Charleston: Forgiveness without Repentance?
June 21, 2015
Listening to the family members of those who were mercilessly killed in the Charleston church was an opportunity to witness some of the best theology you'll see in your life. I only hope that if I am ever faced with a similar situation that I'll react half as well as those people did as they spoke to Dylan Roof.
Quite astonishingly, however, some took the opportunity to find fault with the way the family members offered forgiveness to the killer because they said, without qualifying their words, "I forgive you...".
Based on Luke 17:3-5, the argument goes that they cannot say: "I forgive you." Why? Because there is no repentance. For forgiveness to happen, repentance must take place. Incidentally, I did hear one of the family members urging Dylan Roof to seek repentance so that he may be better off than he is now.
I firmly believe that we need to be precise in our theology. Heretics and heroes of the faith have often disagreed on important doctrines based on one letter in a word (homoousios vs. homoiousios).
It is easy for the "theologian" to pick apart their words and make the point that true forgiveness always involves repentance and therefore leads to restoration. After all, we are to forgive one another according to the way God in Christ has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32). But I'm afraid such an attitude is one that has more in common with someone sitting in an ivory-tower office than someone who understands grieving souls.
I still maintain that what I witnessed by the family members was theology in action that should humble us to the core of our being.
We are all aware, I trust, that all sins are committed against God. Therefore, no one can forgive sins in the way that God can. He has a peculiar authority that we do not have. All sins, whether mediately or immediately, are committed against God. Sometimes the neighbour is the medium, but the sin is still against God. Why is this important? Because if we forgive our neighbour, this does not relate to the guilt of his sin, but rather to the harm that has been done to us.
So when the family members of the killed "forgave" Dylan Roof, we are not forced to have to look at their forgiveness and then argue that they have no right to do so because there is no repentance from Mr. Roof. Rather, we are to understand their offering of forgiveness based on the harm that has been done to them because of the loss they have experienced.
In effect, they are not telling Mr. Roof that he is now justified before God. They are saying, you have harmed us and hurt us; and we forgive you for this harm.
I noticed one person on twitter suggest that the family members could have said this:
"I don't have the authority to forgive you for murder. Only God does. Repent and turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior. For my part I pray for your conversion, and for justice, and if you ever confess and ask for it, I stand ready to forgive."
Now this sounds good, but it assumes that we cannot forgive for the harm done to us. The distinction between guilt and harm is an important distinction. Moreover, it is all well and good to make these suggestions of what they should have said while we're sitting on a computer, but quite another thing to stand before the killer of someone you love and give him Berkhof.
They did what their souls, aided by the grace of Christ, enabled them to do in that moment. And I think instead of critiquing these people we should be humbled by the manner in which they spoke. It makes Reformed people look petty and pastorally insensitive.
The issue of Dylan Roof's guilt remains. He needs to repent before these people and before God if he is going to be saved. One of the family members made that clear:
"But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you and you'll be OK. Do that and you'll be better off than what you are right now."
We should all be of the mind that it would be a glorious thing if the killed were to meet Dylan in heaven and embrace him. I can pray that justice will be done to him (i.e., he will die for these killings), but that mercy will be shown to him (i.e., he will repent and be saved).
But, whatever we do, let's not cast aspersions or shadows upon these people because we want to take this opportunity to critique the details of their theology. Theological precision has its place, and there are some instances where I think we do need to insist upon repentance for reconciliation in a church context (i.e., "if your brother sins..."). But this is an instance whereby Christians - and indeed non-Christians, as well - can only marvel at the grace and love that has been expressed by these grieving family members.
Imagine us telling the world that what they saw by the grieving family members was theologically incorrect? And based on Mark 11:25 I'm not sure they were theologically incorrect (on this, see here).
The family members of the Charleston victims expressed some of the best theology I've heard in my life. To think that the victims were better off going to the bible study than not going is a glorious and sobering thought for us all. John 17:24, "Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world."