This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”

Let’s return to the phrase “as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). How we interpret this phrase will determine whether our conversations about forgiveness are a healing balm or an infection to a wound.

This phrase also means that everything we say about forgiveness is a direct reflection of the character of God. We often articulate this truth one way – “We are never more like Christ than when we forgive” – without understanding the inverse implication of this truth – “How we understand forgiveness is how we portray Christ.” If our life goal is to be more like Christ and make Christ known, this discussion has life-permeating implications.

From my experience in talking with people, this phrase about God’s forgiveness has the profound implications for someone’s spiritual-relational-emotional health.

  • Some use this phrase to treat God like a blank check writing grandfather. They tend to be enablers who are really “nice” people who have a hard time taking a stand on anything important… because… you know… love.
  • Others use it as a “break only in case of emergency” clause in the salvation contract. These tend to be legalists with strong convictions who have the integrity to be just as hard on themselves as they are on everybody else.
  • Some go so theologically “deep” with phrases like this that everything becomes “muddy.” These are people who believe God is most satisfied when the masses are most confused.
  • Others stare at it in bewilderment. They don’t know what it means, so they just do the best they can in any given situation and try not to blame God for much of anything that goes wrong?

Before we reflect further, which of these describes you best? Self-awareness is an essential part of biblical application. If we don’t see ourselves accurately, then we are likely to misapply the Bible to our lives.

Self-awareness is an essential part of biblical application. If we don’t see ourselves accurately, then we are likely to misapply the Bible to our lives Click To Tweet

Now let’s engage the question that is behind the bulleted examples above.

Is God’s Forgiveness Unconditional?

Does the fact that there is no sin so great that it is beyond God’s ability to forgive mean that “unconditional” is the best adjective to describe God’s forgiveness? No, this truth is about God’s capacity to forgive. It is limitless. That is different from unconditional.

Does the reality that God delights in forgiving mean that his forgiveness is “unconditional”? No, this truth is about God’s willingness to forgive. It brings him the most joy (Luke 15:7). That is different from unconditional.

Do we get to set the terms of relationship with God? No. Unless we repent (a condition) God does not forgive. God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7). We can’t fake God out with tears or sorrowful language that is void of fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:7-10). If we try to convince God our sin is not wrong (changing the conditions), God doesn’t budge. God admitted that the terms he sets are narrow (Matthew 7:14). Those who will not accept God’s terms, even if they try to play nice with God, eventually run out of chances to accept his offer (Matthew 7:21-23).

God is infinitely generous in his forgiveness, but he is not unconditional. We have no reason to fear our sincere request for forgiveness will be denied. But we should have no sense of entitlement or cavalier attitude towards God’s forgiveness.

God is infinitely generous in his forgiveness, but he is not unconditional. Click To Tweet

God’s Condition of Forgiveness is Lordship.

God’s forgiveness is not an “ollie, ollie oxen free” for everyone to go back to playing the game of life like they were before. God’s forgiveness is an invitation to a new way of life. Those who reject this new way of life, reject the terms of forgiveness.

Let’s return to our simple definition of forgiveness – cancelling a debt. God is not a banker who cancels a debt and says, “Keep running your business in the way that led to bankruptcy. Better luck next time.” God will cancel the debt and says “Call me Lord. Follow the plan I have for life.” If you are committed to bankruptcy, the most loving thing God can do is limit how far into debt you go.

What Does this Mean for Us?

We will draw two implications from this reflection: one vertical and one horizontal.

First, vertically, we have no reason to fear God withholding forgiveness. No one who owns the wrongfulness of their sin, accepts Christ’s payment for their sin, and embrace their need to follow Jesus as Lord will be denied. God understands his children follow him like clumsy toddlers. We fall often. But he delights when we follow him like children who imitate a loving father (Ephesians 5:1). Our soul can rest in this.

Second, horizontally, if God is not duped when he forgives, we do not have to fear being forced into foolish forgiveness based on a theological technicality. We will not forgive perfectly like God forgives.

  • We do not know the heart of the person we’re forgiving like God does.
  • Our ability to remove our hurt from the forefront of our mind is not like God’s.
  • Our desire to forgive is not as constant and benevolent as God’s.
  • Our ability to be hurt again may make the restoration process slower than it is for an omni-powerful God who has no relational needs.

These things may mean our forgiveness is a process – like every other part of our spiritual life. But, too often, our fear that forgiving will unwisely places us in a position to be hurt again causes us to resist the possibility of forgiving. Much of this mistrust is rooted in the misunderstanding of God’s forgiveness being unconditional. We begin to think God is being weak and foolish, and therefore, is calling us to be weak and foolish like him.

God is not a fool and he does forgive. God does not ask us to be a fool, but he does ask us to forgive. As we reflect further in this series, we will seek to further separate forgiveness from folly. The purpose of this reflection was simply to help you be able to trust that God’s call to forgive is not an expectation that you be relationally reckless.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What are examples of when you’ve used the idea of God’s forgiveness being unconditional misapplied? When was the other person trying to say something accurate, but not being precise with their words? When was the person misrepresenting God’s forgiveness?
  2. What are the greatest points of comfort and reassurance that you took from this reflection?