Terminology. There are several Hebrew terms equivalent to the English "to forgive, " as defined below. The three most common are verbs (used transitively): salah [j;l's], kapar [r;p'K], and nasa [a'f"n]. The New Testament most commonly expresses the act of forgiving by aphiemi [ajfivhmi] (noun form: aphesis [a [fesi"] ). The verbs charizomai [carivzomai] (e.g., 2 Col 2:7 ) and apoluo [ajpoluvw] (e.g., Luke 6:37 ) express the same idea.
Divine Forgiveness. God's restoration of relationship that entails the removal of objective guilt. Thus, to forgive the offense against God's holiness or the perpetrator of the offense are synonymous. Forgiveness can be extended both to nations (especially Israel) and to individuals.
The Old Testament. God is depicted in the Old Testament as merciful. He is described as "slow to anger" and "abounding in love/mercy, " "compassionate and gracious" ( Exod 34:6 ; Num 14:18 ; Neh 9:17 ; Psalm 86:15 ; 103:8 ; 145:8 ; Joel 2:13 ; John 4:2 ). God is lenient toward his people, not treating them as their sin deserves ( Ezra 9:13-15 ; Psalm 78:35-38 ; 103:8-10 ), and willing to forgive wickedness, rebellion, and sin ( Exod 34:7 ; Num 14:18 ).
There is, however, a tension in the character of God as depicted in the Old Testament, because juxtaposed to the characterization of God as merciful is the warning that God as righteous will not forgive sin or at least not leave sin unpunished ( Exod 34:7 ; Num 14:18 ; Nahum 1:3 ). Although he is predisposed to be merciful, nonetheless he is a jealous God ( Exod 20:5 ; 34:14 ; Deut 4:23-24 ; 5:9 ; 6:15 ; Joshua 24:19-20 ; 1:2 ). am 7:1-9 illustrates God's character as both merciful and righteous: God forgives and repents of punishing Israel twice but after that, when Israel does not return, he can no longer spare the nation. This tension in God's nature manifests itself in God's dealings with nations especially Israel and individuals.
National Forgiveness. In one case God forgave a nation other than Israel and did not bring the punishment on it that he had planned. God as righteous was compelled to bring judgment on Nineveh, but God as merciful sent Jonah to warn the city of the impending judgment. The Ninevites, including the king, believed and repented of their evil ways and their violence ( Jonah 3:8 ). As a result God as merciful relented from the evil that he had planned to bring on them. This is an illustration of the general principle by which God deals with nations ( Jer 18:7-8 ).
Israel is distinguished from other nations as being chosen by God out of all the nations of the earth as his special possession (cf. Exod 19:15 ; Deut 7:6 ; 14:2 ; 26:18 ; 1 Kings 3:8 ; 1 Chron 16:13 ; Psalm 33:12 ; 105:6 ; 106:4-5 ; 135:4 ; Isa 41:8 ; 43:10 ; 44:1-2 ). Israel's election has its roots in God's covenant with Abraham, renewed with Isaac and Jacob, thus giving God's relationship with the nation an unconditional basis ( Gen 12:1-3 ; 15:18 ; Genesis 17:8 Genesis 17:21 ; 22:17 ; 26:3-5 ; 28:13-15 ; 35:11-12 ; Exod 2:24 ; 6:4 ; Exodus 13:5 Exodus 13:11 ; 32:13 ; 33:1 ; Deut 1:8 ; 4:37 ; 7:8 ; 10:11 ; 26:15 ; 34:4 ; Joshua 1:6 ; 21:43-44 ; 1 Kings 8:40 ; 1 Chron 16:16-18 ; 2 Chron 20:7 ; Neh 9:7-8 ; Psalm 105:8-11 ). So, in spite of Israel's disobedience, after he has punished the nation, God is committed to dealing mercifully with it because of the covenant made with the fathers and his love for them ( Lev 26:42 ; Deut 4:31 ; 9:26-27 ; 2 Kings 13:23 ; Psalm 106:40-46 ; Jer 33:25-26 ; Micah 7:20 ).
Although God made a covenant with the fathers, the generation of the exodus was required to enter into a covenant with him as well. At Mount Sinai the people agreed to do everything that was written in the Book of the Covenant ( Exod 24:1-8 ). About forty years later the children of the generation of the exodus renewed this covenant (Deut. 27-30). The covenant entered into by these two generations of Israelites, unlike the covenant made with the fathers, was to be conditional on their obedience. God would bless them with prosperity in the land promised to the fathers, so long as they kept the law revealed through Moses; otherwise they would come under the curses of the covenant. It is significant that Exodus 19:5 makes Israel's status as God's special possession conditional on obedience. Unfortunately, rebellion in the wilderness made the fulfillment of the promises given to the fathers impossible for the generation of the exodus ( Numbers 14:23 Numbers 14:30 ; 32:11 ; Deut 1:35 ); not surprisingly, in Deuteronomy the next generation is advised as to the conditionality of its standing ( 6:18 ; 11:8-9 ; 30:19-20 ; cf. Jer 11:1-5 ). The covenant made with Moses, in other words, was to be perpetually renewed by Israel.
A tension was thereby created between the indicative and imperative of Israel's life before God: God unconditionally promised the land and prosperity in the land to the fathers and their descendants (Abrahamic covenant). Their descendants, however, would possess the promises only on the condition of their obedience to the Law (Mosaic covenant), and, after they had sinned, would be restored to a state of prosperity and security in the land only on the condition of national repentance ( Deut 30:1-10 ; 31:14-32:47 ; Book of Judges 1 Kings 8:33-40 1 Kings 8:46-51 ; 2 Chronicles 6:24-31 2 Chronicles 6:36-39 ; 7:13-16 ). God as merciful made unconditional promises to Abraham and his descendants, but God as righteous demanded obedience to the Torah as the condition for the realization of these promises for each generation.
Individual Forgiveness. God as righteous required obedience from individual Israelites; by observance of all that God commanded each would live ( Lev 18:5 ; Neh 9:29 ). Only some violations of the Torah were forgivable, and these through the cult.
In the Torah the intention of the agent is irrelevant to a determination of whether an act needs expiation; any violation of the Torah renders the agent culpable. The expressed purpose of the sin offering, in fact, is to provide expiation for those who sin unintentionally ( Lev 4:2 ). The stress is on the objective status of the person or community before God. Even unavoidable things like childbirth ( 12:1-8 ) and skin disease ( 14:1-32 ) render a person in need of expiation. In some cases nonmoral entities, such as the altar ( 8:15 ) or houses, must be expiated ( 14:53 ).
There is nonetheless the recognition that there is a difference in kind between intentional and unintentional violations of the Torah. With the exception of theft or fraud against one's neighbor ( Lev 6:1-7 ; Num 5:5-8 ), taking careless oaths ( Lev 5:4-5 ), and a lesser sexual offense ( Lev 19:20-22 ), intentional violations of the Torah were not forgivable; the perpetrator was to be killed or cut off. Numbers 15:22-31 explicitly distinguishes between one who disobeys unintentionally, for whom a priest can atone, and one who disobeys intentionally, for whom the penalty is extirpation. The one who sins in a defiant manner despises the word of the Lord.
The cult provided the means of expiation for those violations of the Torah that were forgivable. Three types of sacrifice that could be brought by an individual were expiatory (Lev. 1-7): the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering. Commonly in Leviticus and Numbers, a priest expiates for the offerer by means of a sacrifice and the offerer is pardoned. One of these sacrifices could also be offered for communal guilt (cf. Num 15:22-26 ; 2 Chron 29:24 ).
These expiatory sacrifices that could be brought by individuals also formed part of daily, weekly, and monthly sacrifices, as well as special offerings during the festivals. In three instances expiation is said to be effected for all individuals within the community by a public offering comprised of one of these expiatory sacrifices ( Numbers 28:22 Numbers 28:30 ; 29:5 ). This raises the possibility that all such public sacrifices not explicitly said to expiate do so also.
The Day of Atonement was another means by which individual sins could be forgiven. In Leviticus 16 Aaron (or his descendants) is instructed first to expiate himself and his house annually . Then, taking two goats, Aaron is to offer one chosen by lot as a sin offering for the expiation of the sanctuary (v. 16), while over the other he is to confess all the wickedness of the sons of Israel and all their rebellion their sin and release this second goat into the wilderness. The released goat removes all wickedness. This was a national ritual designed to remove individual offenses against God's holiness.
In his dealing with individual Israelites, God as merciful stands in tension with God as righteous. He does not deal with individual sin as it deserves, but forgives and mitigates punishment.
The Day of Atonement seems designed to atone for all the sins of an individual even those that should result in extirpation. Consistency should demand that the violations of the Torah to be expiated on the Day of Atonement be those unknown and forgivable violations committed by individuals during the past year. But Leviticus 16:21 stipulates that Aaron will confess over the goat "all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites all their sins"; the fact that these three terms are used in tandem to denote sin in its totality implies that otherwise unforgivable violations of the Torah were forgiven on that day. To the objection that what is forgiven must be that which the Torah allows to be forgiven, it can be countered that God is described as one who forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin ( Exod 34:6 ).
In addition, God forgives people who should not be forgivable; for the sake of mercy God violates the conditions of his own covenant and often Acts more leniently than the Torah would allow. David murdered Uriah and committed adultery with Bathsheba ( 2 Sam 11 ); both actions were punishable by death so that both David and Bathsheba should have been killed. Instead, God forgave David (and presumably Bathsheba), although he was punished for his deeds ( 2 Sam 12 ). In Psalm 51, said to have been occasioned by Nathan's rebuke, David asks God to forgive him (vv. 1-2) and expresses confidence that his sacrifice of a broken spirit and contrite heart are acceptable to God (vv. 16-17). Solomon went so far as to worship other gods, including the detestable god Molech (1 Kings 11). Although God removed the kingdom from his son as punishment, Solomon was not judged according to the Torah, which required death for those who turned away from worshiping and serving God ( Deut 17:2-7 ). God's dealings with the subsequent kings of Israel and Judah also reflect a much greater leniency than was allowed in the Torah. In spite of all the evil Ahab had done, God did not kill Ahab, which was the required penalty for his sin of complicity in the murder of Naboth. Because Ahab repented God did not even bring punishment on Ahab's house ( 1 Kings 21:27-29 ), as he had originally planned.
Repentance is a factor causing God to depart from the standards of the Torah. The individual is understood on analogy to the nation, so that, just as the nation is restored to favor after repentance, so is the individual. Although the prophets mostly spoke to Israel as a nation, in Ezekiel 18:21-23, 27 the individual Israelite is addressed and offered God's unconditional forgiveness. Repentance after committing a violation of the Torah punishable by death has the effect of bringing about God's mercy.
The Eschatological Resolution of the Tension. The tension between God as merciful and God as righteous manifesting itself on both national and individual levels was to be resolved by God at the time of Israel's eschatological renewal. The prophets often spoke of a time when the nation would be restored to the land and forgiven. At this time God would also give to individual Israelites the means by which to meet the conditions of the Mosaic covenant, so that the tension between God's unconditional and conditional promises (the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants) would become irrelevant: since individual Israelites would have a heart to obey God, the nation would be obedient. This restoration is often spoken of as the establishment of another (eschatological) covenant, which will issue in both forgiveness and the spiritual transformation of the people, and is often associated with the giving of the Spirit ( Jer 31:31-34 ; 32:27-41 ; Jeremiah 50:5 Jeremiah 50:20 ; Ezek 16:59-63 ; 36:24-32 ). Related to the eschatological resolution of the tension is the Isaian servant, who is said to be the servant of the covenant ( Isa 42:6 ) and whose death is expiatory ( Isa 53 ).
The New Testament. The tension between God's dealings with human beings in terms of his mercy and righteousness finds resolution in the New Testament. That the eschatological promises of forgiveness and spiritual transformation have become realities through the appearance, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ is assumed throughout the New Testament. This eschatological resolution pertains to the nation, individuals within the nation, and individual Gentiles.
John the Baptist offered eschatological forgiveness to the nation on the condition of repentance ( Mark 1:4 ; Luke 3:3 ). His offer exemplified the tension between God as merciful and God as righteous, as shown by the fact John rejected some who had not first produced the fruit of repentance before seeking the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. He evidently assumed that Israel was the totality of Jews who were faithful to the covenant. John the Baptist pointed to the resolution of this tension, however, when he said that the one who would come after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit ( Matt 3:11 ; Mark 1:8 ; Luke 3:16 ).
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and offered his hearers the possibility of entrance into this kingdom on the condition of repentance. He was the mediator of eschatological salvation, which included the extension of forgiveness ( Matt 9:3-6 ; Mark 2:7-12 ; Luke 5:21-25 ; 7:36-50 ). Like John the Baptist, Jesus required that the offer of eschatological salvation be appropriated by individuals; the process of entering the kingdom was that of becoming a child, by passively receiving God's eschatological forgiveness. It is for this reason that Jesus said to his opponents that "the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you" ( Matt 21:31b ).
Jesus' offer of the kingdom to all on the condition of repentance led to the charge that he associated with tax-collectors and sinners, which his opponents considered offensive to God's righteousness ( Matt 9:10-13 ; 11:19 ; Mark 2:15-17 ; Luke 5:30-32 ; 7:34 ; 15:2 ). The offense probably lay not in the fact that Jesus taught that God would forgive the repentant, but that Jesus actively sought out sinners and offered them the possibility of eschatological forgiveness. In Jesus' opponents' view, sinners ought to take the initiative.
One must remember that for a Jew repentance meant more than simple remorse; it included moral reformation. This explains why some of Jesus' sayings emphasize the need for righteousness in order to be included in the kingdom of God. The same stress on God as both merciful and righteous found in the Old Testament period is found in Jesus' teaching about the kingdom. The mere fact that Jesus required repentance as a condition of entrance into the kingdom is sufficient to make the point. These two aspects of Jesus' teaching, however, are not in tension, because he saw his time as that of eschatological salvation, the time of the resolution of the tension between God as merciful and God as righteous in his dealings with human beings. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and later taught that his death would be the means by which the new covenant would be realized. He also taught that the Spirit would be given after his return to the Father ( John 7:39 ; 14-16 ). Understood against the background of the eschatological promises of the Old Testament, Jesus was saying that the time of Israel's eschatological forgiveness and spiritual transformation had come.
Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God led to his arrest and execution. This had two consequences. First, in response to the crisis in his ministry that this produced, Jesus incorporated his rejection and impending death into his message. He interpreted his death as vicarious and expiatory, as the means by which eschatological forgiveness and renewal would come to Israel and the nations in spite of Israel's rejection of the messenger of the kingdom. Jesus understood his death in light of the destiny of the Servant as a guilt offering for many ( Matt 20:28 ; Mark 10:45 ; Luke 22:37 ). He also interpreted his impending death at the Last Supper as that of the eschatological Passover lamb whose sacrifice would bring about the possibility of forgiveness and the realization of the new covenant ( Matt 26:26-28 ; Mark 14:22-24 ; Luke 22:19-20 ). Second, Jesus' rejection would bring into being a messianic community, the church (ekklesia [ejkklhsiva]). Since Jesus required personal repentance as a condition for entrance into the kingdom of God, the potential existed for distinguishing a faithful remnant from those who were unrepentant and disobedient. Judgment would come to those who rejected him, while those who accepted Jesus' message would receive the Spirit and be constituted as the messianic community, for whom some of the eschatological promises would be realized ( Acts 1:8 ; 2:1-13 ). Also Gentiles would become part of this community and receive the Holy Spirit ( Matt 28:18-19 ; Acts 10 ). Jesus still foresaw, however, a future for the nation ( Luke 21:24 ; Acts 1:6-7 ), when God would bring about eschatological salvation on a national basis.
Paul writes that Jesus' death is the means by which eschatological forgiveness comes not only to the Jew but also to the Gentile ( Gal 3:7-9 ; cf. Acts 3:25 ). Like Jesus, he sees the tension between God as merciful and God as righteous resolved in the realization of the eschatological promises of forgiveness and spiritual transformation.
There are some passages in the New Testament that suggest baptism is a necessary condition for acquiring eschatological forgiveness ( Acts 2:38 ; Rom 6:3-4 ; Col 2:12 ; 1 Peter 3:21 ). This is a controversial subject; suffice it to say that at the very least baptism is intricately bound up with the reception of eschatological forgiveness.
First John speaks of forgiveness after having received eschatological forgiveness. The author says that the one who is in him (Christ)/born of God does not sin habitually ( 1 John 3:6 1 John 3:9 ); this person has the Spirit ( 3:24 ). But John recognizes that nonhabitual sin is an inevitability and requires a means of expiation (1:7-2:2). Expiation comes by confession, after which the sinner will be cleansed from all unrighteousness by Jesus' expiatory sacrifice.
In the New Testament there are references to sins that are unforgivable. Jesus spoke about blasphemy against the Spirit for which there could be no forgiveness ( Matt 12:31-32 ; Mark 3:28-29 ; Luke 12:10 ). The author of Hebrews also allows for the possibility of sins committed by "believers" that are not forgivable (6:4-8; 10:26-31), and 1 John refers to a sin that leads to death ( 5:16-17 ). These are difficult passages to interpret, but probably should be understood as denoting apostasy issuing in sins for which there is no repentance. The apostate, moreover, never had a genuine experience of God's eschatological salvation.
Human Forgiveness. In the Lord's Prayer, receiving forgiveness from God is joined to forgiving others ( Matt 6:12 ; Luke 11:4 ). Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant makes the point that human beings are obliged to forgive because God has forgiven them ( Matt 18:23-35 ). God's forgiveness is actually said to be conditional upon forgiving others ( Matt 6:14 ; 18:35 ; Mark 11:25-26 ; Luke 6:37 ). Jesus says that there ought to be no limit on the number of times that one should forgive another so long as the offender repents and asks for forgiveness ( Matt 18:21-22 ; Luke 17:3-4 ).
Barry D. Smith
Bibliography. A. Bü hler, Studies in Sin and Atonement; P. Garnet, Salvation and Atonement in the Qumran Scrolls; M. Hengel, The Atonement; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; E. A. Martens, God's Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology; J. Milgrom, Cult and Conscience: The Asham and the Priestly Doctrine of Repentance; G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era; G. F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism; B. D. Smith, Jesus' Last Passover Meal; V. Taylor, Jesus and His Sacrifice.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Forgiveness'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".