Forgiveness: Received from God, Extended to Others
FORGIVENESS: Received from God, Extended to Others. By Donna Pyle. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017. 256 pages. $14.99.
Donna Pyle has prepared a small-group Bible study with her most recent book Forgiveness. The book is organized according to eight different lessons. Each lesson is designed to be completed over the course of a week. Each lesson is divided into “five days” of personal devotion and study and then, presumably, the small-group study gathers together for discussion on either day six or day seven. The book also comes with a lot of guidance and direction. Each lesson concludes with a couple of pages of prompts to help the small-group leader facilitate discussion.
Pyle is a folksy writer with an obvious southern charm. Her personal anecdotes and analogies are easy to follow, easy to read, and pertinent to the discussion at hand. She’s good at crafting memorable phrases and one-liners.
The topic “forgiveness” is always pertinent to the Christian because it is central to the Christian life. In Luke 24, Jesus says that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed . . . to all nations.” As a pastor, I am continually fielding questions about forgiveness. How? When? Did I really forgive? How do I ask for forgiveness? What if I can’t forgive? What, exactly, is forgiveness? Etc.
One of the troubles with speaking about “forgiveness” in Christian conversation (especially within Lutheran circles) is that we don’t have a standardized definition of what forgiveness is. We do have a standardized definition for repentance, but not for forgiveness. It is not defined in Luther’s Small Catechism, and it does not get its own article in the Augsburg Confession or the Formula of Concord, and it not a locus in Melanchthon’s Loci Communes.
Pyle does not put forth a clear definition of forgiveness. She does, however, helpfully tell the reader what it is “not.” It is not "excusing sin." It is not a dismissal of consequences. It is not "nonchalance." It is not "avoidance." She also does a fantastic job dismissing this false notion that forgiveness means we need to "forget." She uses the example of a divorce. In teaching my flock, I often use the example of a drunk driver killing a child. A parent can, by God's grace, forgive a drunk driver for killing their child, but you'd be a fool to suppose that they'll ever forget that he did it.
Much of this book is focused on the experience of forgiveness. After a brief survey of forgiveness in Lesson 1, the majority of the remainder of the book starts talking about the different types of people and offenders we will forgive: family, abusers, betrayers, repeat offenders, and prodigals. Each one of these explorations is insightful and unique in their experience, but the solution always remains the same: Jesus Christ.
Forgiveness is a book that is constantly directing the reader back to Scripture. Every chapter instructs the reader to look up this or that passage and frequently invites the reader to copy out the passage in the space provided. While commendable, a frequent frustration that I had with these exercises is that Pyle didn’t always faithfully situate these verses in their context. Two examples will suffice.
First, Pyle writes, “The apostle Paul reminds us that even though we grieve through the forgiveness process, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Write out 1 Thessalonians 4:13” (p. 32). My objection is that 1 Thessalonians 4:13 has nothing to do with forgiveness at all. Does grieving occur during forgiveness? Most certainly. Do Christians have hope in their grief? Without a doubt. But 1 Thessalonians 4:13 isn’t the passage we should use to support that claim. This passage is uniquely directed to the hope Christians have in grieving the death of loved ones.
Second, sometimes Pyle falsely attributes promises God made to Old Testament Israel as being promises applying directly to us today. On page 144 Pyle asks, “How does God shield us from the enemy’s attacks?” She then cites Deuteronomy 28:7 which reads, “The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.” This was true for Israel as they were preparing to conquer Canaan, but it is definitely not a promise for you or me. One only needs to look to John the Baptist to see that his enemies were not scattered seven ways, but actually prevailed over him by procuring his head on a platter. Or consider what Luke 21:16 says of Jesus’ disciples, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.” The narrative of Scripture is not one of glory and conquering in this life, but one of suffering, cross, and death. Our glory is reserved for that final day when the sons of God are revealed. Until then, we should expect tribulation as of the pains of childbirth (Romans 8). Pyle did her readers a disservice by the misapplication of Old Testament promises, and her editors dropped the ball in directing her away from such missteps.
Donna Pyle is not content to throw theological terminology on a page and believe that her work is done. She strives to elucidate otherwise “churchy” sounding topics. This is a strength of hers, but occasionally it’s overplayed. While addressing the question “How do you know if you have truly forgiven someone?” Pyle writes, “When you are more sad over who your offender has become than what he or she has done, you have forgiven” (p. 66). Such an outlook certainly reflects a mature Christian attitude, but ultimately this is bad advice. Nowhere does Scripture tell us this is how we know we’ve truly forgiven. This thinking places the legitimacy of forgiveness in ourselves and our attitudes rather than in the promise and word of God. Matthew 18 and the parable of the unforgiving servant is instructive here. In this parable, forgiveness is likened to bank ledgers. That is, forgiveness is a-emotional. An angry banker can erase a debt just as easily as a calm and polite one. When the debt is erased, it’s erased, and it’s erasure is not dependent on the attitudes or outlook of the banker. You know the debt is erased because the debt is no longer there. How do you know that you’ve truly forgiven someone? You know when you tell them they are forgiven, for these words are not your words, but the words of God himself through Christ Jesus.
All in all, the book was oftentimes framed in the language of “victory.” While there is no denying the victory we have in Christ Jesus our Lord, the victory that we do have is not one of worldly glory and pleasure in this life. Day 3 of Lesson 2 is titled, “Rising Up Past Adversity.” This is not how Scripture speaks, rather Scripture speaks in the language of “suffering and endurance” (Romans 5). It is misleading when Pyle says, “[God] gives you and me the strength to rise past any adversity” (p. 59). This is far different language than Paul's lament, "O wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death." To those ensnared in chronic sin and diagnosed with terminal illness, the promise of rising past adversity is patently not true. We don't rise past it. We endure through it, accompanied by Christ who carries us from death to life. Scripture says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Far more Christians have shared the fate of the martyrs than have shared the privilege of Joseph, son of Jacob.
Donna Pyle has a gift for writing and a heart for the Lord Jesus. The book ends strongly with the powerful emphasis that we (i.e., people) do not “add” to the already completed forgiveness that was accomplished by Christ alone.
The Christian Publishing world is replete with gifted female authors who are writing many books for all manner of ministries. Concordia Publishing House is blessed to have the writing talents of Donna Pyle, who can bring her folksy charm to bear on a timely topic that only edifies when centered in Christ. Though there were some missteps along the way, this book is predominately Christocentric and of value to the church, because the topic of forgiveness is always a timely one. For those with a discerning eye, Forgiveness offers the readers plenty of wisdom to glean.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.
 “Now properly speaking, repentance consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ.” Augsburg Confession, Article XII.5