Forgiveness is a growing issue in a world that’s struggling with the personal impact of current and recent wars, domestic violence, theft, betrayal, deceit, abuse and murder. The list doesn’t stop there, because what needs to be forgiven covers every human wrong—what the Bible terms “sin.” And that troubling word is one reason to agree on terminology from the start. Without that, clarity about forgiveness and related issues from a biblical perspective will be impossible to achieve. Without a common language, the best we’ll do is to talk at cross purposes.
Just what does the Bible say about sin, repentance and forgiveness? Who does the forgiving—God, the victim, both? What does it mean to go the other way (repent)? And what exactly is sin?
Defining sin is central to sorting out what needs to be forgiven, why, how and by whom. The early New Testament Church leaders have much to say about the subject, and the basis of their understanding is the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle John puts it this way: “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17, English Standard Version throughout). Another translation of the New Testament Greek has “unrighteousness” for wrongdoing. That’s to say, sin is the opposite of righteousness, or counter to the way God would do things if He were here.
John also tells us that “everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). In other words, whatever is not in accord with God’s established standard is outside of His law and is “wickedness,” and therefore sin. And the composition of that law leads to the understanding that sin flows broadly in two directions—against God and against fellow human beings. Whenever people act contrary to that law, they sin specifically against either God or fellow man, and often both. Sin, by definition, harms relationships and people.
One of the things that struck the apostle Paul so forcibly about the human condition in the Greco-Roman world of the first century was that men and women “did not see fit to acknowledge God.” The result of that damaged relationship was that God had no choice but to allow the consequences to fall into place. So, according to Paul, “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28). The refusal to acknowledge God’s existence led inevitably to a mind incapable of discerning right from wrong on God’s terms and the inability to resist the pull of human nature’s selfishness. The result is a list of bad actors and behaviors of the worst kind—people who practice “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice … envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.” They are “gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (verses 29–31).
Here again is the breaking of law in two directions—toward God and toward man. So sin is anything that violates the law that relates to either party.
In God’s system of justice, there is always a penalty to be paid for sin. Mercy can be extended, but a price will always be paid. Because every human who has lived has sinned, the penalty (eternal death) hangs over each individual until removed somehow. Unlike in other religious belief systems, unique to this biblical system is the death of a perfect being in a voluntary sacrificial act to pay the penalty for sin in place of the sinner. Paul explained this to the congregation at Rome, saying that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… . God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8). The reason He died is to set humanity right, or bring reconciliation with God the Father by clearing away the death penalty and the sin that impedes a right relationship with Him. Once that is done, human beings are freed to develop the kind of relationship that leads only to beneficial results.
… To Forgive Is Divine
The Bible speaks of extending forgiveness toward others and of God forgiving human beings. There is a difference between the two actions. First, what does forgiveness by God entail? How does God go about wiping the slate clean of sin?
To take one example, what does He do in the case of the persecution and murder of the innocent? Is it simply that the victim or the victim’s family asks, and God grants forgiveness to the perpetrator? Is it that the guilty need do nothing?
Many take Jesus’ words on the crucifixion stake, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), as evidence that all that is needed for others to be forgiven is the request of the victim. Yet seven weeks after that horrific death, the apostle Peter told an audience of some of Christ’s now-remorseful persecutors that they had yet to repent. That’s to say, they were not forgiven. What Jesus had said did not automatically bring forgiveness. His words were more about His attitude toward His persecutors than a request that God override the need for repentance. It’s clear from the account in Acts that recognition of wrongful acts and repentance are necessary for forgiveness to take place. This would include recognition of their guilt in Jesus’ death and of their own lifelong sinful ways. Peter told his listeners, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
The account continues: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:36–38).
Reconciliation to the Father is the result of accepting Christ’s death in place of the sinner, the sinner’s recognition of wrongdoing and of being wrong, and the desire to live the right way. Christ’s sacrifice for sin cannot be applied in a specific sense until there is this kind of individual and genuine repentance, backed by sincere effort to go in the right direction.
Luke’s Gospel includes three parables that relate to repentance (Luke 15). They picture God’s joy when a person turns to living the right way. Jesus creates these stories around the concept of things lost and then found.
The first example concerns a single lost sheep that its owner goes out to recover. Once found, he returns home with it and calls his neighbors, “saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (verses 6–7). Jesus links the account with delight in heaven at repentance. In other words, once again, sinners are forgiven in part through repentance.
The point is emphasized in the second example. This time it is loss of wealth in the form of money. A woman who has lost a silver coin finds it and “calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (verses 9–10).
So lost animals and lost money are used to make the point that, once found, there is happiness, just as God rejoices when lost human beings are “found” in repentance.
The third example sharpens the focus further and directly concerns a lost son, a father, repentance and joy. It’s known as the parable of the prodigal son.
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’” His father complied, and the young man went off and squandered the entire inheritance. He wound up finding a job feeding pigs yet was unable to earn enough to feed himself. “When he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’” When he returned home, his compassionate father ran to meet him, welcomed him back with open arms, and told the servants, “‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate” (verses 11–24).
This time the reader is left to make the connection between the father in the story and the Father in heaven, who is ready to forgive and rejoice when human beings repent. Notice that the son “came to himself” and said to his father, “I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Notice that the father ran to meet him once he had begun the process of repentance.
This parable also has a warning in its conclusion about how easy it is to sin against our fellow human beings by being unforgiving when they have already repented before God: When the older son came in from working in the field, he was told by a servant that his brother had returned and that their father had thrown a party in celebration. But the older son resented the fact that his wayward brother should be given special treatment when he himself had always worked hard and obeyed his father, yet he had never been similarly honored. The father explained, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (verses 25–32). The older brother was entirely self-focused. Here Jesus is teaching the religious leaders around him that they are guilty of self-righteousness and a lack of compassion. Luke’s account sets the scene by saying, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (verses 1–2).
Jesus’ three parables are also designed to teach the religious leaders that God is concerned for everyone’s happiness in finding forgiveness by turning to the right way. As Peter writes elsewhere, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
“If Your Brother Sins Against You”
Shortly after the three parables, Luke records Jesus’ teaching about sins that humans commit against each other. Let’s look further at the other aspect of lawlessness—that which does not concern God directly, but our fellowman, our neighbor. Jesus said, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3–4).
This is about the responsibilities of the sinner and the one sinned against. Notice that repentance, a change of heart and direction, is still part of the equation for the sinner, as is forgiveness or reconciliation on the part of the one against whom the offense has taken place. The word forgive here in the original Greek is aphiemi. The related noun aphesis means “forgiveness, release, remission” or “letting go of financial debt.” Forgiveness in this context can be likened to the release and letting go that comes with the ending of debt.
Matthew’s Gospel provides more teaching on the subject for Jesus’ followers: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15–17).
There is a cutting off of communication at this point, when there is no hearing and thus no repentance.
What has been said by Jesus causes Peter to want to ask a common question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (verses 21–22).
Of course, Jesus did not mean 490 times! He meant that we should always forgive in the presence of a repentant attitude. Sometimes people will say “I forgive, but I’ll never forget.” In other words, they do not forgive, but rather harbor bad feelings. The truth about God is that when He forgives, the record is clean. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). Moreover, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). So everyone must forgive and forget when there is a repentant spirit. Of course, lessons should be learned from the experience, yet divorced from the sinner.
But what if there is no indication of repentance? Then there is certainly no allowance for bearing grudges. Not surprisingly, the law given to ancient Israel about this sounds very much like New Testament teaching: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:17–18). To “bear a grudge” is translated from the Hebrew natar, “to keep or maintain anger.” Not holding grudges allows a state of mind that is ready and willing to forgive. Reconciliation is the goal. And if there cannot be reconciliation, an attitude of willingness to forgive must be maintained. There can be no excuse for withholding a forgiving spirit and attitude toward others.
The theme of “anger that needs to find an end” is mentioned in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:22–24).
Forgiven and Forgiving
As stated at the beginning, human forgiveness and God’s forgiveness have differences. The main one is that we cannot apply Jesus’ sacrifice to someone else’s sins. According to the Lord’s Prayer, actually a model for prayer, we are to ask for God’s forgiveness regularly, just as we are regularly to forgive others who have sinned against us. But human nature is at odds with the convictions of the God-focused mind. As Paul said, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). He also knew that on his own strength, he could not always do the right thing. But He had to choose to do right and with God’s help achieve it.
As long as we will not act upon these truths with respect to forgiveness, from a biblical perspective we cannot have a right relationship with God.