Does anyone really want to forgive? Or admit that we need forgiveness? Whether we're giving or receiving, forgiveness is hard. It seems unfair. It feels unnatural. And as best-selling author and pastor John MacArthur demonstrates, forgiveness apart from Christ is unnatural. It is only as we understand our need, Christ's power and example, and what it really means to love that we can embrace two of the most liberating acts of love: forgiving and being forgiven.
The Truth About Series
For decades MacArthur has encouraged countless Christians to develop a deeper understanding of the Bible and a greater respect for God's truth. In The Truth About series, he now gathers his landmark teachings about core aspects of the Christian faith in one place. These powerful books are designed to give readers a focused experience that centers on God's character and how it applies to their daily walk of faith.
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THE TRUTH ABOUT forgiveness
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 John MacArthur
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe Need to Be Forgiven
THE BAD NEWS
Thousands of babies are born every day into a world filled with bad news. The term bad news has become a colloquialism to describe our era.
Why is there so much bad news? It's simple. The bad news that occurs on a larger scale is only the multiplication of what is occurring on an individual level. The power that makes for bad news is sin.
THE WORSE NEWS
A common contemporary response to this bad news is to deny it or try to explain it away. Perhaps the most prevalent means of escaping blame is by classifying every human failing as some kind of disease. Drunkards and drug addicts can check into clinics for treatment of their "chemical dependencies." Children who habitually defy authority can escape condemnation by being labeled "hyperactive" or having ADD (attention deficit disorder). Gluttons are no longer blameworthy; they suffer from an "eating disorder." Even the man who throws away his family's livelihood to pay for prostitutes is supposed to be an object of compassionate understanding; he is "addicted to sex."
An FBI agent was fired after he embezzled two thousand dollars, then gambled it away in a single afternoon at a casino. Later he sued, arguing that his gambling addiction was a disability, so his firing was an act of illegal discrimination. He won the case! Moreover, his therapy for the gambling addiction had to be funded under his employer's health-care insurance, just as if he had been suffering from appendicitis or an ingrown toenail.
These days everything wrong with humanity is likely to be explained as an illness. What we used to call sin is more easily diagnosed as a whole array of disabilities. All kinds of immorality and evil conduct are now identified as symptoms of this or that psychological illness. Criminal behavior, various perverse passions, and every imaginable addiction have all been made excusable by the crusade to label them medical afflictions. Even commonplace problems, such as emotional weakness, depression, and anxiety, are also almost universally defined as quasi-medical, rather than spiritual, afflictions.
The American Psychiatric Association publishes a thick book to help therapists in the diagnosis of these new diseases. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Third Edition, Revised)—or DSM-III-R, as it is popularly labeled—lists the following "disorders":
* Conduct Disorder—"a persistent pattern of conduct in which the basic rights of others and major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated."
* Oppositional Defiant Disorder—"a pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior."
* Histrionic Personality Disorder—"a pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking."
* Antisocial Personality Disorder—"a pattern of irresponsible and antisocial behavior beginning in childhood or early adolescence and continuing into adulthood."
And there are dozens more like those. Multitudes of parents, influenced by such diagnoses, refuse to punish their children for misbehavior. Instead, they seek therapy for ODD, or HDP, or whatever new diagnosis fits the unruly child's behavior.
In the words of one author, the disease-model approach to human behavior has so overwhelmed us as a society that we have gone haywire. We want to pass laws to excuse compulsive gamblers when they embezzle money to gamble and to force insurance companies to pay to treat them. We want to treat people who can't find love and who instead (when they are women) go after dopey, superficial men or (when they are men) pursue endless sexual liaisons without finding true happiness. And we want to call all these things—and many, many more—addictions.
What is this new addiction industry meant to accomplish? More and more addictions are being discovered, and new addicts are being identified, until all of us will be locked into our own little addictive worlds with other addicts like ourselves, defined by the special interests of our neuroses. What a repugnant world to imagine, as well as a hopeless one. Meanwhile, all the addictions we define are increasing.
Worse yet, the number of people who suffer from such newly identified "sicknesses" is increasing even faster. The therapy industry is clearly not solving the problem of what Scripture calls sin. Instead it merely convinces multitudes that they are desperately sick and therefore not really responsible for their wrong behavior. It gives them permission to think of themselves as patients, not malefactors. And it encourages them to undergo extensive—and expensive—treatment that lasts for years, or better yet, for a lifetime. These new diseases, it seems, are ailments from which no one is ever expected to recover completely.
The sin-as-disease model has proved to be a boon to the multibillion-dollar counseling industry, and the shift toward long-term or even permanent therapy promises a bright economic future for professional therapists. One psychologist who has analyzed this trend suggests there is a clear strategy to the way therapists market their services:
1. Continue the psychologization of life;
2. Make problems out of difficulties and spread the alarm;
3. Make it acceptable to have the problem and be unable to resolve it on one's own;
4. Offer salvation [psychological, not spiritual].
He notes that many therapists purposely extend their treatments over periods of many years, even after the original problem that provoked the client to seek counseling has been solved or forgotten. "They go on for so long and the client becomes so dependent on the therapist that a special period of time—sometimes extending to six months or more—is required to get the client ready to leave."
Even commonplace problems, such as emotional weakness, depression, and anxiety, are also almost universally defined as quasi-medical, rather than spiritual, afflictions.
Recovery, the code word for programs modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, is explicitly marketed as a lifelong program. We've grown accustomed to the image of a person who has been sober for forty years standing up in an AA meeting and saying, "I'm Bill, and I'm an alcoholic." Now all "addicts" are using the same approach—including sex addicts, gambling addicts, nicotine addicts, anger addicts, wife-beating addicts, child-molesting addicts, debt addicts, self-abuse addicts, envy addicts, failure addicts, overeating addicts, or whatever. People suffering from such maladies are taught to speak of themselves as "recovering," never "recovered." Those who dare to think of themselves as delivered from their affliction are told they are living in denial.
THE WRONG PRESCRIPTION
Disease-model therapy therefore feeds the very problem it is supposed to treat. It alleviates any sense of guilt, while making people feel they are victims, helplessly bound for life to their affliction. Is it any wonder that such a diagnosis so often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Misdiagnosis means any prescribed treatment will be utterly ineffective. The care indicated for conditions labeled pathological usually involves long-term therapy, self-acceptance, a recovery program, or all of the above—perhaps even with some other psychological gimmick such as self-hypnosis thrown in to complete the elixir. "In place of evil, therapeutic society has substituted 'illness'; in place of consequence, it urges therapy and understanding; in place of responsibility, it argues for a personality driven by impulses. The illness excuse has become almost routine in cases of public misconduct."
But assume for the moment that the problem is sin rather than sickness. The only true remedy involves humble repentance and confession (the recognition that you deserve the chastening of God because you alone are responsible for your sin)—then restitution, and growth through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, communion with God, fellowship with other believers, and dependence on Christ. In other words, if the problem is in fact spiritual, labeling it a clinical issue will only exacerbate the problem and will offer no real deliverance from the sin. That is precisely what we see happening everywhere.
The sad truth is that disease-model treatment is disastrously counterproductive. By casting the sinner in the role of a victim, it ignores or minimizes the personal guilt inherent in the misbehavior. "I am sick" is much easier to say than, "I have sinned." But it doesn't deal with the fact that one's transgression is a serious offense against a holy, omniscient, omnipotent God.
Personal guilt is for that very reason at the heart of what must be confronted when dealing with one's sin. But the disease-model remedy cannot address the problem of guilt without explaining it away. And by explaining guilt away, disease-model therapy does untold violence to the human conscience. It is therefore no remedy at all, but a disastrous prescription for escalating wickedness and eternal damnation.
One might think that victimism and disease-model therapy are so obviously contrary to biblical truth that Bible-believing Christians would rise up en masse and expose the error of such thinking. But tragically, that has not been the case. Victimism has become almost as influential within the evangelical church as it is in the unbelieving world, thanks to self-esteem theology and the church's fascination with worldly psychology.
These days, when sinners seek help from churches and other Christian agencies, they are likely to be told that their problem is some emotional disorder or psychological syndrome. They might be encouraged to forgive themselves and told they ought to have more self-love and self-esteem. They are not as likely to hear that they must repent and humbly seek God's forgiveness in Christ. That is such an extraordinary change of direction for the church that even secular observers have noticed it.
Wendy Kaminer, for example, does not purport to be a Christian. If anything, she seems hostile toward the church. She describes herself as "a skeptical, secular humanist, Jewish, feminist, intellectual lawyer." But she has seen the change of direction within evangelicalism, and she describes it with uncanny precision. She notes that religion and psychology have always more or less deemed each other incompatible. Now she sees "not just a truce but a remarkable accommodation." Even from her perspective as an unbeliever, she can see that this accommodation has meant a wholesale alteration of the fundamental message about sin and salvation. She wrote:
Christian codependency books, like those produced by the Minirth-Meier clinic in Texas, are practically indistinguishable from codependency books published by secular writers.... Religious writers justify their reliance on psychology by praising it for "catching up" to some eternal truths, but they've also found a way to make the temporal truths of psychology palatable. Religious leaders once condemned psychoanalysis for its moral neutrality.... Now popular religious literature equates illness with sin.
Some of the criticism Kaminer levels against evangelicals is unwarranted or misguided, but in this respect, she is right on target: the inevitable result of Christians' embracing secular psychology has been the abandonment of any coherent concept of sin. And that has inevitably clouded the message we proclaim.
Describing the prevailing spirit of our age, Kaminer wrote, "No matter how bad you've been in the narcissistic 1970s and the acquisitive 1980s, no matter how many drugs you've ingested, or sex acts performed, or how much corruption enjoyed, you're still essentially innocent: the divine child inside you is always untouched by the worst of your sins."
Elsewhere, she said,
Inner children are always good—innocent and pure—like the most sentimentalized Dickens characters, which means that people are essentially good.... Even Ted Bundy had a child within. Evil is merely a mask—a dysfunction.
The therapeutic view of evil as sickness, not sin, is strong in co-dependency theory—it's not a fire and brimstone theology. "Shaming" children, calling them bad, is considered a primary form of abuse. Both guilt and shame "are not useful as a way of life," Melody Beattie writes earnestly in Codependent No More. "Guilt makes everything harder.... We need to forgive ourselves" [(New York: Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 114–115]. Someone should remind Beattie that there's a name for people who lack guilt and shame: sociopaths. We ought to be grateful if guilt makes things like murder and moral corruption "harder."
Ms. Kaminer suggests that evangelicalism has been infiltrated by this new anthropology-psychology-theology, and that it is antithetical to what we ought to believe and teach about sin. In that regard she surely understands more than the horde of evangelical writers who continue to echo themes from the secular self-esteem cult.
This is a serious matter. Whether you deny sin overtly and openly and totally, or covertly and by implication, any tampering with the biblical concept of sin makes chaos of the Christian faith.
Those ubiquitous phone-in counseling programs on Christian radio may provide one of the best barometers of popular Christianity's trends. When was the last time you heard an on-the-air counselor tell someone suffering from conscience pangs, "Your guilt is valid; you are sinful and must seek full repentance before God"?
Recently I listened to a talk show on a local religious radio station. This daily program features a man who bills himself as a Christian psychologist. On the day I listened he was talking about the importance of overcoming our sense of guilt. Self-blame, he told his audience, is usually irrational and therefore potentially very harmful. He gave a long lecture about the importance of forgiving oneself. The whole discourse was an echo of the world's wisdom: Guilt is a virtual mental defect. Don't let it ruin your self-image. And so on. He never mentioned repentance or restitution as prerequisites for self-forgiveness, and he never cited a single passage of Scripture.
That kind of counsel is as deadly as it is unbiblical. Guilt feelings may not always be rational, but they are nearly always a reliable signal that something is wrong somewhere, and we had better come to grips with whatever it is and make it right. Guilt functions in the spiritual realm like pain in the material realm. Pain tells us there is a physical problem that must be dealt with or the body will suffer harm. Guilt is a spiritual pain in the soul that tells us something is evil and needs to be confronted and cleansed.
To deny personal guilt is to sacrifice the soul for the sake of the ego. Besides, disavowal doesn't really deal with guilt, as we all know intuitively. Far from having beneficial results, it destroys the conscience, and thereby weakens a person's ability to avoid destructive sin. Furthermore, it actually renders a healthy self-image altogether unattainable. "How can we have self-respect if we are not responsible for what we are?" More important, how can we have true self-respect without hearty approval from a healthy conscience?
From a biblical perspective, that kind of counsel can be spiritually destructive. It fails to address the real problem of human sinfulness. It feeds the worst tendencies of human nature. It engenders the most catastrophic form of denial—denial of one's own guilt. And for most, who can't really shake the guilt, it adds more guilt for blaming someone who isn't really to blame at all.
Disavowing our personal culpability can never free us from a sense of guilt. On the contrary, those who refuse to acknowledge their sinfulness actually place themselves in bondage to their own guilt. "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Proverbs 28:13 KJV). "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [But] if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8–9).
Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners! Jesus specifically said He had not come to save those who want to exonerate themselves (Mark 2:17). Where there is no recognition of sin and guilt, when the conscience has been abused into silence, there can be no salvation, no sanctification, and therefore no real emancipation from sin's ruthless power.
Excerpted from THE TRUTH ABOUT forgiveness by John MacArthur Copyright © 2012 by John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 We Need to Be Forgiven 1
2 God Alone Can Forgive Sin 21
3 God's Forgiveness Is Undeserved 47
4 God Wants to Forgive 57
5 God Acts to Forgive 69
6 God Provides the Way to Forgiveness 83
7 God Wants Us to Forgive Others 99
About the Author 117