The forgiveness of sins is one of the most blessed teachings of Scripture. Yet there is the potential for great confusion about God’s forgiveness. How is it, for example, that Christians, those who are totally forgiven by God, need to confess their sins to obtain God’s forgiveness (1 John 1:9)? And how can it be that if we refuse to forgive others, then God will not forgive us (Matt 6:15; 18:35)?
I’ve found that the more I understand His forgiveness, the more my life is enriched. I’d like to share some insights into forgiveness that hopefully will enrich your life as well.
Forgiveness Is Letting Go
Far and away the most common New Testament (NT) word for forgiveness is aphiēmi. Yet of its 146 NT occurrences, slightly less than one-third (45 uses) refer to forgiveness (NIDNTT, 1:700). The normal meaning of the verb is “to let…to dismiss, divorce, release…to leave…to leave behind…and to abandon…” (NIDNTT, 1: 701). For example, when Jesus called his disciples, they left their nets, boats, and families (Matt 4:20, 22; 19:27, 29; Mark 1:18, 20). Jesus left Judea (John 4:3) and went on to Samaria where the woman at the well left her waterpot when she came to faith in Him (John 4:28).
The second most common NT word translated forgive is charizomai. Twelve of its 23 NT uses concern forgiveness.1 The other uses mean to give or to freely give (NIDNTT, 2:115, 122). The verb is related to the noun charis, which means grace. So, it is easy to see why this term for forgiveness relates to grace. Forgiveness is a gift.
Two other NT words for forgiveness are aphesis and apoluō. The former is translated forgiveness six times. Its remaining eleven uses are always translated remission, except in Luke 4:18 where it is translated liberty. The latter word, apoluō, almost always carries a sense of to let go, to send away, or to release. In only one verse, Luke 6:37, is it translated forgive.
Putting all this together, we might define forgiveness in this way: Forgiveness is graciously letting go of an offense.
God’s Forgiveness Should Move Us to Forgive Others
The Lord gives a fantastic illustration of forgiveness in Matthew 18. Peter asks if he should forgive his brother seven times if he sins against him (Matt 18:21). Since the rabbinical standard was three times, Peter was being quite generous. The Lord’s answer surely surprised the disciples. He said that we should forgive “seventy times seven.” Actually the Greek literally says seventy-seven times (compare Gen 4:24), but either way the Lord’s point is that our forgiveness is to be unlimited.
The Lord Jesus then gives a parable to illustrate how we ought to forgive. A servant was forgiven an Enron-sized debt of more than $2 billion by his master (Matt 18:27). The master illustrates God who forgives us all our sins. Then that blessed man went out and demanded payment from a man who owed him a comparatively trifling sum of about $4,000. (Literally the debt was 600,000 times smaller!) When his debtor begged for time to pay, he showed no mercy and threw him in debtor’s prison till the debt was paid (Matt 18:28-30).
The man made a grave mistake. He should have gratefully forgiven his debtors as his lord had forgiven him. After all, any debt owed him was like pennies compared to the great debt his master had forgiven.
Followship Forgiveness Needs Renewing
Christians sometimes forget that there are two aspects to the Lord’s forgiveness: positional and experiential (or fellowship). Both aspects are illustrated in the Matthew 18 parable.
When the master learned of this hypocrisy on his servant’s part, he had him incarcerated “until he should pay all that was due to him” (Matt 18:34). The conclusion is this, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matt 18:35).2
If the man was already forgiven, how could his master hold him accountable for not forgiving others? The initial forgiveness illustrates the positional forgiveness every believer has in Christ. Many passages indicate that the moment we believe in Christ, we are totally forgiven in terms of our position as eternal children of God. “In Christ we have…the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14). “[He has] forgiven you all trespasses…having nailed [them] to the cross” (Col 2:13-14).
But positional forgiveness must not be understood to mean that we always are in fellowship with God. Forgiven people need forgiveness in order to remain in fellowship with God. One commentator beautifully expressed this truth: “An unforgiving spirit is sure to provoke the anger of God; so much so, that His free forgiveness of sinners ceases to flow to them, when in this way they offend. So to speak, it revives the guilt of their already forgiven sins” (Plummer, Matthew, p. 257).
If we fail to forgive those who commit offenses against us, we will fall out of fellowship with God and stand in need of His fellowship forgiveness (Matt 6:15; 18:35).
Of course, failing to forgive others is not the only sin that can interrupt our fellowship with God. First John 1:9 is a key progressive sanctification verse: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Believers need to be honest with God concerning all sin in order to remain in fellowship with Him.
In the movie Love Story Ali McGraw told Ryan O’Neal that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That is a clever line in the movies, but it isn’t true. Confession and forgiveness are necessary if two people are to remain in fellowship with each other.
Rejoice that positional forgiveness is total. God’s positional forgiveness covers all sins, past, present, and future. In the positional sense there is nothing a believer can ever do to lose God’s forgiveness.
Remember that fellowship forgiveness needs constant renewing. While all believers start the Christian life with fellowship forgiveness, they require it anew every time they are aware of new sin in their lives. Confession results in ongoing fellowship forgiveness.
Let your gratitude for God’s forgiveness motivate you to forgive others. It is hypocritical to receive enormous forgiveness from God and then refuse to extend forgiveness to others over comparatively minor matters. Grateful Christians should be forgiving people. It is noteworthy that many passages dealing with God’s forgiveness enjoin us to forgive others.3 And remember that at the Judgment Seat of Christ those who have been merciful to others will receive special mercy (Jas 2:13).
2F. F. Bruce writes, “If we find it difficult to accommodate v. 35 within our theological system, we should modify our system to make room for it rather than try to make v. 25 mean something different from what it says” (Matthew, p. 61).