Friday, November 2, 2007

Unlimited forgiveness...?

Paraphrasing Bob Mumford from the recent ACM conference: the coming of the kingdom looks like unqualified love and unlimited forgiveness in action. Yale theologian Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, writes of the two "movements" in forgiveness: first is exclusion, where the evil that has been done is named, its effects described, and the perpetrators identified. Once this has been done, embrace (re-welcoming the offenders) becomes possible (though not automatic or instantaneous). What forms might a "ministry of unlimited forgiveness" take? How might the church move from being perceived as the place to receive unlimited judgment and condemnation to a place where the excluded might experience being re-embraced?


Robert said...

How generous is the table of our Lord. Those who put their faith and confidence in the redeeming work of Christ are invited. All who approach in faith are welcomed to join in celebration...regardless of their past failures. Those who can not approach in faith are cautioned to exercise sound judgement lest they bring judgement on themselves. The primary "exclusion" suggested is what one should apply to themselves. The burden is on the integrity of the one invited to participate.

Foregiveness extended...transitive...meets personal responsibilty and outcomes. We proclaim the Gospel and the claims of Christ...the burden rests on the hearer.

This raises a serious question for those administering the Lord's table. What do you do with with those you know are living in sin against God's commandments without recognition and repentance? At what point do you refuse particpation until they are reconciled? If that is not defined by those assuming responsiblity for communicating orthodox Faith, it is then being defined by whoever brings whatever to the table. That "think" has led to the current crisis within the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA). It is the difference between cultural "think" versus historic understanding of biblical faith as interpreted by Church leadership representing apostolic Christianity. If that does not matter, it is all up for grabs and anyone can bring anything to the table. This distills the issue down to a point where somebody has to say that something is not does not conform to a biblical understanding of what constitutes being the Church. Nobody I know and respect as a leader in the Church wants to assume that function...but if we are not prepared to assume that responsibility, we are defined by anything that demands inclusion. If you take a stand on biblical necessarily have to address exclusion. Unlimited forgiveness is not in question...appropiation of effectual faith is.

This does not directly answer the original post. What does it look like? Present the Gospel with the demands of Christ and the inevitable consequences. Then, someone will have to be clear about those distinctions...with lots of compassion. I still don't think I have answered the original post...what does an embracing community look like that upholds the Kingdom? I look forward to responses...

Brian Emmet said...

Two thoughts, not directly related to Robert's comment, but perhaps apropos to the discussion. Donald Miller in his book "Blue Like Jazz" describes the time when he was a young Christian attending ultra-liberal Reed College in, I believe, Oregon. The small Christian group on campus, for its part in a campus-wide annual celebration of drugs, debauchery, consciousness-raising, etc., had a "forgiveness tent". The point was not that people could come to ask forgiveness, but that as people came (which increasing numbers did), the believers would ask them for THEIR forgiveness for the ways in which the church had failed them.

Second example is So. Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the years of apartheid. This is the widest application of the exclusion-and-embrace dynamic of which I'm aware, and possibly the best example in history to date. Both these represent for me Christians doing some excellent thinking and outstanding proactice of the ministry of unlimited forgiveness, and both remind me that this ministry is far more difficult and costly than most popular understandings of forgiveness allow.

josenmiami said...

Don't forget the Omish parents who publicly forgave the shooter who shot and killed their daughter in a public school shooting recently.

Robert said...

Jose and Brian...thanks for good reminders.

We will not forget words like "reflective" and "transitive" that frame the old message being made fresh and new. Being transitive is certainly evidenced in the examples you mentioned.

As a movement, we have the familiar challenge of "hearing" a "word" that intersects where we are with the sense that we are hearing from heaven. How this is worked out in our preaching, teaching and practical applications at home is now our assignment. Those who were not present to hear need to hear and that means eating, digesting and incarnating those truths in a manner that imparts living words to those we influence.

I am challenged on a personal level and as a leader of others to move this message from my notes and Power Point presentations to something that is alive and active.

On a personal note, Sue's father, Dick Fulmer, is in last days of his journey on earth. He is eager to go home. Sue is with her Mom and Dad in California. I will join them in the next few days. The doctors and hospice care givers believe it is a matter of days. Dick is 89. He has served the Lord in active ministry for over 70 years as a pastor and missionary. He was key in guiding me to Jesus and understanding the work of the Holy Spirit. He is an example of a life lived well for Jesus. Please pray for Sue and the family.

josenmiami said...

I'll tell Deb and we will definitely lift him up ... "Father, thank you for Sue's dad's long and fruitful life ... we pray your blessing upon him as he prepares to go into your glorious presence with his wife, be with Sue and Robert we pray in Jesus' name.

Brian Emmet said...

We add our prayers and love.

Michael said...

When I look at unlimited forgiveness is that the same thing as saying unlimited trust? Are forgiveness and trust the same thing?
Does forgiving someone 70 times 7 mean that I keep entrusting them with something close to me each time?
To me that is the challenge.

Robert said...


I see foregiveness as a matter of the heart where trust is a matter of stewardship. Forgiveness does not require making unwise investments of time and resources in something or someone who has a track record of irresponsibility. In fact, I believe it is an unloving act to entrust outcomes to people who don't have the maturity or character to support the effort. It will lead to failure. You can fully foregive them and not trust their capabilities...even if their intentions are good ones.

Brian Emmet said...

I do not think there's an equation between forgiveness and trust; a relationship, perhaps, but not an identity. Maybe it's like this: forgiveness restores or maintains my relationship with God (if I refuse forgiveness, I will not experience His), and trust is about re-establishing a healthy relationship with an offender. I must forgive the one who rapes my daughter, but there is no need for me to trust him with her anytime soon (perhaps never). At a much lower level, I need to forgive the one who borrows my car (lawnmower, boat, etc.) and wrecks it, but I do not need to permit him to borrow it again next weekend... but hopefully we could work on things so that it would be possible for him to regain my trust. But I need to forgive him regardless, and that may be more for my own sake than his!

Michael said...

Brian & Robert,
Thanks for your thoughts. I am in agreement. Sometimes I think people confuse the two (trust and forgiveness) when trying to forgive.
I agree that there is probably not a simple equation that turns forgiveness into trust. and...

I like your comments on trust as a matter of stewardship. I like the distinction.

Brian you asked, "What forms might a "ministry of unlimited forgiveness" take? It seems to me that we don't have to look to far for opportunities to forgive.

What are our responses when an injustice has been done to us, or someone close to us?
When we haven't been heard or received like we thought we should?
Does embracing a ministry of ulimited forgiveness mean we have to have a better understanding of suffering?

John M. said...

Robert, my amen and agreement with Joseph's prayer. What a testimony, and example for us who are still journeying on the planet.

John M. said...

Ditto Brian's and Robert's comments on forgiveness and trust. I left Columbus wondering how to more fully apply unlimited forgiveness and unqualified love in my 7th grade classroom each day. The distinction between forgiveness and trust is very important in that context. I can always love unqualified and I can always forgive unconditionally, but I cannot always trust a student not to repeat bad decisions and mistakes/failures from the past.

What I can do is, in a spirit of love and grace forgive and gently but firmly help the student to overcome his track record -- and that includes giving consequences. It's very difficult for 12-13 year old's to understand that I can love and forgive them at the same time I administer consequences to them, but somehow by my demeanor, attitude, body language, tone of voice, and the way I relate to them the next day or later that day, they need to experience unqualified love and unlimited forgiveness while they learn the lessons of responsibility, faithfulness and integrity.

I assume that this would apply in pastoral ministry, discipling, child-rearing, the market place and in any other human relationship dynamic.

Jeremiah said...

I think there is a third "Movement" to forgiveness that is tragically overlooked/ignored and that is restitution.

This is because we often times behave as though repentance stops at confession.

If once you've confessed and received forgiveness you don't then proceed on to make restitution, you never come to terms with the full implications of your actions. The cost of your inappropriateness to others never enters the equation of your soul and the focus remains a self-centered "I feel bad therefore I need relief from my bad feelings through forgivenss" It need to move to an other centered "I have damaged the created order by my selfishness and now need to change and address the consequences, as best as I can, of my selfishness"

Incidentally, this doesn't put limits on forgiveness, whether someone makes restitution or not has nothing to do with whether or not they are forgiven, it comes afterwards and really serves more as a way of knowing whether or not the forgiveness is bearing fruit in their life. Apparently it may take 70 times 7 acts of forgiveness before the cumulative seeds of forgiveness bear fruit, but it still is incumbent that we communicate the need to make restitution and certainly, when dealing with violations of the civil code of justice, restitution should be codified as well.

I mean, I trust we are all teaching this to our kids in the day in, day out conflict resolution we are dealing with them on.

david said...

very good comments.

i don't think i confuse forgiveness with trust. however, i do find it a difficult line to walk at times.

the story of the rich, young ruler trips me up when thinking about stewardship and trust.

i have some wonderful christian friends from ethiopia, eritrea, syria and egypt. their take on stewardship and trust can be very different from the way that most americans feel about it. when i'm with american christians, i feel that we all understand stewardship in very similar ways. but when i'm with these african and middle eastern friends, it feels very much like it's MY money, MY retirement, MY security, etc. in lieu of godly stewardship.

sometimes i wonder if i hide behind the banner of stewardship when what is called for is selfless love.

Brian Emmet said...

Good thoughts, David and Jeremiah (and everyone else). Jeremiah, not to put too fine a point on it, but I while I think restitution is a crucial concept intimately related to forgiveness, it shouldn't be conflated with it. I think forgiveness addresses one component of a broken relationship, restitution another, regaining the trust of those we've wronged yet another. Not picking an argument with you, though, and I really liked your idea of the "70 x 7" representing our sowing seeds of forgiveness in hope that they will eventually sprout and flower.

David, I hear you on the need to contextualize--or maybe decontextualize!--how we think about stewardship (or forgiveness). "Decontextualize" in the sense of getting ourselves out of our own cultural bias and allowing ourselves to see it through new eyes and think about it with new minds.

Michael said...

I too believe that restitution is a missing element in forgiveness. Is restitution part of forgiveness or repentance? I think when restitution is done properly it might help in reclaiming the trust that was lost in the broken relationship.

I think there are two aspects to forgiveness:
One is giving forgiveness when asked; the second is asking for forgiveness when we realize we have wronged someone.

Should we expect restitution when someone is asking us to forgive them?

Robert said...

When Jesus stepped into the life of Zacchaeus up in a tree (Luke 19)...Zacchaeus when from being a "reflective" collector to a "transitive" giver and restorer...half of what he had for the poor and a fourfold restorer of what he had taken dishonestly. Jesus responded with the statement that salvation had come to his house. It does seem that Jesus measured that reality by how Zacchaeus responded by heart and purse.

Michael...if someone asks for forgiveness without pursuing restitution...are they really seeking forgiveness or simply release from guilt and responsibility...remorse?

Brian Emmet said...

Good point, Robert: we have misconstrued forgiveness as a therapeutic remedy for feelings of guilt, instead of seeing it as a central part of setting right something that our actions have broken. Once I've done the right thing (confess, repent, make restitution, etc.), then I will feel better! God has committed to us in Christ the ministry of reconciliation, which goes broader and deeper than our internal emotional states.

Jeremiah said...


your last point gets more to what I am talking about, as does Robert's on simply seeking freedom from bad feelings.

It seems to me that lots of people (myself included) want forgiveness without wanting to repent. I'm not sure that that is an option. We tend to want the freedom of action without consequences, to do as we please without having to face the destructive music of what results. Not the least of this disruptive music is the emotional scarring of our own soul.

The funny thing is, I think GOD does forgive us when we seek it, even when we don't change, but when we don't change, and have not intentions of doing so, we probably won't seek forgiveness very much. When a person seeks forgiveness without repenting, I think it hardens their heart fairly quickly. I know that has been the result in my life where I've fallen into that.

Michael said...

Good question. It is difficult to judge what is motivating someone or their level of sincerity when asking for forgiveness. How would you judge the motives or sincerity of someone who is approaching you for the 490th time?

If I have been wronged, I should give the forgiveness without strings attached. If I have a wronged someone then I should look for the opportunity for restitution.

Should we not grant forgiveness unless there is restitution?

Is there any connection between our forgiving (releasing) and Jesus' statement in Matthew 18:18 "Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."

Brian Emmet said...

NT Wright comments on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18) something like this: giving and receiving forgiveness is like breathing with our lungs--I can only get my next breath of air (=forgiveness) when I exhale (= grant forgiveness). If I rfuse to give what I have received from God, I suffocate myself. Bob Mumford's ananlogy of the Dead Sea pertains here as well: if I only receive and do not give, I die.

As Michael points out, I'm less jolly about all this on time #487, 488, 489 and 490 (= 7 x 70), but that tells you more about me than it does about God! However, I think we should keep restitution and forgiveness distinct (but not separated). I need to forgive the one who wrongs me for my own sake, even if it effects nothing in the one who has harmed me. Restitution is a step in the rebuilding-of-relationship process. I think we can imagine forgiveness w/o restitution (I forgive, if only to keep my offender from controlling my life), but restitution w/o forgiveness...

Sarah said...

I think it is important to separate forgiveness and repentance.

Repentance is for the one who has done wrong (sinned). Forgiveness is coming from the other direction. We should always forgive, Just as God, in Christ, has forgiven us. But we cannot force the offender to repent or make restitution; that is his/her decision.

Of course if we are counseling/mentoring/teaching someone, we can show them the importance of repentance and restitution, and encourage them that directions -- but we still cannot make them do it.

Forgiveness is unlimited and unconditional. Repentance, restitution and trust are different matters that, hopefully, will follow forgiveness but should not be conditional to forgiveness.

John M. said...

Sorry guys. My daughter used my computer again! I think she forgets to log off before she closes her email tab or something. Anyway the last post about distinguishing between forgiveness and repentance/restitution is mine.

Robert said...

The question in Michael's comments did not have to do with forgiveness but trust. We don't withold foregivenss under any circumstances...being transitive. We have been forgiven much...and must forgive 70 x 7...endlessly. That does not mean we are required to trust the capability of the offender to act responsibly.

I am in the middle of a real situation where a person I know has been verbally abused by someone close to them. The following day, the offender registered a measured appology. The offender suffers from deep personal needs and a history of emotional problems. The person impacted freely offers forgiveness but is aware of the limitations of the other party. That instability does not offer a basis of trusting future actions. It does not have to do with forgiveness but trust. Does forgiving mean unqualifed trusting? I don't think so.

Randy R. said...

Sorry to wait so long to jump in on this conversation . . . sometimes it feels like trying to climb aboard a fast moving train! Unless I missed something earlier, I don't think that any comments were made regarding Jesus' last words on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34a). How do these words relate to the need for restitution or the offender seeking fogivness? It seem that neither were operative.

Brian Emmet said...

Maybe it would help us if we could clarify what we understand "forgiveness" to mean. What am I doing when I "forgive" someone? As Paul wrote to the Colossians and Corinthians, God's overarching purpose is the reconciliation of all things through Jesus. Forgiveness is a key part of that ministry of reconciliation, but not the whole of it (as would also be the case with restituition, regaining of trust, etc.)

So what am I doing when I forgive, and what am I not doing?

Robert said...


Forgivness for me means a release from resentment and obligation for payment. No strings attached. That means I have no expectation of anything. That's pretty much it.

If I remove myself from personal implications to observe the process of reconciliation between estranged parties, I have to ask if the one seeking forgiveness is seeking ways to make restitution. In a previous post, I made mention of Zacchaeus. His encounter with Jesus led to generosity toward the poor and a fourfold restoration of what was dishonestly gained.

As the offended, I am required to release...let go. As the offender, it seems I should seek opportunity to restore and heal...not just freedom from obligation. If I simply say I am sorry for wrongful actions without doing what I am able to heal the offense, my repentance seems incomplete. Seeking forgiveness without the motivation to restore seems like a "reflective" desire to just get off the hook. To say "I'am sorry" without further responsibility suggests that it is more about me than about you and how you have been affected.

We are really dealing with two distinct issues...seeking forgiveness and forgiving. On the forgiveness end, we can't avoid Jesus on the cross asking the Father to forgive those who placed Him there for they did not know what what they were doing.

josenmiami said...

good comments Mike,Brian and Robert ... sorry I have not been posting much...still trying to catch up with school work after ACM ...I have been reading along though...

going back to Randy's comments about Jesus's famous last words on the cross..."Father forgive them...."

I wonder who he had in mind when he said that? Was he only referring to those who nailed him to the cross? or his followers who abandoned him? or the Romans? or the Jewish people who turned away from him?

or for all of humanity? For God so loved the WORLD ... that he gave...

this is meaningful to me right now in my context. I have developed close friendships with a number people from other faith traditions such as Judaism and Islam (as well as a variety of Buddhists, Taoists, Wiccans, secular agnostics etc).

if Jesus had all of them (I should say "all of us")in mind when he said "Father forgive them for they know NOT what they do..." I find it a very comforting thought.

Brian Emmet said...

What problems is forgiveness intended to address or solve? If I am in the place of one who has been offended, I forgive--I release my offender from my judgment (I am not God), I give away my insistence that the scales be properly rebalanced, I move beyond being formed and controlled by my anger, hurt, shame and the evil that has been done to me towards blessing and seeking the good of my offender (and thereby "heap buring coals upon hs head"?)... and I extend to my offender a gift that needs to be received, responded to. We sense the incompleteness of forgiveness offered but not received through confession, repentance, restitution and restoration of relationship. Justice can't heal broken relationships, although it is a necessary ground for that healing; only forgiveness extends the real hope of restored relationship with God and offending/ed neighbor.

I share with Joseph the hope in Jesus' words from the Cross, understanding the "them" as I think he does as all of us. I think that we may hope that all might be saved, and we can pray towards that, but have no business allowing folks to think that the gift of God's forgiveness need not be actively receievd by them. God freely extends his forgiveness, but it must be received. (These last sentences speak for myself, not for Joseph). And God's forgiveness cannot be received without it recreating our entire lives--Matthew 18 where the unforgiving servant's refusal to be changed by the forgiveness he received resulted in his being delivered to the torturers "until his debt be paid in full." It was, of course, an unpayable debt... "owe no man anything except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman fulfills the law" (Romans 13:8 ff..

Michael said...

When I forgive others, I am releasing those who have wronged me from any obligation to repay me and I am also releasing myself from the chains of resentment and bitterness that would harden my heart. Forgiveness for me is one way I guard my heart.
I am also aware that there is a very real connection between forgiving others and walking in the reality of the Father's forgiveness. Who wants to risk that?
I was in a tough job for about 2 years with an unrighteous boss. I remember the HS prodding me to pray for him (which I reluctantly did). I was reminded of the Jesus' words to pray for those who persecute you. I made it a regular habit to pray that God would bless and prosper him in his business. I am not sure what it did for my boss, but it kept me focused on Christ and away from a hardened heart.

josenmiami said...

hey Jeff, where are you? Now that you have had the "face-to-face" in Columbus, we are looking forward to hearing from you more often.

Robert said...

Right now, I am rejoicing in being forgiven...washed by the blood of the Lamb. So many things about today led me to the feet of Jesus again with gratitude. We joined with the saints in lights to reflect upon Psalm 23 offered by Kevin Davenport at a worship service in Mission Viejo, California, followed by a memorial service for Sue's father, Richard Fulmer. He served his generation with the Gospel leading so many to a knowledge of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. I left the occasion less concerned about the details of forgiveness...more with the need to forgive...and to give again. When I consider a life live well for Jesus, my concerns for what others should be doing to reflect sincerety seem to fall off the table.

Brian Emmet said...

New post up!

jeff said...

Joseph, thanks for the reminder. I enjoyed our time in Columbus. I have been trying to catch up and now I see there is a new post. Here are my comments. Robert, I appreciated your comment “less concerned about the details of forgiveness...more with the need to forgive...and to give again.” A close friend shared Romans 12:18 with me when I was working through a trying time of extending and receiving forgiveness. “if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” I needed to realize that the “If” in” if possible” and the “so far as it depends on you” needed to be my focus. Not everything turns out as well as I’d like it to. There are some things regarding other people and their hearts that only God can touch and I have to be patient. I need to do my part by being able to rest in His forgiveness in order to extend and receive it.

Brian, as I think of what the ministry of unlimited forgiveness looks like, it may come down to me doing my part and getting out of God’s way so He can do His … reconciling, re-building, convicting , restoring and then going on from there.

Brian Emmet said...

Thank you, Jeff--good to hear from you. Keep us in touch with what you're thinking!