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Forgive: Why should I and how can I? by Timothy Keller

24 February 2023

Stephen Cherry reads about a sacrifice that may feel too much

TIMOTHY KELLER, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, believes that forgiveness is fading in today’s world. His book Forgive therefore introduces “Christian forgiveness” to those for whom it might be an alien idea.

Such forgiveness has three dimensions: the upwards — the embrace and acceptance of God’s forgiveness of us; the inward — the gradual giving up of vengefulness; and the outward — the work that the forgiver does to establish a reconciled relationship.

Keller explains that this is unnatural as well as counter-cultural and is possible only when resourced by prayer and Christian community. He also emphasises that this forgiveness involves sacrifice and suffering on the part of the one who has already been harmed, the forgiver.

The strength of Keller’s approach is that it comes out of a coherent neo-Calvinist theological position, in which substitutionary atonement is central. Forgive would be a welcome and practical resource in congregations where this approach is normative.

Whether tying forgiveness so closely to a theological position is necessary or wise is another matter, however. Indeed, there might be missiological advantages in taking the reverse approach and inviting people to approach the divine through their experiences of human forgiveness rather than feeling obliged by their faith to forgive at all costs.

I also wonder what the message here is for those for whom the trauma of harm or abuse has created a crisis of faith in God. When understood in this way, can the word “forgiveness” make any sense to people without faith in God?

The biggest question, however, comes from those for whom the sacrifice of forgiving has led, and will lead, nowhere other than further suffering. These are the truly vulnerable, and their cries should remind us that, while it can be deeply transformative, forgiveness may not always be the answer.

I am not sure that forgiveness is fading. There is huge interest in it, and yet it is also easily and commonly eclipsed. Given its undoubted centrality in Christianity, the many questions of forgiveness deserve urgent and serious attention beyond this analysis and framework.


The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.


Forgive: Why should I and how can I?
Timothy Keller
Hodder & Stoughton £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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