Last week, the question was raised: How far does God’s mercy extend? Do we have to ask for mercy in order to get it? In other words: Is God’s mercy conditional upon our asking for it?

Mercy is defined as the act of withholding deserved punishment. Grace, on the other hand, is defined as the act of endowing unmerited favor. It takes us down the path for forgiveness because indeed, in the Scriptures, mercy and forgiveness for God are actually synonyms.

Is God’s forgiveness conditional? Must we ask for it in order to be forgiven? Some verses support this idea for example:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Jesus said if you don’t forgive your brother, then God won’t forgive you (Matthew 18:35). He says the same thing in the sequel to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:14. “If you forgive your brother, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive your brother, your heavenly Father will not forgive you.” Hebrews 10:26 says: “If we go on sinning willfully, after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin.”

These “if/then” statements imply conditions. “If this, then that.” “If” must occur for “then” to be realized. But if you take these three (or maybe four if you take the two that both say if you don’t forgive your brother you won’t be forgiven) as conditional statements about God’s forgiveness, there are dozens more which imply that God’s forgiveness is unconditional. They include Matthew 26:28, Acts 13:38, Colossians 1:13-14, 1 Peter 4:8, and Acts 13:38: “Therefore brother, let it be known to you that through Him forgiveness of sin is proclaimed to you.” But my favorite is in Romans 8, probably my favorite passage in all the scriptures:

 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

There are dozens of passages that relate to the subject of the universal, unmerited, and unconditional love and forgiveness and mercy that God extends to us. The parable of the Prodigal Son is instructive:

And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-32)

The older son them protested that he had served his father well for all these years and never had a fatted calf killed for him. In response, his father said: “My child, you have always been with me and all that is mine is yours.” He concluded: “But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead, and has begun to live. He was lost, and has been found.”

Here we see the picture of deliberate, willful, premeditated sinfulness. If we were to make a classification of sin like we do a classification of murder, this would be first degree, not second degree, sinfulness: Deliberate, willful, and premeditated. When the prodigal son comes to himself, it seems as if he’s read 1 John 1:9 (quoted above). “If I make a confession, maybe I’ll be forgiven.” He plans and even rehearses his confession.

But the father is almost out of his mind at the prodigal’s return. This is really the story of a prodigal father more than a prodigal son. He is, it seems, an unjust judge of his son’s character. And that’s exactly what the older son accuses him of. He sweeps through the confession of the young man. He interrupts it and doesn’t let it be completed. He negates it entirely. The confession of the young prodigal son is supplanted by a celebration.

This reminds me of multiple passages which, when I first read them, puzzled me greatly; but the more I read them the more they took root and I found them very warming. The first one is where God says:

“I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)    

What does it mean to be forgiven for God’s sake? Why will God wipe out our transgressions for His sake? You may think this is a strange concept found only in one obscure verse, but this is not the case. As a matter of fact, this concept of God wiping out transgression for His own sake is found throughout the Scriptures but particularly in the Psalms:

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; According to Your lovingkindness remember me, For Your goodness’ sake, O Lord. (Psalm 25:7)

Your name’s sake, O Lord, Pardon my iniquity, for it is great. (Psalm 25:11)

For You are my rock and my fortress; For Your name’s sake You will lead me and guide me. (Psalm 31:3)

Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; And deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name’s sake. (Psalms 79:9)

Nevertheless He saved them for the sake of His name, That He might make His power known. (Psalm 106:8) nevertheless he saved them for the sake of His name, that he might make his power known.

But You, O God, the Lord, deal kindly with me for Your name’s sake; Because Your lovingkindness is good, deliver me; (Psalm 109:21)

For the sake of Your name, O Lord, revive me. In Your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble. (Psalm 143:11)

“For the sake of My name I delay My wrath, And for My praise I restrain it for you, In order not to cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; For how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:9-11)

The same ideas were raised in a passage at the end of the Scriptures:

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. (1 John 2:12)

And these comprise just a sample of the passages that speak to this idea. Even in the 23rd Psalm we see “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness.” Recall that in the scriptures righteousness and justice are synonyms, so the Psalm could read: “He leads me in the path of justice for His name’s sake.” This presents a novel idea: That both God’s justice and His mercy are extended to us for His sake, for His name’s sake.

We never seem to talk about what these passages mean. For every conditional passage, there are at least six that say we are forgiven for God’s sake. What in the world could this mean? We’ve always assumed that God forgives us for our own sake. That’s how we are saved, isn’t it? That’s how salvation works. If something is done for someone’s sake, it’s done because there is some benefit to that person, it’s done so that that person is advantaged in some way. What advantage does God get from forgiving you? What benefit is there to God to extend mercy to me?

It almost implies that God is somehow incomplete, that there’s something that’s undone unless he forgives our sins. Isn’t this the ultimate conflict of interest? He forgives me so that He can benefit. Talk about unconditional! It’s no wonder that the prodigal father runs to meet his son, sweeping aside the young man’s puny, pre-planned, rehearsed confession. In a profligate display of mercy, he’s doing it for his own sake. The son doesn’t even ask for forgiveness, yet there is his father, like a Johnny on the spot giving forgiveness for his own sake. He’s like a hawker passing out free drink coupons in a fairground parking lot. That coupon is underneath your windshield wiper. It’s there for you to use, whether you want it or not.

That God’s mercy could be for His own sake seems puzzling, even scandalous, ill conceived, maybe fraudulent. Instead of God quietly waiting for my confession, then deliberately stroking His long white beard as He contemplates extending justice, or mercy, here we see a picture of an old man running in his sweaty garment and his sandals down the metaphorical road of life toward his wayward son, and afterwards explaining to the elder son what the consequences of his profligate mercy brings. “But we had to be merry,” he says in verse 32 (paraphrasing a little), “and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has been brought to life. He was lost and has been found. We had to be merciful. We had to be merry.” This was not negotiable. It was compulsory. There had to be merriment and rejoicing. God’s mercy is compulsory for God’s sake.

Why does God forgive for His own sake? The picture we have here is of a God who cannot rest, cannot relax, cannot be at peace, is constantly on the move until His creation has been restored. In this light, God’s mercy toward us and our mercy toward each other do suddenly begin to appear as weightier matters of the law.

Beverley: God has defined himself as love, justice, mercy. That’s what God means. That’s who He is. And so anything else would be not Him. So I think when it says for His name’s sake, He is Love, He is just, He is mercy, and He cannot not be mercy and not be just and yet be God, because that’s who He is. So, there has to be a congruence in His actions because of who He is. And He cannot not be that.

The Bible teaches us that from before the foundations of the world, the plan of salvation was in place, even though not executed until Christ came and the price of sin was paid. Before we sinned, the price of sin was paid. I think what 1 Peter 1-9 is saying is: I have to realize my fault because until I do, I can’t change. So, when I do recognize my fault and make the change or decide to change, I appropriate what is already there, what has been there from the foundation of the world to my account.

So, the condition is on my behavior, not on God, because God already—by virtue of who He is and determined Himself to be—has given mercy and is just and is love. So (this is where the condition is) I must realize who I am, what I have done. Once I’ve acknowledged it, then I’m moving towards God. And I can accept, I can appropriate what He has already given.

And the same thing happened with the prodigal father who was standing waiting for the son to come home. He had already forgiven him. So when the boy walked home with his head hanging, the father ran to him because he had already forgiven him, and he was just so glad that he had returned. He had turned away, then he had acknowledged his wrong, and finally he had come home.

Clinton: The notion of God enjoying some benefit suggests to me that God has some emotions. He delights in things happening according to His plan. So when we ask for forgiveness, or God extends mercy and love for His sake, His sake is that all be saved. It’s like you’re a daddy and some good things happen to your children. You feel a certain delight. That delight is the benefit that God enjoys. Because his work and sacrifice is now being repaid. People are taking the offer that he makes. It’s nothing like offering a gift and somebody rejects it. It brings us certain pain to the heart. I think the delight that God gets when people accept His forgiveness and mercy is a delight we will never understand.

His sake is the delight he gets from all of us. As many of us as possible, taking the gift that He has given. It would be a terrible thing if everybody chose not to take it. What a disaster it would be. God’s heart would be pained. Scripture says that heaven rejoices over one person. Rejoicing is an emotional response. You may say, angels don’t have emotion, but I would suspect that God has emotions. And so the delight that He gets from our coming to Him is the benefit He gets. It benefits God when we ask for forgiveness when He loves us and cares for us and He grants us mercy, because that’s just who He is.

Donald: We often describe God’s love as unconditional love. But now we’re describing it as conditional. Asking for forgiveness is part of the process. So it’s a two step, not a one step, it’s not an automatic thing. It’s there. It’s a supply. So is it like electricity coming into my home and when I access it, then we are connected? If I don’t access it, it’s still in the wall but there’s no need for it to be around?

What’s the role of conditional? The prodigal son came home. The father literally ran toward him—it is interesting that he’s anxious to be used or accessed. Some personalities are very confident, and they just live life on the basis of what they think is right, and they move forward and they’re very confident. And then there are personalities who don’t feel worthy of anything. And I feel bad for them. Because they are good people, but it’s a personality they grew up in. They are certainly going to reach out and ask for forgiveness. But then there are people, including perhaps myself, who are less likely to experience that tender moment.

Beverley: I think we are the ones who are conditional in forgiveness. God doesn’t have those moments. He forgives, He forgave before I was even thought of, before I had an opportunity to sin. That’s unconditional. The condition is: Will I accept? Let’s say I put a million dollars in a bank account with your name on it. I send you the account number and the location of the bank and a statement showing the balance of a million dollars. You’re a millionaire.

But you decide, for whatever reason, that you’re not worthy of it or you don’t believe it, or whatever. So unless you go and tap the account to withdraw the money, it’s there, but you have access to it. So the condition is on your part, not God’s. He already deposited the money. It’s unconditional. It’s for you to access. And that’s where our sins come in. We have to acknowledge that we have the need and decide “Yes.” And go and tap into it. And that’s where the condition is. It is not on God’s part. But with us: You do me wrong. I decide what I’ve done.

Donald: You’re right. But my point is really that maybe there are people who refuse to believe they are forgiven, to believe that they’ve become a millionaire. But really, you’re not a millionaire until you access it.

Beverley: The other thing about God that I find to be so amazing is that He puts me through experiences that sometimes, while I’m going through them, I question; but in the end it is to pull me towards Him, because I am able to look back and say, “Okay, because of this experience, I’m now seeing things a little differently.” And I even become a testimony. You can’t trace God’s hand. The older I get, the more I realize that you’re wasting your time trying to control everything. Because you’re only creating problems for yourself, because God is able, He always was able, He always will be able. All you have to do is line yourself up with Him.

Donald: Accept Him as your Savior. And know that when you’re doing that, what comes with that is freely given.

Beverley: We have to accept Him every day because of who we are.

Donald: But when people enter the hospital most people will access the bank account that’s out there because they know their need. My point is that if you’re blessed, perhaps you don’t feel the need?

Beverly: There are lots of people who are very blessed, depending on what you mean. There are multi billionaires in the world and some are miserable. So a bounty is not necessarily what makes you not miserable. There’s so many facets in life, so many aspects of life. Your children are not doing well, somebody is sick, your relationship is on the rocks, whatever. Lots of issues.

David: I believe in process theology, whereby God is a being: He exists, in all His power and glory, but He’s also a “becoming.” It seems to me that forgiving “for His sake” assists in His becoming, and His becoming is necessary for the establishment of his kingdom on earth.

Rheinhard: God is unconditionally merciful, compassionate, and forgiving. But forgiveness involves two parties: Forgiver and forgiven. So the whole package becomes conditional upon the response of the forgiven. What good is this free gift if we don’t respond? People respond in a variety of ways. In the parable, Jesus gave three people five talents, three talents and one talent respectively Those given five and three talents responded. They seized the opportunity given to them. The person given one talent did nothing with it. God gives “talents” unconditionally, but if we don’t respond, it’s plain His gifts achieve nothing.

Donald: Do people who fall seriously ill complain about the unfairness of it? The problem of the world we live in is that we expect a quid pro quo, and if we don’t, that is unfair. Everything we do is based upon: If I do this, you should do that.

Beverley: There’s such a thing as corporate sin, meaning mankind; and there are things that come to us because of that. Not because of our own personal acts, as Jesus explained regarding a young man who was sick. People said it was because of his parents’ sin—they believed that in those days. Some things come to us because of corporate sin, mankind sin. And some things are because of our own acts; we bring trouble on ourselves. But not everything comes to us because of our own acts. Some of it is just because we’re humans living in a sinful world. And it might seem unfair, but it really is fair. Because anything that comes to mankind is from our choice. Anything good that comes to us is grace and mercy within the context of God.

Clinton: Will God ever forget our sins? Can God forget?

Don: Is that like asking: Can God create a stone so big that he can’t move it?

Clinton: Exactly. God can do anything. Omnipotence is the definition of God, so He can choose to forget if He wants to. If God is God then everything is open to Him. So I think it’s man’s attempt to describe how we become oblivious and removed from our sins when we ask for forgiveness. To try to express it as God forgetting or God not remembering is a statement about our assessment of our sins being totally oblivious. But God can either remember or forget—whichever He wants to do. But we say He crosses into the sea of forgetfulness, where our sin is never remembered anymore. To me, that is ridiculous. God can remember if He wants to; but for us, it serves our mind and our conscience that God has really, really forgiven us. It’s a human metaphor about God.

Beverley: We often say we should forgive and forget. I forget some things, but anything that hits me where I live, that really touches me deeply, I don’t forget. I don’t think God expects me to erase the memory or the feeling I had when the thing happened. It’s how I remember. And that’s where I think forgiveness comes. You can forgive and still remember, but it’s how you remember. Are you remembering with pain and hurt and anger and blame? That’s why the Bible says that we can be angry and sin not. He never said you can’t be angry. So it’s very possible that when it says God remembers no more. I think it’s how He remembers, because I don’t think God forgets anything. He asks me to remember the things that others do against me in a way that is not sinful, because I don’t feel the pain and the anger and the hurt, even though I may still remember the occurrence, but it’s with a peace and forgiveness and no resentment. That’s what I think it means. Because if He asks us to forget, to rewire our neurons, we’re in trouble.

David: To me it is crystal clear, scripture could not be more definite, that God does not just forgive, but He forgets :

“I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)    

It seems to me, therefore, that if you do not forget, then you cannot and do not truly forgive.

But on the subject of reconciliation, an entire chapter (a dozen or so lines!) of James Legge’s translation of the Dao De Jing makes an interesting point (words in parenthesis added by Legge):

When a reconciliation is effected (between two parties) after a great animosity, there is sure to be a grudge remaining (in the mind of the one who was wrong). And how can this be beneficial (to the other)? Therefore (to guard against this), the sage keeps the left-hand portion of the record of the engagement, and does not insist on the (speedy) fulfilment of it by the other party. (So), he who has the attributes (of the Dao) regards (only) the conditions of the engagement, while he who has not those attributes regards only the conditions favourable to himself. In the Way of Heaven, there is no partiality of love; it is always on the side of the good man. (Dao De Jing 79)

As I read it, that means when there is reconciliation, then the forgiver will be generally satisfied and will therefore tend to forget about it. But resentment may linger in the mind of the forgiven person, stung by the disclosure of his fault. And that’s the danger. It takes goodness on the part of both forgiven and forgiver, and the chapter ends with a statement that heaven favors the good. So when you forgive you have to be a good forgiver and when you’re forgiven you have to accept that you were in the wrong, like the prodigal son, who confessed his guilt and did not carry any resentment forward. But the older brother did. He could not forget. He had been deeply affected by the apparent disparity between his behavior and his brother’s. He carried resentment. He did not truly forgive his brother.

Beverley: He remembered with resentment, which means he did not forgive. If you have no resentment does that mean that you have not forgiven? Because if not remembering at all means that I haven’t forgiven then I’m in big trouble because I remember a lot of things. I may not remember them with resentment, but I remember.

David: The problem is, we are not God. We’re not perfect.

Beverley: Maybe I’m trying to excuse myself. But I don’t know that God expects me to remember nothing at all. You remember, but without animus.

Donald: We are all the product of family dynamics. In a perfect family is everybody forgiven? Does everybody accept each other for who they are and what they are? If some siblings ignore their filial duties leaving others to fulfil them, the latter must surely feel sad. It’s not a matter of forgiveness. It’s not a matter of resentment. It’s not a matter of memory. It’s a matter of sadness, and that makes it hard to forget. When you’re scarred significantly you probably will not forget. Do you look at it with resentment, do you look at it with sadness? How do you respond to the memory?

Janelin: It’s as Beverley said: It’s how you approach it, it’s what you feel when you think about the memory. We’re human beings with brains equipped with defense mechanisms [garbled]… It’s how we were designed.

Donald: Good point. We’re designed to remember. But it’s how you respond to that.

Beverley: Exactly. How? This removes the negativity of the remembrance.

Donald: So are we asked to respond to everything with “It’s okay” or “No, they wronged me and they’re not going to do it again.”

David: We were designed to forget as well. Lord knows we do it often enough. We can forget if we want to. The problem is it’s very, very difficult to be perfect. It’s as simple as that, but we should at least try to forget. If the sad siblings in Donald’s example completely forgot their brothers’ unfilial behavior, what joy they might all experience as reunited siblings! Joy, merriment, and celebration would be everlasting, if only we could forget.

Clinton: If you’re wired to remember, then you’re not wired to forget.

Beverley: It’s how you remember.

Clinton: And that’s one capacity God has given to us: To remember, and He calls upon us at all times to remember and imagine.

Beverley: “Remember the Sabbath day.” If you go through the Bible, it keeps telling you to remember this, remember that.

Donald: But but when He says forgive, is He actually saying forget?

Beverley: He’s saying “Don’t have the animus. Reposition the incident.” That’s what I think anyway, I may be wrong.

Clinton: Remix, replace, restore, and you’re on the road to reconciliation, It’ll have to get to reconciliation. But you’re on the road to reconciliation, to “become.” Hopefully you can restore the relationship but that may not be.

Beverley: Not every relationship is restored. Unless forgiveness occurs, reconciliation can’t occur. But the fact that reconciliation doesn’t happen doesn’t mean that forgiveness hasn’t occurred. Reconciliation is the ultimate. And that’s where we strive to become like God, who reconciled the world Himself. And we are asked to reconcile others to ourselves.

Donald: Having expectations of others builds resentment if they don’t respond in ways we think are appropriate. If the unfilial siblings would be filial at least occasionally, the level of resentment in the filial siblings might be less. People have expectations. Do we need to forgive others because of our own expectations?

Beverley: I think all of us have expectations based on how we see the world. And what is interesting is that in every family, each child experiences the family differently. Absolutely. When you get to be my age, you realize that we all see things differently. And maybe if I could walk in others’ shoes, I would be looking at life as they do. I don’t know why they see it that way. I can tell you I don’t understand. I say that all the time. However, I have to leave open the possibility that there is a piece of the puzzle which, if I had it, would let me see things the way they see them.

Clinton: I think it is the power of the gospel to take those broken pieces and make something out of them; not necessarily to change the circumstance, but to create positivity out of those situations. I think that’s where the gospel is. I’m not trying to accuse the rest of the world but I really believe a new creation or a new creature comes into being when we drop our claims to what we think we deserve and allow the Holy Spirit to invade and dominate our lives. And God understands that we’re all on that road, hopefully. And so our failings along that pathway are understood. And that’s where grace kicks in. We may not succeed in loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, totally and completely, but our mindset, our attitude, our determination, our desire is to do that. But every time we try, our enemy throws a stone at us, and there we go again. But we try. And I think in this particular context of the world we live in, we will never get to the place where we don’t need God’s grace to take us to the finish line.

Donald: I can resent it to the point where it ruins me. I can walk away and say it’s between them and their maker. It’s confusing. It’s a piece of the puzzle I wish I could understand.

Don: This all sounds a lot like forgiveness for my sake.

Clinton: Yes, it is.

Beverley: It is God’s sake, though. My eternal question: I don’t understand why God gave us freedom to not choose him. This is what it’s all coming from.

Don: How much freedom do we have not to choose him? Maybe we’ll have to think about that a little bit more. Especially if He’s forgiving us for His sake.

David: If I am God then of course forgiveness is for my sake. But I am not God, and I want it both ways. But I know I can’t have it both ways.

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