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Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds Paperback – September 23, 2008
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"Offenses will come. It's a given. Unpacking Forgiveness wisely prepares us for the aftermath. Grieving the loss of our six children in a van accident and then being reminded of that loss throughout thirteen years of subsequent battles forced us to search the Scriptures concerning the issue of forgiveness. Chris not only has confirmed answers that we had found but has thoroughly sorted out what it takes to be right with God and man. This is a diligent work with heart."
"Forgiveness of one another is one of the most important subjects in the Bible, and yet one so often misunderstood. Now Christopher Brauns has done a magnificent job in helping us understand the true nature of biblical forgiveness. Every Christian will profit from reading and applying this book."
—Jerry Bridges, author, The Pursuit of Holiness
"Here is a book that lives up to its title. Forgiveness remains a distant dream for many people precisely because they don't know what it means, where to begin or what to expect. Blending contemporary stories with the teaching of the Bible, Christopher Brauns unpacks forgiveness so that we can be set free from bitterness. I especially appreciated his emphasis on coming back to the character of God and learning to delight in him as the only way forward when we have been deeply hurt. A book to be read on your knees. It could change your life."
—Ray Pritchard, President, Keep Believing Ministries; author of Credo, Discovering God's Will for Your Life, and The Amazing Journey of Faith
"There is no more common or urgent pastoral need in the church today than to cultivate the gospel practice of forgiveness. Christians need to know what the Bible teaches and live it out, radically. Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is an engaging, convicting, but emphatically encouraging treatment of this hugely important (and sometimes mind-bogglingly challenging) part of life. Dr. Brauns writes from the standpoint of a faithful, wise, experienced, and caring pastor who has seen the heartbreak of an unforgiving spirit at work in the lives of people, but also the power of grace in the hearts of Christians who have learned to forgive and be forgiven."
—J. Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor, CEO, and John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary
"There are few things more unnatural and few things more holy than forgiveness. Living as we do in a fallen world, we are given endless opportunities both to extend and to seek forgiveness. In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns eschews the easy answers and looks to the Bible to provide God's wisdom on how and when we are to forgive. Relying on his experience as a pastor and his deep knowledge of Scripture, he provides what is a logical, well-illustrated book on the subject. With humor at times and appropriate gravitas at others, Brauns leads the reader first to understand and then to apply what the Bible teaches on forgiveness. Because it deals biblically with a subject of universal importance, any reader can benefit from reading Unpacking Forgiveness. I recommend that you do just that."
—Tim Challies, blogger, Challies.com
"Using the parameters 'forgive as God forgives,' this book describes something other than a cheapened, 'automatic' forgiveness. Dr. Brauns lays careful gridlines that are 'dripping with Scripture,' as he puts it, for working through complex and deeply painful situations. Unpacking Forgiveness offers a tender hand of guidance to those who ache to unpack what life has flung at them and awakens a longing for the happiness that only forgiveness can bring."
—Shannon Popkin, Speaker, Freelance Writer, Blogger
"In a culture that all too often embraces oversimplistic remedies for forgiveness and reconciliation, Brauns provides a truly helpful and honest discussion about biblical forgiveness. Unpacking Forgiveness will be an essential resource for small groups, students, and ministry leaders (seasoned or newcomers) because it wrestles with the intellectual, emotional, and biblical issues of living in redemptive relationships in a fallen world."
—Peter G. Osborn, Vice President for Adult Learning, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary
"Unpacking Forgiveness is a must read for every believer. All my life I was told to forgive, and now Chris Brauns tells me how. This practical and powerful book paints a penetrating picture of the forgiving Christ, my model on how to forgive. I cannot escape the bold and beautiful biblical truths within these pages. As a Christ-follower, I know exactly how to respond to those who have hurt me, and each action response sets me free . . . indeed."
—Doug Fagerstrom, Executive President and CEO, Marketplace Chaplains USA
"Traveling through life cannot be done without 'unpacking forgiveness.' This is as good an explanation on what true forgiveness is and how it is accomplished as I have ever read. All interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God an be helped by reading this book. Unpacking Forgiveness is a compelling read."
—William K. Bernhard, Lead Pastor, Spring Creek Church, Pewaukee, Wisconsin; Chaplain, Milwaukee Bucks
"Biblical, accessible, thorough, and practical, Rev. Brauns builds from the Scriptures a solid model of forgiveness that is clear, engaging, and convincing. He tackles the issues, answers the questions, and provides the guidance needed to forgive even the hard cases in a Christ-honoring way. Highly recommended!"
—John N. Day, Pastor, Bellewood Presbyterian Church, Bellevue, Washington; Author, Crying for Justice
"Chris Brauns has written a twofer. Unpacking Forgiveness not only challenges popular, therapeutic notions of forgiveness, but it also supplies practical, step-by-step instructions for those who aren't sure how to begin. Grounded in Scripture and sharpened by ministry to hurting people, Brauns's godly counsel will inspire many to shake off years of guilt and bitterness and begin the long, healing journey of forgiveness."
—Mike Wittmer, Professor of Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary; Author of Heaven Is a Place on Earth and Don't Stop Believing
"With pastoral realism, biblical conviction, and thoughtful reflection on wide reading, Brauns masterfully unpacks the complexity of Christian forgiveness. His humor and liveliness, with a striking story-telling gift, disarmingly navigate beyond the popular 'therapeutic model' into a deeper understanding of biblical forgiveness. From the opening quiz you know his approach is different, and you will likely find your questions both asked and answered by this powerfully practical book. Taken seriously it will revolutionize your life."
—Michael Quicke, CW Koller Professor of Preaching, Northern Seminary, Lombard, Illinois
About the Author
Chris Brauns (DMin, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the senior pastor at the Red Brick Church in Stillman Valley, Illinois.
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I. Concerning Chris Brauns' treatment of Ephesians 4:32 (p.44): Would the original recipients of this letter have understood Eph. 4:32 the way he has explained it? Asked another way, if Paul had ended Ephesians with 4:32, what would these saints have been thinking about?
"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Eph. 4:32).
The question is, What would have come to mind as they read Paul's words here, based upon all that he had said up to that point in the letter? What words might be on the mental list that popped up as they heard Paul's admonition to forgive? Gracious certainly, perhaps reconciliation, but as for conditional, I think that would be quite a stretch based on the context of the letter as a whole.
The emphasis of Ephesians so far had been the glory and riches of the grace of God. Paul presses home God's electing love and grace over and over, along with all that He has accomplished on behalf of the Church for His glory. But he nowhere mentions any condition met on their part to secure the riches of their salvation and forgiveness in Christ. So when these saints read the words "as God in Christ has forgiven you," I think the grace and mercy of God would naturally have been the song resonating in their hearts and minds. To connect Eph. 4:32 to conditional forgiveness would be completely unexpected and unnatural---perhaps even shocking. Rather than making a connection to conditional forgiveness, it would seem more natural to connect this verse to character of God revealed in chapters 1:3-8 or 2:1-9, etc. At face value and in the larger context of Ephesians, this verse even seems to contradict any concept of conditional forgiveness among believers.
II. Concerning the doctrine of conditional forgiveness set forth by Chris Brauns:
"God expects believers to forgive others in the way that He forgave them" (p.44, 52).
"We should define forgiveness between ourselves and other people the way God defined it in forgiving us" (p.44, my emphasis in both quotes).
If I understand his basic argument, it looks like this:
1. God expects believers to forgive others in the way that He forgave them (p44),
2. God forgives only those who repent (p.57),
3. Therefore, believers should forgive only those who repent.
Brauns even goes so far as to say that it is wrong to forgive those who are not repentant (p.22). In other words, it would be sinful for a believer to forgive a person if certain criteria are not met. Stated yet another way, we as believers have the right---in fact, the moral obligation---to withhold forgiveness from a person who is not repentant for a sin committed against us.
Here's where I believe he goes wrong. In his first premise, Brauns makes a direct parallel between the way God relates to people and the way Christians must relate to people. He doesn't differentiate between the vertical plane and the horizontal plane concerning the dynamics of forgiveness, regardless of how forgiveness is defined. Because God has the right and moral obligation (based upon his holiness and justice) to require repentance from the offending party, we have the same right and are morally obligated to live by it.
But is that true? Do we as forgiven sinners, recipients of unfathomable mercies, indeed have the same rights and prerogatives as God? Is that what Paul means when he says "as God in Christ forgave you"? Yet Chris Brauns builds his entire argument for conditional forgiveness on Ephesians 4:32 (with the parallel Colossians passage) and Matthew 6:12b, focusing ultimately on the word "as" (p.44). I don't believe this to be a sound interpretation of these verses. Nor do I think that this limited amount of scriptural data is sufficient to support the doctrine of conditional forgiveness in light of the much weightier theme of mercy that runs throughout the OT and NT.
He says that even though the requirement of repentance for forgiveness isn't explicitly stated in these verses, it is "implicit" and "certainly assumed." But can we safely extract a doctrine from a text when its key component is "implicit" and "certainly assumed" (p.146)?
The parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 is a classic example of our obligation to positively forgive others, regardless of their being repentant or not. (Brauns discusses this passage in ch. 10.) The main point of the story is our moral obligation to show mercy to other people in light of the immeasurable mercy God has shown us. As difficult as it may be in some cases, the one who lays hold of God's mercy and forgiveness forfeits any and all "rights" to ever withhold mercy and forgiveness from another human being. According to Jesus, it is an act of arrogance and hypocrisy that will bring about severe chastisement (Matt.18:35).
In Luke 17:1-10 Jesus also deals with forgiveness, but only seems to address the obligation of forgiveness. He closes in verse ten with an exhortation for the disciples to keep a realistic self-image, if you will---"when you have done all that you were commanded, say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'" In this passage, Jesus simply doesn't speak to the issue of forgiving someone who is not repentant. By contrast, Matthew 18:15-17 has the unrepentant person in view, but even there Jesus gives no directive to withhold forgiveness---only to relate to this person as an unbeliever (Matt.18:17).
The "Lord's Prayer" in Matthew 6 is another case in point. The prayer has no reference to conditions for forgiving our debtors. However, Chris Brauns says the requirements are not explicit but implicit (p.146). Implicit? How so? At face value Jesus' words seem to state the opposite of conditional forgiveness. The assumption is that the disciple comes to God having already forgiven his offenders their "debts," realizing the fact that he himself owes God far more than his fellow men owe him. In context Jesus is grounding the way we appeal to God in God's own good and generous disposition toward His children. On the grounds of that goodness, God seems to expect His children to absolutely forgive those who have sinned against them. Likewise, Mark 11:25 makes no mention of the offender meeting a requirement in order to be forgiven. The emphasis again is on the disciple's obligation to forgive based on His relationship with the Father.
How can one come away from these passages with the conclusion that believers should only forgive those who are repentant (p.146)? Contrary to Brauns on page 146, the emphasis of Matthew 6 is not "to forgive as God forgives." It is simply to forgive because you need greater mercy from God than others need from you. We call Him "Father," and therefore because of the gracious relationship we have with God, we forgive others. No conditions. Only gospel-motivated forgiveness.
Again, can we safely derive any doctrine from a text based on crucial ingredients that are "implicit" and "certainly assumed" (p.146)?
Some final thoughts:
Repentance and faith are essential to the Gospel. God requires repentance, but we are not God. Even the repentance that God requires must ultimately come to us from Him as an act of sovereign grace and electing love. God not only requires repentance for forgiveness but He secures the repentance needed for that forgiveness. That's the "sovereign" aspect of sovereign grace. Otherwise, we would never repent, no matter how terrible the prospect of hell and eternal wrath.
God does not deal with us according to what our sins deserve, nor repay us for our iniquities (Ps.103:10). It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not (Lam. 3:22, KJV). Christ died for the ungodly...while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...while we were enemies we were reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-10). How then can I begin to impose terms of forgiveness upon another person?
How could I teach this doctrine to my wife and children? In fact, I could teach them the doctrines of original sin, unconditional election, and the Trinity with much more confidence and scriptural authority than conditional forgiveness.
In my opinion, Unpacking Forgiveness has sought to redefine forgiveness in a way that has radical and far reaching implications for believers. These implications will affect us everyday because everyday we sin and are sinned against in some form or another. To arm a person (a forgiven sinner) with the right and moral obligation of conditional forgiveness in this fallen world is to set the stage for serious relational and spiritual damage in his or her life.
Finally, what would a believer's life look like if he or she put this teaching into practice on a daily basis? How would the gospel be adorned? How would the mercies of Christ be magnified? How would love and godliness be promoted? How would others be affected?
Comparing Brauns' theology of conditional forgiveness (the idea that believers should only forgive those who are repentant) with the plain reading of Scripture itself, I just can't get the two to square.
Anyone who has ever suffered a wrong, and now struggles with anger or bitterness (or thoughts of revenge), should take a look at this book. Careful reading will be rewarded by new insights about what true forgiveness is (and is not!)
Some critics have charged Braun with teaching that you must always forgive. This is a bizarre criticism, since its easy to prove that he says the exact opposite! The fact is, Braun says that the Bible teaches that forgiveness is conditional upon repentance by the offender. I've pulled only a few quotes to demonstrate that such a criticism is completely unfounded.
(Referring positively to the episode in 2 Timothy 4.14-15, when Paul warned Timothy to avoid a notorious hater of Christians, Braun reflects) 'It is not recorded that Paul ever forgave Alexander' (p. 144)
'We ought to forgive only repentant offenders' (p. 146)
'Jesus describes situations in which people should be forgiven when they repent' (p. 146)
'Forgiveness is conditional' (p. 146)
'Contrary to conventional understanding, I believe that the notion of automatic forgiveness itself fosters bitterness...When we forgive someone who is not repentant, we are acting in a way that is unjust' (p. 147)
Someone else dismissed the book because it came from a Reformed perspective, which was described as 'exclusivist.' What a hoot! I'm not sure about the Reformed perspective, but the critic certainly sounds exclusivist. The statement that Braun is Reformed hardly counts as a knock against him. Come on, brothers and sisters, let's raise the standard by which we judge a book.
NOTE ADDED: In my original review, I noted that someone dismissed Chris Braun's book because it was Reformed. I should have pointed out at the time that I didn't find the book promoted any of the distinctives of Reformed doctrine. If Braun is Reformed, he doesn't push it. Instead, he concentrates on a developing a doctrine of forgiveness that stays true to the biblical witness (which, is what any good theologian should do, including a Reformed one).