Forgiveness is a foundational spiritual building block in the Christian faith, both in relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ, and in every human experience and relationship Christ gives and guides us through in life. It is a basic truth that believers constantly need to revisit and evaluate in our hearts and practice. Worshipping Christ for who He is and what He has done requires an increasingly thorough understanding of biblical forgiveness—both His forgiveness that we receive and the forgiveness we extend to others.
In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns guides the reader through the source, motivation, and application of forgiveness. He acknowledges and wrestles through many “complex questions and deep wounds” (15) that accompany the grief and brokenness that sin brings in our own souls and the painful aftermath of sins committed against us. The book includes an initial “forgiveness quiz” to help the reader analyze their current understanding and each chapter has questions for discussion and reflection. Brauns delivers on his proposed standard that, “if a book on forgiveness is going to be worth your while, it should be dripping with Scripture.” (19)
Brauns progresses through the development of a biblical understanding of forgiveness, from the top down, layer-by-layer. His sensitivity to the difficulty of this topic is evident in his style and organization. Brauns’ approach helps the reader stay grounded while dealing with the significance of each aspect. His frequent reviews help orient each aspect in the overall trajectory. This enables the reader to reflect on personal situations while applying Scripture layer-by-layer in a hope-filled, goal-oriented manner. Brauns anticipates and answers many questions and concerns raised from real-life examples. He then helps the reader develop a biblical view and practical application of forgiveness in those extreme but very real scenarios.
Two areas that are handled remarkably well in this book are 1) the definition and development of conditional forgiveness vs. therapeutic forgiveness, and 2) an exposition of Christ’s teaching on conflict resolution throughout the entire chapter of Matthew 18.
Conditional forgiveness comes from Scripture’s description of God’s forgiveness of sinners through Christ’s costly sacrifice. Brauns defines forgiveness as “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.” (55)
Brauns categorizes a “therapeutic forgiveness” as one that targets personal peace and freedom from bitterness by forgiving any and all offenses automatically and unconditionally. This disregards truth and justice and applies “cheap grace” to the offender. Therapeutic forgiveness is sometimes used to suggest that we need to “forgive God” to improve how we feel. This is a popular approach to forgiveness in our culture yet has detrimental ramifications in theology and practice. Brauns contrasts conditional forgiveness with therapeutic forgiveness in a gracious and helpful way.
The second highlight is Brauns’ thorough examination and application of Matthew 18, which highlights:
• The role of humility in pursuing forgiveness
• The urgency of dealing with sin in ourselves and others
• The manner and approach of covering or confronting sin
• The eternal significance of obeying Christ in conflicts
Other key concepts addressed in this book include responding to unrepentant offenders, dealing with personal unwillingness to forgive, and conquering bitterness. Forgiveness transactions in this life have the hopeful expectation of reconciliation and restoration both now and forever. The reader is encouraged to pursue God’s will on earth with great hope—not demanding or expecting the outcome to look a particular way—entrusting each situation to Christ’s sovereignty.
1. The forgiveness choices you make will shape much of your life. For that reason, you must consciously work out what you believe about forgiveness and then intentionally put those beliefs into action. (18)
2. Unpacking forgiveness requires so much determination because it is an emotionally charged topic… [and] it is so intellectually demanding. (36)
3. Forgiveness is a practical area of living. But how we live forgiveness out must rest on what we believe theologically. (36)
4. Consequences are important for the sake of justice. A willingness to accept consequences for sinful behavior is actually good evidence that the offender truly is repentant. (58)
5. We should love one another with the same level of risk-taking urgency that we would demonstrate in the face of some great crisis. Those who are willing to continue conflicts even at the expense of a negative impact on others should fear for their souls. (93)
6. Bitterness begins when we have been treated unfairly. But if we believe that God will accomplish justice and simultaneously confident that God is working all things for our good, if that is our center, we will beat the stuffings out of bitterness every time. (158)