Originally published: “Timothy Keller, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (New York: Viking, 2022),” in Themelios 48, no. 1 (Spring 2023), 241-42 or online here.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine African Americans during a Bible study. Grief-stricken families in the city and throughout the country were mourning in light of such a tragic event. Members of the courtroom and thousands of Americans were awestruck though, when families of the victims looked at Roof and said, “I forgive you.” National responses to those three words were mixed: some admired the courage it took to forgive, while others scorned the families for extending forgiveness towards another mass murderer. Forgiveness is an incredibly complex and difficult topic, especially in the current state of American culture. While many argue that forgiveness culture is fading, in his latest book, Forgive, Timothy Keller demonstrates why every human person both has an indelible need for forgiveness and why we ought to forgive others (p. xv–xviii).
OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK
Keller frames his book around the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant found in Matthew 18:21–35, and he often returns to the themes of the parable throughout the book. Keller’s book begins with an incredibly helpful introduction regarding the current state of forgiveness in Western culture, followed by a chapter explaining what forgiveness is and why it is important. Every act of disobedience requires both a vertical (to God) and horizontal (to others) dimension and our ability to carry out such forgiveness rests upon our understanding of the gospel (pp. 17–18). Following the introductory material, the book is divided into three sections: Loosing and Finding Forgiveness (chapters 2–4), Understanding Forgiveness (chapters 5–7), and Practicing Forgiveness (chapters 8–11).
In the first section, Keller notes that Western society has “anxiety and confusion” regarding forgiveness (p. 21), particularly because of the emergence of the new “shame-and-honor culture” in the 21st century (p. 31). While previous shame-and-honor cultures often exalted the virtuous, Keller notes that “greater honor and moral virtue are assigned to people the more they have been victimized and subjugated by society or others in power” (p. 21). This new shame-and-honor culture is not quick to extend forgiveness, yet, as Keller notes, “our society cannot live without forgiveness” (p. 34). In chapter 3, Keller traces the development of forgiveness in Western culture, which has its origin in the “coming of Christianity” (p. 43). In chapter 4, the Bible is presented as the wellspring of forgiveness, one that we need to return to amidst a forgiveness-stricken culture (p. 53).
In the second section, Keller discusses the balance between forgiveness and justice, which is most perfectly found in the cross of Jesus (p. 71). Christians can be people who walk in forgiveness, relinquishing others’ debt to us, because Jesus has fully born the justice and wrath of God. In chapter 6, Keller tackles the notoriously difficult subject of forgiveness in light of abuse. This chapter draws heavily upon Rachel Denhollander’s work on abuse, particularly in light of her role in exposing Larry Nasser. In chapter 7, Keller argues that in order for forgiveness to be full, one must have both “inward and outward” forgiveness (p. 107). In other words, forgiveness flows from the heart inwardly and pursues reconciled relationships outwardly.
In the final section (chs. 8–11), Keller handles the practicality of forgiving others. In chapter 8, he argues that it is imperative that one understands the concepts of guilt and shame, especially in a particular cultural moment where “secular people are in a strange position of feeling like sinners without having a name for it” (p. 123). Every person, because of their disobedience to God, has a desperate need for forgiveness. This leads Keller in chapter 9 to explain how one receives God’s forgiveness: through repentance towards God. Repentance leads to a life of forgiveness from God, which then leads to a life of forgiveness towards others (ch. 10). In this chapter, he notes that to forgive someone is to follow in step with the gospel, by releasing others from liability and to aim for reconciliation and restoration. Lastly, in chapter 11, Keller practically explains how one can extend forgiveness and mend broken relationships.
REVIEW OF THE BOOK
One of the great strengths of Keller as an author is his ability to engage the complexities of a subject like forgiveness. Not surprisingly, Forgive is not a simple, reductionistic book that is easily codified into a two-step program. Rather, Keller presents a holistic understanding of forgiveness that is grounded in the gospel but extends to all the many and varied permutations of human relationships and life on earth. Important topics are covered in this book, with which Christians often struggle: When is repentance real? How do I forgive someone who hurt me? What role does guilt play in Christianity? How do we talk about justice in light of the gospel’s call to forgive? Questions such as these and many more are handled this important book. Pastors and Christians would be wise to consult this work when dealing with their own personal struggles to forgive or counseling others as they attempt to walk in forgiveness.
As a pastor within a progressive metropolitan era, Keller demonstrates his ability to understand and critique contemporary trends in broader Western culture. Not only does Keller successfully demonstrate the current problems with forgiveness in our culture, but he also provides a beautiful and compelling vision of a better way—the way of Jesus Christ. Keller’s chapter on the sensitive topic of forgiveness and abuse is almost worth the price of the book alone. In a moment where many abuse scandals are rising to the surface, Keller’s wisdom on engaging such a difficult topic from a biblical perspective is much needed. Lastly, Keller has provided four incredibly helpful and practical appendices on the issue of forgiveness.
Keller’s latest work is a must-read not only for pastors and seminary students but for every Christian. For as long as this present age continues, the issues of forgiveness, justice, reconciliation, and restoration are ones that we will inevitably engage on a frequent basis.