By now everyone has probably heard the "You may be a redneck if. . ." jokes and their spin-offs. Someone could probably produce a round of "You know religion is in trouble when. . ." jokes if they thought about it very long. The purpose of this article is to do just that with one subject, but it is not really humorous: "You know that religion is in trouble when the secular media must remind those claiming to be Christians of what the Bible teaches."

Apparently the push for tolerance and understanding in society has caused people to be so cautious that they are now demanding no accountability whatsoever of transgressors (even murderers) and furthermore are ready to forgive anyone of anything, no matter how heinous. The problem is brought to light in the March issue of Reader's Digest in an article entitled "When Forgiveness Is a Sin" by Dennis Prager. This message, which first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, is a vital one needed today. Prager begins with a factual summary:

The bodies of the three teenage girls shot dead last December by a fellow student in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold before some of their schoolmates hung a sign announcing, "We forgive you, Mike!" They were referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the killer (37).

How gracious. How understanding. How preposterous! Has there been any remorse, any repentance? "Mike" has scarcely been booked, let alone tried or convicted. What is behind the eagerness to forgive him? Are we trying to show how broad-minded and noble we are? This is tolerance gone to seed.

Society has needed (and still does) racial tolerance. People ought not to be judged (either favorably or unfavorably) on the basis of race, nationality, gender, or social status. It is a positive step when we can be civil even to those whose ideas are radically different from our own. But now it would appear that these ideas are being extended toward those who have violated laws which are common to all societies.

When anyone violates our nation's laws, he loses certain civil privileges. He also loses the right to be treated with tolerance and understanding. When Cain killed his brother, God did not say, "I understand and forgive you, Cain. And although I would not have personally responded the way you did, I respect your thinking on this subject." One's thoughts will be judged by God alone, but one's actions must be judged by society.

Or has not being "judgmental" been so emphasized that we cannot even have a reasonable trial to determine guilt any more? Perhaps it is time to render righteous judgments once again (John 7:24). It is not time to be forgiving in the midst of the aftermath of a senseless crime; it is a time for justice.

After describing the school shooting, Prager cites another example of over-tolerance--a "preacher" who invited everyone to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and forgive him (37-38). His bomb resulted in the deaths of 168 (the number of hours in a week) Americans. McVeigh doesn't need my forgiveness. As Prager wrote: "You and I have no right, religiously or morally, to forgive Timothy McVeigh or Michael Carneal; only those they sinned against have that right.

In a broad sense, McVeigh and Carneal have sinned against us all--if we follow John Donne's "No man is an island" philosophy. After all, McVeigh intended to kill anyone who was in that building, and I am "anyone." "Anyone" might have been my father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter. In that sense I take it personally and am not particularly in a forgiving mood.

But Prager is right that the immediate families are the ones who are most directly involved, and the last thing they probably need to see in the midst of their grief is some over-tolerant do-gooder offering forgiveness while they are still reeling from the tragedy.

Have Americans become so gutless that we just cannot stand to make even criminals accountable for their actions? [18% fewer Texans than five years ago support the death penalty.] Is "forgiveness" our way of tidying up unpleasant events so that we can put them out of our minds and get on to our next party? Is it selfishness that prompts us to forget victims?

Prager's observations make a great deal of sense:

And I am appalled and frightened by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.

This doctrine advances the amoral notion that no matter how much you hurt others, millions of your fellow-citizens will forgive you.

If we are automatically forgiven no matter what we do, why repent (38)?

Prager is Jewish, but he seems to possess a better comprehension of the New Testament than many so-called "Christians" have.

The Basis for Forgiveness

"Even by God," Prager writes, "forgiveness is contingent upon the sinner repenting. . ." (38). When King David, for example, sinned, it caused him great anguish and grief--because he had not repented of it. Psalm 51 shows the anguish of mind he endured while separated spiritually from God. Did God forgive him? Yes, WHEN he repented and confessed his sin.

Christians are told to do the exact same thing under the new covenant. Simon was told to repent of the thought of his heart (Acts 8:22), and in 1 John the apostle reminds us all: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

Forgiveness is not automatically received from God. There must be genuine repentance, not merely the desire to escape the consequences of one's actions. God did not allow even David's sincere repentance to keep him from being punished. He suffered greatly for his choice to sin (2 Samuel 13-20).

Nor can we forgive one another without evidence of sorrow and a change of behavior. In the illustration Jesus used of a brother sinning against a brother seven times in one day, he was to be forgiven WHEN he said, "I repent" (Luke 17:3-4; 3:7-9).

Billy Graham's Eagerness

Newspaper columnist Cal Thomas wrote an article about Billy Graham, which appeared in the Denton Record-Chronicle on March 13th. Thomas begins:

Evangelist Billy Graham told "Today Show" viewers last week that he forgives President Clinton because "I know the frailty of human nature. . . . He has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him" (10A).

Thomas is very perceptive in asking, "So what exactly is Graham forgiving the President?" (10A). The President has denied all allegations of any wrongdoing. If he is innocent, he does not need forgiveness; if he is guilty, he would not only be guilty of sexual misconduct, but of lying about it to the American people, since he denied it emphatically just a few days ago. Judging from Graham's remark about human frailty, he must think the President is guilty.

But why then is Graham in such a hurry to forgive him (if his assumptions are right)? When Nathan confronted David, the king did not say, "I never had a sexual relationship with that woman, Mrs. Uriah." Can anyone imagine God replying through Nathan, "I recognize that you are a frail human being, David, and I have put away your sin (even though you deny having committed it)"?

There is a second problem with Graham's willingness to forgive; he actually seeks to excuse the President (apparently assuming he is guilty) by portraying him as a frail human being with a dynamic personality that women cannot help throwing themselves at. Even if such an opinion of the President's charm were true (and many women deny that it is so), how Biblical is it to excuse someone for sin?

Neither Jesus nor the Father excused Judas' behavior as a matter of human frailty: "Poor Judas: he just can't turn down money." Paul did not write of the man living with his father's wife in Corinth: "He is such a dynamic personality that even married women go wild over him; he's just a frail human being; forgive him." Paul did ask them to forgive him WHEN he repented and quit participating in the sin (2 Cor. 2:6-11).

Cal Thomas writes the truth when he says: "On a theological level, surely Graham knows that only God can forgive sins and that forgiveness does not precede acknowledgment of wrongdoing and repentance" (10A). How embarrassing for a newspaper columnist to have to teach the world's leading evangelist (by the world's standards, not God's) what the Bible teaches!

Jesus' Forgiveness on the Cross

A number of Scriptures could be examined to support Thomas' observation. Jesus said, "Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). Why? God does not forgive unless people are willing to acknowledge that their behavior is sinful and give up the sin. As long as a person or a nation persists in the sin, God will not forgive. Have we never learned the lesson of His allowing His own people to be taken into captivity? Does God's destroying the ungodly people of Noah's day with a flood fail to convince us that it is wrong to think that God will forgive us no matter what?

Many seem to have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16) and that sin separates mankind from Him (Isaiah 59:1-2). To cleanse us of our sins there are two essential ingredients: 1) the death of Jesus on the cross for our sins, and 2) our repentance of sin which prompts us to be buried with Christ in baptism to meet His blood and have our sins washed away (Rom. 6:3-5).

Where does the Bible teach that God forgives in the absence of repentance? Someone might answer, "Luke 23:34," which records Jesus' first communication from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." However, there are three points about this plea which must not be overlooked.

The first is that, since Jesus was the One Who had been wronged, He could legitimately ask forgiveness for His crucifiers. This situation differs greatly from the forgiveness offered to the murderer of the high school girls. A parallel to that would have been for the apostles to have tacked up a banner on the temple, saying, "We forgive you, Judas" or "We forgive you, Caiaphas." Jesus is the only One who could rightfully forgive, since the crime was against Him.

The second point is to be made in the form of a question: "Whom was Jesus forgiving?" Was He forgiving the soldiers who were following orders? Was He forgiving those who had been duped into yelling, "Crucify Him, Crucify Him"? Or was He forgiving the Jewish leaders who (due to their intense hatred) had sought to kill Him on a number of occasions?

Third, was this forgiveness automatic? Or did they first need to repent? The multitude had told Pilate, "His blood be upon us and our children" (Matt. 27:25). Historian Josephus describes how the Romans shed the blood of the Jews still remaining in Jerusalem. Apparently, tragically, they received what they asked for.

On the other hand, there were many Jews who obeyed the gospel on the day of Pentecost; they were forgiven of their sins when they were baptized (Acts 2:38-41). Some had clamored for Jesus' death (Acts 2: 23,36).

Their blood was not shed in the streets of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 because they had fled the city. The difference between those who repented and those who did not was the difference between those whose blood was shed and those who survived.

God always requires repentance before He grants forgiveness. It is a shame that those purporting to be Christians need to be reminded of these facts--and that by journalists.

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