Automatic Forgiveness

by Robert M Hartian
Sentry Magazine, June 2002

Schoolmates hung a sign on a high school in West Paducah, Kentucky that read "we forgive you Mike!" Mike Carmeal, 14, the day before, had killed three of his classmates. Dennis Prager, a Jew, covered this story in the Wall Street Journal (December 15, 1997). This immediate and automatic forgiveness prompted an article he entitled, "When forgiveness is a sin." He noted how that Christians have adopted the idea that anyone who commits a horrible act should be forgiven, whether the evildoer repents or not. He lamented how a preacher (Reverend John Miller) at a Martha's Vineyard Church service attended by then-President Clinton called on all Christians to forgive Timothy Mcveigh as he had done.

Sadly, this automatic forgiveness doctrine is now taught in churches of Christ. I find it exceptional too since Jesus' words in Luke 17:3-4 are simply said, "If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." The IF shows the contingency of forgiveness on repentance and reconciliation for someone to regain their brother (Matthew 18:15).

This automatic forgiveness doctrine has become very popular. The mental health community says it's "psychologically healthy," it brings "closure." In other words, "I forgive you so I can feel better." The religious world quotes Jesus on the cross asking the Father to forgive those who crucified him but overlooking two facts.

  1. Jesus did not ask his Father to forgive those who did something wrong to someone other than himself and
  2. The Father's forgiveness, as Peter made very clear, was not automatic, but required repentance. In fact, the Holy Spirit convicted and rebuked the sinning party who killed Jesus through Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2:36).

In Luke 17:3-4, the action-response flow is like this: Sin-rebuke-and if repentance-forgiveness. We are shown in Matthew 18:16 that one who refuses to repent must be treated as an outsider. Paul wrote that the unrepentant fornicator in Corinth should be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. This is not to be vindictive, but "so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord." (I Corinthians 5:5).

People who sin and are immediately forgiven are not convicted or rebuked and therefore not motivated to repent of their sin. These people then are left feeling complacent in their sins. To the worldly mind, God is mean, they say "what kind of God would send someone to hell forever?" And this automatic forgiveness is just another way to "out-good" God. That is, we modern folks can be nicer than the God of the Bible. But the spiritual person sees God's way as the only way. A way that cannot be improved.

Read for yourself what the church in Corinth did and what Peter said on Pentecost and to Simon in Acts 8:22-23, and what the Savior himself taught. This is, in fact, real love that produces reconciliation between men and most importantly between God and sinners.

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