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, that which proceeds from God to man, and 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. Etymologically, it means “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. It meant 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, he was talking about the offender mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5. The impulse for the forgiveness he was commending was so that the erring brother might not be overcome with sorrow (2 Cor. 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.

God’s Forgiveness Portrayed in Word Pictures

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 loving-kindness because:

“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psa. 103:12).

The good king Hezekiah thanked the Lord for his redemption, proclaiming that “you have thrown all my sins behind your back” (Isa. 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 (Mic. 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. Saul had to make the decision to submit to the washing away of his sins. 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” (Eph. 1:7).

Redemption originally had to do with buying 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. Rom. 3:24).

The Lord was a blemishless sacrifice who bore the penalty for our sins (cf. Isa. 53:5-6).

Implications of True Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness stirs the soul and has some intriguing implications.

First, forgiveness implies an offense has been committed. 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 that a standard of conduct has been violated.

The Bible addresses both of these matters in one verse. An inspired apostle declares that “sin is lawlessness” (1 Jn. 3:4). Lawlessness literally means “without law,” and it represents a “revolt against God” (Bromiley 1985, 654). All of us, to a degree, are spiritual outlaws!

Second, forgiveness implies the inability to remedy the violation of the 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” (Matt. 18:25).

That man represents you and me. We do not have the wherewithal to remedy our despicable condition.

We cannot untell a lie once it is told. We 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” (Matt. 18:27).

Can Forgiveness Be Conditional?

Does imposing a condition for forgiveness compromise the forgiver’s moral integrity? In other words, is it possible to forgive and yet place conditions on forgiveness?

Let’s reason together.

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 on 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” (Lk. 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. Here’s the charge Peter levied against the Hebrews:

[Y]ou by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay [the Christ] (Acts 2:23).

Concerning those sins, the apostle subsequently would say, “Repent” (Acts 2:38).

It is obvious that you need not repent of sins that are 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 (Acts 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 (Rom. 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 true 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 Jn. 1:9; cf. Acts 8:22).

Note the word “if.” The condition of confession is imposed in order to receive the blessings of forgiveness.

Two Kinds of Forgiveness

For lack of a better expression, what we’ve been talking about thus far is vertical forgiveness — the forgiveness we all desire from our loving Father for the sins we have committed against him.

But there is also forgiveness that we might designate as horizontal. It is the forgiveness we are required to extend to each other.

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] (Matt. 6:9ff).

Or note Paul’s encouragement to the Colossian saints. 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” (Col. 3:13).

Can We Actually Forgive Sins?

When the Lord Jesus once asserted his divine nature by forgiving a man’s sins, his Jewish antagonists were chagrined. They silently thought, “Who can forgive sins but one, even God?” (Mk. 2:7).

The fact is, they were correct. In the ultimate sense, only God can pardon sin.

A man cannot say to the thief who has stolen his car, “I forgive you,” and the sin account be fully settled. In the full analysis, all sin is against God (Gen. 39:9; Psa. 51:4).

It is rather well-known, that Roman Catholic theology claims 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” (Jn. 20:23).

However, the passage does not provide the coveted support.

The second verb, “are forgiven,” in the original text is a perfect tense form. The impact of this verb tense describes an action 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.

Robertson noted:

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).

And the narrative in Acts 2 demonstrates that this is a correct view of this passage.

In that case, the Lord’s apostles did not personally forgive anyone. Rather, they merely proclaimed the conditions of pardon (Acts 2:38). 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 on the following principles which highlight the sort of temperament that we must cultivate if we would be Christ-like (Lk. 23:34).

  • The forgiving person does not attempt to take revenge upon those who have wronged him (Rom. 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 (Eph. 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 (Matt. 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 (Lk. 17:3).

The two imperatives (“rebuke” and “forgive”) are conditional. I may not rebuke my brother for a sin he has not committed. Nor am I to declare him forgiven of the sin for which he refuses to repent.

Does this instruction conflict with what we’ve said above?

It does not. While we are to cultivate the disposition detailed earlier, we are not at liberty to simply dismiss a 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 only expect pardon from God when we are willing to extend forgiveness to others “from your hearts” (Matt. 18:35).

There is a difference between lip forgiveness and heart forgiveness.

A lovely Christian woman I know had a son who was brutally murdered. She struggles with how to sincerely 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 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 that may help us to cultivate the type of compassionate and forgiving spirit that is God-like (cf. Matt. 18:27) as difficult as that may be to achieve.

We must take note of the value of the human soul. Any soul and every soul is worth more than the entire universe (Matt. 16:26).

Paul once spoke of “the brother [a solitary person] for whose sake Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11). If the Lord Jesus died for all (1 Tim. 2:6), who are we to be selective with those we are willing to forgive?

Some sins have greater temporal consequences than others. Murder carries a greater penalty than shoplifting a pack of gum.

But 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 (Jas. 1:15).

We look on murder as a particularly atrocious act, but God put it in the same catalog with strife, malice, backbiting, insolence, boasting, disobedience toward parents, covenant-breaking, idolatry, fornication, stealing, covetousness, drunkenness, sodomy, jealousy, factiousness, envy, cowardice, and lying (Rom. 1:28ff; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:8).

Here’s the point. When we consider how our holy Creator views sin, we can hardly afford to be selective in what sins we will pardon.

We must reflect on our own past and be painfully aware of how we have disappointed the Lord so terribly and frequently.

Because we have a tendency to minimize our own blunders and 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 Pet. 1:9).

We must learn to forgive because to do otherwise is harmful to our 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 attitude and corresponding action that ought to result whenever we contemplate the forgiveness we have received from our 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 Lk. 7:36ff).

The Lord later explained that her actions were motivated by the forgiveness she had received from him on an earlier 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 our forgiveness from God and entertain an appreciation thereof, to that degree will our thanksgiving be reflected in service to the Lord.

Little gratitude equals little service and vice versa.

Oh, what a revelation this is to the character of many.

May Heaven help us to treasure the redemption of our souls and demonstrate gratitude for our forgiveness in faithful daily service to God!