Should forgiveness be unconditional?  

Is forgiveness supposed to be unconditional, or should it only be offered on condition that the wrongdoer shows (to use a religious phrase) signs of 'repentance and amendment of life'?

We may say it depends on what the wrongdoer did ... but we also need to ask whether we are preferring to keep wrongdoers 'under judgement' rather than be real about our own relative power or powerlessness to bring grace.


1  Introduction

Bandage.jpg (10359 bytes)Even raising the question "Should forgiveness be unconditional?" shows how loaded it is! 

Am I really so sure of my moral high ground that I can sit back, examining the wrongdoer and looking for what I consider to be signs of remorse, or inconsolable shame before I climb down off my throne and invite him or her into the 'merciful space' where reconciliation can occur or where new pathways can be laid out? 

If I behave like that, will the wrongdoer ever move into real restoration and new, full relationships, rather than remain fearful or dependent?   And do I really want him or her to ... or am I implicitly hoping the problem would just go away, and the wrongdoer will 'prove' just how bad he or she really is?

The  question of initiating is absolutely fundamental (link to the longer article The power to initiate forgiveness).  This page asks whether forgiveness can and should be undeserved ... and yet still be 'effective.'  We are going to explore the issue of unconditionality in dialogue with a very fine teacher who believes - with clarity and thought-through reasons - that forgiveness cannot and should not normally be offered unconditionally.

David Augsburger is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena and author of several books on forgiveness and related issues, as well as a body of writing on church pastoral ministry.  His careful and thorough approach to forgiveness comes through well in an interview he gave for Steps, the magazine of the National Association for Christian Recovery.


2  Don’t ask for forgiveness

He begins by cautioning against asking for forgiveness.   "How can the other person refuse? … there’s a kind of blackmail or coercion going on."  He instances US tele-evangelist Jimmy Swaggert’s televised emotional pleading for forgiveness from his congregation and viewers, after his involvement with a prostitute, as an example.

This kind of pastoral insight is lacking in theologian L Gregory Jones' fine analysis Embodying Forgiveness.  Jones is really helpful in showing us that there is a trivialising or domesticating tendency in contemporary religious approaches to forgiveness, making it purely a matter of internal action (heart and mind) and therefore of ‘feeling and inner healing’.  He cites Lewis Smedes as someone who seems to reduce forgiveness to inner emotions and attitudes, and does not grapple with forgiveness as a public action that transforms relationships and situations.  Smedes is a popular writer who affirms unconditional forgiveness, and touches the centre of popular contemporary spirituality.

Yet Jones then says, "There is no sense (in what Smedes says) in which we are obligated or even encouraged to go to those whom we have wronged and seek forgiveness." (p 50)  Here he lacks the pastoral insight of Augsburger. Acknowledging my and our need of forgiveness is not the same as seeking it or asking for it from other people, which is usually pressurising and aggressive – not just an act of power but an imposition of power, not directed towards mutuality and empowerment.

He also points us to how - when asked to forgive - someone may not yet be ready to forgive, and how they can be encouraged to acknowledge this, be real about it, and say, "I too want forgiveness to be real between us.  Can we work on it until we know that we’ve experienced it together?"  (Have a look at Juan Carlos Ortiz' fine story, No problem.)  It's extremely important to be able to be real about one's own abilities and powers, and lack of them, in different relationships and situations.  (See ##5 and 6 below.)

when asked to forgive,

some may

not yet

be  ready


3  No unconditional forgiveness?

Then he goes on to a tough line against unconditional forgiveness … about needing repentance before forgiveness can be granted.  He says:

I suppose one of the most common ways to abuse forgiveness is to grant forgiveness pre-emptively - without appropriate process.  I think of the many Latin American countries who in recent years have granted impunity to perpetrators of human rights abuses and other atrocities.  At first this may seem like a generous, gracious offer of forgiveness.  But it leaves out so much!

Contrast it with the South African process where there must be a frank admission of the truth of what was done wrong before forgiveness is possible. The act of granting impunity without a foundation in the truth and without appropriate process is not really forgiveness but a way of avoiding the truth.  It is not productive in terms of justice and healing for the long term.  This is just as true in interpersonal relationships as it is on the larger socio-political level.

Augsburger rightly is looking for signs in the wrongdoer that he or she has "repented and is making a change in his life".  But why is he so unwillingly to recognise the reality of unconditional forgiveness, even though he elsewhere speaks so positively about Lewis Smedes work?

He does allow for ‘small’ cases … for example where the injury caused was unintentional.  But then, and strangely, he cites Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18) as an example of requiring repentance as a condition of forgiveness.  If we stop to check out the parable, we find that this is nonsense.  In the parable, the king in fact forgives because the sinner pleads for mercy, which even contradicts Augsburger’s remarks wise about asking!  (But God is presumably immune to emotional blackmail.) 

Facing the amount of power

we have is more revolutionary than remaining in

'judging' mode about the scale

of someone's sin

Augsburger also cites Jesus’ remarks in Luke 17, which certainly do require repentance before forgiveness is granted.  So sometimes prior repentance is necessary; at other times not.  Usually, people suggest that this is measured by the scale of the 'sin.'  But we need to go a little deeper into our lives and relationships.  This very fundamental human issue asks us to be real about the amount of power we - as sometimes the wrong-doer and sometimes the wronged person - actually have.   Facing this is a more revolutionary step into forgiveness than remaining in 'judging' mode, asking about the scale of someone else's sin.

There are two things going on here:

  • Forgiveness releases repentance    There is the strand in which forgiveness allows and releases the sinner to repent.  Even Calvin said that no one ever repents until they first experience the possibility of forgiveness.
  • Different levels of power   And the second strand concerns power. Whereas if that forgiver has some power in the relationship or situation, they will know that the very act of laying down a path for a sinner to follow has deep impact and inspiration for him or her.  It is much, much harder to just ignore it.
This should help us to appreciate the underlying shock in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18.  It clearly portrays God’s unconditional forgiveness, which nonetheless has a ‘delayed’ condition … that the free, undeserved gift God gives must be owned and internalised and lived out in a new manner of conduct and attitude.  The servant overrides the powerful mercy of the king.  (Though the king doesn’t actually do anything more practical than cancel the debt.)  The aim of the parable is that forgiveness comes first, and in a public demonstrable way … but it needs to be accepted and lived out in new attitudes, relationships and activities.

forgiveness comes first, and in a public demonstrable way … but it needs to be accepted and

lived out in new attitudes and activities


4  Can everyone be forgiven (in the 'end')?

It's important to be clear about the connection and the distinction between:

  • the aim of forgiving someone,
  • and the pre-condition for forgiving someone. 

We confuse the aim

of forgiveness - a publicly transformed life - with a pre-condition of giving forgiveness

When we introduce the element of power in forgiving, we find ourselves also implying that there is an 'accomplishment', or a 'success' to the process.  These words are understandably not popular in spirituality, so it is probably better to keep to the word aim (which implies but does not state "hitting the target").  The aim of forgiveness is a publicly transformed life, attitudes, relationships, activities.   But these changes are sometimes put up as a pre-condition of giving forgiveness ... and that is what the discussion of unconditional forgiveness really brings to the fore.

James Vanderhoof in California has trained as a yogi and brings a clear, calm vision to some of these concerns.  He writes:

For example, maybe God, Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, Krishna (name your favourite great soul) might be willing to forgive a very sick soul such as Hitler for the immense wrongs that he did while on Earth, but forgiveness is something that requires a relationship between two entities.  If the one to be forgiven does not acknowledge his or her need for forgiveness, and maintains he did nothing wrong, then forgiveness is not possible, no matter how much willingness (good will, compassion, etc.) is there on the part of the being(s) who want to forgive and transform the evil-doer.  Hitler, of course, is an extreme case, and it seems like 55 years after the end of world war II, it is mainly institutions and ideologies - rather than individuals - which have become the prime source of evil and extreme suffering in the world.

Vanderhoof's way of putting this is very clear and helpful.  Forgiveness - if it is to 'take', to produce transformation - needs to awaken a response in the wrongdoer.  If the wrongdoer denies his or her need for forgiveness (see "the unforgivable sin" in the article, The place of anger in enduring love #15), then the forgiveness has not succeeded, except in the internal, passive sense of "At least I feel better towards her now". 

A further point is that asking about a person of extreme power, such as Hitler, helps us to see how much harder most people tend to find forgiving powerful people than forgiving relatively powerless people.  "She should have known better," "He could have done so much good, and instead ... " contrast with, "He didn't really mean to do what he did," "She just didn't know where to turn," etc.  This is a correct reaction - being able to forgive does require a (relatively) high level of power.  And world leaders are so enmeshed in the institutions they serve and promote that it's even harder to 'get to' the real person and hope to evoke a change (see what Augsburger has to say about 'Can we forgive institutions?')

But unfortunately a lot of people then change position, and rather than humbly acknowledging they are not in a position to do much forgiving in this situation, and seeking or hoping that they will be one day (even to be in a position to reform an institution), we tend to make the aim of forgiving - which we are not yet able to contribute to - into a regulation and requirement that the wrongdoer has to meet first.   In other words: "I can't help him, so he has to do it himself."   Whatever else that attitude displays, it is not any kind of forgiveness!


5  Being real about one’s own powers

If someone does not have the power to actively forgive a wrongdoer, and provide transforming new possibilities for him or her, then they will find it harder to believe that the wrongdoer will actually go on to show amendment of life.   The point that power introduces for us is that, if we don’t have the power to release a wrongdoer – i.e. if we don’t have the power to provide unconditional, empowering forgiveness – then we need to be real about that, as we saw that Augsburger does concerning cases of not yet being ready to forgive. 

If we don't have the power to release another person, what we tend to do is offer conditional forgiveness.  Other people – most notably God but including human beings as well – can offer unconditional forgiveness.  It's a mistake to 'theologise' their ability away by saying in abstract that forgiveness can't be unconditional – particularly if doing so is actually in order to justify our own negative feelings towards someone else. 


6  Not making the problem ‘go away’

Now clearly Augsburger does not want to perpetuate that hard-heartedness. Instead, he seems to be anxious that the unconditional forgiver is avoiding the ‘hard work’ of forgiving, which means building a new relationship rather than closing the wrong-doer out of your life.  He says, "in this case my ‘I forgive you’ may mean only ‘I refuse to look again at the injury you have caused.’."  There is a lot that’s right here.  He responds to his interviewer - who comments, "I can remember times when I’ve said 'I forgive you' just to get people to leave me alone." - by saying:

The goal of forgiveness is always to


the sister or brother

Exactly. That’s not the kind of forgiveness Jesus speaks about. The goal of forgiveness is not to make the problem or the person go away. It is always to regain the brother or the sister - at whatever level is appropriate.  It may be just a return to civil community or it may mean a return to intimate relationship but it always means more than just avoiding the pain of the injury.

This probably needs emphasising strongly, since comparatively few people see and know that the goal and aim of forgiveness is not merely the therapeutic one of inner healing, but the much larger one of restoration (see the overall framework at The dimensions of forgiveness ยง6).  Speaking of forgiveness in the Christian tradition, for example, John MacArthur stresses:

Reconciliation is always the goal when we confront someone about a wrong done.  If your confronting aims at punishing the offender, or if it is simply a means of castigation and censure, you are confronting with the wrong aim in mind.    (The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, p 132)

Certainly, to offer ‘unconditional forgiveness’ as a way of getting the sinner out of your life - avoiding confrontation - is massively wrong … and is the normal ‘institutional solution’ which avoids serious talking and examining of what went wrong and why.  This attempt to 'get rid' of the wrongdoer is the same as feeling, "I can't help him, so he has to do it himself." 

But the ‘hard work’ of forgiving isn’t in itself a virtue.  It may be necessary where there is no obvious power difference, and where two parties want to come to some kind of healing and new relationship.  But if one party is in a position to make new things happen, to empower the wrongdoer to make a change in life, then the ‘work’ isn’t needed in the same way.


7  Summary

So rather than talk about an abstract ‘thing’ called unconditional forgiveness, we need to start talking about our own abilities.  Of course there are differences between Jesus’ teaching about God’s forgiveness, which is unconditional and empowering, and human beings’ forgiveness.  Ours should be and become like God’s … but it often isn’t , so he portrays it in different teachings as sometimes conditional on repentance, and sometimes unconditional. 

But the empowering aim of forgiveness is primary in all cases, and when we can only show conditional forgiveness, we do need to acknowledge our own inabilities far more than may be comfortable, and to avoid turning the aim into a legal requirement.



email.gif (20367 bytes)

Send mail to : andrew@forgivenessnet.co.uk
Our site URL is : www.forgivenessnet.co.uk - please let a friend know about it
Last modified  16 April 2005