Wednesday, November 16, 2011

God's Definition of Forgiveness - Part I in a Series

By Rev. Daniel Wilson

Forgiveness?! What does that word mean? You hear so much about this word in Christian circles, and yet so much of what you hear is contradictory! There are so many different ideas and questions out there about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t: Is it a promise or a feeling? Do I forgive for my good or the good of the person who sinned against me? Is forgiveness conditional or unconditional? How are we to know which ideas are true and which are not? The only infallible rule for defining matters of faith and practice is the all-sufficient Word of God. Therefore, to define forgiveness, we have to ask: how does God define forgiveness in His Word?

In the New Testament, there are three words translated as “forgiveness.” [1] As we look at how these words are used in Scripture, they give us the background meaning for forgiveness. Biblical forgiveness involves “letting go” of bitterness or revenge and “graciously giving” pardon to those who ask. This is, by no means, a full definition. To develop a full definition, we need to look at specific instances of how these words are used. With so many references to forgiveness in the Bible, one has to ask: Where do we start? We know that we must interpret Scripture with Scripture – So, the best thing to do is to begin with the clearest teaching on forgiveness and work our way to the more obscure and difficult passages. So, let’s begin with God’s clearest statement about how we are to forgive:

31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:31-32 (emphasis mine, see Col. 3:13)

In this passage, Paul uses a word for forgiveness that includes the idea of “giving graciously” or giving something which isn’t deserved. So, God is commanding us to forgive others in a tender-hearted way (even when that forgiveness isn’t deserved) “just as God in Christ also has forgiven” us. This is probably the most important text for explaining forgiveness! Here, God is clearly aligning our forgiveness with His. God offers forgiveness of sin to all men everywhere who repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38, 3:18-21, 17:30-31). There are two parts to God’s forgiveness: (1) the attitude and offer of forgiveness through the Gospel, which is preached to all nations; and (2) the gracious forgiveness of all those who actually repent and believe in Christ for salvation. Likewise, our forgiveness is defined by those same two elements. First, we are to be tender-hearted in attitude – willing to forgive all those who offend or sin against us. Second, we are to actually forgive those who repent and come asking for forgiveness.

As helpful as those two parts of forgiveness are, we are still left with the same question: What actually is “forgiveness”? Is it a feeling, some form of emotion, a sense of duty, a decision or what? Again, Ephesians 4:32 tells us: “forgive as God in Christ forgave you.” How did God forgive us in Christ? For those who repent and believe in Christ, God has removed their sin and promises to never hold it against us because of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. There are a few things we must point out. First, God’s grace is not free; it was purchased for God’s elect by Christ’s obedience, specifically His suffering and death on the cross. 

Second, God’s removal of our sin and guilt (His forgiveness) is conditioned upon our repentance and faith in Christ. Third, once God has removed the burden of our sin, He promises to remember it no more and releases us from the moral obligation to suffer in Hell forever (Romans 8:1-2; Heb.10:17).

However, before we proceed further, we must recognize one more thing. We know, by biblical example, that God doesn’t necessarily remove all consequences of sin when He forgives. In 2 Samuel 12, we have the story of Nathan confronting King David about his murder of Uriah and sin with Bathsheba. In vs.13-14, David repents, and Nathan replies, “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.” How can God say in one breath “your sin has been taken away” and yet in the very next, give grievous consequences? Did God take away David’s sin or not!? Yes, He did. But, “if He no longer holds the sin against the forgiven, then why are there still consequences? The answer is that God disciplines His own not for the purpose of punishing them, but for His glory and for their joy in the future.”[2] As Hebrews 12 explains, “For those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives… God deals with you as sons… He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.” In other words, God disciplined David to sanctify him and draw him closer to God Himself.

Through these various passages of Scripture, we see God’s forgiveness defined as: A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously all those who repent and believe in Christ so that they are reconciled to Him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences in this life.[3] This definition of God’s forgiveness then lays the foundation for how we understand Christian forgiveness. 
Christians are thereby called to have a gracious attitude which offers forgiveness/pardon to all those who offend us. It is this tender-hearted attitude which prevents bitterness and resentment (Eph.4:31-32). Just as God’s offer of forgiveness is extended to His enemies who don’t deserve a second chance, so we must offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us – even when we don’t think they deserve it! Our forgiveness is graciously offered to ALL who sin against us.[4]

Christians must also make that commitment that God makes to us. He promises to pardon us and to remember our sins no more (Heb.10:17). Likewise, when we forgive, we are making a four-fold promise:

                “I will not dwell on this incident.”
                “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
                “I will not talk to others about this incident.”
                “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”[5]

In these four promises, we are committing to remove the burden of sin just as God has forgiven us. Since we are not God, we cannot remove the eternal consequences for sin, but we can remove the burden of sin. We do so by refusing to dwell on that particular offense (which leads to disruption in the relationship) and by refusing to bring it up to the offender or others (which would lead to disruption in the offender’s relationship with others). In other words, we are promising not to remember the matter, in such a way, that we seek the offender’s harm. While forgiveness does not eliminate all consequences for the offender, the offended person’s attitude should not be one of saying, “I’m gonna make him/her pay.” Rather, just as God often gives us consequences to restore us and bring us closer to Himself, so, earthly consequences complete the restoration started by forgiveness (these consequences are not arbitrary or personally invented; they must be based on principles from God’s Word, which we may explore further in later articles).

From these principles we can derive a definition for forgiveness, it is: A commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.[6] This is a good definition from which to work, and serves as a foundation for looking at the more obscure Bible passages on forgiveness.

I know that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this topic. There are probably many more questions that have flooded your mind as you read this article, but don’t worry, we will address a lot more in future articles. For instance, in later articles I will answer the questions: Does every offense need to be confronted and forgiven? Do I have to wait until someone repents in order to forgive them? Doesn’t conditional forgiveness lead to bitterness? Didn’t Jesus forgive unconditionally on the cross? Aren’t we told to forgive everyone? Do I have to forgive if they aren’t truly repentant? Who can judge repentance? Isn’t it hypocritical to forgive when I don’t feel like it? And many more…

If I have whet your appetite for this topic, and you find yourself not wanting to wait for future articles, then allow me to recommend a great resource. You may have noted it already from the footnotes, but I have found Chris Braun’s book Unpacking Forgiveness to be very helpful. Pastor Brauns addresses the painful and deep implications of God’s view of forgiveness. He doesn’t shy away from looking into the application of Scripture to situations of rape, murder, molestation and violent crime. If you don’t already have this book, I highly recommend it for every church library and for every family in the church. It is a book which you will turn to again and again for helpful advice and biblical comfort. It will serve as a scriptural guide through the often troubled waters of forgiveness and conflict resolution. May God be glorified as we, His people, forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us!


[1] For those with Bible Software, here are the 3 words so that you can study how they are used in the NT. 
(1) Aphiemi (afihmi) has the meaning of “to let go” or “to allow/leave alone.” This is translated “forgive” in the sense of forgiving or leaving a debt or sins alone. 1/3 of 143 times it is used for forgiveness in NT; notable examples: Matt. 6:12-15, 18:21-35, 1 John 1:9. (2) Aphesis (afesij) is a derivative from the first word aphiemi, but it is used almost exclusively for forgiveness (16x out of 17x). Ex: Acts 2:38, 5:3, 13:38-39, Heb. 9:22. (3) Charizomai (carizomai) means to “graciously or freely give” (I Cor.2:12, Gal. 3:18, Phil.1:29) or more often it means “to forgive debt/sin” (Eph.4:32, Col.3:13).
[2] Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 49.
[3] Ibid, 51.
[4] In later articles, I will explain further how this attitude leads us to cover some offenses in love by addressing some of these passages: Proverbs 10:12, 17:9; 1Cor. 13:4-7; 1Peter 4:8.
[5] Ken Sande, The Peacemaker (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 209.
[6] Brauns, 55.