Unpacking Forgiveness, by Chris Brauns (Crossway: 2008; 235 pages)I suppose you could say that there are two kinds of Christians: (1) those who think the subject of forgiveness is simple, and (2) those who actually have tried to wrestle with all the Biblical data on the subject. Put Chris Brauns in the latter category. And now, his wrestling is our gain.
First, an overall impression. This is really an excellent book on many levels. For starters, who would think that a doctrinal book on such a complex topic would be a page-turner? Yet this is. Brauns masterfully interweaves real-life dramas and traumas as illustrative to his treatment of a subject. He'll set up a nightmarish situation, then turn from it to the Biblical teachings, and then return to the outcome of the scenario. Again and again I was reading, ran out of time, hated to have to put the book down, and hustled to get back into it — to find out how the incident developed.
Brauns' writing style is engaging and lively, yet the contents are deeply Biblical, Christ-centered, and challenging. He writes with passion, humor, biblically-instructed intelligence, and a pastor's heart. This is no lab-report issued from a research cell in a high tower somewhere above the city, where some brainiac theoretician bloodlessly relays his findings, and leaves the rabble to work out the details. Brauns gets right down into the details. His conviction is that "There is no wound too deep for God to heal; there is no question too complex for him to answer" (p. 23).
Brauns is a good pedagogue. His definitions are careful and pointed. As he builds his case, he reviews what he has already said. He knows the value of repetition.
Now to specifics.
In his opening chapters, Brauns opens up both the complexity and the importance of the issue. Showing that God (in some sense) conditions His forgiveness of us on our willingness to forgive others, Brauns makes it an eternal issue, and not a peripheral detail.
Brauns' position is not what I'd call the popular evanjellybeanical stance. You may get a quick glimpse on where you currently stand in relation to Brauns' understanding of forgiveness by checking out the results of a survey he gave on that subject.
Brauns affirms the Biblical teaching that our forgiveness should be patterned after God's forgiveness. That is, it should not necessarily be instantaneous and unconditional, eradicating all horizontal consequences. (As I've argued, this can be not only unbiblical, but irrational.)
Rather, like God's forgiveness, our forgiveness should be conditioned on repentance, and may involve temporal consequences. As our Lord said, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3).
Brauns shows that "God's forgiveness is gracious, but not free" (p. 45f.), that it is conditional (p. 47), that it is a commitment (p. 47f.), that it "lays the groundwork for and begins the process of reconciliation" (p. 48f.), and that it "does not mean the elimination of all consequences" (p. 49f.). He defines God's forgiveness as
A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences (p. 51).Having laid this foundation, Brauns devotes the rest of the book to showing how Christians must follow God's pattern in dealing with wrongs and injustices in our own lives. He provides the general definition for human forgiveness:
A commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated (p. 55).The offer of forgiveness is unconditional (p. 55), but the granting is not.
In what follows, Brauns defines and explains repentance and reconciliation; deals with bitterness and resentment; gives examples of difficult and thorny situations; and answers a number of practical, nuts-and-bolts questions. Brauns speaks both to the offender and the offended. He reminds the offender that "Whenever it is possible, Christians should make restitution for wrongs they have committed" (p. 205). You break, you replace; you steal, you restore; you shame, you break your back to repair honor — and don't imagine that you've repented and are forgiven if you do not work at full restitution.
Brauns provides a good deal of useful material to guide us in searching our own hearts, making sure our attitudes are sufficiently humble and focused. He discusses church discipline, and devotes a chapter to discerning situations where the wise and gracious course would be simply to drop a matter and love it over. Brauns also deals practically and fully with situations in which offenders do not repent, in which forgiveness is very difficult or impossible (i.e. the offender has died, unrepentant), in which Christians cannot come to agreement.
Decades ago, I had to work through some extraordinarily difficult issues regarding repentance, forgiveness, restitution, reconciliation, and consequences. I had nothing to help me but Scripture, and scattered bits and pieces. I came to basically the same place as Brauns — but my, it would have been easier if I'd had this book!
If there's a second edition, I'd like Brauns to take a look at some alternative handlings of his key passages. Particularly, he argues at length that our willingness to forgive indicates whether we're saved or not. He leans heavily on Matthew 6:12-15 (p. 119ff.). "Saying, 'I cannot or will not forgive,' is essentially another way of saying, 'I am thinking about going to hell'" (p. 128). I'd like to see Braun interact with the alternative interpretation of this passage, that Jesus is speaking of familial/relational forgiveness ("Your Father"), rather than judicial/eschatological forgiveness.
In sum: must-read for pastors; should-read for all.
UPDATE: see a followup article on one of Brauns' real-life illustrative stories here; and see a longer reflection applying this teaching to an array of topics here.