18 December 2008

Unpacking forgiveness in real life

by Dan Phillips

In his book Unpacking Forgiveness (reviewed here), Pastor Chris Brauns relayed a number of stories illustrating situations of injustice and wrong. One particularly harrowing tale involved Scott and Janet Willis, six of whose children died from a fiery accident caused by a driver who gained his license due to Illinois' Governor George Ryan's corruption. It is hard to imagine a parent reading that story without gasping in horror.

The Willises had to deal with their horrific grief, and all the train of emotions that it brought. They also had to deal with Governor Ryan, and how to respond to his ultimate responsibility. Would they be bitter, angry, hateful, vengeful? Or did they feel obliged (contrary to Scripture) to "forgive" someone who admitted to no wrongdoing? Or would they work it through Scripturally, along the lines that Pastor Brauns set out in his book?

In fact, they did the latter.

Pastor Brauns reproduces the portion of his book relating the Willis' story here, because of a recent development. As part of an apparent attempt to position himself for a pardon from President Bush, Governor Ryan has reversed-course and issued a kind of an apology. Ryan in fact uses the words "truly heartfelt apology." But for what? Ryan says that his "service to the people...was less than [his] best, and for that [he is] sorry." The inmate speaks of "mistakes" (thrice). He never admits to crimes nor to wrongdoing, nor accepts that his jail sentence is just, nor pledges to serve the full term rather than evade the consequences of his actions.

Nor does former Governor Ryan mention killing "the investigation into the crash that took our children," retired pastor Scott Willis observes.

Because of this vague and carefully-worded letter, the Willises find themselves involved in the situation once again. First, they must determine: did Ryan actually apologize? Or did he give another good study in how not to apologize? (NOTE: ironically Senator Dick Durbin, the subject of the previous link on how not to apologize, urges Bush to commute Ryan's sentence.) Is Ryan repentant? What would genuine repentance look like?

I'd wager most of my readers have experienced this. One finds himself in such a swamp, when another wrongs him unambiguously and badly, then offers a namby-pamby, ambiguous non-apology, accepting no consequences and refusing to right his wrongs. Is this where the Willises find themselves?

Regardless, they are committed to seeing it through Biblically. The Willises want to go and talk to Governor Ryan in prison, look him in the eye, and seek resolution. They're willing to forgive, but know the need for genuine repentance and dealing with culpability and guilt. They are concerned for his soul. And they've been guided by the Biblical teaching in Pastor Brauns' book — which they, in fact, specifically cite.

For the Willises, this whole "forgiveness" thing is not only a doctrine nor a theory. We should pray for them, and for former Governor Ryan.

UPDATE: some more reflections on "'Sins' and 'mistakes'" over at my joint.

Dan Phillips's signature


coldwell said...

Excellent post, Dan. Thank you. Helps me understand forgiveness in a way I never had.

Anonymous said...


Loved your last few posts, and this one too in reality.

But, (yeah there it is), I can't escape this thought: we forgive for God's glory, not because we've been served to our satisfaction.

Admittedly this is a lot easier to say in a theological arm-chair than in the thick of unbearable turmoil, but.... don't you think so too?


DJP said...

1 Corinthians 10:31 is a useful "all." But reductionism should be avoided. It isn't an either/or. Horizontal wrongs should be handled as the Word directs for the benefit of the wronger, the wronger, society, and God's glory.

Steve Scott said...

"They're willing to forgive, but know the need for genuine repentance and dealing with culpability and guilt."

This is one of the few times I've ever heard forgiveness tied to repentance. Outside of the bible, I mean. God forgives us, but would never expect repentance in return, right?

Barbara said...

I’ve been disturbed since I read about this yesterday.

What do we do with the sovereignty of God? I recall hearing John Piper speak about his mother’s death in a bus accident and saying he could not worship a God who could not have stopped the piece of wood that killed her, had that been His plan.

There were many people involved in the process whereby a truck driver that neither spoke nor read English was issued a commercial license. There was more wrongdoing than just the Governor’s. Including the fact that someone who spoke both the language of the truck driver, and English had to tell him about the scheme of paying for an illegal license and assist him in obtaining the license. So, who is to blame? Who needs to ask forgiveness? Who needs to repent in regards to the death of these children?

I’m not saying I know the answer, I’m asking questions. I know if it had been my children that were killed, sinner that I am, I’d probably be in jail myself for trying to harm someone that I could pin responsibility on.

Michelle said...

Very thought-provoking posts as usual, Dan. Thanks.

The Dec 18 morning devotion in Spurgeon's "Morning & Evening" speaks of Joel 2:13 "Rend your heart, and not your garments."

He says "Heart-rending is divinely wrought and solemnly felt. It is a secret grief which is personally experienced, not in mere form, but as a deep, soul-moving work of the Holy Spirit upon the inmost heart of each believer. It is not a matter to be merely talked of and believed in, but keenly and sensitively felt in every living child of the living God. It is powerfully humiliating, and completely sin-purging; but then it is sweetly preparative for those gracious consolations which proud unhumbled spirits are unable to receive; and it is distinctly discriminating, for it belongs to the elect of God, and to them alone."

Isn't it true that any repentance by the unregenerate will be questionable at best, always self-serving (sin is a "mistake" and addiction is a "disease"). True repentance for sin against others, which is ultimately all about sin against the God of heaven, is surely only possible when the heart of stone has been turned into a heart of flesh.

As believers that may make it easier to understand the insufficient and unsatisfactory show of remorse that we see from an unbeliever.

W. Ian Hall said...

A non-apology apology doesn't even get close to Biblical repentance. May God send real conviction of sin into the hearts of the guilty in this case.

FX Turk said...

I think Dan's posts on this topic have been top-notch -- best in class. I agree with every word.

Here's where I have an intellectual problem: from the cross, Jesus saids, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing." And Stephen, as he is being stoned, says to the Glorified Christ, "Do not hold this against them!"

There is no question that God offers forgiveness only for repentence. I often wonder if He doesn't ask us who are already forgiven to spill out some of His grace which we have already received prior to repentence.


Anonymous said...

That's a good thought Frank.

It seems to me that the grace you speak of shows itself in the refusal to hate or be bitter towards those who have wronged us.

Surely even the offering of the possibilty forgiveness to an offender is a pre-repentance extension of grace.

Kindness shown to the unrepentant sinner is grace as well, is it not?

Chris Brauns said...

Frank, I think that is very well said. That idea of "spilling out grace," is vivid and true. We've been given a sweet, sweet gospel.

If I'd had those words when I wrote Unpacking, I might have used them!

Still, it's not biblical forgiveness - - that spilling out of grace. Surely Jesus did not grant absolution when he prayed that prayer. Nor, was Paul forgiven until the road to Damascus - - Stephen's prayer was answered at the point Paul came to faith and repentance.

Anonymous said...

Much appreciated contribution, Frank. The fruit of the spirit is.....


Although admittedly my context-sense is tingling. But then again I'm almost reprobate in the degree to which I'm always suspicious.

Bla bla. Excellent post, thank you. (Consider yourself un-rickrolled....)

Anonymous said...

I'm uncomfortable with this idea that we should not forgive those who do not repent. This assumes that we, like God, know all and are not in error ourselves with our assumptions of the offending party's behavior. Even our court system treats the accused as innocent until proven guilty. Shall I be the judge and juror for everyone who wrongs me?

You haven't proven to my satisfaction that withholding forgiveness is ever biblically correct for a Christian.

CR said...

Frank: There is no question that God offers forgiveness only for repentence.

If I read Dan's review correctly, I believe one of Braun's point in his book is that the offer for forgiveness is unconditional (and therefore not dependent on repentance) but that the granting of forgiveness is conditioned on repentance.

I'm not saying that Dan or Chris are saying this, but what needs to be clarified (and maybe it already has been) is there any implication in that statement the granting of forgiveness is condition on repentance applies to "all" sins (seem to remember some post being about "all" hmmm, anyway, never mind :=) then we have a problem.

I'm imagining married couples. If married couples waited for actual repentance before granting forgiveness, you married couples wouldn't have time for anything else. Churches wouldn't have time to do much else other than church discipline because we sin numerous times per day.

Some sins, actually many sins are forgiven unilaterally. Wrong doctrine is sin. Both pedobaptists and credobaptists can't be right. That is a sin, because God's character is truth and anything that misses the mark of perfect truth is sin. One of us are wrong. That is sin.

None of us, read are Bible every day like we should, pray like we should, give thanks to the Lord like we should (every single day). That is sin.

There are clearly many sins that are not granted unilaterally. I can't go into all the instances now, but one quick example, is a sin if that person continues to do will do great harm to him, spiritually. Then, the offended party must confront offender.

"Biblical Forgiveness" is very comprehensive and I don't think you can nail it down or summarize it to one if-then conditional statement.

There are instances when biblical forgiveness is completely and utterly unilateral and (e.g. the one clear example is believing in certain wrong doctrines - baptism, eschatology, etc.) and there are other instances when it cannot be unilateral (if we do not forgive are debtors than the Lord will not forgive us).

That paranthetical remark is very, very, very important. We want to be sure what biblical forgiveness is because if we withhold it for the wrong reason, it seems to me from what Scriptures teach, that is a serious problem.

Those are just my thoughts.

DJP said...

That's okay, Missy, since it wasn't the purpose of this post. Read the other posts linked in it, and the links in them, and the book. That should help.

donsands said...

Great thoughts.

I heard an author, (I forget his name), on FOTF yesterday who wrote a book about forgiving yourself, and James Dobson and he were so excited about getting this book out to everyone, for they said, "It is the most important thing that could ever happen to us, to forgive ourselves."

Where is that in the Bible?

I remember being with two brothers in Christ who always had a little friction there, though they loved each other "in the Lord".

One day they went at it. And the one brother came to other, who was mistreated, and asked for forgiveness. The other brother said, "No. I can't forgive you right now. You have hurt me for too long. I can't right now."

They did however come to reconcile at a later time.

I thought, "It's alright to be honest. And it sometimes takes time to forgive."

DJP said...

Oh, Don, you're just not looking well enough.

It's right there in the Bible — next to the verse that says you can't love anyone until you love yourself first!

NoLongerBlind said...

Seems like there needs to be a distinction made between forgiveness being given by the offended and reconciliation between the offended and the offender.

Aren't we told that "we'll be forgiven as we forgive"? (Matthew 6:14-15 and 18:21-35)

“Forgive each other just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).When offended, doesn't forgiveness mean I surrender attitudes of revenge to God in recognition of his authority, providential purpose and forgiveness of my sins? This can take place in the context of my relationship with God apart from my offender. Forgiveness can, in this way, occur apart from the confession and repentance of the offender. If and when the offender does express genuine repentance, we can reply "I have already forgiven you."

But, that is exactly when the process of reconciliation begins.

Just some thoughts......

Anonymous said...

But still, as has been pointed out, Jesus said "If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and IF he repents, forgive him."

I think Carlo was aiming at those things that can rightly be overlooked. I think those things fall into the "mistake" category. (See Dan's post on his blog). No offense intended, no sin intended, probably no repentance required. Let it go.

But being sinned against, not mistakenly, is a different matter. Without repentance, what right have we to forgive? None.
But, as Frank says, what right have we to be harsh and unfeeling prior to repentance? None.

I think some are confusing the granting of repentance with "vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." Just because we haven't forgiven the unrepentant, doesn't mean we can exact revenge. It means the suffering of the sinner, caused by the sin, must be allowed to run it's course until they are brought to repentance. No?

See Paul in 2 Corinthians 7

"I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. "

I think that withholding something implies that it is rightly due. If I withhold wages from you, am I in sin? Or have you just never worked for me? Answer that, and you'll know whether you're really withholding forgiveness from someone.

CR said...

NLB: Seems like there needs to be a distinction made between forgiveness being given by the offended and reconciliation between the offended and the offender.

Where there definitely is some distinction in the Bible between reconciliation and forgiveness. My Louw & Nida Greek-English Lexicon has 7 different entries where the word reconcilation is used.

There are six different entries in my Lexicon for when forgiveness is used.

I imagine when I read Chris' book, I'll have to review my Lexicon.

reformed trucker said...


I am a self-employed truck driver that works in the Milwaukee metro area, and I remember this vividly. The item in question was a steel tube type (spring loaded) mudflap bracket that bolts to the truck frame with a mudflap attached to it.

I knew the driver didn't speak English, and that other drivers were yelling at him on the C.B. to pull over because it was going to fall off, but I didn't know the story about how he got his license.

My heart went out to this family for their tradgedy. And it was so avoidable by doing a simple pre-trip inspection by this "purfeshnul

Given this added information, I don't know how I would react. I like to think I would respond in a "bibley" kind of way, but my "flesh" would want to pound all parties responsible to within an inch of their life; nurse them back to health, and do it again, and again, and again! The ONLY way I could show any forgiveness would be by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit!

On the forgiveness thing, I had 3 times that people screwed me out of money (2 were self-employed people I thought were also friends; one just another company).
I forgave them all, and prayed for the two, because:

a) I understood their financial situation(been there; I chose to honor my commitments)

b) I didn't want that hate /anger eating at me like a cancer, and

c) I wasn't the one they would eventually have to answer to.

I knew I had a snowball's chance in ____ of getting my money. I shouldn't have to rub their noses in it like a little puppy dog. Since there was no repentance, should I re-install the chip on my shoulder?

And Dan, THANK YOU for the time you invest here and your other blog edifying the saints. When I have time to peruse the blogosphere, these are my first two stops (those other two guys are pretty good, too);)

Unknown said...

Planed Parenthood is caught on video helping girls return to the arms of their statutory rapists. Jesus calls us to protect the innocent. Psalms 139. The church must rise up against the abortion community which threatens our daughters. .***.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EinILQ4hDP0 *** Jesus protect these girls.

greglong said...

Chris, I'm looking forward to reading your book. But for those of us who have not read it yet, could you do something?

Could you offer your own definitions of the following:

1) True biblical forgiveness (which you believe is predicated upon repentance)

2) And whatever it is you call it when a person is sinned against and the other person refuses to repent, but the offended party needs to release the feelings of anger and desire for revenge?

DJP said...

Greg — I don't think it's fair to ask Pastor Brauns to do in a meta what he already spent a book doing. Plus, if you follow the links in this post, they include his definition, AND some generous interaction by Pastor Brauns with previous questions.

DJP said...

In other news: I think the LINKS function in Blogger has gone absolutely barking mad. Look at the links on any post, and every other blog in the known universe is linked, with NO possible connection.

Biz zarre.

Chris Brauns said...

Greg - This column I wrote speaks a bit to your question.


Chris Brauns said...

CR -- I agree. There is a chapter in my book - - "Should I just get over it?" Love covers a multitude of sins . . . Proverbs 19:11 also.

Chris Brauns said...

CR - -Again, I think you are digging in the right place when you begin to explore the biblical vocabulary for forgiveness.

You can read an appendix of my book here. http://www.chrisbrauns.com/2008/06/06/an-overview-of-biblical-words-for-forgiveness/

The Bible uses both the words "forgiveness" and "reconciliation." But, it doesn't present them as consecutive stages. Rather, they are different facets of the same gem.

Can we before forgiven by God and not reconciled?


donsands said...

"The Bible uses both the words "forgiveness" and "reconciliation." But, it doesn't present them as consecutive stages. Rather, they are different facets of the same gem."

That's why the forgiveness must be authentic. If not the reconciliation will be superficial.

I remember asking my wife to forgive me, and after she would say,"I forgive you." I would then say, "But..."

My forgiveness wasn't genuine.

Then a few years back I went to my wife, and asked her to forgive me, because I had been such a inconsiderate husband and scum.

She said, "I forgive you."

I really meant it this time, by the grace of the Lord working in my proud heart, I saw my sinfulness, and I saw my wife's goodness.

I have never been the same. All praise to Christ.

I still have disingenuous moments, but I'm not as blind as I once was. And I'm growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
This has been a terrific series Dan.

CR said...


This is really excellent stuff you're linking us to especially your link on the meanings of forgiveness. I just perused it now and hope to give it a closer look this weekend.


Mark B. Hanson said...


I read somewhere (C.S. Lewis, I think) that if you ask for forgiveness, you are specifically indicating that there is no excuse. If there is an excuse, forgiveness is not required. So no true request for forgiveness should ever be followed by a "but". (There's a Frank Turk pun in there somewhere).

Often what we are after is not forgiveness, but reconciliation of differences without anybody (especially ourselves) being wrong, or held accountable for what we have done. We just name it forgiveness...

donsands said...

"Often what we are after is not forgiveness, but reconciliation of differences without anybody (especially ourselves) being wrong, or held accountable for what we have done. We just name it forgiveness..."

Yep. That's what I believe as well.

I need to ask forgiveness, for asking for forgiveness, when it wasn't genuinely asking for forgiveness.

I remember when I confessed to my wife, and asked her to forgive me, and she said, "I forgive you for being such a rat."

I fopr the first time simply realized I was a rat. Usually, I say, "Yeah, I'm a rat, but you..."

I thank the Lord for working in my heart, and and molding and changing me by His gracious Spirit.