What is forgiveness?
Many people have some very confused views on what forgiveness is and is not. For example, many think it is simply treating something as “water under the bridge” or “letting go.” These, and many other false notions, are not what forgiveness is. What then is forgiveness? Biblically, it must be understood in at least 4 different ways, but first we’ll consider its broad definition:
Forgiveness: If you asked Mr. Oxford it would say: “to stop feeling angry with somebody who has done something to harm, annoy or upset you.” I suppose the reason why so many people struggle to truly forgive someone in the world today is because on what basis can you do that? Forgiveness is very difficult. Older dictionaries have much more robust definitions: to grant, remit, pardon a debt, give up. In fact the old English word for forgive is a compound word that combines “completely” & “give.” As such older dictionaries defined the word as “to give up desire or power to punish.” This definition is at least heading in the right direction (and similar to the Greek- to send away, release, permit to depart, remit, etc), but again, upon what basis?
To build a definition of Biblical forgiveness, one must see the different contexts in which forgiveness is spoken of, along with the acts which it is based upon.
Seeking God’s forgiveness
Because we have offended God, dishonoured Him, profaned His holy Law, each human being stands in need of God’s forgiveness. Indeed, in light of this reality (Ro 3:23) we ought to actively pursue it. Though speaking of Christians sinning 1 Jn 1:9 stands as a faithful promise for all who would repent and seek God’s forgiveness—His promise to forgive.
If anyone sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn 1:9).
Long before we speak about forgiveness amongst humans we need to recognize the forgiveness we stand in need of before God. This begins with repentance. No repentance no forgiveness.
Seeking other’s forgiveness
Scripture also makes clear our obligation to seek the forgiveness of others. Mt 5:23–24 says:
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Reconciliation involves forgiveness, both the seeking and extending. We’re a hypocrite if we think we’re ok with God but aren’t ok with our neighbour (so far as it depends on us, Ro 12:18). If we know we’ve sinned we’re called to own up to it both to God and to others. In fact, in Mt 6:14–15 Jesus goes so far as to say not to do this will become an impediment to God forgiving us:
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
If we have been forgiven of our sins by God we will naturally forgive others, much.
(Still on what basis can we or God forgive?)
God’s forgiveness of sinners
Here we finally answer the question on what basis God can forgive a sinner. Eph 1:7 says:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.
God cannot wishfully pretend our sins away. Sin is real. For justice to be done sin must be atoned for. So for God to let go of the believer’s sins someone had to pay the price and that someone was Jesus (atonement means an act that enables us to become at one with God). Jesus needed to die the perfect death, His righteous blood needed to be shed so we might know life instead of death. He did this all out of sheer unmerited favour. Our need of forgiveness is so great no human work can suffice, only a work of God is capable of removing the sin of the penitent believer (and indeed in bringing us to that place).
Our forgiveness of others
This final exploration is perhaps most interesting. Upon what basis must I, as a believer, forgive someone else? After all we’re commanded to forgive our brothers and sisters on the basis of Christ’s forgiveness of our sins (Eph 4:32), and indeed others (see above).
Yet our forgiveness cannot absolve them of their sin, what good is it? Our forgiveness is not on the basis of the Cross, for one must appeal to Christ directly for that. So what use is my forgiveness and on what basis? Here Romans 12:14–21 is most helpful. It reads:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Our call to forgive and love our enemies and those who have done us harm (even forgiving those who do not ask for forgiveness) is not based upon our ability to forgive but in trust and obedience to Christ’s command and that He alone is judge and will execute justice upon the guilty. It is a call to stop playing Judge. Therefore, by entrusting the situation to Him—itself a work of the Spirit— we are enabled to have peace from anger, being liberated to live our lives and love others. It is in letting justice for the situation go to God, a giving of it away to His justice, that we see a glimpse of some of the older definitions of what forgiveness means and the benefit it brings to the one forgiving.
Through our withholding of forgiveness we often think we can inflict deserved harm upon those who’ve harmed us, yet ironically, it is only by forgiving that we can “heap burning coals upon their head.” Our higher road of faith in the Lord is the very thing that sinners will detest most, and we pray will be the thing that brings them to the repentance they so desperately need.
The radical nature of this forgiveness is vividly portrayed in the film The End of the Spear, which recounts the wives of slain missionaries continuing in their mission to reach the very tribe who murdered their husbands.
May the Lord help us seek His forgiveness, that of others, and also to extend forgiveness too.
Author: Chris Crocker
Pastor, historian and beekeeper.