In the past decade, the highest cultural value seemed to be “tolerance,” but our society has recently placed a high value on justice. That is certainly a good goal, but without God and his message of forgiveness, this desire breeds vengeance and retribution. That’s why Timothy Keller’s book on forgiveness is so timely and applicable.
Keller divides his book into three parts: losing and finding forgiveness, understanding forgiveness, and practicing forgiveness. In the opening section, Keller explains how our society lost its faith in forgiveness. As our culture becomes more secular, we not only lose the foundation of forgiveness, but we have also lost its meaning and goal. As examples of a forgiveness-less culture, Keller cites the 2020 race riots that took place in many major US cities and the so-called “cancel culture” mediated through social media.
With that in mind, Keller believes forgiveness is an absolute necessity. If we don’t find a way to forgive one another, we will eventually devour one another. According to Keller, the only hope is Christianity because forgiveness is the foundation of Christianity. No other culture, movement, or religion can lay claim to this idea of pardoning the wrongdoer. Only the Holy Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament, speak about the true canceling of moral debts based on the work of God with the hope of reconciliation.
In the book’s second section, Keller explains what forgiveness is and what it is not. According to Keller, forgiveness means to release someone from a debt, absorbing the pain of the action in some way. He says that forgiveness is not to be contrasted with justice. Without the Biblical teaching of justice, there would be no standard by which a certain deed would need forgiveness. In addition, forgiveness doesn’t mean abolishing consequences or even punishments. Out of love for the perpetrator and potential victims, we must do what we can to stop and deter evil from continuing. But how can God both uphold justice and forgive the wrongdoer? According to Keller, Calvary’s cross resolves this tension, where God simultaneously pays for evil and forgives the world.
Finally, the book’s third section focuses on practicing forgiveness and reconciliation. Keller begins with our understanding of our relationship with God. We must receive and experience God’s forgiveness before we can truly empathize with our offenders and forgive them. Then, once we have forgiven them in our hearts, Keller believes we are called to forgive them outwardly with the hopes of complete reconciliation.
Although Keller thoroughly knows modern culture, psychology, and philosophy, he is not just making a logical argument based on secular assumptions. He is making a case for forgiveness based on God’s Word. To that end, Keller uses Jesus’s parable of the Unmerciful Servant found in Matthew 18 as the controlling metaphor for the whole book. I applaud Keller for drawing out Jesus’s main idea: When we realize the enormous debt God forgave in our lives, we ought to forgive the relatively minor debts against us. I appreciate how far Keller goes in expounding on the importance of understanding, receiving, and appropriating the Gospel before we can forgive others.
Keller breaks down forgiveness in ways that were new to me, describing two different types of forgiveness: inward and outward forgiveness.
In Mark 11 “forgive them” means inwardly being willing to not avenge oneself. In Luke 17 “forgive them” means “reconcile to them.” There is, then, a kind of forgiveness that ends up being inward only and another kind that issues outwardly toward a possible restored relationship (cf. Matthew 5:24—“be reconciled to your brother,” ESV; Matthew 18:15—“if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother,” ESV). The victim of the wrongdoing in either case must forgive inwardly, while reconciliation depends on whether the perpetrator recognizes his wrongdoing and repents or does not. (106-7)
Not only do we need to know the difference between inward and outward forgiveness, but we also need to know the order of importance: first, we must forgive the wrongdoer inwardly, then we can proceed to forgive them outwardly.
If you go to the perpetrator before you forgive them, you are likely to go not to regain your brother or sister. You will most likely be going not to persuade and reclaim them but just to tell them off and so to pay them back. They will sense the ill will immediately and will become defensive and angry and will not admit where they have been wrong. And so they will be far less likely to ever repent in response to your confrontation. (188)
The distinction between inward and outward forgiveness and explaining that inward forgiveness must precede outward forgiveness shows Keller’s understanding of pastoral experience and deep understanding of human nature and psychology. He knows how easy it is for us to hold on to our desires for vengeance while at the same time giving mere lip service to forgiveness.
Unfortunately, another dynamic could have used much more attention, namely, the tendency for perpetrators to revictimize their victims. Throughout the book, Keller encourages victims to forgive the perpetrator, confront them, and pursue reconciliation. For example, Keller closes the book by walking through Romans 12:14-21 as a step-by-step prescription for forgiveness. He says if a person has been hurt, they are to use Paul’s words to help them forgive and, if possible, rebuild the relationship. He says we are not to avoid our wrongdoers but give them what they need.
In most cases, following Keller’s advice is wise and God-pleasing. However, Jesus also told us we are like sheep living among wolves. “Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). Sometimes, we need to realize that we are working with a wolf, who has no desire for reconciliation, but only to control and destroy. In those cases, demanding or encouraging survivors to reengage with their perpetrator at any level puts them in spiritual, emotional, and maybe even physical harm.
I have many reasons to recommend this book to fellow pastors and church members. In a society where the love of most is growing cold, we need to relearn the importance of practicing forgiveness. Not only to promote peace in our churches and communities but, more importantly, to express God’s mercy in our lives. And yet, I would hesitate to give this book to abuse survivors. I would not want them to feel coerced into confronting and meeting with their perpetrator and thus be revictimized. Therefore, my praise for this book is mixed. I am thankful that Timothy Keller reintroduces the message of forgiveness from God and to our neighbor, but I want to encourage God’s people to be wise as they meet with those who seem to have hardened their hearts.