Unpacking forgiveness

Perhaps the best book I’ve read this year is Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns. I’d like to write a full review for The Briefing. But in case I don’t get round to it, here’s a plug.

Forgiveness is critical for our relationships with God and each other. As the title of his book suggests, Brauns unpacks this important topic from a thoroughly biblical perspective. But the book is also full of powerful (and very moving) modern examples and applications.

Its critical insight is that despite what so many blithely claim, forgiveness is not unconditional! Brauns begins with this simple but profound principle: “God expects believers to forgive others in the way that he forgave them” (p. 44).

For example, Colossians 3:13 speaks of “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (my emphasis). Furthermore, God does not forgive us without our repentance (e.g. Acts 20:21).

Likewise, human forgiveness is not automatic. The key verse here is Luke 17:3: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (NIV, my emphasis). So we do not offer ‘cheap grace’ to people who refuse to acknowledge sin. Of course, we may still act in loving and kind ways towards them, though they be our enemies. Yet we are not obliged to pretend all is okay.

The book is full of practical exploration of the typical questions and issues that come up with this topic. Brauns consistently works towards biblical godliness in relationships, whether or not reconciliation is possible. He’s also been kind enough to reply to a couple of questions I had after reading his book.

SG: Chris, what sort of options would you suggest for teaching on forgiveness—for example, doing a sermon series, a series of mid-week seminars or a church weekend away?

CB: Greetings to our brothers and sisters in Australia! It is such a great source of joy to interact with believers around the world.

I have preached on forgiveness a number of times in different settings, including Africa and the UK. I usually begin with the forgiveness quiz from my book because it outlines the parameters of the discussion. Then if I have about four sessions, I preach selected chapters:

  1. What is the basic principle of forgiveness (Eph 4:32)? (I combine the two chapters on defining forgiveness.)
  2. Should I just get over it (Prov 19:11)?
  3. Should everyone be forgiven? (I usually combine those two chapters.) I focus on Romans 12:17-21.
  4. What if I can’t forgive? (Parable of the unforgiving man in Matthew 18:21-35.)

The length of the series could be expanded to include other chapters if time allows.

SG: What other factors should pastors preparing to teach on this area of forgiveness take into account?

CB: Our goal in preaching about forgiveness must be to point people to the cross and the gospel. If we effectively do so, then our preaching goals with the topic of forgiveness will fall like dominoes. After all, the basic principle of forgiveness must be that we forgive others as God forgave us. If we get the gospel, then we will get forgiveness.

When in doubt, come back to the gospel.

Forgiveness generates a great deal of interest and discussion. In that regard, it is easy to keep interest—especially if you raise questions over some forgiveness sacred cows like, “I should always forgive everyone automatically”. If you raise those questions, then you have the combination of theological interest (just what does the Bible teach about forgiveness?) with personal involvement (how should I interact with my unrepentant stepfather?).

Of course, this is why we must also be careful. I think that younger preachers would want to introduce a series in a less controversial way than older guys. There’s no use getting fired before you finish the series! Perhaps the young preacher would warn early on about two road ditches to avoid:

  1. Avoid the ditch of bitterness and hatred.
  2. But, also avoid the therapeutic ditch that teaches forgiveness is nothing more than a feeling.

Because forgiveness immediately touches deep wounds, much wisdom is needed. Before preaching on forgiveness, we should be prepared to care for listening women who have been abused in some way, or people estranged from their parents. Forgiveness is the most sensitive of areas in so many ways. For that reason, we need to be very sensitive.

SG: Thanks Chris, for blessing us with the fruit of your labour.

(Buy the book. I think it’s even useful to give to interested non-Christians who might be battling with this topic.)

2 thoughts on “Unpacking forgiveness

  1. I’m excited to see that this suitcase has made it to the other side of the world!  May God be glorified as believers from various contintents ‘unpack’.

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