Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Unpacking Forgiveness

  • Chris Braun Author
  • 2008 4 Dec
Unpacking Forgiveness
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an extract from Unpacking Forgivness by Chris Brauns. (Crossway)

Introduction: The Forgiveness Quiz

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. – Psalm 119:18

The Forgiveness Quiz 

Let’s start with a quiz. I know the idea of a pop quiz may trigger unpleasant memories. But quizzes can serve noble purposes. I hope to accomplish two things with this one. First, it is a discussion starter. You probably will not agree with all my answers. That is okay. General Patton said, “If everybody is thinking alike, somebody isn’t thinking.” Let this pop quiz start some thinking.

The second purpose of this quiz is to anticipate where this book is headed. Think of this forgiveness quiz as an aerial preview. If you are like me and you skip around when you read a nonfiction book, this quiz will help you skip directly to the section of the book that interests you.

See how you do. You should be able to complete this in the time it takes to hum the theme from Jeopardy! You are on the honor system. No looking ahead. For the sake of those around you, hum the Jeopardy! theme softly.

The Forgiveness Quiz—Questions

1. True or False

Where deep wounds between people are concerned, forgiveness can be unpacked in a moment.

2. True or False

Personal happiness and joy can legitimately motivate people to live out what the Bible teaches about forgiveness.

3. True or False

Most Christian pastors and counselors agree about what forgiveness is and how it should take place.

4. True or False

Forgiveness occurs properly only when certain conditions are met.

5. True or False

Jesus said little about how people should resolve interpersonal conflict.

6. True or False

A willingness to forgive is a test of whether or not a person will go to heaven when he or she dies.

7. True or False

Good people get to the bottom of all their disagreements.

8. True or False

There are times when it is wrong to forgive.

Where I Come from as an Author

Before we grade your answers to the Forgiveness Quiz, let me share two things about where I come from in writing this book. First, I write as a pastor involved in people’s lives. I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent working through complex forgiveness questions with people in my churches. On the day I am writing this, I have listened to two different women with broken hearts. I sat across the table and hurt with them and prayed and watched small piles of mascara-and tear-soaked tissues build.

Looking back across the years I can recall images of so many tired, wounded people. I think, for instance, of my friend Deb (not her real name). When I first met Deb, she was grieving the loss of her only son who had died at the age of seven after a long illness. She was devastated.

In the midst of losing her son, Deb discovered that her husband was involved with pornography. His addiction eventually destroyed their marriage, and they were divorced. Soon after, Deb’s former husband was tragically killed in an accident.

Can you imagine? Her son died. Her marriage fell apart. Her former husband died. Consider the emotionally charged, complex forgiveness questions that Deb faced.

  • Should Deb have forgiven her husband even though he was not repentant?
  • How could she know whether he really was repentant?
  • If Deb was able to forgive her husband, would that mean she should not have divorced him?
  • How about after her husband died? Would it be appropriate or easier then for Deb to forgive him?
  • What about her anger and grief over losing her son? No doubt, at points Deb even struggled with anger towards toward God. How should she have handled her anger? Should Deb have forgiven God?

I believe the answer to the last question, “Should Deb have forgiven God?” is an emphatic no! That God should be forgiven implies that God may have done something wrong. Many disagree and would not hold to my negative view of the idea of forgiving God. Arguably, the most influential Christian book written on forgiveness in the last fifty years contends that it is acceptable and even healthy for people to “forgive God.”1 I will have more to say about this in Chapter 5.

You might ask me, how do you have the confidence to disagree with a book written by a well-known Christian authority? Or, how can a pastor help people when, in cases like Deb’s, the wounds are so deep and the questions are so complex? Where is there hope for people who get sick to their stomach when they even begin to think about the abuse they have suffered?

This brings me to the second thing I want to say about my approach to writing this book. And this is the heart of what I have to say: I write with the firm conviction that only God’s Word can unpack forgiveness. When I talk with people like Deb, what gives me confidence is to know that God is there, and he is not silent. He has spoken clearly and sufficiently through his Word. God has given us all that we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness (2 Peter 1:3). And his Word is where we find our knowledge of him. God’s Word can and does unpack forgiveness. It makes wise the simple, giving joy to the heart and light to the eyes. It is more precious than any treasure and sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:7–11).

But Scripture must be understood and applied accurately. I have been careful not to pluck verses out of context or force them into the mold of my position. I do not want to read my own meaning into the text. Rather, my goal has been to listen to the Word.

In emphasizing the authority of God’s Word, I do not mean to imply that I have not learned from others about forgiveness. Quite the opposite has occurred, in fact. A number of books on forgiveness have sharpened my thinking significantly. I also consult multiple commentaries when I study any given Bible passage. My interaction with these other sources will be evident to the reader. The Bible, however, must always have the final say.

In summary, this is a book written by a pastor who is actively involved in people’s lives. And the goal is to shine the light of God’s Word on forgiveness. Only God working in and through his Word can help us unpack forgiveness. The wounds are otherwise too deep, the problems too complex. But God working in and through his Word can answer any question and heal any hurt.

Answers to the Forgiveness Quiz

Here are the answers to the Forgiveness Quiz.

The Forgiveness Quiz—Answers

1. False

Where deep wounds are concerned, forgiveness can be unpacked in a moment.

2. True

Personal happiness and joy can legitimately motivate people to live out what the Bible teaches about forgiveness.

3. False

Most Christian pastors and counselors agree about what forgiveness is and how it should take place.

4. True

Forgiveness occurs properly only when certain conditions are met.

5. False

Jesus said little about how people should resolve interpersonal conflict.

6. True

A willingness to forgive is a test of whether or not a person will go to heaven when he or she dies.

7. False

Good people get to the bottom of all their disagreements.

8. True

There are times when it is wrong to forgive.

Your score?

If you posted a perfect score, don’t celebrate just yet. Be humble. It was true/false after all. You may have just guessed. Keep reading.

At the other end of the grading scale, if you missed several, you could interpret your score in a couple of ways. The truly humble and teachable may say, “Wow, I really need to learn more about forgiveness. I am going to keep reading.” On the other hand, if you are more like me, you will want to debate. So, let me start making my case. These are preliminary explanations for the debaters; and essentially the rest of the book will flesh out these brief thoughts.

Statement #1: Where deep wounds are concerned, forgiveness can be unpacked in a moment. FALSE.

Here is how I define “unpacking forgiveness.”

unpacking forgiveness: (1) To understand biblical truth about forgiveness and the application of that truth to complex problems in life. (2) To unload the burdens we carry because of wounds that we have received from others, and have given to others.

So there are two goals of unpacking forgiveness. The first is to understand biblical teaching. The second is to implement that understanding and to be freed from the burdens that weigh us down.

Neither of these goals is accomplished in a moment. Unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family. While you may move on a particular day, unpacking takes a lot longer. It’s a process. Boxes remain packed for months, years even. My family moved almost two years ago, and we are still unpacking.

But don’t be discouraged by that. While it is true that unpacking forgiveness is a process, with God’s help it is one that you can work through. The key is to get started. If you have been deeply wounded in life, then you cannot afford to leave the boxes stacked somewhere in the basement. With God’s help you need to understand what his Word teaches and how you can find rest and healing by his grace.

Statement #2: Personal happiness and joy can legitimately motivate people to live out what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. TRUE.

Too many people dread learning about forgiveness. They fear they will learn what they ought to do and that what they ought to do will make them miserable. Such a fearful approach is destined to fizzle. We cannot approach a biblical study of forgiveness like we are on our way to get a root canal. If that is where you are at, if you are struggling with a lack of motivation to understand and live what God’s Word teaches about forgiveness, then my prayer is that Chapters 1–2 will be a great encouragement to you.

Statement #3: Most Christian pastors and counselors agree about what forgiveness is and how it should take place. FALSE.

In reality, pastors and counselors disagree profoundly about forgiveness. This is just a fact. Go to a website that sells books, type the words “forgiveness” and “Christian” in the search box, and hit enter. You will get hundreds of titles. If you had the inclination to order ten to fifteen of these books, you would find that views range from East to West, and not only among secular or Christian authors. Even among Christian authors, opinions about forgiveness range from Maine to California.

You might respond, “I have no interest in surveying everyone’s opinion and listening to a technical argument about forgiveness.” I understand. Most of the people I pastor are trying to get their grass cut and their children to baseball practice on time. But you must and actually do believe something about forgiveness. And whether you think about it or not, every day you implement those beliefs about forgiveness.

Your convictions about forgiveness will shape how you respond when your spouse complains about how you seasoned the chicken. Your views about forgiveness may determine how you handle a teenager who rolls her eyes, or how you relate to an abusive parent, or whether or not you go ahead and marry your fiancé, or if you should counsel your friend to leave her husband. You do not have to read every book on forgiveness, but you may have to decide whether or not to change churches because of what the pastor or one of the elders did. The forgiveness choices you make will shape much of your life. For that reason, you must consciously work out what you believe about forgiveness and then intentionally put those beliefs into action.

Of course, that begs the question, how can anyone decide who is right when there are so many conflicting opinions? The answer is that you must consistently evaluate everything against the gold standard of Scripture. Be like the Bereans Luke wrote about in Acts 17:11:

Now [the Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Luke tells us that the Bereans were “more noble” because they were “examining the Scriptures” for themselves. The word translated “examining” was often used in legal settings in the first century. The Bereans judiciously studied the Bible for themselves to see if what Paul said was true.

Be like the Bereans. Resolve that you are going to work out an understanding of forgiveness based on the Word of God. You don’t need my opinion or anyone else’s. You need to hear from God. When you work through your personal beliefs about forgiveness, be thoroughly biblical. Know where the relevant references are in the Bible. When you pick up any book on forgiveness and read it, ask yourself, does this book plainly set forth the teaching of Scripture? How much is it really interacting with the Bible?

This is for sure: if a book on forgiveness is going to be worth your while, it should be dripping with Scripture.

Statement #4: Forgiveness occurs properly only when certain conditions are met. TRUE.

If you answered “false,” you are not alone. Whenever I give this quiz, a number of people give that answer. One author dedicated his book on forgiveness with this phrase: “To God who forgives all.”2 This is an unconditional statement. It says categorically that God forgives all. No exceptions.

Is that how it works? Does God forgive everyone?

Every time I think about that book dedication, I am puzzled. For a while I kept thinking I was missing something. I asked a lot of people, “Is that true? Does God forgive all?”

The answer to that question is decidedly no. Of course, it may feel warm and fuzzy to say that God forgives all, but the reality is that he does not. The Bible is full of true stories about people who were not forgiven.

Here is one such grim story that you know. Before I even remind you of it, let me assure you, I am not making light of this. It is a story of awful judgment.

Picture it. Goliath went out every day and talked trash about God. Nine feet tall, cursing, spitting, taunting, he defied God. But soon enough David pulled off the quintessential upset of all time and took Goliath down with one smooth stone.

At the risk of grossing you out, did you ever meditate on what Scripture says David was lugging around when he debriefed with King Saul after the fight? First Samuel 17:57 reads:

And as soon as David returned from the striking down of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand.

David had Goliath’s head because he had severed it with the giant’s own sword. And now, rather than dropping the violence from the story, Scripture describes how David dragged Goliath’s dripping, discolored, already smelly head around.

After David knocked Goliath down, he did not offer Goliath an ice pack and lean over and whisper, “Goliath, you have really gotten a lot of people upset on the other side of the valley, but we love and forgive you.” No, he hacked off his head and dragged it from the battlefield.

Is that not truly awful? Here is the thing. The story of David and Goliath is not in the Bible so we have an inspiring story for undersized children or so we have something to tell our football teams before they play a highly ranked opponent. Nor is it a model of how we resolve interpersonal differences. God included it in the Bible to show us the reality of his judgment and that he does not forgive all.

The reality of God’s justice is not limited to the Old Testament. Revelation, the last book in the Bible, graphically describes what will happen to those who are not forgiven. In the Gospels, Jesus prophesied weeping and gnashing of teeth for the unforgiven. And John wrote about forgiveness with a condition:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Make no mistake—God does not forgive all. God’s forgiveness is conditional. In Chapters 3–4 I will explain this and why it is eternally important that we each understand what we believe about whether or not forgiveness is conditional.

And forgiveness is not only conditional for God. It should be conditional in our relationships, too. For sure, we must have an attitude of grace or a willingness to forgive all people. We are commanded to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43–48). But complete forgiveness can only take place when there is repentance. I will develop this point in Chapters 3–4.

Statement #5: Jesus said little about how people should resolve interpersonal conflict. FALSE.

Jesus said a great deal about conflict resolution and forgiveness. One whole chapter of the Gospels (Matthew 18) is about Jesus teaching the disciples when they were having a conflict. Chapters 6–10 of this book will be devoted to a study of that chapter. Be encouraged. Jesus had a lot to say about how we work through broken relationships.

Statement #6: A willingness to forgive is a test of whether or not a person will go to heaven when he or she dies. TRUE.

A willingness to forgive is closely connected to how we can be sure that we are going to heaven. Jesus was very clear about this. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14–15)

I will devote all of Chapter 10 to considering the relationship between a willingness to forgive and assurance of salvation. For now, notice two things in these verses. First, Jesus is talking about forgiveness. The word forgive appears four times in two verses. Second, Jesus is putting on the table the threat of eternal judgment or hell. If you have any questions about whether or not God has forgiven you, be sure to read Chapter 3 carefully.

Statement #7: Good people get to the bottom of all their disagreements. FALSE.

If you have been around families or the local church for any length of time, you probably got this one right. There are times when good people simply cannot reach agreement about what went wrong, why someone was offended, who was right and who was wrong.

What are Christians to do when they cannot agree or find closure? Chapter 15 addresses what Christians should do when they come to an impasse.

Statement #8: There are times when it is wrong to forgive. TRUE.

Some argue that it is never wrong to forgive. But this cannot be the case. As I will explain in Chapter 3, God does not forgive the unrepentant. It would be wrong for him to do so because it would go against his own justice and holiness.

Others counter that while there may be times when God does not forgive, people must always forgive. They insist that whenever a wrong is committed, regardless of whether or not the offender is repentant, Christians should automatically forgive the offender. But this teaching is too simplistic. It encourages forgiveness so broadly that it diminishes the justice of God and compromises the integrity of true forgiveness. This is what Dennis Prager pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article:

The bodies of the three teen-age girls shot dead last December by a fellow student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold before some of their schoolmates hung a sign announcing, “We forgive you, Mike!” They were referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the killer.

This immediate and automatic forgiveness is not surprising. Over the past generation, many Christians have adopted the idea that they should forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel and whether or not the evildoer repents.

The number of examples is almost as large as the number of heinous crimes. Last August, for instance, the preacher at a Martha’s Vineyard church service attended by the vacationing President Clinton announced that the duty of all Christians was to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who murdered 168 Americans. “Can each of you look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and forgive him?” the Rev. John Miller asked. “I have, and I invite you to do the same.”

Though I am a Jew, I believe that a vibrant Christianity is essential if America’s moral decline is to be reversed. And despite theological differences, Christianity and Judaism have served as the bedrock of American civilization. And I am appalled and frightened by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.3

This book will interact with Prager’s legitimate concern. It will present the beauty of God’s grace and the necessity of forgiveness. But it will also teach the reader that forgiveness must take place in a way that is consistent with justice. We must move beyond a “feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.” Christians must always have a willingness to forgive or an attitude of forgiveness. But this does not mean that forgiveness always takes place.

Chapters 11–12 will focus entirely on this area. If you have been deeply hurt, and the other person is not sorry about it, read these chapters. If you wonder how Christians should respond to the Holocaust, 9/11, Columbine, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, or Rwanda, then read chapters 11–12. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Although we live in different states now, I recently called up my friend Deb, the lady who went through the loss of a son and a divorce. I wanted her permission to share her story, and I wanted to hear how she is doing. Her story is such a blessing. Deb remarried, and she and her husband have two children. They have a happy, Christ-centered home. I don’t mean that Deb does not have any scars. But she is through the worst of it. I wish I could communicate how much joy it gives my heart to hear how God has blessed Deb.

Even as I share Deb’s joy, I am sure of this: there is no way Deb could have gotten through the trials she faced on her own. Only God and his Word can unpack forgiveness. The questions were too complex for her to untangle on her own. The wounds were too deep.

I am praying for more stories like Deb’s. I pray that the Triune God will be pleased to use this book to help many others unpack forgiveness, not because I have some super-keen insight but because God is pleased to work in and through the clear teaching of his Word. I understand that people will read this book who have been hurt deeply, those whose problems are terribly complicated. But be confident. There is no wound too deep for God to heal; there is no question too complex for him to answer.


1. Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts That We Don’t Deserve (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 111–123.

2. Randall O’Brien, Set Free by Forgiveness: The Way to Peace and Healing (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005). Reading the rest of this book, I assume the author’s intent was to communicate that God is willing to forgive all. But the way this statement was made is potentially misleading.

3. Dennis Prager, “The Sin of Forgiveness,” The Wall Street Journal, December 15, 1997.


Unpacking Forgivness  

Copyright © 2008 by Chris Brauns
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.