Question: "What does the Bible say about forgiveness? What does it mean to forgive?"
Answer: The Bible never gives a “dictionary” definition of forgiveness, but it shows us many examples of it. The greatest of all examples is the forgiveness of God. Although the following passage does not use the word forgive, it describes the concept of God’s forgiveness perfectly:
Psalm 103:8–12: The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
It is important to note that forgiveness operates in the realm of sin. In the majority of the passages in the Bible that contain the word forgive or forgiveness, sin is mentioned. The following are typical examples:
Genesis 50:17: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly. Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.
Exodus 32:32: But now, please forgive their sin.
Leviticus 4:35: In this way the priest will make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven.
1 Samuel 25:28: Please forgive your servant’s presumption.
Matthew 12:31: And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.
Luke 5:20: When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
For a person to find true forgiveness, he or she must admit the sin. This is called confession. If a person tries to pass off sin as a mere mistake, human failing, or temporary lapse of judgment; or if he or she simply denies the sin altogether, it is a barrier to forgiveness.
1 John 1:8–10: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
God forgives sin, yet this does not mean that He simply “looks the other way” or “sweeps it under the rug.” The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23), and that penalty must be paid. In the Old Testament, God allowed for a sacrificial animal to take the place of the sinner. Leviticus 5:15–16 says, “When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering. They must make restitution for what they have failed to do in regard to the holy things, pay an additional penalty of a fifth of its value and give it all to the priest. The priest will make atonement for them with the ram as a guilt offering, and they will be forgiven.”
The writer of Hebrews observes, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). However, the blood of sacrificial animals did not actually pay for sin. It simply postponed the judgment until a better sacrifice could be offered to pay the full penalty of sin and make forgiveness possible. Hebrews 10 explains this in depth, but the following excerpts from that chapter outline the flow of the argument:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1–4)
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 10:11–12)
“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. (Hebrews 10:16–18)
In order for God to forgive us, Jesus gave Himself as the sacrifice for sin. Jesus alluded to that sacrifice at the Last Supper when He told His disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). After the resurrection, the apostles carried the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ throughout the world, preaching to both Jews and Gentiles:
Acts 10:43: All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Acts 13:38: Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.
Ephesians 1:7: In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.
So God forgives people on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ. The only requirement is that sinful people confess their sin, turn from it, and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior. Once a person has experienced the forgiveness of God, he or she is then able (and responsible) to forgive others. “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). In fact, those who refuse to forgive betray the fact that they do not understand how much of their own sin they need to have forgiven. Christians should be willing to forgive people who have sinned against them. Every person has wronged God far more than they have been wronged by other people. Jesus illustrates the point in Matthew 18:21–35:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
We often hear the phrase forgive and forget, and this can be misleading. As a rejoinder to this phrase, sometimes we hear, “I’ll forgive, but I will never forget.” To forgive and forget does not mean that a person who has been wronged develops some kind of sanctified amnesia. A person who has been abused will never forget that it happened. A person who has suffered from an adulterous spouse will always remember that experience. A parent who has had a child abducted will probably think about that crime every day he or she spends on earth. Yet, it is possible for each of these people who have been sinned against to forgive and also to forget, as long as the biblical definition of forget is in view.
In the Bible, remembering and forgetting do not have to do with retention of information in the brain. In Genesis 8:1, after the flood, “God remembered Noah.” Does this imply that for a while God had forgotten about Noah, misplaced him among the flood waters, and then one day He remembered and thought He had better check on him? No, the biblical concept of remembering has to do with “choosing to act,” and forgetting means “refusing to act” on the basis of something. When the Bible says God “remembered” Noah, it means that God chose to act on Noah’s behalf and sent a wind to help the waters recede more rapidly. God promises that, under the New Covenant, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; cf. Hebrews 8:12; 10:17). God does not forget that people have sinned, but, when He forgives, He chooses not to act on the basis of those sins. It is similar to the sentiment expressed in 1 Corinthians 13:5 where “love keeps no record of wrongs.” In the phrase forgive and forget, the two terms are really synonyms. Both mean that the person who has forgiven will not continue to hold that sin against the wrongdoer or take it into account in future interactions. A person may remember that it happened, but he or she can choose not to act on it—that is biblical forgetting.
Many wonder about forgiving people who have sinned but have not confessed, repented, or asked for forgiveness. Sometimes in court, the victims of a crime will get to speak to the perpetrator before the sentence is passed. Often the victims will tell how the crime has impacted them and ask the judge to impose the strictest sentence. But, on occasion, the victim will say to the perpetrator, “I forgive you.” Is this forgiveness valid if the convicted criminal has not confessed and asked for forgiveness?
The answer is both “yes” and “no.” On one hand, the victim often forgives the criminal so that he or she will not be eaten up by hatred for the criminal. The forgiveness granted by the victim in court does not absolve the criminal from any legal penalties, so the state is still right to prosecute. On the other hand, God forgives people when they confess their sin and ask for forgiveness; forgiveness only comes through faith in Christ, which involves a spiritual transformation. In the courtroom example, even if the victim “forgives” the criminal, there can never be the establishment or restoration of a relationship unless the criminal confesses his sin and actually seeks forgiveness.
The goal of biblical forgiveness is not only to benefit the victim but to restore the sinner. This cannot happen without the acknowledgment of sin on the sinner’s part. Therefore, in some cases the one who has been sinned against is right not to “let it go” until the sinner has asked for forgiveness. Good parents should be willing to forgive once their wayward child has confessed and asked for forgiveness, but they are right to withhold forgiveness until their child has taken the steps necessary to allow the reconciliation. It would be foolish for a father to simply forgive his teenage son for disobeying his rules (and the law) by drinking and driving if the son does not acknowledge that what he did was wrong. However, the father should be willing to forgive when the conditions are right. In some situations, granting unrequested forgiveness cheapens the concept and ignores the seriousness of the offense.
A person should always be willing to forgive every time forgiveness is requested, as Jesus taught. It goes without saying that on some of those occasions the request may be insincere, or, even if sincere, the person will commit the same offense against us again at a later time. After all, isn’t this what we do to God, and isn’t that how He forgives us?
In some cases the one who has been sinned against is right to simply “let it go,” even if forgiveness has not been requested, and in other cases the one sinned against needs to wait until the offending party has confessed and asked for forgiveness, so that the relationship can be restored. This is the principle behind church discipline, as outlined in Matthew 18:15–17. If the confrontation of the sinner brings about confession, then reconciliation and forgiveness are offered. If the confrontation is unsuccessful, excommunication from the church is the final result. As a general rule regarding petty slights and offenses in the family and in the church, a person should let them go—“turn the other cheek,” as Jesus put it (Matthew 5:39). However, if the offense is such that turning the cheek is not possible, the offended party is obligated to go talk to the offender about it. Under no circumstance does one have the right to harbor resentment, nurture bitterness, or gossip about the offense.
Here are some questions to ponder in relation to forgiveness:
• Have I confessed my sin and received God’s forgiveness?
• Is there anyone whom I have sinned against and from whom I need to ask forgiveness?
• Is there anyone who has sinned against me and has asked me for forgiveness, but I have refused to forgive?
• Is there anyone I am holding a grudge against for past wrongs?
• If there is an unresolved issue, will I simply “let it go,” or will I go talk to the offender about it? (Continuing to hold a grudge is not a biblical option!)
• Would I be willing to forgive if the offender asked me for forgiveness?