Sorting by

Skip to main content

Back in 2005 Christian Smith captured the functional religion of North American culture, especially among young people, with the term moralistic therapeutic deism. It is broad belief that while there is a God who cares for us and wants us to be good, the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about ourselves with little need to concern ourselves with God since we’re really pretty good people already and all good people will go to heaven.

Indeed, in a therapeutic culture like ours, meaning, not guilt, is our problem. Being preoccupied with the forgiveness of sins is the neurosis of people hung up on an angry God. Such people don’t need forgiveness; they actually need therapy and a self-improvement plan! Parents in such a therapeutic culture mainly want one thing for their children—to be happy. Preachers who feel tugged by this spirit of the age are often tempted to reduce preaching to moralism and therapeutic strategies for being happy and self-fulfilled.

Enter an amazing article in the New York Times entitled “I Want to Be Forgiven. I just want to Be Forgiven.” It’s a moving story of the recent meeting of the Minnesota Board of Pardons where Minnesota citizens who have committed wrongs against society have ten minutes to ask society for forgiveness. Ten minutes to make your case before the governor, the attorney general and the state’s chief justice who comprise this Board of Pardons. It’s a public hearing, and the decision is made on the spot and publicly announced.

These people are not seeking parole or expungement. These people are at least five years beyond their time of incarceration and parole. Often society has fully reintegrated them . . . but society has not forgiven them. And without forgiveness, they are, well, unforgiven. The jagged wound, the separation, the broken place remains. The garment of their life and their humanity is torn. And forgiveness, pardon, mercy is the only way to bring healing, to make that garment whole again.

As you might expect, the particular stories are powerful. Only 17 people were invited to plead their case this year. Only they had passed the four hurdles for a pardon hearing: accountability, remorse, restitution and rehabilitation.

A woman who was an accomplice to a shooting and had been punished much more severely than the guy who pulled the trigger. A middle aged man whose recovery from drug addiction took place so many years ago that the crimes connected with his addiction truly felt like the crimes of a person who had died decades ago. Anyone who has received mercy can’t help but be moved by these pleas to be forgiven. Fourteen of the seventeen supplicants this year were forgiven. Three were not.

What intrigued me most about this article was how it might play in a therapeutic culture that no longer sees value in talking about God’s forgiveness. I understand people recoiling against the notion of “the forgiveness of sins” if their picture of divine forgiveness centers upon self-righteous and hypocritical church people taking secret delight in how much more “other people” need forgiveness than they do.

But what if your journey to God’s forgiveness tracks with a thief in Minnesota who looks exactly like your oldest daughter, a thief who harmed many people over many years, but changed her ways, and is doing everything she can to live a new life. And what if a spiritual breakthrough in her life came when society forgave her? And what if, in that experience of society’s mercy and unmerited grace, she heard an echo, and came to meet Jesus, the source of all mercy?

I would so much like to hear the full stories of these 17 supplicants in Minnesota. I sense most of them have met the divine forgiver. Just as the heavens declare the glory of God, so the Minnesota Board of Pardons reveals the power of forgiveness, a power which even the New York Times hints is linked to something transcendent and much larger than the state of Minnesota.

Indeed, in this Christmas season we celebrate that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). “For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all who call upon You” (Psalm 86:5).

Duane Kelderman

Duane Kelderman has been a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church for 45 years and served for ten of those years as the Vice-President for Administration and Associate Professor of Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent. Thank you.

  • RZ says:

    I love this article. Thank you, Duane. Way to go, Minnesota! Lessons from South Africa. So many applications for immigration, corrections, addictions, parenting, adult-childrening, and divisiveness in general.
    I have been pondering this for an hour and I have some atonement questions and postulations for other ponderers.
    The criteria for moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD) is foggy because this is a reactive movement and not a doctrinal declaration. The MTD generation is reacting to the futility and hypocrisy of the Born-agains and the We-
    are-already-ins, whose formulaic beliefs and morality codes have not seemed to produce Christ-like character change ( which presumably occurs only after death). Consequently, since guilt has not worked, MTDs possibly feel they do not need forgiveness so much as they need a new definition of God, one not so vindictive and angry. It seems their reaction is not entirely right but not unreasonable or entirely wrong. A God who is deeply relational is what they miss, but then so do the Born-agains and We-are-already-ins. God wants connection more than correction in both cases.
    Character change and relational restoration usually come after, during and because of forgiveness, which has two distinct characteristics: It is paid FORward. It is a GIFT. God risks a lot here!
    In AA you may “”fake it until you make it,” but you must sequentially admit your need for relational integrity with your higher power and those around you lest the faking simply becomes more self-deceptive.

  • David E Stravers says:

    This is a fantastic article. This is related to the heart of the Gospel, not to mention the climax of the Lord’s prayer. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jack says:

    Your theology placed me in five different psychiatric hospitals. Two therapists, my wife, and the Douglas UCC, healed me and have kept me well for 35 years. The therapeutic age is a godsend.

  • Ron Hofman says:

    Thanks Duane. The power of forgiveness supersedes so much of human striving. Few things restore living to this degree. Medicine should discover this therapeutic journey

Leave a Reply