One of the points I argued in Unpacking Forgiveness is that forgiveness cannot happen completely apart from repentance. Christians ought always to have an attitude of forgiveness. But, forgiveness is about the restoration of a relationship and if the offending party is unrepentant, then forgiveness cannot fully take place any more than you can shake hands by yourself. The offended Christian wraps the package and offers it freely. Yet, the gift needs to be received. For more on this point, see this post.
Conditional forgiveness flows out of the biblical principle that we are to forgive one another as God forgave us (Eph 4:32). God only forgives those who turn in repentance from their sins and receive the gift of eternal life. I’m not alone in taking this position!, see also A.B. Caneday, “Being forgiving doesn’t always mean forgiving.”
A point I have stressed in writing and speaking about forgiveness is that if we insist on unconditional interpersonal forgiveness, then some will inevitably argue that God forgives unconditionally apart from repentance and faith. Those who insist on automatic forgiveness can easily end up arguing that God should also automatically forgive.
This progression is seen in Rob Bell’s thinking. In Velvet Elvis, Bell asserted:
Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for (Bell, Velvet Elvis, page 146).
This is a very problematic statement. The idea that someone can be forgiven by God, yet still go to hell, eviscerates forgiveness of any biblical meaning.
Now in Love Wins (188-189), Bell has taken the next step when he argues that on the Cross, Jesus granted unconditional forgiveness apart from repentance or faith on the part of those who crucified Him.
Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it.
Done. Taken care of.
Before we could be good enough or right enough, before we could even believe the right things.
Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up – - God has already done it.
But, should we accept Bell’s premise that Christ granted forgiveness? As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus wasn’t granting absolution to those who crucified Him – - he wasn’t saying unilaterally that they were forgiven. He was praying for their salvation. Scripture is clear that this prayer would only be answered if they believed in Him. Otherwise, the wrath of God would remain on them (John 3:36).
Bell insists he does not believe in universalism (the teaching that all people are saved). Yet, when he argues that Christ granted forgiveness unilaterally on the Cross and extends that forgiveness to all people, apart from belief, then it’s hard to see how this is not universalism.