Convicted serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the “Son of Sam”, recently declared he has no desire to petition for parole this coming May. After being denied five times, he is serving six sentences of 25 years to life for the murders of six New York City residents from 1976 to 1977. In a letter to the media, he wrote: “If you could understand this, I am already a ‘free man.’ I am not saying this jokingly. I really am. Jesus Christ has already forgiven and pardoned me, and I believe this.”
A spokesperson for the New York State Division of Parole describes Berkowitz as a model inmate. He is a mobility guide for blind inmates, assists with the mentally challenged and contributes to Sunday services and Bible studies. Of his work, Berkowitz said, “My main activities are sharing my story of redemption and hope with those on the outside.”
The church and the public are sometimes skeptical and critical of killers like Berkowitz being forgiven by God because forgiveness is defined and exercised on our terms. For some, it’s just an optional response. Maybe the offender isn’t sorry, maybe her offense was too detestable and maybe you just aren’t ready to forgive. If one chooses not to forgive, that’s their prerogative, but if so, it might be conditional: “I forgive you if you promise this” or “This is the last time I will forgive you for this.” Further, it’s acceptable to bring up the offense when convenient: “Remember when you did that awful thing and I forgave you?” This brand of forgiveness is a hopeless guessing game that brings no peace or resolve. The Bible presents forgiveness in a very different light. It is modeled after the forgiveness of God toward sinners. Christian forgiveness is commanded, immediate, free and final.
Several passages in Scripture command forgiveness: Matthew 6:12, Mark 11:25 and Luke 6:37 each direct the believer to forgive. Because of our sinful nature, we don’t want to. We want to withhold grace and exact justice in our own, vengeful way. Since forgiveness isn’t deserved, it shouldn’t be given. The Bible never excuses a Christian from forgiving someone. The consistent practice of forgiveness is a mark of a true disciple. Paul wrote: “…as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive (Col. 3:13).”
Forgiveness is also immediate. The text does not say, “When you are ready, and when enough time has passed, and when you think the other person deserves it, go ahead and forgive them.” There is no provision for waiting. Time cannot heal by itself; only in forgiving through the power of the Holy Spirit can wounds be completely healed. Hebrews 12:15 warns against “roots of bitterness” in the hearts of Christians. Withholding forgiveness does not testify to the gospel of Christ and prevents Christians from worshiping rightly. Jesus warned disciples:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.” Matthew 5:23-26
Forgiveness must also be free, which means it is given unconditionally and not contingent upon the debtor or the offense. Matthew 18 holds the famous parable of the unforgiving servant. His king forgave his debt worth more than 2,000 lifetimes of wages. After receiving this unimaginable pardon, he threatened a fellow servant with imprisonment if the three months’ wages owed to him were not paid. When the king discovered this, the previously forgiven servant was imprisoned until he could repay his debt. Jesus told this parable when He was asked how many times forgiveness should be offered. Jesus’ answer was seventy times seven, meaning there are no limits to the extent of our forgiveness. The disciples he was speaking to were seeking limits, treating forgiveness like the repayment of a debt. Jesus modeled for us a better way on the cross when he said…, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do (Luke 23:34).” He pled for the forgiveness of unrepentant people who didn’t request it nor knew they needed it.
True forgiveness is final; you never bring the incident up to yourself, the debtor or anyone else. It’s not that you forget it, but you choose not to remember. Psalm 103 provides a beautiful picture of God’s forgiveness towards us:
“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (vs. 10-12).”
Unearthing the offense means forgiveness has not happened. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that love keeps no record of wrongs. To truly forgive is to wipe away every residue of the debt and move forward.
We too quickly forget that Jesus purchased this forgiveness on the cross. In Berkowitz’s case, God did not sweep his sin under the rug. He took it so seriously that He sent His Son to die for it; justice has come for those murders through Christ. For those who do not repent and believe in Jesus, their justice will come on judgment day. Either way, God is the Justifier (Romans 12:19). Because of this, we are free to forgive and leave vengeance to the Lord.
Does forgiving mean the relationship must return exactly as it was? No. Do we repeatedly position ourselves to be hurt by the same individual? No. We obey God to the extent Scripture has called us to. Every relationship will look differently after forgiveness for an offense.
When a man like David Berkowitz champions the forgiveness of God, our first reaction might not be joy or thankfulness. Christians must remember we too have been forgiven just as great a debt and now have the chance to offer everyone in our lives the very same grace, all for the glory of God and redemption of the lost.