Limits to Forgiveness?

Can God forgive anything? Will God forgive anything?

In a class I recently taught, we were doing a discussion board that moved toward a consideration of repentance and forgiveness. I was scheduled to give a presentation on the Bible’s teaching about divorce that week, and when I mentioned this, it brought forth a range of responses and opinions. One of the students shared a ministry experience with me (privately) that has haunted me ever since. Let me paraphrase it. This man, a pastor, was invited to have meeting at a coffee house. At this meeting, his friend told him quickly that he had decided to leave his wife, file for divorce, and move in with his new girlfriend. He explained this situation to the pastor and then asked, “Can God forgive me for this?”

What a question! My pastor/student responded (somewhat reluctantly), “You know that God can forgive anything.” But it was a very uncomfortable moment. This man was very aware that he was doing a bad thing, a thing that the Bible did not condone, a thing that a Christian should not do, but his decision was made. He seemed to be planning his escape from God’s disfavor.

How have we come to this point? I do not believe that divorce is an unforgivable sin, but I have trouble understanding this man’s thinking. Forgiveness is based on repentance. Forgiveness is based on our willingness to forgive. What had this man’s wife done that could not be forgiven? And was repentance a scheduled event in his plan: infidelity, divorce, personal happiness, repentance, forgiveness, place in heaven? I don’t get it.

This reminds me of my reading of Michel Foucault, the Frenchman who was one of the most formidable and influential of the postmodern thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s. Although the postmodern philosophers are often accused of being without ethics, Foucault taught that the greatest of virtues was “care of self.” This seems like an Ayn Randian celebration of the virtue of selfishness and abandonment of any sense of altruism or concern for others. This cannot be according to the will of Christ our Lord.

It is not my purpose here to beat up on divorced persons. A failed marriage is a tragic thing and the reasons for divorce can be complex. But this man seems to take the grace of God for granted. Remember when Paul asked rhetorically, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” He does not answer this with a simple “Yes” or “No.” He thunders, “May it never be!” (Romans 6:1) In other words, “Don’t even ask that question!”

May God give wisdom and patience to pastors like my student who are called to give guidance in these situations. May the church never abandon a commitment to strong marriages. And, may pre-planned repentance and forgiveness never be acceptable to those who love the Lord and his people.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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