“Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.”
— Luke 17:3 (King James Version)
The Rev. Billy Graham says he has forgiven President Clinton for any sexual transgressions he may have committed — and even lying about them — “because I know the frailty of human nature, and especially a strong vigorous young man like he is. He has a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him.”
What’s wrong with this picture? First, let me say that I have the deepest respect and admiration for Dr. Graham. One of the great privileges in my life as a journalist was the honor of spending several hours talking with him privately poolside at a quiet Southern California hotel. It was a rare treat and an experience I will remember always.
But I must take issue with Dr. Graham on this matter of forgiveness. While his remarks are certainly well intentioned, they distort the true nature and character of Christian forgiveness. Furthermore, I believe they are symptomatic of a widespread public misconception that it is somehow wrong to judge the character and misdeeds of our top elected officials and hold them accountable to the highest standards of ethical and moral responsibility.
You see, it’s just not Dr. Graham’s place to forgive Bill Clinton’s mistreatment of others.
Not only does Dr. Graham excuse Bill Clinton from any personal responsibility for his actions and his urges, he contributes to a fundamentally immoral idea that the appropriate and Godly thing to do any time one is confronted by sin is to forgive it — unconditionally and without being asked.
One of the central tenets of orthodox, biblical Christianity — the kind so effectively ministered by Dr. Graham throughout his lifetime — is that forgiveness is contingent on the sinner repenting. Furthermore, forgiveness is an act to be offered only by God and the individual who has faced the transgression.
If forgiveness is offered without repentance, what is the point of rejecting sin? Modern-day Christianity has been marked by this brand of “cheap grace” lately, but it is distressing to see a noted Bible teacher like Dr. Graham falling into this popular unscriptural trend. I suspect his comments were off-the-cuff and not carefully considered, for Dr. Graham understands these principles as well as anyone on the planet today.
It is not my business, or, with all due respect, Dr. Graham’s, to forgive Bill Clinton for his sexual trespasses. It would be up to Hillary Clinton, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and an untold list of other women he has violated to make any meaningful offer of forgiveness to the president. Besides, he hasn’t even asked for it. He hasn’t even admitted any wrongdoing, let alone repented of his sin and changed his behavior.
You can only forgive someone who did you harm. Forgiving someone for hurting another is, frankly, insincere, phony and little more than an expression of New Age psychobabble. It may make you feel good to say you forgive someone for an offense against another, but it is simply not your business. In the court of forgiveness, we simply don’t have jurisdiction to excuse bad behavior toward other people — only bad behavior directed toward ourselves.
Am I just being picky? No, this is a critically important distinction. Automatic forgiveness is a nonsensical and unbiblical doctrine. To subscribe to it is to render meaningless the whole notion of accountability — the moral foundation of our civilization. It also demeans the role of Jesus Christ in the world. He was the embodiment of forgiveness, but Jesus demanded that sinners repent before they were cleansed of their sin.
The fact that even Billy Graham could be momentarily confused about the necessity of confronting evil and wrong-doing head-on — judging it and punishing it, rather than excusing it and rationalizing it — is symptomatic of our times. You see, we live in an age in which few are willing to recognize evil for what it is.
I don’t forgive Bill Clinton for his trespasses against women because it is not within my authority to offer such forgiveness. It is immaterial how healthy and vigorous he is or how strong his personality may be. And it doesn’t matter how strong the temptations may have been. Each of us is called to be personally accountable for our behavior. We can’t blame our sin on others.
It’s symptomatic of the state of moral confusion we live in today that even Billy Graham has been caught up in the religion of pop psychology rather than the faith of the one true living God.