In 1984 Lewis Smedes published his popular book, Forgive and Forget, a book which sought to re-shape the Christian understanding of forgiveness. Smedes’ essential point is that forgiveness can happen unilaterally on the part of the offended party. In other words, when we have been hurt by others we do not need to let them know in order to forgive them. Forgiveness, according to Smedes, is primarily about the healing the emotions of the party who was offended. This offense need not necessarily be a sin, as Smedes even encourages Christians to forgive God. In this sense, Smedes has redefined forgiveness to only necessarily include one party—whoever was wronged. This view on forgiveness has been aptly termed therapeutic forgiveness because it is primarily about making the offended party feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, this is still a prominent view of forgiveness in the church today. We are encouraged to forgive so that we can heal internally and move-on with little to no thought about the well-being of the sinning party.
The problem with this view is that it is it ignores the teaching of Scripture about the gravity of sin. Sin, not feelings and emotions, is at the center of biblical forgiveness. Why is this important? It is important because forgiveness of sin is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many Christians have unwittingly accepted the therapeutic view of forgiveness without noticing how contrary it is to the gospel. What would be the consequences if God practiced therapeutic forgiveness with us? The answer is rather alarming.
In Matthew 18:15-20 we have a perfect example of how forgiveness is not primarily therapeutic, but rather how sin is at its center. In verse fifteen we see the beginning of this process of forgiveness, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”Notice the core issue here is the sin which was committed not internal feelings. As a side note, Peter’s question in response to this teaching leaves us with no doubt this discussion is about forgiveness (Matt. 18:21).
Returning to verse fifteen, we see Jesus commands his followers on how they are to practice forgiveness. If one of our brothers sins against us, we are not to unilaterally “forgive” by ridding ourselves of bad feelings; rather, we are called to go to our brother and confront his sin directly. But why must we go, should not the party in the wrong realize their sin and approach us? Why does Jesus command the innocent party to seek out the sinful party? I think there are no fewer than two reasons for this command. First, sin is deceptive. All of us at times deceive ourselves into thinking we have done nothing wrong. We are often blind to our own faults and sin furthers this blindness. Second, even when we know we’ve done something wrong we often refuse to confess and repent because of the shame which accompanies sin. These two reasons are displayed in Adam and Eve in their hiding from God and their blaming others for their actions in the Garden of Eden. The goal Jesus sets for the process of forgiveness is to “gain your brother.” In order for this to happen we must seek them out, not turn inwards.
Yet there is something even bigger going with how Christians are to forgive. The procedure for forgiveness in Matthew 18 is a picture of the gospel. In other words, God is the offended party, and he sought us out. We have all sinned against him, and yet he seeks us out, through his Son, and says, “Repent and believe!” God pursues us in order to restore us and thus gain us back from our sin. This is why Jesus calls Christians to mirror God’s forgiveness in Matthew 18, which Paul echoes in Ephesians 4:32, “Forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you.” Our forgiveness is not to be primarily a self-seeking internal pursuit of therapeutic healing; rather, it is to be a picture of the gospel: two parties coming together to deal with sin.
Ephesians 4:32 clearly calls us to forgive as God does, but this poses an interesting question, “What would happen if God practiced forgiveness as we have twisted it via therapeutic forgiveness?” The answer is rather frightening. For starters, Matthew 18 would not be in the Bible at all. In fact, without biblical forgiveness we would all be going to hell. If forgiveness was primarily about dealing with internal feelings and letting go of those feelings, to the neglect of the sin debt, then God would have just dealt with his “feelings” toward us internally. God the Son would not have come to earth to preach repentance, and he would not have died on the cross for our sins. If forgiveness was primarily therapeutic, we would all still be lost in our sin while God privately dealt with his feelings. Praise be to God that his forgiveness deals with our sin head-on! God, the offended party, took the first steps to seek out restoration. God commands his people to follow suit in how we forgive. When we practice biblical forgiveness, we are practicing the gospel; we are declaring what God has already done for us. Conversely, if we do not practice biblical forgiveness we lose the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Getting forgiveness correct is imperative.