.” There, my child, don’t you feel better now? No!
So here is the deal. If churches would diligently and rightly mete out justice to the abuser, guess what would happen? Forgiveness would be possible. Forgiveness would suddenly become much easier, particularly since you just might see, along with the exercise of that justice, some cases of real repentance by the abuser taking place. (We aren’t talking about reconciliation here. Just forgiveness).
Why are Christians insisting that abuse victims must forgive without justice? Why? Could it be that they have a very low and skewed view of the work of Christ on the cross?
THIS is the post I have been yearning in my heart to read! The “blanket forgiveness” doctrine that keeps assaulting my spirit and making me feel an inferior Christian because I just can’t feel forgiveness when there was NO JUSTICE isn’t so sound after all!
I always felt that God is a just and righteous God-His throne is founded on justice and righteousness. He requires repentance or, in your terms, Pastor, even more-JUSTICE-by Christ’s immeasurable sacrifice on that cross. We are mere humans and not God. How are we to ask a Holy, Righteous, Just God, Who sent His beloved Son to die a horrific death to BE JUSTICE for our sins, to “help us forgive” abuses that received no justice?
The police were called (God’s appointed earthly authorities) but they did not have the competence to seek or try to get justice. For an obvious violent crime attack where the abuser didn’t “immediately confess and hand over the weapon used”, lied (badly!) and police didn’t investigate further or use their common sense or their own eyes to see the evidence in front of them, as often happens in abuse cases. How does a victim even move forward at all after that kind of injustice? And to forgive the abuser and even the police after such injustice? I’ve never been able to do it other than to “not seek vengeance of my own”. But I’ve been made to feel guilty because I don’t “feel forgiveness” for them. I want to obey God. Period. There was no repentance. In fact, as often is the case, when justice IS NOT DONE, the abuser escalated in their abuses! There will be no reconciliation with these violent criminal abusers. At least I was clear that it was not required of me for my safety. I pray the Imprecatory Psalms for GOD’S JUSTICE to be done. But this post relieves me of the oppression of the burden of forgiveness after an extreme injustice. The cross was more meaningful and important than brushing aside justice. Thank you Pastor for this.
Yes! A 1,000 times yes! God, Himself, paved the way for correct thinking and action regarding forgiveness. He has made His forgiveness *available* through the Justice/Righteousness of Christ’s death and resurrection. That forgiveness is not automatically bestowed upon the world, it is *offered* for the seeking and knocking, with the promise that in *repentant* faith and belief, one will receive.
I’m glad you stopped to write this post! I was told how I needed to forgive and forget, and reconcile with my abusive then-husband 10 years ago when he walked out on me. Forgiveness = reconciliation to many Christians too, and I was also told that if I didn’t forgive I would become hard-hearted and bitter. And even more so, I had some people tell me that because I chose to divorce, I had not forgiven and therefore, God would not forgive me. o.O
You hit it straight on the head — to be able to forgive my abusive ex would have been so much easier if I felt my former church wasn’t coddling my then-husband but actually taking a stand against his evilness. And my oldest son cannot for the life of him figure out how he is suppose to forgive his father for the abuse he endured as a child, while his father just goes on with life never acknowledging or repenting of his actions.
Thanks for the insight Amy.
This article is SO thought provoking! But I was left with so many questions. I feel like it needs a part 2. Lol One question I have – how would you reply to those who say that all justice has already been done in Christ on the cross? Are you saying we need more justice than what He did? And my main question, oh please answer this one – You said, “if churches would diligently and rightly mete out justice” – how do you suggest they do that? Or what would that look like?? Even if they are understanding of this concept and willing, you don’t give suggestions on what that justice could be. I’m wondering specifically for situations of covert abuse where no criminal charges could be filed.
Jen- justice effected by the church is believe the victim, expel the abuser from the church and if required report the abuser to the police. See 1 Cor 5 on dealing with a wicked church member.
As to all justice being done on the cross, that is for the sins of the elect. But in this life the Lord has established civil authorities to deal justice out. Any one who would tell me that the wicked are not to be held accountable for their sin and crimes – I would simply tell them they are a fool.
Well that works great with the obviously unrepentant wicked. But the reality is that abusers in the church are really good at playing the role of the repented Christian. They can’t be thrown out cause that would be half the church and often the ones in authority to do that ARE the abusers.
Jen- yep. In which case it is a counterfeit church where Christ is not present. And by the way – the Lord enabled us to deal with evil in our church here. Used to be over 100 people. Now about 30. And that is victory!!
Spot on, Jeff! Thank you for posting!
I recently became aware of a treatise on repentance written in the 1600s by an English Pastor named Thomas Watson. Unlike much of our “modern” discussion on the topic, this piece is densely packed with concepts that require hard recognition about our sin, its cost on others and what needs to be done to restore the shattered relationships that result.
Evangelicals, particularly, have rightfully maintained that our sin is covered by Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, but we’ve completely lost sight of what sin is and the damage it causes. We’ve grown lazy in seeing sin for what it really is, and have become so used to wallowing in it that we no longer even desire to be free from it; we excuse it and claim that all we must do is simply renounce our wickedness and we’ll be free.
Watson won’t have any of this.
When was the last time anybody has heard a multi-Sunday sermon series on the doctrine of repentance and all that it requires of the body of Christ (collectively and individually)? There is no justice in the church, for the most part, because we’ve bought into the idea that all we have to do is just put another band-aid on the festering wound and it’ll be okay. There is really nothing more to be done, we say.
It’s a hard read, and probably not for everybody, but I encourage as many as will to wrestle with Watson’s treatise. We have no peace in many/most of our churches because we’ve collectively decided that sin is free and Christ’s sacrifice fixes everything and that “we just need to move on and forget all about the wrongs that have been done to us and, most importantly, those that we’ve committed. You’ve hit the nail on the head: Justice and repentance ARE linked! Church growth has taken precedence over healing; we’ve become whitewashed sepulchers full of death and corruption.
Agreed! Out of about 150 plus people who were in our “church” here when I came 26 years ago, only 6 or perhaps 8 were really regenerate. Why? Largely for the reasons you state here.
Chapters 3 and 4 of Watson’s treatise addressing the nature of true repentance are very helpful for those struggling with the paper thin offerings of worldly sorrow most churches find perfectly acceptable. Far, far from the Western standard liturgy of “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?”, Watson’s recipe is detailed and specific. He argues that repentance is a robust spiritual soup made up of six ingredients and says that if any of them are left out, the salve loses it’s power.
In my own experience in dealing with abusers, most of these ingredients are never a part of their sorrow and those few that do remain constitute such a watery gruel as to be unpalatable. The abuser’s “sorrow” is offered mostly from a desire to remove any pain they might be feeling as a result of their sin rather than any real intent to root out the rot from their spiritual garden. Its all external and only for show.
Thank you Q, for posting that link!
I feel like I will read it over and over so it sinks into my soul…it’s so profound, and so helpful.
“Till the sinner repents, God and he cannot be friends: “Wash, make yourself clean” (Isa 1.16); go, steep yourselves in the brinish waters of repentance. Then, says God, I will parley with you: “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isa 1.18); but otherwise, do not come near me: “What communion has light with darkness?” (2Cor 6.14). How can the righteous God indulge someone who still goes on in his trespasses? “I will not justify the wicked” (Exo 23.7). If God were to be at peace with a sinner before he repents, God would seem to like and approve all that he has done. He would go against his own holiness. It is inconsistent with the sanctity of God’s nature to pardon a sinner while he is still in the act of rebellion.”
That part ^^^^
Spells it out crystal clear, and yet why is this never taught in church these days?!
Thank you so much for this! I have wrestled with the topic of forgiveness for a number of years now. I have decided that God requires true repentance first, which leads to acceptance of Christ, which leads to forgiveness and salvation. Justice did not become part of my mind-set until very recently, so thank you again. If no sinner of any sort is ever convicted of their sin, how can the aforementioned ever be possible? A few might repent if they suffered consequences for their sin, and saw justice for their victim(s). Maybe.
I do not understand why church leaders and Bible study teachers claim that we must forgive out of hand when God Himself does not do this. If God doesn’t do it, then perhaps we shouldn’t do it either.
Em- they teach non-repentance required because that message is what the unsaved and unrepentant want to hear. Their goal is to have lots of people in their church. Truth doesn’t produce the results their egos desire.
THANK YOU, Pastor Crippen, for writing this article! Every word in it needs to be shouted from the rooftops!!
After over 35 years of abuse from my ex-husband, not only did I not see justice after he tried to kill me by strangling me, but he never even admitted that he did it. So of course, there was no apology, nor repentance. He was arrested and charged by the state with aggravated battery against a household member with great bodily harm, because a deputy sheriff witnessed my ex strangling me. (editors note: details of this crime and the injustice done in the court system edited for safety)
My ex is an ordained “Christian” minister and he is currently “ministering” to unsuspecting people in a new church and state! My ex believes that he got away with a 2nd degree felony and a misdemeanor. HOWEVER, I HAVE NO DOUBT THAT MY EX WILL BE SUBJECTED TO THE LORD’S JUSTICE EVENTUALLY. My ex is going to find out that going to Hell is real and for eternity.
Repentance by the abuser (which rarely happens), justice and forgiveness are closely intertwined. The church has gotten that all wrong and most “Christians” are doing so much harm by telling victims to forgive their abusers and just go on.
(editing done for safety)
Thank you, Pastor Crippen, for editing my comment for safety! I realize that I shared too many details regarding my ex’s arrest and subsequent lack of justice in the legal system. The bottom line that I wanted to convey is that my ex was never held accountable for his horrific criminal actions. There was no repentance by my ex and no earthly justice done.
Also, in spite of the person knowing the details, I was asked by one “Christian” minister if I had gone to the Lord and asked what I had done to contribute to the breakdown of the relationship! I could not believe, that in light of the circumstances, any “minister” would try to blame me for my ex strangling me. I had not done anything to deserve being abused for decades, let alone being strangled.
Thank you again, Pastor Crippen, for your compassion and encouragement for all the survivors of this epidemic in the church.
Some time back, a very well-known verse jumped out at me in a new way. None other than 1 John 1:9. Note the word it begins with. IF we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. IF. IF we confess. In other words, if we have not confessed our sins, he has not forgiven us… right?
So… can we extrapolate from this to declare that if the person who wronged us has not confessed to having sinned, we are not required to forgive?
What exactly does it mean to forgive, anyway? One definition I’ve heard (that I like) is that it simply means to remove your hands from around the other person’s throat, in the context of the Lord having said that vengeance is his, he will repay. So is just letting the thing go and giving it to God to deal with considered “sufficient” forgiveness?
I cannot honestly say that I have forgiven the pastor who insisted that I must stay with the passive-aggressively abusive husband who had actually already abandoned me. This pastor was known to be a meddler in people’s lives, and the man was ALWAYS right. The woman wasn’t allowed to have a side of the story to tell. I never trusted him after he believed a lying husband about something his wife had allegedly done and basically aided and abetted the kidnapping and withholding of a nursing baby from her mother (he hid the baby in his own home). He never admitted to having done anything wrong, even after the husband was exposed as a pathological, sociopathic liar, and he certainly never apologized to the mother of the baby. And although the mother and baby were soon reunited, I don’t think the mother has ever been able to muster up forgiveness for what was done to her. But neither she nor I ever sought vengeance, although I have to admit that when that pastor’s wife had finally had enough and took a hike, a certain degree of schadenfreude made its presence known….
The pastor’s wife had enough and took a hike. I like it. A lot!
Your comment about whether we need to forgive someone who has not repented really got me thinking. I started googling about the need for repentance before forgiveness can be offered and it was interesting some of the articles which spoke to this exact thing — where there is no repentance there cannot be forgiveness.
Luke 17:3-4 is pretty clear about needing to forgive someone IF they repent, even if they sin against us over and over, but repent each time, we are to forgive. Forgive but NOT necessarily reconcile.
Forgiveness is a tough subject when it comes to abuse and one that I’ve wrestled with all these years and now my oldest son is trying to figure out how to forgive his father for his abuse. He’s angry that he is supposed to forgive and I think this post speaks to why — when we feel the abuser has not been held accountable and justice has not been served, it doesn’t feel fair that as a victim we just have to forgive and let them off the hook.
Very interesting topic and one I’m going to research more. 🙂
This point in any verses/passages regarding repentance and forgiveness aren’t about forgiveness, but about what “repent” truly means, and how is it actioned? *That* is what is almost **never** taught.
Bitterness ..is often a false accusation too. People often accuse others of the same thing they do or are themselves. Proverbs 5:4, Ecclesiastes 7:26 and Isaiah 5:20 (and numerous others) says the sinner who drinks the bitter water is the bitter one…not the victim.
Praying lady, it is a disgrace that a so called “Christian minister” would suggest that you may had done something to your ex to bring about his trying to strangle you. This truly is a disgusting thing to say to a lady who has gone through a traumatic event like that!! What in the world is wrong with people supposedly wanting to minister and help others suggesting such a wicked thing?! Never mind, I know the answer to that. There is so many out there who claim to work for the Lord and do not have a compassionate bone in their body. Also for the legal system where this took place not to throw your ex in prison for attempted murder?!! You know we are living in the last days when lawlessness prevails. The scary thing is your ex on the loose to con unsuspecting people! This almost sounds like a movie on Lifetime network. God will punish with vengeance that evil ex of yours, if not in this life certainly in the next.
I just wanted to say regarding Pastor Crippen’s post here, when my son was around seventeen he told me “Mom, God does not expect you to open the door right back up for more of the same”. I was going through a time with a abuser who was not at all sorry for the agony he caused me and my children. I know God does not expect me to be a never ending doormat for very evil people. Many hugs to you!
I just wanted to let everyone here know that Monday night (28th) here in Ohio, we had a tornado outbreak as they say we had twelve tornado’s. A huge one ripped through Dayton. It is so sad to see the carnage. I prayed and prayed and the Lord spared the town I live in just 21 miles north of Dayton! We were down in the basement and heard this weird whirring noise as the tornado passed our town. I praise the Lord for His protection and mercy.
This is the best piece I have ever read on biblical forgiveness, emphasizing so beautifully the heart of grace – and justice – of our amazing God and Savior. I printed it out for future reference and posted it to my HBL Facebook page, too. It’s too good not to share. Thank you!
Thank you Cindy👍
I was told to pray for my former Husband while he was sexually assaulting me. . . that it would be a fulfilling experience for “oneness” for him. The terrible things is I did for many years because I wanted to be “right before God”. Such treachery.
These things convince me that many pastors and church leaders are in fact users and abusers of women – virtual male cult temples.
Absolutely. When I finally said “enough” and filed for divorce after enduring years of abuse, deception, neglect, infidelity, porn use followed by a proclamation of sex addiction with no repentance, guess which one of us was shunned out of the church?