Forgiving Each Other with God’s Immanence and Transcendence: A Corporate Call for Doctrine (Part One)

Forgiving Each Other with God’s Immanence and Transcendence: A Corporate Call for Doctrine (Part One)

Written by J. Lance Acree |
Monday, April 10, 2023

While we have innumerable sermons and published works that explain Christ’s command to forgive each other, and that explore the benefits of doing so, practical explanations of what explicitly is meant by “forgiving each other” are few, and these tend to use ambiguous language when attempting to describe a corresponding orthopraxy.  The absence of corporately adopted doctrinal explanations in clear didactic language means that Christians are not challenged to think about and practice forgiving each other the way God directs in scripture.

This article in two parts is a call for doctrine: I contend that we need a corporate effort to develop a doctrinal explanation of what we are doing when we forgive others and ask them to forgive us.  The first part establishes the need by exploring the confusing array of popular concepts afflicting the Church; the second offers a Reformed framework on which to build such a doctrine; the purpose is to stimulate critique and discussion with a view to better enabling elders to “equip the saints for works of service” as people who forgive effectively and completely.  In Part Two, we will examining—from a Reformed perspective, and using John Frame’s approach—the theological foundation on which we might build a sound doctrine for a biblical orthopraxis.

“But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world.  We want to know something about him.

“He was a hero.  He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses.  The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen.  He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life.  His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived.  Tell us of that man.” — Circassian tribal chief to Leo Tolstoy, as related by Count Stakelberg[i]

“He was so great that he even forgave…”  The lyrical words of a remote mountain chieftain in Central Asia are striking for many reasons, but one that readily stands out is how eminently powerful—to the point of leaping effortlessly across enormous cultural and linguistic divides—is the power to forgive other men.  Small wonder that Christ Himself described this powerful effect on our watching neighbors, for whom this ability is unmistakably a manifestation of divine working: “…for they shall be called the sons of God.” (Matt 5:9)

In our personal and ministry experience, however, we find forgiving every bit as difficult and frustrating as Peter did.[ii]  Forgiving others is clearly a highly public mark of the Christian; a biblical understanding of forgiving involves the depths of our souls to a comprehensive degree.  The term forgive appears over 50 times in the New Testament alone.  But tied to some stinging offenses, Christians feel strong and persistent emotions such as anger; these persisting emotions are frequently interpreted as a failure to forgive “from the heart” as Christ requires (Matt 18:35).  The resulting emotional drain becomes a fertile ground for doubt if not bitterness and disillusionment.

Clearly, we are doing something wrong.

I contend that this situation is like a man driving his family to their favorite vacation spot and encountering a flat tire along the way.  He knows where to look in the trunk for the spare tire and jack. But he has never seen a tire iron employed to turn the lug nuts; so he grabs a pair of pliers that are ready to hand.  That is, our family man has a valid general concept of turning the lug nuts, and all the right intentions, but not the right tool.  The result is going to be frustrating for all concerned.  Busted knuckles and hot language are highly probable, but a completed tire change and a pleasant and successful journey remain highly improbable.  By analogy, I propose that our confusion and frustration in forgiving each other may simply arise because most of us are trying to use the wrong (and therefore inadequate) concept of forgiving.

I further propose that the right tool is there in Scripture, waiting for us to explore and become accustomed to working with it.  It just needs a corporate effort to clarify.  In short, it is a sound doctrine waiting to happen.

In addition to Christian leaders, secular and Muslim professionals—lawyers, social researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists—consider the term to convey a potentially powerful meaning.  However, there is much confusion about forgiving in both the secular and the Christian communities; the disparity among conflicting concepts among Christians speaks to the need for a clear and comprehensive doctrine.

It is the role of doctrine to help people both understand and apply Scripture.[iii]  As with any sound doctrine such an explanation will need to summarize not just a few cherry-picked verses, but all that the Bible has to say that is relevant to the question.  Even though the truths of Scripture do not change, over time the need for doctrine changes because the societal context changes.  The history of the Church demonstrates an expanding body of doctrine (orthodoxy) as Christians progressively worked out the practical application (orthopraxis) of biblical truths to an ever-expanding cultural horizon.

For example, in the present turbulent culture Christians struggle to think clearly and biblically about homosexuality and gender issues than they do with the issue of swearing oaths of loyalty to government.  But in the 1640s Christians in England and Scotland were struggling with this issue of oaths.  We know this because their Elders corporately worked out a clear and comprehensive doctrinal statement to help their congregants both understand and employ a biblical understanding of oaths.[iv]  Today, questions about swearing oaths are not prevalent, but we are inundated with questions about homosexual desire and gender; accordingly, if we updated the Westminster Confession today we would most likely add a section on regeneration[v] with respect to homosexuality and gender dysphoria, among other issues Christians now face in our societal context.

The Need for a Doctrine of Forgiving Each Other

I assert that forgiving each other is such an issue.  While we have innumerable sermons and published works that explain Christ’s command to forgive each other, and that explore the benefits of doing so, practical explanations of what explicitly is meant by “forgiving each other” are few, and these tend to use ambiguous language when attempting to describe a corresponding orthopraxy.  The absence of corporately adopted doctrinal explanations in clear didactic language means that Christians are not challenged to think about and practice forgiving each other the way God directs in scripture.  In this vacuum, secular thinking is found to pervade the Church in the form of phrases commonly used as equivalents to forgive: “get over it”; “let it go”; “stop pretending that the past could be any different.”  Attempts to provide a clear technical explanation usually fall short and end up getting replaced with ambiguous metaphor.

For example, in the pop-theology novel and movie The Shack (2008)—a best-seller—forgiving others in practice is the central issue.  The author first explains it in judicial language (“release from judgment”) but later depicts that concept as inadequate for practical use.  He then substitutes metaphorical language: “letting go of another person’s throat” and “removing your hands from around his neck”.[vi]  The result is less clarity, not more.  At the end of the novel, we still don’t know what forgiving means.  And while conservative criticism of The Shack abounds, few critics offer constructive and clear biblical explanations of how to forgive others.  In short, the absence of orthodoxy about forgiving others means that Christians are left to think and live no differently from the secular community.

As to how to live out our orthodoxy, competing views exist on the question of whether explicit confession, apology and/or repentance on the part of the perpetrator must be evident before one should grant forgiveness.  Similarly, competing views exist on the question of how the relationship should be conducted after forgiveness is verbally granted.  Worse yet, trust is frequently confounded with forgiveness: “If you really forgive me, then you have to trust me.”  This confounding of two different things can leads to susceptibility to manipulation by predatory narcissists—into destructive codependency (2 Tim 3:1-9).

In summary, the orthodoxy of biblical forgiveness has not yet been made clear, and without clear orthodoxy on the subject, our orthopraxis is as wildly diverse as that of our secular culture. The emotions corresponding to this ambiguous orthodoxy of forgiving for most Christians is currently chaotic and disturbing if not deeply discouraging; the peace and joy of orthopathy remains beyond our reach.  Therefore, this issue is an opportunity for the Church to develop doctrine to help Christians both understand and employ a Biblical concept.

Confusion in the Secular Community about the Meaning of “Forgive”

While we Christians are being taught by our Elders to think biblically (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:11-16), as history readily demonstrates, our thinking is strongly affected by secular concepts endemic to the popular culture in which we live.[vii]  Elders attempting to equip their congregants to forgive will therefore need to be aware of the competing secular concepts; these concepts need to be explicitly identified, rejected and replaced with an integrated biblical concept.

Popular Secular Literature

In popular secular literature, schools of thought range from “let it go” to “change the narrative” to “cultivate feelings of compassion”, and various blends of these activities have been proposed.[viii]  Ambiguous terminology and metaphor are the norm; technical definitions of forgiving are conspicuously absent.  It is this ambiguity and diversity of concepts that we Christians will most likely bring with us into our attempts to forgive.[ix]

Secular Professional Literature

Philosophers and lawyers are examining forgiveness in secular professional publications.[x]  The definition of forgiveness has long been an issue for psychologists attempting to research its function and effects.[xi]  Twenty-five different process (or “task-stage”) models of forgiveness have been identified in a review that found “little consensus as to what constitutes the process” and concluded it’s “not clear how forgiveness occurs.”[xii]  In response to this ambiguity, Strelan and Covic proposed a definition of forgiveness based on coping: “Forgiveness is the process of neutralizing a stressor that has resulted from a perception of interpersonal hurt.”

Secular professions have proposed models of forgiving for debate and research.  In the past decade, three major models of forgiveness have emerged: McCullough’s process model, Worthington’s pyramid model, and Enright’s transformational model.[xiii]  Forgiveness as a system that opposes revenge systems, based on the concept of Welfare Tradeoff Ratios developed from evolutionary psychology, has been proposed and debated in open peer commentary.[xiv]  More recently, the role of perspective-taking self-manipulations (i.e., Recall-Self-as-Transgressor, Imagine-Other, Imagine-Self) and their effect on the emotional aspect of forgiveness has become the subject of quantitative research.[xv]

Some researchers have developed survey instruments to assess forgiveness, such as the Forgiveness of Others (FOO) scale, the Transgression Narrative Test of Forgiveness (TNTF) and the Tendency to Forgive (TTF) scale.[xvi]  Others have researched behavioral indicators of the degree of forgiveness, such as latency of response to questions about an incident, using some of these instruments.[xvii]  Strelan et al. examined the role of post-transgression trust and transgression-specific forgiveness in close relationships.[xviii]   A wide range of definitions and corresponding discussion is available in a 32-chapter Handbook of Forgiveness[xix], and as recently as 2022 the correlations between divine-, self- and interpersonal forgiveness were studied, along with correlations with depressive symptoms.[xx]

The existence of competing, incompatible models for forgiving, coupled with the wide diversity of definitions in popular and professional literature indicate both continuing respect for the existential power of the term but also pervasive uncertainty about its meaning and substance.  Consequently, secular sources are contributing to the confusion among Christians as to how to forgive each other.

Confusion in the Christian Community about the Meaning of “Forgive”

Among theologically liberal Christian authors, similar ambiguity and diversity of concepts prevail.  Archbishop Tutu and his daughter proposed a “four-fold path” that begins once a choice is made: (1) telling the story; (2) naming the hurt; (3) recognizing shared humanity; and (4) renewing or releasing the relations.[xxi]  Thompson advocated a three-step internal process (challenge the supremacy of our small ego-kingdoms; discover our common humanity; wake up to the deeper reality of our identity in Christ) followed by a prayerful ritual involving stones and a bowl.[xxii]  In general, these authors employ concepts derived more from popular psychology than from Scripture, and they frequently employ ambiguous language.

Among theologically conservative Christian authors, forgiveness concepts are more aligned by a focus on biblical texts and terminology, but these authors also exhibit disparate views and tend to use ambiguous metaphorical language.  For example, Sande devoted considerable attention (a full chapter in The Peacemaker) to explaining forgiveness beginning with two verses, Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32.[xxiii]  These verses are key because they emphasize the direct relationship between how God forgives us and how we forgive each other.  It is significant that both verses use similar (and non-metaphorical) language to make that relationship explicit. These verses will be examined more thoroughly later in this article.

Sande explained what forgiveness is not (feeling, forgetting, excusing) before stating what forgiveness is: a decision “to release” the other person “from liability to suffer punishment or penalty.”  He based this definition primarily on an interpretation of two Greek words (aphiemi, charizomai) found in passages related to forgiving, and centered his explanation on the metaphor of debt:

“…forgiveness can be a costly activity.  When someone sins, they create a debt, and someone must pay it.  Most of this debt is owed to God… 

“But if someone sinned against you, part of their debt is owed to you.  This means you have a choice to make.  You can either take payments on the debt or make payments.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Sande explained that to “make payments”, Christians draw on the work of Christ on their behalf, because He “established an account of abundant grace in your name.”  “By going to the cross…you will find that you have all you need to make the payments of forgiveness for those who have wronged you.”  This metaphor of bank accounts and debt payments can be helpful in some ways, but dangerous in others, especially as it tends to reduce grace conceptually from a transcendent characteristic to the level of a mere commodity.   While the financial metaphor is helpful in illustrating the extent of forgiving, it does little to explain how the transaction is to be put into effect.  The debt analogy in Scripture will be examined in detail later in this article.

Using this release-from-debt analogy, Sande offers an orthopraxis consisting of four promises: “I will not dwell on this incident; I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you; I will not talk to others about this incident; I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”  It is significant that all four promise actions that will not be taken—a negation approach to defining the action of forgiving.  He concludes that “forgiveness is both an event and a process” where reciting the four promises is the event that begins the process of reconciliation.

Like Sande, Poirier described biblical forgiveness as a promise or promises centered on the analogy of debt.[xxiv]  His orthopraxis implements forgiveness in two stages (dispositional and transactional); the first stage is unilateral, and the second is bilateral, or face-to-face between victim and perpetrator.  In this view, the second (transactional) stage completes the forgiveness process, but is contingent on the perpetrator’s presence and cooperation.  Brauns similarly asserts that our forgiving is always tied to reconciling, and so is conditional.[xxv]  Likewise, R. Jones separates forgiveness into two levels (attitudinal and transacted) and uses metaphorical language (“empty our hearts of bitterness”) to describe the actions necessary to achieve necessary attitudinal forgiveness.[xxvi]  The transactional level Jones proposes appears to be identical to that proposed by Poirier; it too is dependent on the cooperation of the perpetrator.

Musekura carefully examined the four Hebrew and the four Greek terms that appear in passages that speak to forgiving; he also reviewed the work of Smedes, L. G. Jones and Volf among other authors in his survey of contemporary models of forgiveness.  He then proposed a community-centric process model of forgiveness, using the metaphor of “cancellation of interpersonal debt.”  Barnes examined the Greek terms in order to assess the idea of “political forgiveness” and whether it should be endorsed by Christians.[xxvii]  G. Jones further explains the Musekura model as a “dance” with six steps or stages.[xxviii]

In summary, while conservative Christian authors start with scripture, like their liberal counterparts, they employ metaphors and analogies as their primary tools to explain how we are to forgive each other.  Both groups tend to propose process or task-stage models.  The preferred analogy among more conservative authors appears to be interpersonal debt.  This extensive reliance on metaphor and analogy means that we have illustrations, but not explanations sufficiently explicit to frame a clear orthopraxis.  These analogies fail to provide a clear orthopraxis because neither metaphor nor analogy alone can substitute for an explicitly worded didactic.[xxix]  Metaphor does not provide the vivid clarity in orthodoxy that we need to drive a clear orthopraxis and its associated orthopathy.  Neither does a negative approach (defining forgiving by stating what we won’t do); a positive statement is essential.  Further, we need an approach that illuminates our existential experience starting from explicit scripture, rather than giving our existential experience the dominant role over scripture.

Forgiving Each Other is a Touch Point for Evangelism

Because conflict is a normal part of life in a world filled with broken sinners, forgiving is a door for personal conversations about the gospel.  In addition to secular psychologists and philosophers, Muslim scholars are discussing forgiveness between parties in conflict.[xxx]  Several verses in the Quran stipulate forgiving offenses between Muslims.[xxxi]  The Arabic term sulh refers to formal dispute resolution that may or may not include mediators in civil disputes, but may also be used in criminal cases.  More importantly, forgiveness is considered intrinsic to sulh:

Forgiveness is not an element of sulh, but plays an integral part in sulh.  Not all cases can be withdrawn with forgiveness as it depends on type of offences committed and when forgiveness is given.  The criminal case that has infringed the right of individuals may be withdrawn if the victim has forgiven the accused.  The court cannot simply pardon the accused if the offence has infringed the right of individuals.  Nevertheless, in cases that involve the right of Allah, the court may pardon the accused and substitutes with a lesser punishment.[xxxii]

This open discussion in secular and Islamic scholarly literature indicates a common respect both for the word “forgive” and for the power this word holds in common conversation.  This common respect means there is a strong potential for non-threatening, relational evangelism in the form of What and How questions.  For example, the question “How do Muslims forgive each other, exactly?” demonstrates respect for Islam while seeking understanding of it, both of which are disarming.  “What are you actually doing when you forgive your Muslim brother?” is a more personal way to say the same thing.

Lance Acree is in his 34th year of service as a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He researches preventable human error; he and his wife of 42 years live in Clinton, Tennessee.

[i] Stakelberg, C. S. (1909). Tolstoi Holds Lincoln World’s Greatest Hero. The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy, 1860 to Now, 389.

[ii] Matt 18:21

[iii] Frame, J. M. (1987). The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.

[iv] See Chapter XXII, “Of Lawful Oaths and Vows,” in The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647.

[v] See Ezek. 11:19, 36:26; Titus 3:5; 2 Cor. 5:17; John 3:3-8; Eph 2:3-9

[vi] Mittelstadt, M. W., & Sutton, G. W. (2010). Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Multidisciplinary Studies from a Pentecostal Perspective. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

[vii] Schaeffer, F. A. (1976). How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.

[viii] Hamilton, A. (2012), Forgiveness: Finding Peace Through Letting Go. Nashville: Abingdon Press. Luskin, F. (2003), Forgive for Good. San Francisco: HarperOne. Tipping, C. (2010), Radical Forgiveness: A Revolutionary Five-Stage Process to Heal Relationships Boulder: Sounds True. Khazan, O. (2015, January 28), The forgiveness boost. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

[ix] Kaminskiene, N., Tvaronaviciene, A., & Sirgediene, R. (2015). Apology and forgiveness in mediation as factors for its success. International Academic Conference on Social Sciences 2015 Conference Proceedings (pp. 223-232). Istanbul, Turkey: The International Institute for Academic Development. Retrieved from

[x] Kekes, J. (2009). Blame versus forgiveness. The Monist: An International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical Inquiry; Oxford, 488-506.  Mouzon, F. (2008). Forgive us our trespasses: The need for federal expungement legislation. The University of Memphis Law Review, 1-46.

[xi] Denton, R. T., & Martin, M. W. (1998). Defining forgiveness: An empirical exploration of process and role. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 281-292. Retrieved from Sandage, S. J. (2005). Intersubjectivity and the many faces of forgiveness: Commentary on paper by Stephen Wangh. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 17-32. Retrieved from Cochran, K. (2014, May 1). How do we forgive?: An empirical framework for the underlying processes of overcoming interpersonal betrayal. Retrieved June 8, 2017, from University of North Carolina Greensboro Digital Online Collection of Knowledge and Scholarship:,%20Karly_2014_Thesis.pdf

[xii] Strelan, P., & Covic, T. (2006). A review of forgiveness process models and a coping framework to guide future research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1059-1085. Retrieved from

[xiii] Musekura, C. (2010). An Assessment of Contemporary Models of Forgiveness. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

[xiv] McCullough, M. E., Kursban, R., & Tabak, B. A. (2013). Cognitive systems for revenge and forgiveness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-15. doi:10.1017/S0140525X11002160

[xv] Cochran, K. A. (2014). How do we forgive?: An empirical framework for the underlying processes of overcoming interpersonal betrayal [Appalachian State University].,%20Karly_2014_Thesis.pdf

[xvi] Brown, R. P. (2002). Measuring individual differences in the tendency to forgive: construct validity and links with depression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 759-771.

[xvii] Fatfouta, R. (2015). How forgiveness affects processing time: Mediation by rumination about the transgression. Personality and Individual Differences, 90-95. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.03.016

[xviii] Strelan, P., Karremans, J. C., & Krieg, J. (2017). What determines forgiveness in close relationships? The role of post-transgression trust. British Journal of Social Psychology, 161-180. doi:10.1111/bjso.12173

[xix] Worthington, E. L. (Ed.) (2005) Handbook of Forgiveness, Routledge.  See also the survey of models in Worthington, E. L. (2006), Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application, Routledge.

[xx] Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2022). No type of forgiveness is an island: Divine forgiveness, self-forgiveness and interpersonal forgiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 17(5), 620–627. Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2020). Divine, interpersonal and self-forgiveness: Independently related to depressive symptoms? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(4), 448–454.

[xxi] Tutu, D., & Tutu, M. (2014). The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. (D. C. Abrams, Ed.) New York, New York: HarperOne.

[xxii] Thompson, M. J. (2014). Forgiveness: A Lenten Study. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

[xxiii] Sande, K. (2004). The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

[xxiv] Poirier, A. (2006). The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[xxv] Brauns, C. (2008). Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds. Crossway Books.

[xxvi] Jones, R. D. (2012). Pursuing Peace: a Christian Guide to Handling Our Conflicts. Wheaton Ill: Crossway.

[xxvii] Barnes, L. P. (2011, February). Talking politics, talking forgiveness. Scottish Journal of Theology; Edinburgh, 64(1), 64-79. doi:10.1017/S0036930610001067

[xxviii] Jones, G. L., & Musekura, C. (2010). Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[xxix] For a thorough and illuminating discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of metaphor, analogy and technical language in theology, see Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 226-232.

[xxx] Iqbal, K. (n.d.). Premarital and Marriage Advise/Counseling. Retrieved June 17, 2017, from Rahmaa Institute:

[xxxi] Surah al-Shura: 40; Surah An-Nur 24:22; Surah Al-A’raf 7:199; Surah Al-Hijr 15:85; Surah Ash-Shura 42:43

[xxxii] Aziz, N., & Hussin, N. (2016). The application of mediation (sulh) in Islamic criminal law. Shariah Journal, 115-136.

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