The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds”

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Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds by Chris Brauns

Crossway, 2008 (235pp, pbk)

“I am sorry.”

Sorrow is not repentance, and it does not readily promote forgiveness.  Have you sinned against God?  Then I am also sorry.  Did you sin against me?  If so, I am sorry again.  But what are you going to do about it?  Too often we address sin with vagueness and uncertainty: “I am so sorry if I have offended you in any way.”  It is not ungracious to say, in effect, “Yes, brother, you have offended me, and you have done so by sinning in the following specific way.”  That opens the door for more than mere regret; it opens the door for repentance and ultimately resolution by means of genuine forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a vital cog in the machine of a Christian’s world.  It is a fundamental aspect of his relationship to God, a critical element of his other relationships (perhaps most significantly to his brothers and sisters in Christ), and a clearly-stated facet of his life of godliness: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you” (Eph 4.32).

The implication of this title is that forgiveness too often remains packed – tucked away, neither opened nor explored nor enjoyed, either in our own relationship with God, nor in our relationships with others.  Unforgiven sins become baggage with which we are loaded down.  Perhaps we fear engagement in the acts of seeking, extending, and receiving forgiveness, seeking to avoid the cost and weight of entertaining such a disposition or entering into such a transaction.

Unpacking Forgiveness (Brauns)And – make no mistake – forgiveness is both costly and weighty.  We have become accustomed to hearing many sincere people – often professing Christians – declare in the face of all manner of atrocities that they forgive the perpetrators any degree and number of crimes.  There is no transaction, merely declaration.  Others indulge in a therapeutic forgiveness that has to do more with how we feel about reality rather than with reality itself.  It cheapens grace and does not restore broken relationships.  So what does it mean to forgive and be forgiven?

In this book, Chris Brauns unpacks a definition of forgiveness that makes God’s dealings with us the model for our dealings with others.  The author begins with the gospel, and then sets out the divine pattern before applying both to the Christian reader.  Divine forgiveness is “a commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences” and so the Christian’s forgiveness is “a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.”  As is immediately evident, he makes forgiveness an act by the offended party (who is disposed to forgive) conditional upon the repentance of the offending party.  If your instinct is to worry at some of these words and phrases, you should read the book to consider some of the nuances of meaning and context that Braun introduces to the discussion.

Common misconceptions are addressed and common questions (e.g. concerning the prayers of our Lord on the cross and Stephen at his stoning) are answered.  The need to forgive and to be forgiven is urged, and practical counsel given as to how we might go about extending forgiveness to others.  An unforgiving spirit and a bitter attitude are both addressed, as are the matters of dealing with the unrepentant and the difficulty of long memories and painful recollections.

Speaking of pain, Brauns is not afraid to bring in examples that are harrowing to read.  The nature of the illustrations serves the points that are being made, not least by driving home the gulf that a forgiving spirit is ready and willing to cross.  At the same time, certain examples are unpleasant, and some might feel that their use constitutes overkill.  The same point could be made with less extreme examples, and perhaps with a little less detail.  There is a danger of inviting readers to indulge in “forgiveness voyeurism” where the grossness of the sins forgiven becomes more interesting than the matter of forgiveness itself.

In addition, one wonders what perspective lies behind one or two phrases that grate on the ear; perhaps further explanation or more careful wording would help.  There are also weaker sections of the book where the writing comes across as a little light.  Again, there may be foundations to the assertions made, but they are too well hidden to support the tone.

However, it is the conditionality of forgiveness that will offend many: the assertion that God’s forgiveness (and ours after it) is gracious but not free, being dependent on repentance in the offender.  I think that Brauns makes a Scripturally-solid case for his conviction, and to some extent this book shifts the onus on to those who assert an unconditional forgiveness to demonstrate flaws in Brauns’ case and defend their own.

That said, this is a fairly brief, practical and popular treatment of the issue.  There are depths that could be explored which are bypassed; there are questions raised (for example, in the mapping of human forgiveness over the divine pattern) that do not get addressed in the course of the book.  If faith figures in the conditionality of divine forgiveness, why not (or how) in human forgiveness?  Where or how does the sovereign granting of faith and repentance in divine forgiveness figure (or not) in the human model?  What more could be said about the consequences of sin even where forgiveness of sin is absolute?

The fundamental premise of this book is sound; its aim is right and profitable; its honesty is necessary and its straightforwardness helpful.  The lessons of this book would be well heard by many.  I can think immediately of several people whose spiritual health might be immediately improved by reading and responding in righteousness to this book.  I am one of them.

Though the reader might wish for a little more here and there, this is a book that most saints wishing to deal with their own sins and the sins of others, desiring to emulate God in Christ more closely, and looking or needing to ditch the baggage of unforgiven sin, will find exceedingly useful.  It calls us to plant the cross firmly in the centre of our dealings with others, and so to honour the God who has done precisely the same with us.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 20 August 2009 at 13:41

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with , ,

4 Responses

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  1. I am thankful for your balanced interaction with U.F. I appreciate the recommendation, but also the constructive criticism.

    I found deciding how to illustrate points, and how much, one of the greater challenges in preaching and writing. It is good to be warned about the road ditch of illustrative voyeurism. Wherever we draw the line, those who preach and teach need to be conscious of it.


    Monday 24 August 2009 at 22:56

    • Hello, Chris – thank you very much for dropping by, and for your very gracious spirit in hearing and being willing to respond to my thoughts and opinions. It is easy to forget that I am writing reviews of books written by real people, and always good to be reminded that the real people who read those books might even bother reading and responding to my words (unless they are already with Jesus, in which case they are beyond bothering!). I hope to engage with your post and its commenters, not least because I do appreciate the difficulty of finding the right balance in illustration, not least as a preacher. I also recognise that Paul used himself as the extreme example in order to make plain that anything less than his sin would be covered by the blood of Christ – not a bad model to follow! So thank you for hearing a note of caution in a tune of gratitude, and may God bless you and your work (including your book) in helping the people of God to be conformed to Christ Jesus.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 25 August 2009 at 07:49

      • Jeremy, what is a particular blessing in God’s providence is that even in the time frame when I read your review, someone gave me feedback about my preaching that also had the same stress. Together, they were a nice ornament of gold (Prov 25:12).

        Can you believe the world in which we live, where we can correspond and benefit one another from such great distances. I’m preparing to preach in the Fall on Romans, and I keep thinking about what Paul would have thought if you could have told him that Spain would only be a Skype away.

        Again, I think your review is excellent. I’m tempted to say, “thanks,” but then you didn’t do it for me, but for the Body, so I’ll say that I’m thankful for it. Let’s press on for Christ – – planting the Cross in the center of all that we do.


        Tuesday 25 August 2009 at 15:59

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