What does forgiveness actually mean? What does it look like?
Old Testament –
Celiychah (noun) – abundant forgiveness – NEVER does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other.
Calach (verb) – to forgive/pardon. The only Old Testament verb with “to forgive” as its primary meaning. Used ONLY of God.
Nasa’ – to lift, to raise, to bear, to carry – refers to both divine and human forgiveness.
Kaphar – to cover, to purge, to make an atonement, to make reconciliation, to cover over with pitch. Kacah – to cove, can also mean “to conceal, hide”
New Testament –
Aphesis (noun) – the act of freeing and liberating from something that confines; release, or the act of freeing from an obligation, guilt, or punishment; pardon, cancellation… “The forgiveness denoted is almost always that of God. It is constantly needed, and is granted when requested so long as there is a readiness to forgive others. Its basis is the saving act of Christ.”
Aphiemi (verb) – to dismiss, release, let go, send away… used for the cancelling of sins and debts.
Charidzomai (verb) – to show one’s self gracious by forgiving wrongdoing; forgive, pardon.”
Apoluo (verb) – to grant acquittal, set free, release, or pardon.
In this case, the Old Testament words really help us in our theology! They strongly delineate God’s forgiveness and our own.
So what would this look like, acted out?
How God illustrates forgiveness:
Isaiah 1:18 – like red wool becoming white again – a miracle!
Psalm 103:12 – as far as the east is from the west
Micah 7:19 – You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
When God forgives, does He actually forget?
Isaiah 43:25 – “I will remember your sins no more.”
Hebrews 10:17 – “I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more.”
But remember that the true meaning of “remember” is to call to mind. The terminology allows God to be omniscient, but not to call to mind, emphasize, or “remember” our sins.
But what do you think, does He literally forget them?
Surely He knows that we are sinners, for He planned from the foundation of the world to send Jesus – 1 Peter 1:20, and the cross, which we say is beautiful and worth commemorating, and which is commemorated by the Lord’s Supper – Luke 22:19-20, and Jesus said we will eat the meal with Him in the kingdom!
So it seems that God will not forget that we are or have been sinners, but that He will not call to mind, or put on display, or take into consideration, our sins.
Will God ultimately forgive everyone of their sins?
Matthew 6:15 – “if you do not forgive others…”
Hebrews 10:26-31 – “there no longer remains a sacrifice”
Matthew 7:23 – “I never knew you, depart from me you evildoers”
Matthew 25:41 – “depart from me into the eternal fire.”
How can I get God’s forgiveness?
Acts 2:38 – repent and be baptized!
1 John 1:7,9 – walk in the light, confess your sins
Is there a difference between God’s forgiveness and man’s forgiveness?
See notes in Hebrews words for forgiveness. There is a kind of forgiveness that only God can do.
Psalm 51:4 – “against you only have I sinned” – David’s guilt was ultimately before God.
Mark 2:5-11 – “only God can forgive sins” – only God can actually clear guilt!
Romans 12:19 – humans are never to take vengeance – meaning that humans are never to try and “get even” by making someone suffer in proportion to the suffering they have caused. So human forgiveness then is not simply letting someone off the hook when it comes to divine justice, for we are never the arbiters of that in an ultimate sense.
So what is human forgiveness then? As the Hebrew words indicate, it is a removal of debt, or a covering of error. It could also be an acknowledgement in some sense that we are not the final judge of the person.
Is it ever appropriate to withhold forgiveness?
1 Timothy 1:13 – “Because I acted in ignorance”
Luke 23:34 – “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”
Acts 17:30 – “In previous times God overlooked such ignorance, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.”
Romans 1:18-20 – God’s wrath is against them, they are without excuse because of their knowledge.
James 3:1 – teachers are held to a stricter judgment
Are we forgiven/not forgiven by God based on our knowledge? Think about it. Forgiveness is always offered by God while we are on this earth, but it is not offered unconditionally!
Hebrews 10:26-31 – forgiveness is NOT extended to belligerent, intentional sinners.
But also notice, that as we have said, God’s forgiveness and man’s forgiveness differ. Man can always extend forgiveness (and is required to do so, Matthew 6:15). Whether the individual is actually released from their guilt by God is not our concern.
But what about this idea of human forgiveness being a releasing from debt or a covering of error, surely we are not always obligated to do this? While forgiving a debt can be a powerful way to show someone godly mercy, perhaps the heart of forgiveness is in not standing in moral judgment over someone, as only God can do this.
2 Peter 3:9 – Just as God wants all to come to repentance, so should we!
What aspects of forgiveness are dependent on the recipient?
As indicated above, by the references above, forgiveness of our actual guilt by God is dependent upon our repentance, and that repentance means that we do not willfully sin where we have knowledge of right and wrong.
Consider also Luke 13:5 – unless you repent you will all likewise perish
As far as human forgiveness goes, that kind of forgiveness does not appear to be a release from divine guilt in the first place, but only a release from ultimate personal moral judgment, and potentially of debt or shame, etc. So it does not depend on the recipient at all. Matthew 6:15 is unqualified!
Does that mean that I do not allow them to be prosecuted in a court of law? No, for that is allowing a power ordained by God to act for the protection of society. But it does mean that I let go of my personal sense of authority to ultimately judge.
What if I am supposed to forgive, but I just cannot bring myself to do so?
Understand what forgiveness really is, see discussion of forgiveness of God vs. man.
Romans 12:19, 13:1-4 Hand the right to judge or take revenge over to God and the governing powers that He has established
Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13 – Remember that Jesus has offered forgiveness to YOU
Matthew 18:23-35 – Consider just how great the forgiveness is that God has offered you
How can I forgive myself?
Luke 22:60-62 – Peter felt guilty about his sin
Matthew 27:3-10 – Judas felt guilty about his sin. Judas hanged himself.
John 21:15-19, Acts 1:15-2:40 – Peter went on to be a leader in the church
2 Corinthians 7:9-10 speaks of worldly sorrow which leads to death, and godly sorrow which leads to “repentance without regret” and salvation.
What do you think? How can one choose to have, or come to experience, godly sorrow rather than worldly sorrow?
Matthew 18:23-35 – understand that forgiveness is NOT about what people deserve. It is given freely, and we are expected to give it others as well.
Isaiah 43:25-26 – God forgives us for His own name’s sake, He has His own reasons for being pleased to do so!
John 19:30 – Jesus said “it is finished.” He has already paid the price. The gift of forgiveness is yours to accept or deny, but He has already paid for it either way.