C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, written over 50 years ago, remains one of the most popular and influential texts of evangelical culture. Despite having read the book a half-dozen times, I noticed something on this reading that bothered me greatly. Specifically, I found myself deeply troubled by Lewis’ vision of Forgiveness – presented in chapter 7 of book 3 (Christian Behaviors). I am sad to say that, despite the influence this book played on the early development of my faith, it seems to represent an idea of forgiveness endemic to the abuse culture currently thriving within the church.
As such, I feel it important to briefly lay out Lewis’ argument, providing concrete examples of its dangers in situations of abuse. I will then provide critical analysis through Scriptural interpretation, before offering an alternative vision which takes a victim-sensitive approach to the Christian concept of Forgiveness.
Lewis presents Forgiveness as derived from two main principles.
- God will only “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” (per the Lord’s Prayer, Matt 6).
- The drive to forgive must be rooted in self-love because Christ has commanded us ”love your neighbor as yourself.”
From these principles, Lewis presents his thesis for Forgiveness; namely, if we wish God’s forgiveness, we must first forgive those who have wronged us. Failure to offer forgiveness to another person, then, directly impacts our own state before God, rendering us unforgiven as well. As Lewis presents it, one’s entire eternity seems to hang in the balance.
As Lewis expands on these principles, he hones in specifically on the notion of “love your neighbor as yourself”. He argues the lynchpin of forgiveness is coming to terms with how one loves self. Lewis claims that a person does not need to like their self, or particularly approve of their own actions, in order to “love” their self. Instead, for Lewis, a person’s love for self may cause them to perceive certain aspects of their personality or actions as a threat to their own well-being and rightfully “hate” those aspects.
This, Lewis argues, allows us to see that we need not like another person or approve of their actions, only to practice love and forgiveness towards them. This self-centered love allows us to practice the age old adage “hate the sin, love the sinner”. Embracing this notion, in Lewis’ own words, leads us to hope that the sinner “can be cured and made human again.” Since Lewis sees the basic form of humanity as the spiritual self, arguing that it is the inward character of both the offended party and the forgiven offender are what truly matters, he is leads him to assert that punitive measures, up to and including penalty of death, are of a natural Christian order.
Lewis justifies the notion of forgiving someone while killing them by, ironically, focusing on the command: “Thou shalt not kill.” Because he feels the word for kill in this biblical commandment is better rendered murder, there is in his thinking a level of killing which is not prohibited and thus is still consistent with loving one’s neighbor. Even more so he states, “Christians in the service of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage” ought to feel a sort of “gaiety and wholeheartedness” when they perform their duty – such as a soldiers killing an enemy. According to Lewis, we ought – if we must kill an enemy – wish them only good, that they may find a cure “in this world or the next” and stand absolved before God. As he sees it, such a system allows for both forgiveness and justice to co-exist without interfering with one another.
Thus, forgiveness becomes ultimately an act about establishing one’s own rightness with God. It has very little to do with any actual offense, and more to do with securing divine favor by “wishing the best” for the person who has offended us. This view pits forgiveness and justice against each other as opposites. Forgiveness is an internal position which supposedly “seeks the best” of the person on a spiritual level, while Justice becomes the means by which their offense is otherwise punished with the level of prejudice appropriate to the offense (e.g. the death penalty, or a soldier killing his enemy). In this system, justice is not exercised for the abused, but against the abuser.
Lewis’ concept of forgiveness presents several dangers when applied to abusive relationships. Consider the following examples:
- This system empowers abusive husbands to use the threat of divine disfavor to maintain control over their wives. Such a husband could use the notion of “gender roles” to insist he is the absolute head of his wife, to whom she must always submit. As such, while hitting her is wrong, she must “forgive” him and give him another chance because, if she fails to “forgive,” then God will not forgive her either. In which case, failure to submit to forgiveness and place herself back under his abusive authority is denying God himself.
- This system allows an abusive pastor to force a child rape victim to “reconcile” with her rapist. Because forgiveness is compulsory if one wishes to secure divine forgiveness, the victim is forced to offer her assailant a cheap “forgiveness” or face consequences from the church for her “sin.”
Further, the pastor can us coercive methods to insist that, because he is forgiven, there is no need for the parents to inform others within the church of the rapist’s predatory nature. Instead, the pastor oversees “counseling” with the rapist as a supposedly fitting punishment for his offense. Because he has served the “due punishment” for his “crime” and professed penitence, few safeguards are taken to limit further access to children. After all, the pastor is also obligated to “forgive.”
- This system enables a pastor to write a book declaring that women must respect their husbands unconditionally. Even if a woman’s husband is intentionally unloving, she must “forgive” him because any act of disrespect is just as “sinful” in God’s eyes as her husband’s intentional withholding of love. The “forgiveness” they give is only as real as the respect they show. Thus, she must be sure to “forgive” because this is God’s command and if she does not, she will not have God’s favor.
In each example, these are real events and teachings being described (see footnotes). Placing the onus of forgiveness on the abused by making it a contingent for divine favor only perpetuates abuse. It also entirely perverts the vision of forgiveness presented in the New Testament. Allow me to demonstrate.
How Many Times?
In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Christ, “How many times, Lord, must I forgive?” In answering this questions, Jesus takes a seemingly enigmatic stance by placing a seeming numerical value on forgiveness: either 77 or 70 times 7 times depending on who is doing the translating. While this answer seems rather enigmatic on the surface, digging deeper reveals that Jesus is evoking a very ancient – and very Jewish – notion of forgiveness.
To demonstrate this, it will first be helpful to engage a brief word study. In this passage, the word used for forgiveness, apheso, is derived from the verb aphiemi. In Scripture, aphiemi has a wide range of meanings, such as “to send away, permit, forgive, or leave”. Often used to depict forgiveness it bears the connotation of erasing the guilt, shame, or consequences of sin and invokes the image of pardoning and freeing a prisoner. Of the 49 such instances in the New Testament, two are particularly enlightening for the current conversation.
First, I want to examine the dying words of Jesus on the cross, in Luke 23. In this passage, Jesus cries out “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:33-49). Here the locus of forgiveness is rooted entirely in the profound and radical grace of the crucified Christ of God and precedes any act of forgiveness or repentance on our part. Jesus sees the ignorance of his oppressors, feels their sin and hatred upon him, and intercedes on their behalf even before taking his final breath (cf Romans 5:1-11).
Quite often we tend to focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ humanity on the cross. Certainly this is an important aspect, and there is much merit for this focus. But what cannot be ignored is that, in pleading for the forgiveness of the humans who crucified him, Jesus was fulfilling a divine role. Specifically, he was interceding on behalf of those who deserved curse and damnation, declaring them forgiven and acceptable before God not because they had in any way asked him to do so, but because it is the imperative of the crucified God to offer the forgiveness of sins to those whom he pleases (cf. Matt 20:1-16).
In 1 John 4, we are told that we have learned to truly love our neighbor only because Christ first loved us through his cross. Interestingly, this places the divine love shown us in Christ before, not after, our own ability to love others in imitation of Christ. That is to say, where Lewis declares we must love our neighbor in forgiveness if we wish to receive God’s favor and forgiveness, the message of Scripture is exactly the opposite. We can only begin to understand and imitate the forgiveness we have found in Christ to others precisely because it has already been given to us. We are to love then out of the abundance from which we have received, and not as some empty act of merit seeking (cf. Matt 6:1-24).
This principle can also be seen in the parable of the wicked servant from Matthew 18. In this story, a servant owes a great debt to his master. When the master calls him to account, the servant falls at his feet and begs for mercy. The master, surprisingly, responds with compassion and forgives the debt entirely. However, despite the circumstances, the servant is wicked and unaffected by this compassion. Instead, he leaves the master’s court only to stumble upon a fellow servant who was indebted to him. This wicked servant then proceeded to beat his fellow, and had him thrown in prison for being unable to pay his debt. The merciful master found out about this injustice and again called his servant to account. This time, the master was harsh and exacting, and in doling out punishment reminded the servant that, as the master had shown mercy to him, so ought he to have shown the same mercy to others.
As with 1 John 4, we are told that forgiveness – which Matthew 18:35 describes as being “from [the] heart – is rooted in the forgiveness first shown us. We can only truly forgive once we first understand what it means to be forgiven. This concept embodies well the connotation of forgiveness as freedom. In Christ, we are loosed from those burdens which weigh us down. Where we would expect to find an exacting master demanding recompense, we encounter a merciful and crucified God who has already secured our freedom and granted us amnesty.
This brings us to our second occurrence of aphiemi. In Matthew 9:1-8, we encounter a familiar story. A small group of men approaches Jesus with their bedridden, paralyzed friend. Jesus recognizes the faith inherent to their trip and states to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” In making this bold declaration, Jesus inspires the ire of the religious elite, who accuse him of blasphemy – noting that only God can forgive sins. In response, Jesus turns to them and asks, “Is it easier to say his sins are forgiven or tell him to walk?” He then exclaims, “So you will know I can forgive sins…” and heals the paralyzed man.
Jesus’ words here create a difficult challenge for Lewis’ concept of forgiveness. Specifically, it seems clear from this incident that the man’s physical healing and the forgiveness of his sins are inextricably linked. That is, the forgiveness Jesus offers is not only concerned with inward, but outward circumstances. It does not leave the paralyzed man as it found him, but declares a bold new reality in which his physical circumstance is radically and irrevocably altered.
This story invokes imagery similar to Jesus sermon in the Nazareth Synagogue in Luke 4. Here, we find Jesus standing to read the Scriptures before the assembly. He chooses the scroll of Isaiah and reads the following words from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
As he sits down, Jesus declares that on that day, in the 1st century C.E. in Israel, those words had been fulfilled. The people were amazed and excited, because Jesus had just declared the deliverance they had been waiting for was at hand.
But then Jesus delivered a huge “but.” When the people pressed him for further details, Jesus clarified by stating: “[T]here were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
This sent the people into a rage, as they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.
The Jews had assumed the message of God’s deliverance would be for the Israelite people. They expected not only to be delivered from foreign oppression by “Gentile” forces, but to themselves become the conquerors. They expected the tables to be turned.
They viewed themselves as “privileged” and “chosen,” so when the Year of the Lord came, it would be for Israel and Israel alone. Yet Jesus had just declared God’s favor on all people, and he had stated that God would provide deliverance not only for the chosen, but for those whom the “chosen” wished to marginalize and exclude. The weak would be freed from the ostracization of their antagonistic theology. And the reason for this, in Jesus mind, was simple: he was invoking Sabbath – a Jewish concept deeply rooted in the notion of forgiveness and freedom.
Sabbath is most traditionally associated with the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20, where Yahweh institutes Sabbath as a part of a larger whole (vv. 8-11), the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai by which Yahweh became their God and they became his chosen people (cf Exodus 19).
In Christian circles, Sabbath is most commonly understood as a command to work for six days and take the seventh as a day of rest before and in worship of Yahweh. This understanding appeals to the Exodus 20 tradition (cf. 30:12-17; 35:1-3), this command of Sabbath is tied to Yahweh’s creative work in Genesis 1, when Yahweh rested on the seventh day, upon completing his work. However, there are additional layers to this, often ignored.
Sabbath is actually first introduced in Exodus 16. Here, upon the provision of manna and quail, the Israelites are promised an extra portion on the sixth day and instructed to trust that Yahweh has given them exactly what they need for the seventh. According to Yahweh’s promise, if they are faithful to him, he will also be faithful, their redeemer and sustainer who brought them out of Egypt and will fulfill the Abrahamic covenant through them. This theme is continued in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, where the Israelites are instructed not only to rest themselves, but rest also their animals and slaves, because they were once slaves in Egypt, delivered by Yahweh.
This second theme, the provision of the Sabbath day as rest and deliverance from burden, is also attested in Exodus 23:10-13, the introduction of the Sabbath Year. Mirroring Leviticus 25, Sabbath is extended not only for the seventh day of the week, but every seventh year as well. Resembling God’s instructions in Exodus 16, during a Sabbath year the Israelites were to rest their fields, trusting that good stewardship of the harvest provided in the sixth year sustain them for the seventh (vv. Lev 25:1-7). Any crop of the unworked fields in Sabbath Years was a provision for the poor and the enjoyment of the wild animal (Ex 23:11-12). Also, all debt between neighbors within the nation of Israel was to be forgiven, regardless of the age of the debt (Deut 15:1-11). Likewise, all Hebrew bondservants living in Israel were to be freed on the seventh anniversary of their servitude and any and all associated debt was released. As such, Sabbath, connected to the Exodus event, was a freedom extended forward into societal redemption to their brother/sister (Deut 15:12-18).
Sabbath tradition was further developed to include the Year of Jubilee. In Leviticus 25:8-55 we are told that every 7th Sabbath Year, the seventh year of the seventh week of years (i.e. the 49th year), a Jubilee should be declared which lasts for one year. In addition to the typical statutes of a Sabbath years all Hebrew born bondservants – regardless of when they entered servitude – were released. If they have not reached their seventh year, the master was to be paid a prorated sum by the community to cover the loss of labor. This guaranteed everyone was redeemed from their servitude and reconciled to their family and/or community of origin. Likewise, all debts were forgiven and property returned to its ancestral family. That is to say, if someone bought land from a neighbor to help them survive a period of hardship, that land was to be returned to its original owner, redeemed by that owner, during Jubilee. This functioned to prevent a single wealthy person from acquiring so much property as to render his entire community in debt before him.
As such, the notion of Sabbath is tied directly to God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai as an extension of the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 12. Because Israel was rescued from the toil of slavery in Egypt, because they were redeemed and reconciled to God as his people, they must extend this rescuing grace to others in forgiveness and restitution, in redemption and reconciliation.
According to Jeremiah 34:8-22, Israel had failed to uphold Sabbath, instead maintaining a class society in which many were held in servitude. It was thus violation of their covenant that caused Jeremiah to predict Israel’s downfall.
This makes Jesus citation of Isaiah 61 incredibly profound. In citing this passage, Jesus has declared Jubilee – an act of radical forgiveness which wipes the slate clean for all persons, declaring the poor an enslaved free from the overreach of the powerful and entitled. It declares that there is no forgiveness unless the marginalized, the oppressed, and the afflicted are first delivered from that which marginalizes, oppresses, and afflicts them. That is, the realization of God’s kingdom in the message of Christ, according to Luke 4, provides Sabbath forgiveness to the powerful only in as much as the weak are freed from their bondage.
This fits well with a favorite passage of mine, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. Here Paul tells us that the power dynamics of this world are for naught. Power and wisdom by this world’s standards are little more than absurdity in the shadow of the cross. Instead, the powerful will be humbled and the weak and oppressed exalted. In doing so, the place of the inclusion of those in traditional places of the power within the Church is directly linked to the radical exaltation of those in traditionally weak positions to places of equal status. This same notion is taken up in Galatians 3, where we are reminded that Christ has delivered us from antagonism and power dynamics inherent to the law, and given us adoption as equal children of God, adopted into the lineage of Abraham through the cross.
As such, I argue, that the notion of Christian forgiveness cannot occur where an abuser is empowered and the abused disenfranchised.
In further examining this claim, it is necessary to return to our reading of Matthew 18:21-22. I mentioned above that Jesus answer to the question is either interpreted as forgiving 77 or 70 times 7 times. I argue that 70 times 7 is the preferable interpretation, providing a clear connection between Jesus’ answer and the centrality of Sabbath to the New Testament vision of forgiveness.
Specifically, I argue that Jesus is invoking imagery which originally occurs within the book of Daniel.
Anyone who has read Daniel will be quick to notice, there is a drastic shift in both tone and perspective that takes place between chapters 6-7. Without rehashing issues of authorship, it is certainly notable that the book also switches from Aramaic, to Hebrew, and back to Aramaic; and switches from stories of faith and triumph for Daniel and his three friends to visions of demonic beasts and heralding angels.
The latter section of Daniel, beginning in chapter 7, fits well into the genre of Jewish Apocalypse. In Apocalyptic literature, the main character is quite often caught up in visions of cosmic battles meant to reflect the current conditions of the author’s world. This literary device is progressed through the characterization of a historical figure (such as Enoch or Abraham) who is visited by angels, who interpret his visions. While often seen as a rather dark and disturbing by Western readers, to an ancient Jewish audience this genre represented hope of a provident God who remained faithful, even as the world seemed to fall apart. It allows the audience to reflect on the present to see how God is securing their future. This happens not through exact predictions or precise numerology, but through nuance, metaphor, and a deep sense of historical identity.
Daniel 9 falls firmly into this category. In this chapter, Daniel is distraught; he knows Jeremiah predicted the exile would last 70 years, yet 70 have passed and Israel without deliverance. Daniel launches into a prayer of repentance and supplication on behalf of fallen Israel (Judah) and begs for forgiveness for their unfaithfulness to covenant and deliverance from oppressive enemies.
In response the angel Gabriel appears in human form to deliver a divine response. According to Gabriel, Daniel is being entirely too literal. He has attempted to take a figurative number, 70 years, and affix an exact numerical translation to it. Instead, he is informed that Jeremiah’s prophecy does not depict years but weeks of years – years grouped into groups of seven (i.e. 490 years).
With the seventy weeks of years, the prophet is reminded that Yahweh works in his timing – as he did in Egypt by the invocation of Sabbath imagery related to Jubilee. Yahweh has a plan deeply rooted in who he is and who Israel is in relation to him. This plan will reverse the curse of the covenant that led to exile and foreign domination (Deut 28-29). He will redeem his people from their present bondage, their sins will be forgiven, and they will be reconciled to their God (cf Isa 44:21-28). The delivery of Israel from foreign oppression and the realization of God’s purpose for them among the nations is thus directly tied to the establishment of God’s kingdom in which Jubilee is invoked and righteousness is everlasting (Dan 9:24).
70 Times 7
As such, in stating that Forgiveness must be offered 70 times 7 times, Jesus is evoking an image his audience would know well. Specifically, he is telling Peter that he must practice Jubilee toward his neighbor just as God is even at that moment, in Christ, enacting Jubilee for him. Christ is evoking himself as the fulfilment of God’s redemptive plan and the standard by which all others must seek to enact forgiveness.
It is no coincidence, then, that Matthew 18:21-22 serves as the preface for the Parable of the Wicked Servant, described above. Jesus is directly invoking the cross as the epicenter of forgiveness – the center and origination of all forgiveness and the standard by which all are forgiven.
Thus, if we fast forward to Matthew 20, it is of no small importance tha Jesus states that his followers will not be those who lord authority and pursue hierarchical power. Instead, they will be noted for their humility, for their willingness to be “last” and to act as servants. This same concept plays into the example of Jesus humility in Philippians 2, where the believer is admonished to limit self and place the other first, just as Christ humbled himself in incarnation and put us first on the cross. And, in case one forgets just how humbled Christ truly was, he reminds us in Matthew 25 that his plight is inextricably linked to the plight of the marginalized and oppressed, and that his followers will be known specifically by how they work to bring justice for these persons.
As I see it, despite Lewis’ argument to the contrary, Forgiveness and Justice are two sides of the same coin.
Freedom and Justice
Often it is assumed that justice is the act of satisfying punitive responsibilities. Sadly, it is thus regularly juxtaposed with ideas like forgiveness, mercy, and grace in our atonement theologies. However, in reality, the Greek word for justice is from the same root as the Greek for righteousness (dikaiosyne). Since Righteousness, in Scripture, is the notion of practicing or being in right covenant standing before God, then justice becomes the act of setting a person in a right standing.
According to Paul, the status of righteousness according to the covenant is granted us because Christ himself fulfilled the covenant made with Abraham (Rom 4). Thus, if we are to take Paul at his word, the justice of God is rooted in reversing the curse of sin upon creation and redeeming/reconciling all of creation to himself (Rom 8:18-39). Any sense of justice must then be intimately connected to the radical grace of the crucified Christ by which all are forgiven.
This is to say, any system of injustice against a person or group of persons is a system which exists in direct opposition to the cross of Christ. Or, to put it differently, there can be no forgiveness of an abuser where injustice and abuse continue for their victims.
There can be no forgiveness where we continue to seek fault in the abused. There is no forgiveness where the victim is asked:
Why didn’t you leave? What were you wearing? Were you drunk? Did you antagonize him? Why didn’t you speak up soon? Are you sure, he seems like a nice guy?
All of these questions, and many, many more, hold the abused imprisoned. They work to convince the victim they possess fault, agency in their own victimization. These are questions which deny the healing work of forgiveness, because they leave the abused looking for personal fault. It is only when the cross of Christ is made manifest, when the abused are freed from their bondage and empowered to declare, “It is not my fault.” that forgiveness can be made manifest in their lives and healing begin.
With this in mind, the mission of the Church emerges as a call to embody the grace and forgiveness of the crucified Christ which exposes the abuser and offers freedom and healing to the abused. Sabbath is our prophetic witness in a world of violence, injustice, and shame. Such prophetic witness can only exist where the death of God meets the abusers “death” to their own power and privilege and the abused is granted justice for and freedom their sufferings.
With this in mind, I must assert the Church would do well to abandon the influence of Clives Staples Lewis and follow the example of the crucified Servant of God (Isa 52:13-53:12). For, as long as the Church demands cheap grace and obligatory forgiveness, as long as we denying healing and freedom to the abused among us, we abandon also the cross of Christ which we have been called to carry.
Father, forgive us.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: a revised and amplified edition, with a new introduction, of the three books, Broadcast talks, Christian behaviour, and Beyond personality (New York: Harper Collins, 2001) esp. 115-120.
 This post is a revision of an article originally posted on 7/23/15
 Lewis, 115-117.
 p. 117
 p. 120
 p. 117-119
 p. 119
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 Frederick William Danker, “ἀφίημι”, pp 156-157 in Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000).
 Sidnie White Crawford, “Apocalypse”, pp 72-73 in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).