The Atonement & The Abuser

The Atonement is not just a doctrine for learned brothers to debate – it is a life to be lived. Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). The Scriptures remind us of how he in an act of supreme love died for us and rose again and now sits at God’s right hand “for us” (Hebrews 9:28). Yet as we draw on Christ’s mercy and forgiveness we know we show our appreciation and don’t abuse his mercy. Should we sin that grace may abound? Of course not. To do so would be to show a lack of understanding of what the new life in Christ is about.

Recovering abusers is likely to be a long process – just think about the process of bringing back the cleansed leper as described in Leviticus 14. The first priority must be to the safety of the victim and children and then to the longer process of recovery of the abuser.

The steps for our personal forgiveness are clear:

Recognize our sin - We may need help here and so Jesus gives the commandment to “rebuke” (Luke 17:3). This might be one of the most neglected commandments of Christ as most of us find this distasteful. We may need two or three witnesses to come and talk to us and help us recognize our sin.

Confess without blaming anyone else – “I have sinned against Yahweh” (2 Samuel 12:13). David does not seek to allocate any blame to Bathsheba at all.

Repent – the idea in the Old Testament is to “return” - to turn about and go the right way. In the New Testament the idea is to change one’s mind. This means a deliberate consciousness of the need to be a different person. If the sin has been a long-standing pattern John the Baptist calls for “fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

These same steps are needed if we are going to save the abuser eternally through the forgiveness of his sins. Although a victim needs to be willing to forgive the abuser he will need to spend time for his personal forgiveness. My observation of abusers and the constant refrain of brothers dealing with abusers is that they just are not that honest.

The abuser needs to:

Recognize his sin – Chapter 5 of the discussion paper details some processes that might help him and those working with him to get there. Professional counsellors are also effective at emphasising the reality of the abuse behaviours and their effects on others.

Confess fully and fully take responsibility. While the abuser is still blaming the victim or telling other people how they should deal with him, or what they should think he has not reached the confession state. This is discussed in the subsequent pages.

Repent – be completely willing to change. This is not just remorse. It is not saying sorry. It is not writing an apology. It is not tears. It is not promises never to do it again. It is a change in thinking that elevates his wife in his thoughts and therefore behaving completely differently. It will be seen in fruits of real change.

It took David nine months to confess his sin and repent. It may well take an abuser that long and longer. His desire to have his wife back or to have an ecclesially-recognised solution to the marriage “problem” or a misplaced focus on "getting them back together" may lead to short-cuts in following God’s approach to forgiveness in Christ. There are no short-cuts. At times Saul was full of remorse for his behaviour to David. But there was no repentance – and David ran in the opposite direction. Spiritual restoration of the abuser will need patience and persistence.

We hope that the approaches proposed by the Hear Believe Act Project might encourage more honesty and truly rehabilitated abusers in the future.

Fruits meet for repentance are more than just confession, seeking forgiveness and changing one’s behaviour. This can be done without ever trying to really undo the damage that has been done. Seeking to restore what the abuser has taken away from his family provides the mature works of repentance. It might entail a full explanation to the children about what has happened and how he has been wrong and should not have behaved that way. It may mean a family conference including his and her broader family where he can make that confession and bring them into the circle of those helping him. It might mean an explanation to the family of the forgiveness and mercy of God and how that with God’s help the most vile of behaviours might be cast out and replaced by the loving character of Christ. Restitution can take many forms and we should be ready to lead a repenting abuser to consider how he might put back what he has taken away.