Slideshow image

Love and forgiveness are often confused with each other. The confusion results in loss. 

The accompanying photo illustrates this confusion. Substituting a wrench for a hammer, or vice versa, is misunderstanding their real functions. That misunderstanding means losing the effectiveness of both.


Her declaration was well-meaning: "You must always forgive, even when the offender doesn't acknowledge the wrong!"

She added a challenge: "Can you give me one example from the Bible in which God does not forgive?"

"Well, yes. There are numerous instances in which God does not, or will not, forgive."

One of many examples is Lamentations 3:42:

We have sinned and rebelled and you [God] have not forgiven.

Click here to view numerous statements, both Old and New Testaments, in which wrongs are not forgiven. 

God always loves; God does not always forgive.


Distinguishing love and forgiveness

In the previous post, God is presented as our model for forgiveness. He is also our model for love. Let's briefly consider how God loves and forgives.

"God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is embedded in the character of God; love is part of who he is. God loves everyone without condition; he loves you no matter what. 

Forgiveness is an action God does, or does not, do. To be forgiven is to engage in God's process for rebuilding a damaged or broken relationship. We can choose, or not choose, to engage in the process of forgiveness. 

God's love and forgiveness are contained in a text such as John 3:16 (NIV):

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

God loves the world without condition. Whether people are male or female; black or white; rich or poor; good or evil; it does not matter. God loves everyone no matter who they are, or what they have done.

Implicit in "eternal life" is the forgiveness of sins (Romans 5:21; 6:22-23; 1 Timothy 1:16). Receiving eternal life has a condition: "whoever believes."

How did God in Christ forgive those who are Christians (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13)? Elsewhere we read, "I have declared to both Jews and Gentiles that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21). 

From these few texts, we realize that forgiveness is conditional. The process of rebuilding a damaged or broken relationship requires the participation of both parties. On the offender's side, the offence needs to be "owned," acknowledged, or admitted. More on this in future posts.


Danger of confusion

There is a danger in confusing love and forgiveness.

If we examine more closely those instances when God does not forgive, it is when the offender, wrong-doer, or sinner, does not, or will not, acknowledge the offence, wrong, or sin. When there is no acknowledgement of the offence, forgiveness cannot happen.

God always loves; God does not always forgive.

Put another way, if the offence that damaged or broke a relationship remains unacknowledged, the fractured relationship cannot be rebuilt. In such circumstances, "I love you" is an expression of the character of God. Whereas, "You are forgiven" is a sham.

To confuse love and forgiveness is to reduce, even lose, both. 


The future for forgiveness 

The distinctions, and the connections, between love and forgiveness need to be re-explored and re-claimed. 

For the purposes of this post, it is enough to raise the issue. We are muddling love and forgiveness to the extent that we are losing both. In many ways, we are in danger of no longer understanding and practicing either forgiveness or love.

The challenge is to be willing to listen afresh, and to live lives that actually embody both.

What do you have to add?

PREVIOUS              NEXT


Photo via Visual Hunt

Click "yes" to receive resource-rich newsletters.

Helpful resources provided to 'living theology' subscribers.


Want to follow Jesus more closely?

Get your FREE copy of "Listening Well to Matthew."