I too was watching the news show when Elie Wiesel, speaking of the Iranian leader, said he should be “excommunicated from humanity.” Wiesel’s words, regardless of how much I’ve learned from him and admire him, struck me as harsh too. You say that you were with a friend and she thought it was wrong for Wiesel to talk like that, and that you thought you agreed with her, but the longer you talked the “more muddled we both got.” Your muddling along got you into a conversation about God’s forgiveness and how we are to be forgiving — and of course you asked if it was forgiving of Wiesel to say that.
Your question, though, is a very tough one: Does God call us to forgive someone whether or not they confess it to be wrong and does seeking justice for an offense have anything to do with forgiveness? Yes, you are right, this has come up on my blog a few times and this really is a part of the emerging conversation.
Let me put this issue in a slightly different way because, as you mention, you’ve heard the whole penal substitution thing is debated at your emerging gathering, the Red Sea. Here’s the question, and it becomes two: If God demands justice before he forgives, is that not simply satisfaction for sins? How is that forgiveness? And, if God demands satisfaction before forgiveness, should we demand satisfaction before we forgive someone?
My answer: No, or at least Not Necessarily or It All Depends.
Here’s how I see it all. God is just — I think we agree on that. God cannot simply “wink” at sin and then move on; it would be an offense to his nature to pretend that something sinful is not bad. God’s grand act of forgiveness is to be found in the cross. But for God to forgive, God had to forgive in a way that was just. This is why Paul says in Romans 3:26 that God was both “just and the justifier of those who had faith in Christ.” So, at the bottom of God’s forgiveness is an act of satisfaction — sin had to be dealt without winking at it and maintaining justice.
Now the good news: God turns to us in grace to forgive us. God does this because of what has happened in Christ. We don’t have to make satisfaction for our sins; Christ has done this. (This is why Protestants don’t have a practice called penitence.
This leads to your second question: yes, we are asked — better yet, commanded — to be forgiving. But, we forgive as Christians because (all) sins have been forgiven in Christ. Now the astounding part that I think makes everything clear: our forgiveness is really nothing more than participating in God’s forgiveness. We are simply extending God’s grace of forgiveness to others. We are not generating forgiveness ourselves.
So, should we forgive without demand, forgive without asking for repentance, or should we pursue justice before we forgive?
Now what if someone came by and stole my snowblower and we figured out who it was. Should I forgive him? Should I just drop the charges without expecting repentance or apology? I surely will approach the situation, regardless of how angry I might be, with the goal of forgiveness and reconciliation as a way of extending God’s forgiveness to others. But, should I just forgive him without repentance?
I don’t think so — at least not always. If the police caught the thief and thought that person needed discipline in order to learn, I might support that. If that person came to me and said, “I’m sorry; what I did was wrong; would you forgive me?” And I would be obligated to forgive him if I really did think he was sorry. Forgiving such a person — I’d like my snowblower back — might awaken in him the grace to see that God’s grace has reached us and can make us different and permits us to witness to a new reality of grace. If I did such a thing, and I sure hope it never happens, I would be both pursuing justice — since his act has been forgiven on the cross in a way that satisfied God — and grace — since I would drop charges and summon him to a new life of honesty.
Matt, this question comes up for me all the time because I’ve been working for years on the doctrine of atonement. I believe God’s act of forgiveness created a new reality for us. And I believe we are called to forgive as a way of extending the forgiveness God has shown to us. But, I must confess, there is so much justice to the Bible’s view of God that thinking of forgiveness on the part of God as nothing more than dropping charges strains what I think the Bible says. God has made forgiveness on our part possible by his own forgiveness. I hope this makes sense.