Every so often, a book comes along that wonderfully blends clear theological truth with adept cultural analysis on an important topic. Timothy Keller’s Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? is this kind of book. In this book, Keller analyzes our current cultural problems with the concept of forgiveness and provides an overview of what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. This book is a timely reminder that Christians should offer genuine forgiveness based on the great lengths that God has gone to forgive us.
Keller’s biblical teaching centers around the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. This is the foundation for the model of forgiveness that Keller promotes throughout the book. But, as Keller often does in his work, he cites journalists, sociologists, and cultural critics nearly as often as he quotes Scripture. In citing these sources, Keller continually shows that any attempt to answer the questions of when and how to forgive others from a purely human perspective, as our culture seeks to do, will ultimately fall short. Keller displays that much of the disagreement and confusion over the idea of forgiveness seen in our culture over the past years evidences this point. As Keller states in the opening chapter of the book, “human forgiveness must be based on an experience of divine forgiveness” (Keller10). Keller notes that “three basic dimensions” must be present in Christian forgiveness: the vertical which is “God’s forgiveness to us,” the internal, which is “our granting forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us,” and the horizontal, which is “our offer to reconcile” (Keller 10-11). If any of these dimensions are lacking, true forgiveness will not occur, leaving both the wrongdoer and the person wronged in a less than ideal state.
In my opinion, the most important and culturally relevant issue that Keller addresses is how forgiveness can be offered without enabling or ignoring the evil done by the offender. This has been a very prominent cultural question and is at the heart of our culture’s hesitance to offer and promote forgiveness. Keller cites many examples that reveal the difficulty of this issue, from Holocaust survivors to the vocal leaders of the #MeToo movement. Ultimately, the model of forgiveness that Keller advocates for such difficult isssues is what he calls “costly grace.” Throughout the book, Keller vividly describes what offering “costly grace” looks like. It involves saying, “I’m now going to treat you the same way God treated me. I remember your sins no more. That doesn’t mean that I can’t actually recall them. It means I’m not going to act on the basis of them. They’re not the controlling reality in my life” (Keller 132).
This leads to my biggest takeaway from the book: the importance of internal forgiveness and not letting resentment or bitterness be the “controlling realities” of our lives. Early in the book, Keller recounts a pastoral counseling session in which he was counseling an individual who refused to offer forgiveness to a wrongdoer, to which he responded, “Yes, he did you wrong, but if you don’t forgive him in the way Jesus forgave you, you will actually give him power over you” (Keller 14). This means that if we fail to forgive others internally, our motives in life will become distorted, and we will do things not to glorify God or because they are in our best interests, but we will do things to spite others or enact vengeance on them in some way. This has been a concept that has been on my mind often since reading this book. It has served as a consistent reminder to examine my motives and ask if I am doing anything in my life out of bitterness toward someone else, and if so, to offer the internal forgiveness that is necessary to regain a proper perspective of life.
So, whether you are working through the process of forgiving someone in your own life, might find yourself teaching on the topic of biblical forgiveness, or are perplexed at why our culture has such a problem forgiving those who confess wrongdoing, this book is a must read.
Sam Hitchcock (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) serves as the Director of Spiritual Formation at Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond, OK.