Forgiveness [N]

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

See also Atonement; Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit; Death of Christ; Faith; Repentance

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.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Forgiveness'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.


for-giv'-nes (kaphar, nasa', calach; apoluein charizesthai, aphesis paresis):

1. Etymology

2. Pagan and Jewish Ideas

3. The Teaching of Christ

4. Conditions of Forgiveness

5. The Offended Party

6. Divine and Human Forgiveness

7. Forgiveness and Justification

8. Old Testament Teaching

9. Limitations of Forgiveness

10. Christ's Power to Forgive Sins

11. The Need of an Atonement

12. The New Testament Doctrine of Atonement

1. Etymology:

Of the seven words, three Hebrew and four Greek, which are used to express the idea of forgiveness, the last two occur in this sense only once each. Apoluein (Luke 6:37) is used because of the analogy of sin to debt, and denotes the release from it. It has the meaning "forgiveness" in 2 Macc 12:45 also, in which passage the word for sin is expressed. In Romans 3:25 Paul uses paresis instead of the usual aphesis. The former means "putting aside," "disregarding," "pretermission"; the latter, "putting away" completely and unreservedly (Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, section xxxiii). It does not mean forgiveness in the complete sense, and in the King James Version is incorrectly translated "remission." Nor does it mean that God had temporarily suspended punishment which at some later date He might inflict (Sanday on Romans 3:25). It was apparent that God had treated sins as though He had forgiven them, though in fact such an attitude on the part of God was without such a foundation as was later supplied by an adequate atonement, and so the apostle avoids saying that God forgave them. This passing over of sins had the tendency of destroying man's conception of God's righteousness, and in order to avert this Christ was set forth as a propitiation and God's disregard of sin (paresis) became a real forgiveness (aphesis); compare Acts 14:16; 17:30. Charizesthai is not found outside of the writings of Luke and Paul, and in the sense "to forgive sins" is peculiarly Pauline (2 Corinthians 2:7;12:13; Ephesians 3:2; Colossians 2:13; 3:13). It expresses, as no other of these words does, his conception of the graciousness of God's pardon. Kaphar (Deuteronomy 21:8; Psalms 78:38; Jeremiah 18:23) and calah (Nu 30:5,8,12; 1Ki 30,34,36,39,50, etc.) are used only of Divine forgiveness, while nasa' is used in this sense (Exodus 32:32; Numbers 14:19; Joshua 24:19; Psalms 25:18; 32:1,5; 99:8; Isaiah 2:9), and also of human forgiveness (Genesis 50:17; Exodus 10:17; 1 Samuel 25:28). Remission (Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77;24:47; Acts 2:38; 10:43; Hebrews 9:22; 10:18) and blotting out (Psalms 51:1,9; Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 18:23; Acts 3:19) are synonyms of forgiveness, and to understand it fully such words as save, justify, reconcile and atonement should also be considered.

2. Pagan and Jewish Ideas:

Forgiveness was not a pagan virtue. The large-souled man might disregard offenses in cases where he considered them beneath his notice, but to forgive was weak-spirited (F. W. Robertson on 1 Corinthians 4:12). Even in the Old Testament, man's forgiveness of his fellow-man is infrequently mentioned. In every case the one asking forgiveness is in a position of subserviency, and is petitioning for that to which he has no just right (Genesis 50:17; Exodus 10:17; 1 Samuel 15:25; 25:28). The Imprecatory Psalms attest the fact that forgiveness of enemies was not esteemed as a virtue by Israel. They could appeal to the law which enjoined upon them to seek neither the peace nor the prosperity of their avowed enemies (Deuteronomy 23:6; compare Ezra 9:12). Jesus gave the popular summing-up of the law and not its exact words when he said, "Ye have heard that it was said .... hate thine enemy" (Matthew 5:43), and this certainly does represent their attitude and their understanding of the teaching of the Scriptures.

3. The Teaching of Christ:

Christ taught that forgiveness is a duty. No limit can be set to the extent of forgiveness (Luke 17:4) and it must be granted without reserve. Jesus will not admit that there is any wrong so gross nor so often repeated that it is beyond forgiveness. To Him an unforgiving spirit is one of the most heinous of sins (Bruce, Parabolic Teaching, 376). This is the offense which God will not forgive (Matthew 18:34,35). It is the very essence of the unpardonable sin (Mark 3:22-30).

It was the one blemish of the elder son which marred an otherwise irreproachable life (Luke 15:28-30). This natural, pagan spirit of implacability Jesus sought to displace by a generous, forgiving spirit. It is so far the essence of His teaching that in popular language "a Christian spirit" is not inappropriately understood to be synonymous with a forgiving disposition. His answer to Peter that one should forgive not merely seven times in a day, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21,22), not only shows that He thought of no limit to one's forgiveness, but that the principle could not be reduced to a definite formula.

4. Conditions of Forgiveness:

Jesus recognized that there are conditions to be fulfilled before forgiveness can be granted. Forgiveness is part of a mutual relationship; the other part is the repentance of the offender. God does not forgive without repentance, nor is it required of man. The effect of forgiveness is to restore to its former state the relationship which was broken by sin. Such a restoration requires the cooperation of both parties. There must be both a granting and an acceptance of the forgiveness. Sincere, deep-felt sorrow for the wrong which works repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10) is the condition of mind which insures the acceptance of the forgiveness. Hence, Jesus commands forgiveness when the offender turns again, saying, "I repent" (Luke 17:3,1). It was this state of mind which led the father joyfully to welcome the Prodigal before he even gave utterance to his newly formed purpose (Luke 15:21).

5. The Offended Party:

It is not to be supposed, however, that failure to repent upon the part of the offender releases the offended from all obligation to extend forgiveness. Without the repentance of the one who has wronged him he can have a forgiving state of mind. This Jesus requires, as is implied by, "if ye forgive not every one his brother from your hearts" (Matthew 18:35). It is also implied by the past tense in the Lord's Prayer:

"as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). It is this forgiving spirit which conditions God's forgiveness of our sins (Mark 11:25; Matthew 6:14,15). In such a case the unforgiving spirit is essentially unrepentance (Matthew 18:23-35). "Of all acts, is not, for a man, repentance the most Divine?"

The offended is to go even farther and is to seek to bring the wrongdoer to repentance. This is the purpose of the rebuking commanded in Luke 17:3. More explicitly Jesus says, "If thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone" (Matthew 18:15-17). He is to carry his pursuit to the point of making every reasonable effort to win the wrongdoer, and only when he has exhausted every effort may he abandon it. The object is the gaining of his brother. Only when this is evidently unattainable is all effort to cease.

The power of binding and loosing, which means forbidding and allowing, was granted to Peter (Matthew 16:19) and to the Christian community (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23). It clearly implies the possession of the power to forgive sins. In the case of Peter's power it was exercised when he used the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). This consisted in the proclamation of the gospel and especially of the conditions upon which men might enter into relationship with God (Acts 2:38; 10:34). It was not limited to Peter only, but was shared by the other apostles (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). Christ left no fixed rules the observance or non-observance of which would determine whether one is or is not in the kingdom of God. He gave to His disciples principles, and in the application of these principles to the problems of life there had to be the exercise of discriminating judgment. The exercise of this judgment was left to the Christian community (2 Corinthians 2:10).

It is limited by the principles which are the basis of the kingdom, but within these principles the voice of the community is supreme. The forgiveness here implied is not the pronouncing of absolution for the sins of individuals, but the determination of courses of conduct and worship which will be acceptable. In doing this its decisions will be ratified in heaven (Westcott on John 20:23).

That there is a close analogy between human and Divine forgiveness is clearly implied (Matthew 5:23,14; 6:12; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; Colossians 1:14; 3:13). God"s forgiveness is conditional upon man's forgiveness of the wrongs done him, not because God forgives grudgingly but because forgiveness alone indicates that disposition of mind which will humbly accept the Divine pardon.

6. Divine and Human Forgiveness:

Repentance is a necessary ingredient of the fully developed forgiveness. There is no essential difference between the human and the Divine pardon, though the latter is necessarily more complete. It results in the complete removal of all estrangement and alienation between God and man. It restores completely the relationship which existed prior to the sin. The total removal of the sin as a result of the Divine forgiveness is variously expressed in the Scriptures:

"Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back" (Isaiah 38:17); "Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19); "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34); "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions" (Isaiah 43:25); "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us" (Psalms 103:12). Ideally this same result is attained in human forgiveness, but actually the memory of the sin remains with both parties as a barrier between them, and even when there is a complete restoration of amity the former state of alienation cannot entirely be removed from memory. When God forgives, however, He restores man to the condition of former favor. Release from punishment is involved, though Divine forgiveness is more than this. In most cases the consequences, which in some instances are spoken of as punishment, are not removed, but they lose all penal character and become disciplinary. Nor does the forgiveness remove from human mind the consciousness of sin and the guilt which that involved, but it does remove the mistrust which was the ground of the alienation. Mistrust is changed into trust, and this produces peace of mind (Psalms 32:5-7; Romans 5:1); consciousness of the Divine love and mercy (Psalms 103:2); removes fear of punishment (2 Samuel 12:13); and awakens love to God.

7. Forgiveness and Justification:

Paul rarely uses the term "forgiveness," but in its place prefers justification. They are to his understanding practically synonymous (Stevens, Theology of the New Testament, 418). He preferred the latter, however, because it was better fitted to express the idea of secure, present and permanent acceptance in the sight of God. It connoted both a complete and a permanent state of grace. In popular thought forgiveness is not so comprehensive, but in the Biblical sense it means no less than this. It removes all of the guilt and cause of alienation from the past; it assures a state of grace for the present; and promises Divine mercy and aid for the future. Its fullness cannot adequately be conveyed by any one term or formula. Divine, like human, forgiveness is always contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions. It must be preceded by repentance and a firmly fixed intention not to repeat the offense. In addition to this, one was required to conform to certain legal or formal acts before the assurance of pardon was his. These acts were expressive of the sinner's state of mind. They consisted of certain acts of sacrifice in the pre-Christian times and of baptism during the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) and under Christ (Acts 2:38; 22:16). These acts are never regarded as in any sense a quid pro quo in return for which the benefit of forgiveness is granted. It is an act of pure grace on God's part, and these acts are required as expressions of the man's attitude toward God. The state of mind required in order to obtain the gift of forgiveness is that to which the Prodigal Son came (Luke 15:17-19), and that of the sinner who went to his house justified rather than the Pharisee (18:9-14), because he realized that forgiveness was to him an act of pure favor. There was real and actual forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament times as well as since Christ. Certain passages have been construed to teach that the Law provided only for a passing over or rolling back of sins, and that there was not then an actual forgiveness.

8. Old Testament Teaching:

The sacrifices prescribed by the Law were not adequate atonements, so that there was constant necessity of yearly remembrance of sin (Hebrews 10:3; compare Leviticus 16:21). The atonement of Christ is, however, of permanent adequacy, and became retroactive in the sense that it unified in Christ the Divine arrangement for saving mankind in all ages (Hebrews 11:40). "The passing over of the sins done aforetime" (Romans 3:25) does not imply a partial or apparent forgiveness, but means that they were forgiven, though seemingly without adequate recognition on the part of God of their heinous character. In view of God's righteous character men might naturally have expected punishment, but instead the offenders were spared (compare Acts 14:16; 17:30). No expression in the Old Testament suggests any inadequacy of the forgiveness extended to Israel, but on the other hand many passages may be quoted to show how rich and full it was deemed to be (Psalms 103; Micah 7:19; Isaiah 38:17; Jeremiah 31:34).

9. Limitations of Forgiveness:

Two passages seem to limit God's forgiveness. They are Christ's discussion of the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:31,32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10), and the one which mentions the sin unto death (1 John 5:16; compare Hebrews 6:4-6). In the former passage there is mentioned a sin which has no forgiveness, and in the latter, one on behalf of which the apostle cannot enjoin prayer that it be forgiven, though he does not prohibit it. In both cases the sin is excluded from the customary forgiveness which is extended to sins of all other classes.

The act of the Pharisees which led Jesus to speak of the unpardonable sin was the attributing of a good deed wrought by Him through the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28) to Beelzebub. No one could do such a thing unless his moral nature was completely warped. To such a person the fundamental distinctions between good and evil were obliterated. No ordinary appeal could reach him, for to him good seemed evil and evil seemed good. The possibility of winning him back is practically gone; hence, he is beyond the hope of forgiveness, not because God has set an arbitrary line of sinfulness, beyond which His grace of forgiveness will not reach, but because the man has put himself beyond the possibility of attaining to that state of mind which is the essential condition of Divine forgiveness. It is practically certain that John did not have any particular sinful act in mind when he spoke of the sin which is unto death.


There is no possible way of determining what specific sin, if any, he refers to. Probably the same principle applies in this case as in that of the unpardonable sin. God's forgiveness is limited solely by the condition that man must accept it in the proper spirit.

There are some passages which seem to imply that forgiveness was the principal Messianic task. This is suggested by the name given to the Messiah during His earthly career (Matthew 1:21), and by the fact that He was the Saviour. The remission of sins was the preparation for the advent of the Messiah (Luke 1:77), and repentance and remission of sins were the prerequisites to a state of preparation for the kingdom.

10. Christ's Power to Forgive Sins:

It is not surprising, therefore, that we find Jesus laying claim to the power to forgive sins. This provoked a bitter controversy with the Jews, for it was axiomatic with them that no one could forgive sins but God only (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21; 7:49). This Jesus did not question, but He would have them infer from His power to forgive sins that He was the possessor of Divine power. Jesus asserted His possession of this power on two occasions only, though it has been sfficiently inferred from John 5:14; 8:11 that He was accustomed to pronounce absolution upon all of those He healed. On one of these occasions He not merely asserted that He possessed the power, but demonstrated it by showing Himself to be the possessor of the Divine gift of healing. The impostor might claim some such intangible power as the authority to forgive sins, but he would never assert the possession of such easily disproved power as the ability to heal the sick. But Jesus claimed both, and based His claim to be the possessor of the former on the demonstration that He possessed the latter. God would not support an impostor, hence, his aid in healing the paralytic proved that Jesus could forgive sins. The multitude accepted this logic and "glorified God, who had given such authority unto men" (Matthew 9:2-9;Mr; Luke 5:18-26).

On the other occasion when His possession of this power was under discussion (Luke 7:36-50), He offered no other proof than the forgiven woman's deep gratitude and love. One expression that He uses, however, has raised some discussion as to the relative order in time of her love and forgiveness (Luke 7:47). Did she love because she was forgiven, or vice versa? Manifestly the forgiveness precedes the love, in spite of the fact that Luke 7:47 seems to assert the opposite, for this is the bearing of the parable of the Two Debtors (7:41-43), and the latter part of 7:47 has the same implication. It is clear that she had previously repented and had been accepted, and the anointing of Jesus was an outpouring of her gratitude.

The phrase of 7:47, "for she loved much," is proof of the greatness of her sin rather than a reason why she was forgiven. In both cases where Jesus forgave sins, He did so because the state of mind of the person forgiven showed worthiness of the blessing. To this as a condition of forgiveness there is no exception. Christ's prayer on the cross (Luke 23:34) would not avail to secure the pardon of His murderers without their repentance.

11. The Need of an Atonement:

Though forgiveness is on God's part an act of pure grace prompted by His love and mercy, and though He forgives freely all those who comply with the condition of repentance and abandonment of sin, yet this does not dispense with the necessity of an atonement. The parable of the Prodigal Son was spoken to teach the freedom of God's forgiveness and acceptance of returning sinners, and the duty of men to assume the same attitude toward them. This much it teaches, but it fails to set forth entirely God's attitude toward sin. With reference to the sinner God is love and mercy, but with reference to sin He is righteous, and this element of God's nature is no less essential to Him than His love, and must be considered in any effort to set forth completely the doctrine of God's forgiveness of sinners. The atonement of Christ and the many atonements of the Law were manifestations of this phase of God's nature.

12. The New Testament Doctrine of Atonement:

The idea of an atonement is fundamental in the teachings of the New Testament (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Colossians 1:21). It is very clearly implied in such terms as reconciliation and propitiation, and is no less present in pardon, remission and forgiveness. The doctrine of the atonement is not developed by Jesus, but it is strongly hinted at and is unmistakably implied in the language of Matthew 20:28; 26:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 24:46,47. John the Baptist's salute, "Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29), also implies it. In the writings of the apostles it is repeatedly and clearly affirmed that our forgiveness and reconciliation to God is based upon the death of Christ. "In none other is there salvation" (Acts 4:12); through Him is the redemption (Romans 3:24); God set Him forth to be a propitiation (Romans 3:25); through Him "we have now received the reconciliation" (Romans 5:11); "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19); "Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf" (2 Corinthians 5:21); and "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us" (Galatians 3:13). Such citations might be greatly multiplied. That which was so perfectly accomplished by the offering of Christ was in an analagous though imperfect way accomplished by the sacrifices required by the Law. It had "a shadow of the good things to come" (Hebrews 10:1).

The unvarying effect of sin is to produce an estrangement between the injurer and the wronged. The nature of God is such and the relationship between Him and man is of such a character that sin brings about an alienation between them. It is this presupposition of an estrangement between them which renders the atonement necessary before forgiveness can be extended to man. This estrangement must be removed, and the alienation be transformed into a reconciliation. In what then does the alienation consist?

The sin of man produces a changed attitude toward each other on the part of both God and man. God holds no personal pique against man because of his sin. The New Testament language is very carefully chosen to avoid any statement which would seem to convey such a conception. Yet God's holy righteousness is such that He cannot be indifferent to sin. His wrath must rest upon the disobedient (John 3:36; Romans 1:18). It is not merely impersonal. It is not enough to say He hates the sin. Man's unrighteousness has not merely alienated him from God, but God also from him. The word "enemies" (echthroi) of Romans 5:10 is passive, and means the object of God's enmity (Sunday, at the place). It was because of this fact that God set forth Christ to be a propitiation to show His righteousness because of the passing over of sins done aforetime (Romans 3:25,26).

God's passing over, without inflicting punishment, the sins of pre-Christian times had placed in jeopardy His righteousness; had exposed Him to the implication that He could tolerate sin. God could not be true to Himself while He tolerated such an imputation, and so instead of visiting punishment upon all who sinned--which would have been one way of showing His righteousness--He set forth Christ to death ("in his blood"), and in this way placed Himself beyond the imputation of unrighteousness while it enabled Him to show mercy to sinners. The effect of sin upon man was to estrange him from God, to lead him farther and farther away from his Maker. Each successive sin produced a greater barrier between the two. Now the atonement was designed to remove the cause of this estrangement and restore the former relationship between God and man.

This too, it has been observed, is the purpose of forgiveness, so that the atonement finds its completion in forgiveness. It should be noted that the reconciliation originates with God and not with man (Romans 3:25; 2 Corinthians 5:19). God woos man before the latter seeks God. The effect of the atonement on man is to reconcile him, attract him, to God. It shows him God's love for man, and the forgiveness, in that it removes sin completely, takes away the estranging factor between them and so wins man back to God. "We love, because he first loved us." At the same time the atonement is such a complete expression of both the love and the righteousness of God that, while on the one hand it exhibits his yearning for man, on the other it shows that He is not tolerant toward sin. In the atonement of Christ, therefore, is the meeting-place and the reconcilement of God's holy horror of sin and the free bestowal of forgiveness upon penitent believers.

William Charles Morro

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'FORGIVENESS'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.  

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