Book Review: Forgive by Timothy Keller

Forgive is the latest book from Timothy Keller. Keller is pastor and theologian, based in New York City. He’s written many books now and I found him to offer the most balanced and Biblical approach of any Christian writer currently living. Forgiveness is a huge topic to tackle. It is one of the most painful and difficult things that Christians are called to do and yet it is also the most central to the Christian faith. It is a tragedy that Christians are not better known in our society as people of forgiveness. It is central to our faith in that without the ultimate forgiveness of sins we believe is represented by Jesus’ death on the cross, Christian faith is worthless. It is central to our faith in that we are called (by Jesus) to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Meaning without condition and continuously. When Jesus taught his followers how to pray (commonly called The Lord’s Prayer) He instructed them to ask that their sins be forgiven as they also forgave those who sinned against them. When Jesus’ disciples asked how many times they should forgive another person, Jesus’ told them that this should essentially not be counted, that they should forgive over and over, to forgive extravagantly, just as God forgave them.

If We root our moral norms in the biblical God, that means grounding ourselves in not only a holy and just God but also a merciful and forgiving one. Respectful interaction with opponents and forgiveness of wrongdoers is part of the church’s faith.

Timothy Keller, Forgive

What I also appreciate about Keller is that he doesn’t shy away from the obvious response here. Forgiveness is all well and good but what about when we’ve been horribly hurt? Or abused? What about when the perpetrator offers no repentance? What about when the church has used this forgiveness policy to perpetrate or cover up abuse? These are hard and important questions and sadly church history has often not left a good taste in the mouths of the watching world. Keller delves right into these questions, talking about social justice and right and wrong. Along with forgiveness, Christians are called to defend the weak, to speak out against evil, and we have often failed to do so. We have often used forgiveness as a weapon. We have defended ourselves in our own sin rather than admit our flaws and seek to do better.

So when we get angry, we should ask: “What am I defending?” If we do that, we will see how often we are defending our ego, pride, agendas, and image. God’s anger is always righteous because He is perfect love. So His anger is always in defense of the good, true, and beautiful, and His anger is always released to destroy evil, sin, and death.

Timothy Keller, Forgive

Keller doesn’t hesitate to condemn such abuses where they have occurred and the book has many examples of both the good and the bad. At the same time, he doesn’t hesitate to lean into one of the more unpopular aspects of Biblical forgiveness. Namely, that it should be applied to all and that our goal should be to bring those who are truly repentant back into the body of Christ. Reading Forgive, I knew I could think of many people who would take issue with this but of course, Keller is writing for a primarily Christian audience, to those who have already accepted and acknowledged their own need for forgiveness. Not to say the book doesn’t have anything of value for a non-Christian but it wouldn’t necessarily be the book of Keller’s I would recommend to someone new to church theology.

Forgiveness’s purpose here is not to humiliate, defeat, or drive out sinners, but to correct and restore them. It is often easier to turn a blind eye to sin in the community. The admonition of fellow believers requires the church to function as a body in the costly work of reconciliation.

James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke

In the past almost three years since the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic, I have seen more division and hurt within the Christian church than I’d ever witnessed before, even as someone who grew up immersed in Church culture and Christian ministry. I imagine Keller himself has seen a lot of this too and I’m sure that his book is a reaction to what’s going on amongst Christians, particularly in the West right now. The book is well-timed and I would recommend it to anyone who desires to be a follower of Jesus.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Forgive by Timothy Keller”

  1. “Forgiveness’s purpose here is not to humiliate, defeat, or drive out…” I like this part. There is a weird sort of cancel culture, if you will allow me that connection, in some churches. There is also a forcefulness that uses threat of “cancelling” someone is they don’t comply immediately. Forcing someone into a religion by threats of throwing them out is counterintuitive and neglects the amazing journey some folks of faith go on to find their place in religion. I’m glad this book spoke to you! Lately, my ASL professor has been starting class with scripture about not complaining. I’ll bet you can guess why.

    1. You’re right…a lot of Christians will disparage “cancel culture” but there is plenty of precedent of people being cast out or shunned from Christian community. It’s the same thing really. Keller focuses on the fact that forgiveness, as Jesus taught it, is about bringing a person back in to the fold. But he does a good job of also acknowledging times when that may be dangerous or more harmful (like in cases of abuse), whereas sometimes lean too heavily on forgiveness and end up simply sweeping crime under the rug.

    2. Oh, yes, that is a good point. I wonder if there are rehabilitation places in the world that focus on forgiveness in a Christian way but also keeps dangerous people away from the general community.

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