Why God’s forgiveness might not really be unconditional.

It was the first time I noticed how tears can trickle into your ears when you’re lying on your back. 

I’d been let down, again, and it hurt. I didn’t know what to do but lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling, and puzzle at the way salty water could roll down my face without my permission. I’d forgiven before. I had no doubt that it was what I had to do. I just felt like there should be some kind of guarantee along with it. Forgive, and you won’t get hurt again. Forgive, and it will be appreciated. 

Water droplet on a twig

But when I tired of drawing patterns on the ceiling with my eyes, I rolled over, reached for my Bible, and found those verses again.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.
Bear with one another, and forgive one another if anyone has a grievance against someone.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 

I felt very strongly about it, all of a sudden. I knew forgiveness was a choice I’d have to make each and every time someone let me down, even if it was the same person again and again. And I decided there and then that I would try my very best to make that choice every time the situation required it. I knew forgiveness always was the best thing, for me and for the person who hurt me. I knew it was the only way relationships could be restored and maintained. I knew it was the way I would most experience God’s closeness and strength and comfort. It was what God asked of me and I was determined to commit myself to forgiveness, however painful and costly it might become.

But in the midst of that decision, something bothered me. Why wasn’t God so committed to forgiveness?

Forgive as the Lord forgave you, says the Bible. Which, I thought, was all very well when it was me reading it. God had forgiven me. My whole life was based on that very fact. I thanked God for it every morning and every night and usually a few times in between. I relied on it when I screwed up, I sang about it in church, I doodled lyrics and poems about it all over my school books. That was the heart of the gospel: I’d come to God as a sinner, broken and needing forgiveness. He’d welcomed me with open arms, and forgiven me because of Jesus’ death on the cross. And he would forgive me every single time.

But I had to ask. I was forgiven because I’d confessed my sin to God and asked him to forgive me. Yes, while we were still sinners Christ died for us, but to gain that forgiveness myself, I had to repent and ask for it. 

And there was no forgiveness for those who died having never repented. That was why we needed to warn everyone.

So why was I asked to forgive totally unconditionally, whether or not the person who hurt me said sorry, or even felt sorry? Why did God require ‘true repentance that shows itself in changed actions’ in order to forgive, but I had to forgive even when there was no sign of changed actions at all? Why was God’s unconditional forgiveness only unconditional for some, and mine had to be absolutely unconditional, for everyone? 

My 15 year old self didn’t come up with an answer that night. It was enough for me to know that whatever I might have to forgive in the years to come, God would have forgiven something bigger and harder. He’d never not know. He’d never not understand. But every time I explained the gospel to someone, and told them total forgiveness was on offer from God if they’d only accept it, the question came back. Why was it conditional on their acceptance? Why wouldn’t God forgive as he asked us to?

These days I’m more inclined to think he does. He must. It’s what I meant when I said ‘There’s an instinct in me that says I can’t overestimate the mercy of God.’

But I’m curious to know if anyone else has wrestled with that question, and if you came up with an answer. Does God require us to do something he won’t do himself? And if so… why?



About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
This entry was posted in Evangelicalism, My life and faith, Recent posts, Salvation, heaven and hell and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why God’s forgiveness might not really be unconditional.

  1. It is an interesting perspective. One I don’t think I’ve thought about. I know His forgiveness is unconditional and complete… but it does say we have to come to Him for it doesn’t it? It’s something to ponder I suppose.

  2. Pingback: Relationships: Some Practical Advice About How A Right Response Can Keep Things Balanced | Social Behavioral Patterns--How to Understand Culture and Behaviors

  3. Peter Hardy says:

    I have wrestled with this quite a bit myself. My initial conclusion was that if Jesus, the Word of God, is the revelation of the truth about forgiveness to us -not just in his teaching but also in the performative act of His prayer as we kill Him: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”- then God is all-forgiving and doesn’t require His forgiveness be accepted with penitence.

    When it comes to eschatology, however, I think that God’s forgiveness is necessary but not sufficient for salvation. God may forgive a soul, but He cannot infringe their freedom by saving them if they don’t want to be saved.

    • Claire says:

      That’s really interesting, thanks Peter. Perhaps the tendency of evangelical preaching to focus on ‘Come to Jesus, so you can be forgiven’ is a little misguided then? Perhaps the heart of the gospel isn’t being forgiven, but something else? What might salvation mean if it’s not all about forgiveness, and what might be necessary to gain it?

      • Peter Hardy says:

        Thanks Claire, I will not address the implications of this on what ‘the heart of the gospel’ might be, but I will answer your question: ‘What might salvation mean if it’s not all about forgiveness, and what might be necessary to gain it?’

        There must be authentic conversion of the self, letting go of ego, and real (not just symbolic) integration into the life of Christ’s body. In a word, Divinisation, or what the Eastern Orthodox tradition calls ‘Theosis’.

        Now, I think a lot of Christians would object to this idea of becoming ‘part’ of God, especially as it may sound like more of a Hindu, Buddhist, or ‘New Age’ notion. Admittedly, I personally also consider myself a Hindu, but I strongly deny that this idea of salvation is incompatible with mainstream Christianity.

        Firstly, there are, of course, mystics in every religion -even Islam- who take divinisation as our goal, and in Christianity this is particularly well represented in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions (a Protestant example might be George Fox). Secondly, one meaning of the term atonement, ‘at-one-ment’, is being one with God. Thirdly, it is Biblical. Consider: John 17:21, Gal 2:20, 2 Peter 1:4, and, less directly, Matt 5:48.

        One way the gospel differs from Buddhism and New Age ideas, however, is that this purifying work is not ultimately up to ourselves, but is supported and made possible by the transformative grace of God.

        (P.S. If if interests you, I’m another young British person very passionate about development work. I’m rather progressive Roman Catholic.)

      • Claire,
        I don’t think the Gospel is just about forgiveness, though that is one of its beautiful characteristics. There is also redemption and adoption and imputation. The Gospel is glorious and so much fuller than we Evangelicals give it credit for a lot of the time.

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