Evangelical Theology, Unconditional Forgiveness, and Public Scandal

During the U.S. presidential scandal of the late 1990s, Kenneth Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek magazine, wrote a column titled, “Sex, sin, and salvation” (1), in which he declared that understanding President Clinton’s moral foibles required an understanding of “Bill the Baptist” (2).

Woodward wrote, “Like most Baptists, Clinton was taught that once he had been born again, his salvation was ensured. Sinning—even repeatedly—would not bar his soul from heaven” (3). Woodward went on to quote Baptist leaders who—in contrast with the Bible (Matt. 7:21; 19:16-26; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Heb. 5:9)—insist that obedience is the result rather than the condition of salvation (4). Woodward stated in closing that the former President “formed his world view not in the dark of a Saturday night but in the light of a Sunday morning” (5).

More recently, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, we have seen the same theology in operation. In the Alabama U.S. Senate special election of 2017, still in progress at the time of this writing, one of the candidates has been accused of unwanted sexual advances, some of them allegedly occurring decades ago with women who were minors at the time. It is not our purpose here to assess the accuracy or credibility of these allegations, only to assess the impact of popular evangelical salvation theology on the reaction of certain voters to these charges.

Forgiveness Without Repentance

One Alabama voter, interviewed by a number of media outlets, has made the following statement:

If he—he went to the Lord and asked for forgiveness for that and hasn’t done anything like that in—since then, I believe that if the good Lord’s forgiven him, as a Christian I have to forgive him also (6).

Another respondent, in a Facebook post addressing the Moore allegations, declared:

God has forgiven Roy Moore and He will forgive those who vote for him (7).

The TV anchor receiving this post responded, “I wish I could see your face as you’re typing. Like, Are you serious?” (8).

Were the anchor in question to study popular evangelical theology, he would understand that chances are, the claim on the part of this person is exceedingly serious—though from a Biblical standpoint, profoundly erroneous.

Here is the problem: Judge Moore, as of this writing, continues to deny that the alleged incidents ever happened. If in fact he asked the Lord to forgive him at some point in the past, that would mean the alleged incidents actually did happen, and that his present denials are falsehoods. Such a course on the judge’s part would in no way be consistent with Biblical conditions for receiving God’s forgiveness.

In his bestselling 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, evangelical author Philip Yancey quotes favorably an author who writes of “God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness” (9). It seems this understanding of the divine pardon of human sin remains widespread in mainstream evangelical circles. Yet the Bible is very clear that God’s forgiveness is very conditional:

If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and heal their land (II Chron. 7:14).

He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth, and forsaketh them shall have mercy (Prov. 28:13).

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isa. 55:7).

Jesus also made it clear there were conditions for receiving His Father’s forgiveness:

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:14-15).

The apostle John wrote, in a verse familiar to most:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrigheousness (I John 1:9).

In none of these verses can any hint be found of forgiveness without repentance. The notion that God forgives people irrespective of their sorrow for sin or the lack thereof, irrespective of whether or not the sin in question has been renounced and forsaken, is utterly without Biblical support. Yet it is deeply troubling how frequently this “unconditional forgiveness” doctrine surfaces when a public figure—in the church or the world—either admits falling into sin or is accused of a particular sin. Even more troubling, dare we suggest, is the selective manner in which the “unconditional forgiveness” principle is so often applied.


If the Bible is clear about anything, it is clear about God’s willingness to forgive and restore the vilest of sinners, provided they repent and turn from their sins. Wicked King Manasseh is one of the most notable examples in the Sacred Record. Here was a monarch who committed some of the darkest deeds in Biblical history—idolatry within the very precincts of God’s temple (II Chron. 33:5), human sacrifice (verse 5), spiritualism (verse 5), going so far that the Bible describes him as leading Israel to do “worse than the heathen” (verse 9). In another passage we read that Manasseh “shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (II Kings 21:16). Though the Bible doesn’t mention it, tradition says—and Ellen White confirms (10)—that one of those murdered by this evil king was the prophet Isaiah.

The Bible is full of wicked kings, but perhaps there is a reason why Manasseh’s wickedness is described in the greatest detail of all. And that is because he repented! Taken captive to Babylon by the Assyrians and cast into a dungeon, Manasseh humbled himself before God, and became a new man (II Chron. 33:12). In time he was restored to the throne of Jerusalem, and when he was, a great spiritual reformation followed (verses 13-17).

When alleged misdeeds in someone’s life—past or present—are made public, the willingness of both victims and bystanders to extend forgiveness is immediately tested. Some are quick to forgive those with whom they hold beliefs, goals, self-interest, or other agendas in common, while refusing forgiveness to those toward whom they retain grudges or with whom they sustain serious differences. But if the sin in question did in fact take place, and if when disclosure occurs the offender refuses to admit or apologize, it is contrary to Biblical teachings to speak of such a one as having experienced God’s forgiveness. Ellen White speaks in complete accord with Holy Scripture when she writes, “The unconditional pardon of sin never has been, and never will be” (11).

In sum, the erroneous doctrine of unconditional forgiveness, of a salvation which can’t be jeopardized by occasional sin, is found across the secular political spectrum as well as in much of professed Christendom. This theology bears considerable responsibility for the moral corruption and fecklessness afflicting our society just now. Not every moral transgression, to be sure, rightly belongs within the purview of secular political discourse or expectation. But every transgression of God’s law lies within the purview of God’s plan of redemption and the Biblical invitation to repentance, pardon, and cleansing. However, only when the Biblical conditions for pardon are met can the principles of the gospel do their work.


1. Kenneth L. Woodward, “Sex, sin, and salvation,” Newsweek, Nov. 2, 1998, p. 37.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Peter Hasson, “Moore Supporter: ‘As a Christian I Have to Forgive Him,” The Daily Caller, Nov. 10, 2017 http://dailycaller.com/2017/11/10/moore-supporter-as-a-christian-i-have-to-forgive-him-video/

7. Grackle Green, Facebook post reported by Michael Smerconish, CNN, Nov. 18, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxlRZjjr-NQ

8. Ibid.

9. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co, 1997), p. 15.

10. Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 382; SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 1137.

11. ----Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 522.

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Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.