Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Prager and Koukl on Whether It's Always Right to Forgive

While in the car yesterday, I caught a few minutes of the Dennis Prager Show. His guest host, Mark Taylor, a self-professed Christian, was talking about whether or not we should forgive those who commit heinous crimes. He was reacting to the situation that has now become commonplace: a tragedy brought about by moral sin happens, and the local pastor urges those in the community to forgive the perpetrator—who has not yet shown any sign of remorse or repentance.

I’ve thought about this and related issues in the past, and my tentative proposals have been met with skepticism by godly friends. So I planned to investigate what the Bible says about “horizontal forgiveness” (human-to-human) to try to settle the issue once and for all.

This morning I discovered that Prager—probably the most thoughtful, philosophical voice on the radio today—published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled When Forgiveness Is a Sin (1998). Prager, who is Jewish, once had confidence that evangelicals would be the leaders of a moral renaissance in America. But his confidence has been shaken after observing that “many Christians have adopted the idea that they should forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel and whether or not the evildoer repents.”

Prager offers three arguments for his view: (1) only the one who is wronged is in a position to forgive; (2) Jesus taught that only those who repent are in a position to be forgiven; (3) it is selfish to offer forgiveness only because of the psychological advantages it brings to oneself.

Soon after, evangelical apologist Greg Koukl wrote a commentary on the issue, entitled The Sin of Forgiveness? examining Prager’s arguments. Koukl agreed with Prager in the main, though he wanted to add some qualifications to Prager’s three arguments:

1) There is a sense in which it is self-evident that only the offended can forgive—but we must also remember that sin is ultimately a sin against God (cf. Ps. 51:4), and that the ramifications of sin never affect and offend only one person. For example, the parents of a murder victim have also been sinned against.

2) Prager quotes Luke 17:3-4 where Jesus teaches that if someone repents of his sin against you, you must forgive him. While other verses don’t explicitly add repentance as a precondition for forgiveness, Koukl thinks that Luke 17 qualifies the other passages.

3) Prager thinks that many of the public statements of forgiveness are “selfishness masquerading as idealism”—declarations designed to make us feel better about ourselves. Koukl disagrees, suggesting that there can be legitimate, healthy catharsis in dropping things and letting them go, provided that “the egregious nature of the moral crime doesn’t receive the short shrift in the process.”

In the next post I’ll look at the Bible to see what principles of forgiveness can be derived there, and whether or not Mssrs. Prager and Koukl are correct on this.