There may be no word in the English Bible that quickens the beat of a sinner’s heart more than that of “forgiveness.” Little wonder, then, that poet Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” In this study we wish to probe this theme from two vantage points: divine forgiveness, i.e., that which proceeds from God to man; human forgiveness, that which we extend to one another.
Forgiveness Biblically Portrayed
There are a couple of interesting words in the Greek New Testament that are rendered by the English, “forgive.” One term is aphesis, literally meaning “to send away.” The word had a variety of meanings in secular Greek, but in its thirty-six times in the New Testament, it always is associated with the “pardon of sins” (Spicq 1994, 242). See, for example, the use of “forgiveness” in Matthew 26:28 and Acts 2:38.
A second term used for “forgiveness” is charizomai, which signifies “to bestow a favor” or to “show kindness.” In Romans 8:32, charizomai is rendered “shall . . . freely give.” In his second Corinthian epistle, Paul admonishes the saints to forgive a certain wayward brother (presumably the offender mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5), that he might not be overcome with sorrow (2 Corinthians 2:7). In Colossians 3:13, Paul twice uses the term—once for the forgiveness we ought to extend to one another, and then to that which we received from Christ. There is the suggestion that just as the Lord graciously forgave us, we should wholeheartedly extend the same kindness to others. Although, as we shall presently note, forgiveness is not extended unconditionally.
There are numerous exciting expressions of figurative language in the Scriptures that portray a rich picture of forgiveness as such flows from the mind of God. David praised the Creator for his lovingkindness because: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). The good king Hezekiah thanked the Lord for his redemption, proclaiming that “you have thrown all my sins behind your back” (Isaiah 38:17). The prophet Micah is even more picturesque. He describes Jehovah as treading our iniquities under his feet, and then casting the residue into the sea (7:19). What a lovely promise, so brimming with comfort.
The New Testament is equally vivid in its characterization of pardon. When one turns to God in obedience, his sins are “blotted out” (Acts 3:19; cf. Psalm 51:1,9). The Greeks used this term of “washing out” the ink from a papyrus sheet so that it might be used for writing again (Moulton 1963, 221).
Another interesting term is apolouo, to “wash away” (used of water immersion, Acts 22:16). The middle voice form here shows the individual’s personal involvement in the act, i.e., Saul had to make the decision to submit to the washing. Vine notes that Saul had “to arrange for the thing to be done” (1965, 132) — hardly something an infant can do!
The Scriptures use the term “redemption” as an equivalent for “forgiveness.” Paul declared that it is “in Christ” that we have our “redemption [apolutrosis] through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7). Redemption originally had to do with buyirig back a slave from his captivity (Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 95); in the New Testament it suggests the offer of freedom from the consequences of sin on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death (cf. Romans 3:24). The Lord was a blemishless sacrifice who bore the penalty for our sins (cf. Isaiah 53:5-6).
The idea of forgiveness stirs the soul and has some intriguing implications. First, “forgiveness” implies an offense. If there is no breach of propriety, no forgiveness is needed. The fact that accountable human beings require forgiveness, therefore, suggests that they have committed offenses (sins) against their Creator. This, in itself, suggests a standard of conduct that has been violated. The Bible addresses both of these matters in one verse; an inspired apostle declares that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). “Lawlessness” literally means “without law,” and it represents a “revolt against God” (Bromiley 1985, 654). All of us, to a degree, are outlaws!
Second, forgiveness implies the personal inability to remedy the violation of law. In one of his parables, Jesus told of a man who was head-over-heels in debt to his lord. In describing the hapless condition of the debtor, the Lord said that “he had not wherewith to pay” (Matthew 18:25). That man represents each of us. We do not have the wherewithal to remedy our despicable condition. One cannot untell a lie once it is told, he cannot un-commit adultery after the foul deed has been done. Sin cannot be undone by any human maneuver. And so, according to the language of the parable, the Lord (representing God) “being moved with compassion, released him [the debtor], and forgave him the debt” (18:27).
Can Forgiveness Be Conditional?
Is it possible for one to forgive, and yet the forgiveness be conditional, without any compromise of moral integrity on the part of the forgiver? Of course it is. If it is the case that God is absolutely good, and if it is further the case that he forgives conditionally, then forgiveness may be imposed conditionally with no forfeiture of ethical principle.
There is no better illustration of this concept than that of the request of Christ while upon the cross. Regarding those who were in the process of murdering him, the Lord petitioned: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Did God, at that point in time, forgive those Jews unconditionally? He did not; this is evidenced by Luke’s inspired record of Acts 2. Therein Peter charged the Hebrews thus:
[Y]ou by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay [the Christ] (v. 23).
Concerning those sins, the apostle subsequently would say, “Repent” (2:38). It is obvious that one need not repent of sins already forgiven.
Further, Peter admonishes:
[B]e immersed every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto [for] the remission [forgiveness] of your sins (2:38).
Clearly, the promise of forgiveness to these folks who had become convinced of their complicity in the Messiah’s death, was conditional. God is willing to freely forgive us (Romans 6:23), but there must be the expression of genuine faith in doing what he requires for the reception of that graciousness.
In addition, it is also perfectly obvious that when the child of God becomes lax and transgresses his Father’s will, the pardon extended to him still is conditional. John wrote:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9; cf. Acts 8:22). Note the word “if.”
But there are two kinds of forgiveness. For lack of a better expression, there is vertical forgiveness, i.e., that which is received from our loving Father, as discussed above. There is also, however, a forgiveness which one might designate as horizontal, i.e., it is the forgiveness that we are required to extend to one another. In the model prayer, Christ taught his disciples to pray these thoughts:
Our Father . . . .forgive us our debts [vertical], as we also have forgiven our debtors [horizontal] (Matthew 6:9ff).
Or note Paul’s encouragement to the Colossian saints that they ought to be forbearing to “one another, forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:13).
Can Human Beings Forgive Sins?
When the Lord Jesus once asserted his divine nature by forgiving a man’s sins, his Jewish antagonists were chagrined, silently thinking: “Who can forgive sins but one, even God?” (Mark 2:7). The fact is, they were correct. In the ultimate sense, only God can offer pardon. A man cannot say to the thief who has stolen his car, “I forgive you,” and the account be fully settled. In the final analysis, all sin is against God (Genesis 39:9; Psalm 51:4).
It is rather well-known, of course, that Roman Catholic theology alleges that the authority to grant actual forgiveness lies within the domain of that Church. When an erring Catholic confesses his sins to a priest, the priest responds with what is designated as “actual absolution.”
I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen (Van Doornik, Jelsma, and Van De Lisdonk 1956, 286).
It is alleged, however, that Christ granted to the apostles the right of forgiving sins. A text from John’s Gospel is cited for proof: “[W]hose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them” (John 20:23). The passage does not provide the coveted support. The second verb, “are forgiven,” in the original text is a perfect tense form, having to do with an act that has occurred already, with the effect remaining. The sense thus is: “Whose sins you declare to be forgiven, must be those forgiven already [by God].” The text merely suggests that one’s declaration regarding forgiveness must be in harmony with the divine pronouncement.
What [Jesus] commits to the disciples and to us is the power and privilege of giving assurance of the forgiveness of God by correctly announcing the terms of forgiveness (1932, 315).
That this is a correct view of the passage is demonstrated by the narrative in Acts 2. In that case the Lord’s apostles did not personally forgive anyone; rather, they merely proclaimed the conditions of pardon (v. 38), and God himself bestowed the actual forgiveness. For further study see our comments elsewhere (Jackson 1993, 43-45).
In What Sense, Then, Do We Forgive one Another?
Our forgiveness of each other has to do more with an attitude than a specific act. Reflect upon the following principles which highlight the sort of temperament that one must cultivate if he would be Christ-like (Luke 23:34).
- The forgiving person does not attempt to take revenge upon those who have wronged him (Romans 12:17ff).
- The forgiving person does not hate the offender; rather, in spite of the person’s evil, he loves (agape) him still. For the meaning of agape love, see our article, “The Challenge of Agape Love.”
- The forgiving person is kindly disposed and tenderhearted toward his adversary (Ephesians 4:32).
- The forgiving person is approachable; he leaves the door for reconciliation wide open and longs for the welfare of the transgressor.
- The forgiving person is not merely passive in waiting for the offender to repent; he actively seeks the repentance of the one who wronged him (Matthew 18:15-17).
There is, though, a passage that puts these principles into sharper focus. Jesus said:
If your brother sins, rebuke him; if he repents forgive him (Luke 17:3).
The two imperatives (“rebuke” and “forgive”) are conditional. I may not rebuke my brother for a sin he has not committed; nor may I forgive him of a sin of which he refuses to repent.
Does this instruction conflict with what we’ve said above? It does not. While one is to cultivate the disposition detailed earlier, he is not at liberty to simply dismiss his brother’s evil, thus freeing him, as it were, from his obligation to make things right with God. The offender still must be held accountable for his reprehensible conduct.
Forgiveness from the “Heart”
In addressing the smugness of Peter, Jesus cautioned that we can expect pardon from God only when we are willing to extend forgiveness to others—“from your hearts” (Matthew 18:35). There is a difference between lip forgiveness, and heart forgiveness.
A lovely Christian woman, whose son was brutally murdered, struggles with the question of how to sincerely try to forgive the vicious killer who forever disrupted her mental tranquility. Few of us will ever face such a rigorous challenge. What shall we say to help her with this problem?
First, as indicated above, forgiveness does not mean that the sin is to be ignored. There are both moral and civil consequences to a horrible act such as we have described. The wounded mother is not obligated to frustrate the legal process by which her son’s murderer is brought to justice. Even though the killer could obtain pardon from God through his obedience to the gospel (even as Saul of Tarsus did—see Acts 26:10; cf. 22:16), he still must suffer the temporal consequence of his violation of civil law.
That aside, here are some truths which may help us to cultivate the type of compasssionate and forgiving spirit that is God-like (cf. Matthew 18:27)—as difficult as that may be to achieve.
We must take note of the value of the human soul—any soul, every soul. Such is worth more than the entire universe (Matthew 16:26). Paul once spoke of “the brother [a solitary person] for whose sake Christ died” (1 Corinthians 8:11). If the Lord Jesus died for all (1 Timothy 2:6), who are we to be selective with regard to those we are willing to forgive?
While it is the case that some sins have greater temporal consequences than others (e.g., murder carries a greater penalty than shoplifting a pack of gum), sin—all sin, any sin—is still a serious violation of the will of God. The inspired James noted that “the sin” (one sin, any sin) ultimately brings forth “death” (James 1:15). We look upon murder as a particularly atrocious act, but God put it in the same catalog with strife, malice, back-biting, insolence, boasting, disobedience toward parents, covenant-breaking, idolatry, fornication, stealing, covetousness, drunkenness, sodomy, jealousy, factiousness, envy, cowardice, and lying (Romans 1:28ff; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:8). The point is this: in view of the manner in which our holy Creator views sin, we can hardly afford to be selective in what sins we will pardon.
We must reflect upon our own past, and be painfully aware of how we have disappointed the Lord so terribly and frequently. We have a tendency to minimize our own blunders and yet maximize the mistakes of others. But inspiration puts the matter into sharper focus. We are to
speak evil of no man, not to be contentious, to be gentle, showing all meekness toward all men. For we also once were foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving different lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, [and] hating one another (Titus 3:2-3).
It is a rather terrible thing when we forget the many sins of which we’ve been forgiven (2 Peter 1:9).
We must learn to forgive because to do otherwise is most harmful to our very own state of mind and even physical well-being. In his book, None of These Diseases, prominent physician Dr. S.I. McMillen has a chapter titled, “The High Cost Of Getting Even.” He vividly shows that the bitter, unforgiving spirit can bring much stress, and distress, to both mind and body. Forgiving can be a matter of life and death! We must try to master the art of forgiving—for others’ sake, and for our own.
The Joy of Forgiveness Received
This discussion would be incomplete if we neglected to note the sort of attitude (and corresponding action) that ought to result whenever one contemplates the implication of the forgiveness he has received from a loving God.
As Jesus was visiting in the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a “sinful” woman (likely a former prostitute) came into the house; she went directly to where the Lord reposed at the table. Her tears of joy flooded the Savior’s feet. Drying his feet with her long hair, she gently kissed them, and anointed them with precious ointment (see Luke 7:36ff). The Lord later explained that her actions were the result of the forgiveness she had received from him on an earlier (though unrecorded) occasion (see Jackson 1998, 67ff). Her lavish actions were issuing from a heart of profound gratitude.
From this incident we must learn this lesson: to whatever degree we savor the value of our forgiveness from God, and entertain an appreciation thereof, to that degree will our thanksgiving be reflected in a measure of service to the Lord. Little gratitude equals little service, and vice versa. What an index this is to the character of many. May Heaven help us to treasure the redemption of our souls, and to demonstrate such by faithful daily service!
- Arndt, William and Gingrich, F.W. 1967. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Bromiley, G.W., ed. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1993. Notes From The Margin Of My Bible – New Testament. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1998. The Parables In Profile. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- McMillen, S.I. 1963. None Of These Diseases. Westwood, NJ: Fleming Revell.
- Moulton, James and Milligan, George. 1963. Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. London, England: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Robertson, A.T. 1932. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 5. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Spicq, Ceslas. 1994. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Vol. 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Van Doornik, N.G.M., Jelsma, S., and Van De Lisdonk, A. 1956. A Handbook of the Catholic Faith. New York, NY: Doubleday.
- Vine, W.E. 1965. New Testament Greek Grammar. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.