"Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis," by L. Gregory Jones (Eerdmans, 332 pp.; $28, hardcover; $18, paper).

Anybody who thinks hard about forgiveness will start a lot more rabbits than he can catch. The topic raises a whole nest of questions, and the good answers will seldom be the easy ones.

Take a case. Suppose that you are a lonesome, middle-aged woman who has finally met a suitable man. He speaks gently, laughs musically, and reads widely. He walks you slowly through spring air that is laden with the scent of lilacs and points out the nesting habits of finches, particularly of the yellow ones. He relishes a good Sunday sermon and can later recall whole swatches of it while he cooks your dinner. He is almost unimaginably attentive. This charming man fills you with such a sense of promise, with so much trust and love and longing, that you never do ask why he wants to arrange a joint banking account while the two of you are still on your honeymoon. After he cleans you out, disappears immaculately, and then shows up on a most-wanted list (six aliases, two previous convictions for similar offenses), you face a terrible truth. You have been betrayed, and you never saw it coming.

Now some questions. What would have to happen before you could forgive this louse? Would he have to repent? Suppose you never see him again. Could you forgive him anyway? As a Christian, must you forgive him? How soon? For his sake or for yours? What if you try to forgive him, but can't? May your pastor, sedate in his wisdom and serene in his marriage, urge you to forgive? Doesn't that just add a load of guilt to your trauma?

Anyhow, isn't forgiveness too good for traitors? Isn't there something almost unjust about it--something that trivializes the offense and encourages the offender to repeat it? May people just go around hurting other people, changing their lives forever, and then nonchalantly accept forgiveness for all the litter they leave behind?

Suppose you eventually do succeed in forgiving the litterer. Does this mean you must take him back into your life somehow? Does it mean you would not testify against him at his bigamy trial or acquiesce in his imprisonment? Does it mean you like him better than you used to?


In his thoughtful and wide-ranging book, L. Gregory Jones does not fully answer all such questions, but he does raise and address many of them. Mainly, he teaches us how to think about the topic that generates them. Perhaps the one-sentence message of this book is that we need to ponder and practice forgiveness in proper context. Hence the book's title. Describing forgiveness as "not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life," and, drawing upon a wide range of resources, including film and fiction, Jones keeps showing us the settings or "narratives" in which forgiveness belongs.

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It naturally belongs in our churches, for example. Our church communities ought to be cities of refuge for sinners, busy with the traffic of forgiveness, busy with people learning the "craft" of forgiveness--ordinarily by getting apprenticed to a master forgiver or two. The idea is that saints ought to teach forgiveness to saints-in-training. In the holy catholic church (the communion of saints), we should be rehearsing the forgiveness of sins like pianists, practicing the hard parts over and over till we get them right.

Why? Because forgiveness of sins leads to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Because forgiveness of sins expresses the deepest rhythm of the Christian life, namely, dying and rising with Jesus Christ. True, we die and rise with Christ in our baptism, but then we also keep the rhythm going throughout our whole careers as believers. Every time we kill resentment and raise up kindness, every time we mortify pride and vivify humility, every time we put off hatred and put on mercy, we die and rise with Jesus Christ. Of course, the grace of the vivifying Holy Spirit must be at work in us, but the basic rhythm is also something we have to work out ourselves. And the assignment is pretty urgent. If we don't learn how to die and rise now, how will we manage at the end of our lives?

According to Jones, forgiveness of others is a gracious self-sacrifice. In imitation of the self-giving love among the persons of the Holy Trinity and in union with the self-giving Christ, Christians painfully unlearn sin by undertaking to confess and forgive it. Each time we forgive we make the sign of the cross and then rejoice in the empty tomb. Each time we forgive we put out a contract on our old self--the timidly self-righteous self or the proud grudge-bearing self--and then pull the trigger ourselves. Each time we forgive we absorb evil without passing it on, and then rise, like Christ, with healing in our wings.


This is Jones's main line, and he draws it straight and true. But at the same time, he also sketches a lot of intriguing subplots. For example, he rejects excessively "light" views of life that trivialize sin and underestimate God's costly remedy for it, and also excessively "dark" views that propose violence as the only effective answer to violence. Describing forgiveness as an "innovative gesture" that can cut the loop of retaliation, Jones nonetheless insists that forgiveness implies accountability. Forgiveness is aimed at sin, after all, and sin is the kind of evil for which somebody is to blame.

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One of the notable strengths of this book is that it never underestimates the difficulties involved in the discipline of forgiveness. For one thing, we human beings often find it just as hard to accept forgiveness as to offer it. "Forgivenness" is as hard a piece of the project of holiness as "forgivingness." For another, some persons seem to place themselves beyond the reach of forgiveness, even by God, so that the meaning of "the unforgivable sin" rises above a biblical trivia debate into an agonizing question for victims who have been beaten into numbness. Accordingly, Jones recognizes that full and free forgiveness, on the one hand, and bitter hatred of the offender, on the other, are not the only options. Perhaps we can adopt a benign posture toward an enemy even while, at least for a time, withholding forgiveness. Perhaps we can put some sins into suspension, neither forgiving them nor retaining them, but just bracketing them for a while till we gather ourselves for a new push toward forgiveness.


Altogether, this is a highly intelligent, theologically instructive, and deeply reflective piece of work. I have assigned it to my students, and I hope that its kind increases.

But not its two failings. First, Jones is plainly uneasy with the task of trying to define forgiveness. Throughout the book he describes the contexts of forgiveness, and he does this beautifully. He says that forgiveness is not so much a thought or an action as an embodied way of life, and he says this repeatedly. But here is my question: If forgiveness isn't a thought or action, then just what is it that makes up the way of life we embody when we embody forgiveness? Isn't a way of life a pattern of thoughts, words, and actions?

Further, if forgiveness isn't an action, or not much of one, then just which action isn't it? Jones waits until page 229 before really raising the question of how forgiveness differs from excusing, condoning, or pardoning. He explains that such distinctions are best left to analytic philosophers, and that theologians and their kin may better learn the nature of forgiveness by working on-site, by "engaging in the ongoing craft of forgiveness." But then why write books about forgiveness? Moreover, if we hesitate to define forgiveness and to distinguish it from its near neighbors, how will we know when we have actually learned the craft of forgiveness rather than absent-mindedly learning the craft of, say, tolerance instead?

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I think forgiveness of sins is both an action and an embodied way of life, and that Jones sidesteps some acute questions having to do with the action. When you forgive a person, what is it that you actually do? Do you make a move against one of your emotions? Which one? Do you shut a file in your memory? How so? Do you give up the right to revenge? (As a believer, did you ever have that right in the first place?) Do you take a vow of some kind? Out loud and in the presence of the traitor?

Jones is too good a theologian not to touch on such questions, but he is vague about the answers, suggesting that the nature of forgiveness will depend on the context. Maybe so, but what is elementary forgiveness? What is the basic machinery? If your nine-year-old asks what she must do to forgive somebody who humiliated her at school, what do you say? What do you say about forgiveness to somebody who is not up to speed on cruciform contexts and embodied ways of life?

Second, this book treats Lewis Smedes unjustly. Smedes's enormously popular (and wonderfully helpful) "Forgive and Forget" becomes in Jones's hands the epitome of what is wrong with therapeutic approaches to forgiveness--ones in which the healing effect of forgiveness on the forgiver assumes a high profile. According to Jones, Smedes thins forgiveness down into a handy four-step technique, ignores the ambiguities of the settings in which broken people forgive other broken people, and generally separates "forgiveness from any sense of sin." Indeed, despite "intermittent insights" and "good intentions," Smedes finally offers us little more than a "frighteningly shallow perspective that trivializes and undermines central Christian practices and understandings of forgiveness."

Not so. Remarkably not so; and if this were the place to do it, I think I could show exactly where Jones has misread Smedes. The wonderful truth is that Smedes and Jones actually complement each other very nicely: Jones gives us the theological narratives, the communal embeddedness, the broad contexts of forgiveness. Smedes tells us popularly, but very toughmindedly, what actual moves we make when we forgive in those contexts. As far as I can tell, the combination is what we need, and that is why it is just fine to have more than one Christian writing more than one kind of book on this very difficult topic of forgiveness of sins.


Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of "Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin" (Eerdmans).

Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today, Inc./CHRISTIANITY TODAY Magazine

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