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Recently I read Simon Wiesenthal's book, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, and I was challenged to flesh out my understanding of forgiveness. There were aspects which I liked of the understandings of forgiveness by Wiesenthal, other characters in the book, and respondents to the question of whether he could or should have forgiven the Nazi who appeared to be repentant of his crimes against the Jews, but I wasn't entirely satisfied with the approaches offered.

Though there were basically three sides offered to the answer (the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions), the responses were all quite short and I didn't think that there was much in the way of textual support--either from the Bible or the written traditions of the Jews or the Roman Catholic church. What I'm looking for is an explanation of the Roman Catholic or Protestant (and/or Jewish too) understanding of forgiveness, with references. I'm not interested in the subjective, feelings-based approach which many of the essay responses gave (in the second half of the text).

Edit: The Jewish response is usually something like: "You have no right to forgive someone for sins they have done against someone other than yourself, even if you are part of a group whom the apparently repentant sinner has sinned against (i.e. one Jew has no right to forgive someone for sins against other Jews but only for sins against himself). I think I agree with this. The Roman Catholic response (in the book) seems to be fairly similar to the Jewish one, but the generic Protestant response in this book seems to be that people should forgive anyone and everyone regardless of repentance(seemingly more for the sake of the person doing the forgiving than for the sake of the person being forgiven). I'm not trying to pin a position on Roman Catholics or Protestants--that's just the way it seemed to me from reading the book. So I'm trying to understand whether the book gave a representative view of these positions and I'm also trying to understand for myself who can be forgiven, by whom, and under what circumstances? To add more to the question (than the book did), in Roman Catholic or Protestant teaching, is it impossible to forgive someone whom God has not forgiven? Please do indicate what tradition you are responding from.

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What is the real question here? How forgiveness is attained? or Who can and cannot be forgiven? –  david brainerd Mar 29 at 4:44
I can't source this answer, but, Protestants generally believe that the sinner is forgiven once, and only once, when he accepts the forgiveness of the Son. This is the logical conclusion of "Once Saved, Always Saved". Catholics/Orthodox believe that the sinner lives in a perpetual state of forgiveness; or rather, the sinner must continually repent of sins until death. –  Matthew Moisen Mar 29 at 6:30
@davidbrainerd He is asking for the difference between the Protestant and Catholic understanding of the meaning of forgiveness. –  Matthew Moisen Mar 29 at 6:31
Edit -- forgiveness via the Son, not of the Son -- sorry –  Matthew Moisen Mar 29 at 7:55

1 Answer 1

The Catholic and Protestant traditions revere the Lord Prayer, which says in part:

Matthew 6:12

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

Immediately after telling His disciples to pray that way, Jesus gives us more details about forgiveness:

Matthew 6:14-15

"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

In other words, Christians are to forgive others if they wish God to forgive their own offenses. (Jesus was emphatic on this point when He explained about forgiveness with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35.)

I have not seen any literature where the Catholic and Protestant perspectives differ in this regard when they are talking about this passage of Scripture.

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