Dale Johnson: This week, once again, I’m joined by Dr. Stuart Scott. Many of you are familiar with Dr. Scott. He teaches in the graduate program of biblical counseling at The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, California. He has over 40 years of experience in counseling and pastoral ministry, and he happens to work here at ACBC on staff as well as our Membership Director. He’s a fellow with ACBC as well. Stuart’s an author and he’s married to his wife, Zondra. They have two grown children and two grandchildren. Dr. Scott, as we talk about this issue of transactional forgiveness, I’m so grateful that you’re here to chat with us about it. It’s so fun that you and I get to chat on a weekly basis most of the time, and it’s so good to just enjoy time sitting down with you. I love moments like this where those folks who are listening out there get to listen in on conversations that we have quite frequently, and this week is no different as we talk about this issue of transactional forgiveness. So, welcome to the podcast. I want to ask you a few questions about it.
Stuart Scott: Thank you, Dale. It’s great to be here.
Dale Johnson: Now, as we start, some people may say, okay, why are you qualifying this issue of forgiveness? Of course, we’re all called to forgive. So I want you to start in this place, Stuart, if you can, what is the difference between unconditional forgiveness and what we’re describing here as transactional forgiveness?
Stuart Scott: You know, when I’m thinking through this whole topic of forgiveness, there are numerous books written on the topic, all taking different positions, but unconditional forgiveness typically means that you have a love for an individual and you just don’t want to have to talk to them about a clear offense that they did, because forgiveness is dealing with sin issues. It’s not dealing with conscience issues and wisdom issues, preference issues, or difference issues. It’s dealing with a clear offense from Scripture, where they have broken God’s law against someone else. The unconditional is just, let it go and move on, and maybe ignore it or overlook it and cover it. It feels really good to do. You feel good about it. It’s very therapeutic, but it doesn’t resolve the offense that took place.
Dale Johnson: Yeah, and the goal, when we think about things like forgiveness, is certainly reconciliation. Some people may hear you describe some of those and think, I don’t really know that I understand the distinction. Maybe a good place to start would be for us to talk about the positives of transactional forgiveness or even the negatives of unconditional forgiveness. Maybe let’s start with some of the objections to transactional forgiveness. What are some of the problems that people see with this issue of transactional forgiveness?
Stuart Scott: Well, when we see the transactional, it just means you go to the person to talk about the offense, and if the person listens and hears and responds, you forgive them. So there’s a transaction and reconciliation there. As Matthew 18 says, as Luke 17 says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” So we see the transaction there in the same way that God does with us. We’re at odds with Him. We’re hostile. We’re unreconciled and we repent and believe in the Lord. He graces us with that and He forgives us.
If you have just unconditional forgiveness, you would probably land in universalism, where everyone would be forgiven by God and no one would go to hell. So you’ve got a whole line of thinking that gets in trouble theologically, but the verse that typically is used as one of the main objections is Mark 11. I’m just going to turn there because this is the one verse that they continually go to, those who believe in unconditional forgiveness. It says, in Mark 11:25, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Well, that does sound like you’re all alone with God and you just drop it. You forgive it. Forgive your brother or sister, whatever that might be, and you’re done. That objection, and that verse, particularly, is an imperative that you keep doing. You keep forgiving when you stand praying. Keep on forgiving. It’s the present active there. When you take one verse and you build a whole theology on it, you can get really into trouble. It sounds like the Holy Spirit is contradicting himself in the Bible. One verse says, you go to your brother and deal with it. This one, well you stand there, pray, and forgive. But if you build a theology on one verse, I would say, go to the verse before and you’ll have trouble with that one too, which says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” So the prosperity gospel—I mean, they just latch on to that verse. We know what the rest of the Scripture says. If you ask according to God’s will, He hears you.
So you have to take all of God’s Word, almost in a systematic approach. You have to bring all of what God says and then fit it together, which could mean that you’ve already dealt with the issue. When you’re praying for your brother, it kind of comes back about what they did to you, and you just have to keep forgiving. I mean, I would look at how all the Scripture fits together rather than its teaching something very different.
Dale Johnson: That’s good. Let’s talk about how to navigate that, because, you know, in counseling we see issues like this quite frequently. You know, conflict comes up, and man, we’re not sure how to navigate the difficulties of this conflict. It becomes very complex very quickly. We know forgiveness is a part of that, so let’s talk. How do we start to help people understand this issue of forgiveness? There seems to be sort of a maze that we navigate. You know, honestly, when people ask me questions like this, I’ll often respond in a couple of ways. I typically will give my position on something and then I will explain to them sort of the landscape so that they understand, biblically, this is how arguments are made for and against where I stand, and this is how arguments are made for and against where other people might stand. So what I want you to do Stuart, is to help us to navigate what seems to be a difficult maze here, relative to the issue of forgiveness.
Stuart Scott: Yeah, I think understanding key doctrines—sin. What sin is. It’s a breach. It’s anti-relational. It separates. If you don’t understand that, that’s going to just have a snowball effect and it just picks up speed and we get into all kinds of trouble then. So we have to understand sin, that there is a breach and separation, and it needs to be dealt with, confessed, and asked for forgiveness. 1 John 1:9—we also see it in Proverbs 28:13—if you cover your sin, you won’t prosper, but if you confess and forsake it, you’ll find mercy. So, understanding sin and what confession and repentance means—confess to God. You confess to the person you have sinned against. What reconciliation means—it’s bringing two people together and the offense has been dealt with, that sin that occurred. That’s really true love. People think if you love, you won’t deal with it, but Proverbs 27:5-6 says open admonishment is better than love carefully concealed and faithful are the wounds of a friend, better than the kisses of an enemy. Then the covering—people think, well, I’ll just cover it and hide it. Well, that’s truly taught in Scripture. I mean, that is a principle in Scripture, but it seems to come after the transaction has happened. Atonement—It was hid after sins were atoned for. David said, when he confessed his sin and he repented, then his sin was forgiven and it was covered. So, I think we move things around to make it easy on us, which is a real problem. The therapeutic unconditional is more about us. It’s not loving your brother or sister, and it’s not really thinking of God’s glory, and how to remedy something for His glory.
Dale Johnson: Well, and that the sin is dealt with, right? Jesus doesn’t just, you know, set our sin aside as if it didn’t happen. He paid for it on the cross in the same way that repentance or seeking forgiveness helps to deal with that sin as well. As you think about this, what I can hear is you’re navigating in your mind how you’re putting the Scripture together theologically, and technically we call that systematic theology. So I want you to talk through that just for a minute. How does systematic theology help us to understand that a transaction in forgiveness is necessary?
Stuart Scott: When you look at systemic, it helps to bring all of the Scriptures together on the teaching of sin—Hamartiology. It will teach all of things about salvation—what’s needed to be saved by repentance and faith in Christ—and then how to be sanctified and grow.
So, when you’re looking at all the passages, that’s what I usually find is missing, it’s all of the passages. They’ll take one verse where Jesus prayed from the cross, you know, His prayer to the Father, “Forgive them.” It seems like it’s unconditional, but it was a prayer request. It wasn’t a pronouncement. He wasn’t just forgiving them. He was praying that they would be forgiven, and 50 days later at Pentecost, many of them were forgiven because they repented. Peter preached to them and said, you must repent. Later on, there were other messages where some of the religious leaders were there and they repented. So that sin was forgiven of crucifying the Son of God. So I think looking at the Matthew 18 passage, if we just unconditionally forgive, why would you ever have church discipline? You wouldn’t. You’d just let things go like it was going on in Corinth, and sin gets in and leaven gets in and then the church is impure and it has factious people. Sin, undealt with, contaminates.
Dale Johnson: Alright, I want to give some pushback. When you describe all of that, sometimes I think what is heard is that we’re leaving out issues of the heart, the attitude toward forgiveness. Well, if you’re talking about transaction in forgiveness, then we’re not talking about heart attitude. Are we responsible in that way? So help to navigate that. Do we help to teach that someone needs to have a heart posture toward forgiveness? I think the Bible certainly indicates that, but help us navigate that and how that works, the heart attitude along with a transaction of forgiveness.
Stuart Scott: Yeah, that’s a great question, because our heart attitude is so important, not only the transaction but the heart attitude behind it. The Bible teaches to forgive as God has forgiven us, full of grace, quickly, and repeatedly. As a matter of fact, we are to be like our Heavenly Father and pursue forgiveness. We’re going after people because we love them. We want this sin, this breach, to be remedied so that we can be in fellowship and restoration. I think what we have come to at ACBC is, we need to have a forgiving spirit. He who was forgiven much loves much. Since we have been forgiven so much by God, we have that posture of, absolutely, we’re willing to forgive. Absolutely, we want it because of what God has done for us and so we seek it. We seek the good of the other person. We seek God’s glory, and in our heart we don’t get bitter because we’re actively loving our brother or sister and going after them. Romans 12:18 says, as much as possible, as depends on you, live at peace with all men. Sometimes the person won’t respond, but you just keep loving them, keep praying for him, and then your heart is just free from bitterness.
Dale Johnson: I think that’s really helpful, Stuart. In the short time that we’ve had today, it’s hard for us to navigate all of the ins and outs, but I’m sure this has peaked folks’ interest. Maybe they didn’t even understand that there was a distinction, Scripturally, as we think about forgiveness in this way. In order to understand how to implement something, you have to have knowledge of the Scripture in it. So as we think about encouraging people to think further, what are some of the books that you would recommend for them to read, to engage in, to learn more about this issue of forgiveness, and in learning more about the Scripture, how they can implement it better?
Stuart Scott: Yeah, I think the first one I read that helped solve some seemingly contradictions from Scripture was Jay Adams’ book, From Forgiven to Forgiving. It has been some years ago, but it was helpful in thinking through some of the big issues like Jesus’ forgiveness from the cross, Stephen, who prayed that the sin would be laid at their feet, kind of at their account, and then the Lord answers the prayer and you have the salvation of Paul. Chris Brauns’ book, Unpacking Forgiveness—He compares the therapeutic, feel good, just forgive everybody and not really deal with the sin, versus, from the heart out, forgive like Christ, deal with the sin for the glory of God. I have really appreciated Chris Brauns’ book, Unpacking Forgiveness.
Dale Johnson: I would encourage those of you who have not read either of the books that Stuart mentioned and you’re looking for CEUs, this would be a great way for you to accomplish some of this work, diving into some of these books and studying this a little bit deeper. Stuart, this has been really helpful, brother. I appreciate you spending time with us, thinking through this. If you’re counseling, listen, you’re going to deal with this issue a thousand times over. So, you need to understand clearly how you think about this through the Scriptures in order to encourage people to seek proper reconciliation and forgiveness.
Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds by Chris Brauns
From Forgiven to Forgiving: Learning to Forgive One Another God’s Way by Jay Adams