What Does It Mean to Forgive?

During a discussion at the pastors house last sunday, the topic of forgiveness came up. The speaker for our missions conference made the statement that you are only commanded to forgive if the offender repents. Sounds wrong doesn’t it. Try looking it up in scripture. I reference Luke 17:3-4 specifically.

I’ve thought about this a bit, and I want to say that he is right. You would want to make this distinction though,and not get caught up in the semantics of the word. He’s not saying you have freedom to get bitter. Forgiveness isn’t the opposite of bitterness, its clearing the record of the wrong, absolving the consequences. You can only do that when the offender repents, to forgive him before then is to, in effect, spoil him, let him off without punishment.

What most people mean when they say you must forgive someone, is that you must learn to love them in spite of your pain. To be fair, the english definition does allow that kind of definition, ie releasing the anger and resentment toward a person. It’s ok to be grieved, but when your pain prevents you from loving the other person, you entertain the sin of bitterness.

I think some confusion can arise from the dual meanings of forgiveness in the English language, and I’m curious your thoughts. Is there a better word to describe what scripture commands in regard to those who offend us? Perhaps a better word to describe the release of anger and resentment? What emotions play into forgiveness, and what attitudes are usually involved? How do those attitudes relate to each other, i.e. what is the opposite of forgiveness, and what the antithesis of bitterness?

Just for reference, there are three different greek words translated as ‘forgive’ in the New Testament. They differ in degree mostly. Strongs number 863 means to send away, and is used most often. Paul uses 5483, which has a much richer aspect of grace and graciousness attatched to it, and a couple times in Luke, 630 is used and seems to have a bit more finality than 863.

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33 Comments

  1. Of course we are not required to forgive if the offender does not repent. Not even God does that. However, we always must be ready and willing to forgive, because as Christ said, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

  2. I would have to disagree. For example, Jesus cried out to forgive those who were putting him to death. As did Stephan at the time of his stoning. The actual wording was "father forgive them" but I hardly think it is possible to ask the father to forgive and not offer the same forgiveness. To forgive is to give up the "right" to vengence. I use the word "right" loosely because what "right" do we who have been forgiven much have to demand justice. Justice will be done and in God’s time but it should be a scary thought to us (for we are all sinful only some of us are saved by grace.

    If you can "not forgive" a non repentant person. How does that play out? I personally have never seen a person holding on to his/her "right" for vengence and not be bitter. could happen I guess, but what would it look like?

  3. more verses

    Luke 11:4 ‘And forgive us our sins, For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’

    Luke 23:34 ‘But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves’

    Acts 7:60 ‘Then falling on his knees, he [Stephan] cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Having said this, he fell asleep’

  4. Dave: It could be that the Roman soldiers, the ones Christ was referring to, were not actually guilty of any wrong doing. Thus, to request that God forgive them simply shows that Christ was not blaming them for His death.

    The passage in the Lords Prayer isn’t conclusive. To forgive is to clear the debt, but according Luke 17:3-4, the prerequisite is repentance. Thus, we should ask God in prayer to forgive us if we repent, just as we should forgive the debts of those who repent to us. Why should God forgive us if we do not repent? To do so seems unjust to me.

    The passage concerning Stephen is questionable. Should you base theology on His example, if taken in the light of scripture, forgiveness is something we are only required to give if the offender repents? We aren’t given a command to follow his example in that area, to my knowledge, thus it should stand simply as it is, a documentation of what occurred, nothing more or less. All historical evidence given in scripture must be judged according to precepts set forth in scripture, correct?

    There is a distinction between refusing to forgive and desiring vengeance, I think. I’m not sure what it is just yet though, I’ll have to think about it a little more.

  5. Jason brings up a good point. I descriptive passage should not be mistaken for a prescriptive passage. This error bugs me immensely and I apologize for making it (or coming close to making it). However I don’t read Luke 17:3-4 as any more definate than the other passages. Luke does not address the case of a non-repentant brother… but a repentant one. The point is similar to Jesus’ statement to Peter to forgive 70*7. The passage tells us there is no limit to how many times a person can forgive (or seek forgiveness).

    Another passage in 1st John reads ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Taken in the same spirit as you are taking Luke 17 this would mean that only confessed sin is forgiven. I dare say that no christian has confessed every committed sin (except in blanket statements). I believe that christians are cleansed at the point of salvation and no longer veiwed as sinful but rather as righteous. So a Christian who dies with "unconfessed" sin is still forgiven, yes/no?

  6. I don’t know how to put breaks in my messages so I just write more ;) I don’t like the explination of the Roman soldiers not being guilty. Why not??? Lack of knowledge? I think there is never an excuse for doing that which is wrong (killing an innocent man is wrong). Finally, for God to require justice is a beautiful thing. It is part of His attributes and we should glorify Him for His justice. But what right does man have to justice. Read the Sermon on the Mount. We are to lead a life governed by grace and love, not justice. Eye for eye is out, turn the other cheek is in. I am still wanting to know what not forgiving looks like in a human (it makes a lot more sense to me in God).

    David

  7. Well, I think it’s obvious that the Roman soldiers were not entirely complicit for their crime, seeing as how Christ said, “They know not what they do.” If that wasn’t a plausible excuse for the soldiers, then I doubt that Christ would have mentioned it.

    You’re close in saying that only confessed sin is forgiven. It would be more accurate to say that only repented sin is forgiven. This doesn’t mean that every sin one has ever committed needs to be detailed-imperfect memory rules this option out-but we do need to ask forgiveness for all our sins, even those we can’t remember.

  8. Dave, <p /> will put a break in the text.

    I think Jon is right, repentance is different from confession. repentance is a state of mind or emotions, a willingness to turn away. We can confess that we are sinners, without naming every sin, many of which we may not be aware of.

    When you deal with governments, things are different from the individual level. The soldiers were under orders to put to death a man, that as far as they knew, may have been guilty. In that case, leadership bears the responsibility, or in this case, the Jews bore the resonsibility. For Christ to acknowledge the innocence of the soldiers is entirely valid I think.

  9. I totally aggree with your ideas of repentence being necessary for God’s forgiveness. My point was the passage in 1 John would indicate that confession of every sin IS necessary IF interpreted as you are interpreting the passage in Luke. Anyway, I would not extend either passage so broadly. I would still wrestle with the example of Stephen (and personally of Jesus also).

    I will leave it at a proposal for anyone to describe what you mean by not offering forgiveness and yet maintaining a biblical attitude towards the offending party.

  10. I contend the question is really two fold… Of course I can forgive anybody for anything depending on what it is, (still not in favor of forgiving on two grounds violent crime, or child molesters) however if the indivdual does not repent then the problem is with a higher power than me… while i like to think my vote counts on such matters basicly it is not up to me… but i am glad Jason takes the time to think about things like this!!!

  11. Agree with nels. Our forgiveness is very much meaningless in a big picture view. We can’t ultimately forgive sins because all sin is committed primarily against God. All we can do (and should do) is relinquish our supposed rights to justice.

    Now I must clarify one point. Civil government is ordained by God to reward good and punish evil. Therefore civil government should not forgive the evil doer but should punish the wicked (ie violent criminals ect.)

    On a personal level I think forgiveness is very importent for one’s own well being and growth as a christian.

  12. I still think there is some confusion over what it means to forgive verses not being bitter.

    To forgive means releasing the person of the consequences of his actions, and I tend to agree with my previous supposition although I’m not totally sure, that it’s not in the offenders best interest to absolve the consequences unless he shows repentance.

    Emotionally, we have to continue loving the offender, and although it is ok to feel grieved by the offence, when that grief hinders us from loving the offender it becomes bitterness.

    Does that make sense?

  13. There are many consequences for actions in life. For sin there is the eternal consequence of death. There is also (or should be) the immediate consequence of punishment by the governments (family, civil, and church). Finally, there is often a personal consequence of punishment by the offended party. Most of the time I see this last consequence acted out in the form of bitterness, hatred, and shunning. In my own life I have people, “waiting for me to come to repentance” before they will stoop so low as to restore fellowship. It is merely an excuse (in this case) to maintain a spirit of pride and is causing disunity in the church.

    Anyway, that is how I almost always see it acted out, but the bigger question is “is it justified?” Is the personal feelings of wanting your offender to suffer a right response? I believe if our mind and heart are transformed, all sin “against us” will be veiwed as it truely is… against God. If someone steals all my money that God has given to me, what have I lost? If someone kills my family (who belong to God), who have they offended? God provides all things to me, an unworthy adopted son. I have no rights or possessions. For me to grant my forgiveness is of no real value because the act was not committed against me. BUT… it does have real value as it transforms me further, reshapes my mindset more, causes me to accept the reality of God’s truth, and reject the fantasy of my David centered life.

    That is, more or less, my philosophical understanding of forgiveness. I think the appropriate consequences as administered by family, church, or civil governments are always applicable.

  14. But Dave, Is that what scripture teaches? And keep in mind, loving people is not the same as forgiving people. Witholding forgiveness isn’t bitterness, hatred, or shunning. We should love people uncoditionally, but forgiveness is something I’ve seen scripture say is only for the repentant.

  15. Where??? You point out one verse that does not directly address when a christian should forgive but rather how much we should forgive. How would you define forgiveness? You say to forgive is to release a person from the consequences of his actions. On a personal level what does that mean? If someone steals from you, what personal consequences can you biblically apply on a relationship level, not counting family, civil, or church discipline. I don’t see the overwelhming biblical support you are claiming. If you want to redefine words to make it possible to love, do good, and pray for those who do evil and still not forgive them then that’s great but I think most people will misconstrue such a statement to use it as an excuse to be angry, bitter, and hateful.

  16. Mark 11:24 Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. [“But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”]

    Matthew Henry Comments
    “When we are at prayer, we must remember to pray for others, particularly for our enemies, and those that have wronged us; now we cannot pray sincerely that God would do them good, if we bear malice to them, and wish them ill. If we have injured others before we pray, we must go and be reconciled to them; Mt. 5:23, 24. But if they have injured us, we go a nearer way to work, and must immediately from our hearts forgive them. [1.] Because this is a good step towards obtaining the pardon of our own sins: Forgive, that your Father may forgive you; that is, “that he may be qualified to receive forgiveness, that he may forgive you without injury to his honour, as it would be, if he should suffer those to have such benefit by his mercy, as are so far from being conformable to the pattern of it.” [2.] Because the want of this is a certain bar to the obtaining of the pardon of our sins; “If ye do not forgive those who have injured you, if he hate their persons, bear them a grudge, meditate revenge, and take all occasion to speak ill of them, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This ought to be remembered in prayer, because one great errand we have to the throne of grace, is, to pray for the pardon of our sins: and care about it ought to be our daily care, because prayer is a part of our daily work. Our Saviour often insists on this, for it was his great design to engage his disciples to love one another.”

  17. You point out one verse that does not directly address when a christian should forgive but rather how much we should forgive. (Dave)

    But the verse does directly address when a Christian should forgive, note:

    "Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him." (Luke 17:3-4)

    I’ve contended here that there is a danger of misunderstanding because of the differences associated with the word "Forgive" in English and the way its used in the New Testament. The word used in Mark 11:24-26 is the same as is used in Luke 17:3-4 which means "to disregard, to let go" or in other words, give up the debt. It is not the same as saying we should love them, a distiction that allows us to love them and still hold them to the debt they owe.

    Understanding this distinction is important I think, as it makes other passages of scripture make more sense. Take Matthew 6:14-15 for example, which states:

    For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

    If, by your defenition, withholding forgiveness means refusing to love someone or harboring bitterness or malice against them, then it would mean God harbors bitterness or malice against us when we refuse to forgive others. I don’t see that as fitting into the rest of scripture which teaches us that God never stops loving us. Rather, if you look at it as I contend, that forgiveness means releasing us of our debt or consequences, then when we forgive others of their debts to us, God will also spare us from consequences we should bear.

    You said:

    If you want to redefine words to make it possible to love, do good, and pray for those who do evil and still not forgive them then that’s great but I think most people will misconstrue such a statement to use it as an excuse to be angry, bitter, and hateful.

    and I totally agree. That’s why I stated that, "I think some confusion can arise from the dual meanings of forgiveness in the English language?" in my original post. On the other side though, I think there’s danger in allowing people to think its necessary to absolve people of their debts before repentance is shown. The missunderstanding can hurt both ways.

    An interesting note, in scripture, forgiveness was a matter of authority. Look at Matthew 9:6, when Jesus said, "But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins" (ref Mark 2:10, and Luke 5:24 also). Christ was contending that He had the legal authority to absolve the man from the consequences of his sinfullness. Christ loved that man before He forgave him.

  18. I think a clear distinction has to be made between God’s forgiveness and ours. They are not and can not be entirely analogous. Therefore, while I see it as impossible for man to maintain a correct mindset and heart attitude and remain unforgiving, but it is entirely possible for God to be loving and not forgiving. Since sin is committed against God, and God is completely righteous and just and cannot tolerate sin, God cannot absolve man of sin without repentance and remain true to his character.

    I think if we look at the scripture verse you use, in context, I feel very strongly that the main point is that there is no limit to forgiveness, If your brother trespasses against you SEVEN times in one day and repents you must forgive. The verse does not say “if you brother sins against you and does not repent then you should not forgive him.” It is a converse to the actual wording which is why I said it does not DIRECTLY address WHEN a should forgive. (ie that’s not the main point of the verse).

  19. Dave, I’m a little unsure what your main question is. Are you trying to formulate a clear definition of forgiveness? I don’t think that any of us disagree that we are bound to forgive those who sin against us, but there appears to be disagreement as to what forgiveness actually is.

  20. The English definition offers room for both kinds of interpretation. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it like this:

    1. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon.
    2. To renounce anger or resentment against.
    3. To absolve from payment of (a debt, for example).

    The point that I’ve been trying to make is that, though the translators were right to use forgiveness, the greek words are more specific. 863 really fits definition 2, where 5483 fits definitions 1 and 3.

  21. Jason,

    Your argument sounds like this:

    Scripture says that if your brother repents you must forgive him
    Your brother does not repent
    Therefore, you must not forgive him

    Isn’t this a basic logical fallacy?

  22. Perhaps what he’s saying is that if your brother does not repent, then true forgiveness is impossible to give.

  23. To expand on that a little: true forgiveness entails reconciliation between the estranged parties. Forgiveness, therefore, is much more than letting go of hatred or bitterness. Both parties must be willing to be reconciled for forgiveness to occur. Or perhaps you could say that forgiveness is the second step of reconciliation, coming after repentance.

  24. I hadn’t viewed the logic of my argument that way, and the way you put it is clearly an example of Denying the Antecedent.

    Strictly speaking the command in scripture is
    IF offence = true AND offender = repentant THEN
    Forgiveness = true
    END IF

    What you choose to do if he doesn’t repent is, I suppose, up to you. If you look at it from a perspective of what is Just, then to give forgiveness before repentance is not possible, unless you are willing to pay the price for it yourself. If you are willing to pay the price yourself, what you are doing is extending Grace, i.e. giving a gift the offender doesn’t deserve. But even if the offender does repent, and you forgive him, you are giving him grace, because you must still pay a price to restore fellowship.

    I still have some question about whether forgiving without repentance follows the model the Father and Christ observed with us exactly. God offers salvation to any who will repent and believe, but refuses it to those who refuse to repent. In the parable of the prodigal son, the son did not receive forgiveness until he returned in repentance, that is, if you understand forgiveness to mean the clearing of the debt, or like Jon was saying, the restoration of fellowship.

    I guess the question here is, exegetically, is it proper to draw that from God’s example with us in this situation to determine what to do when thy brother does not repent of an offence?

  25. Anna puts in 5 lines what I have been trying to say in a billion. ;) Some people are better at communicating than I. I think the answer to the final question is no (of course). Our relationships with others is not the exact same as God’s relationship with us. One example, we are commanded not to carry out vengence (vengence is mine says the Lord) but it is right and Good of God to carry out vengence. To assume that we should treat man in the same exact way that God treats man is to elevate ourselves to God-like status. Christ generally and specifically commands how we are to relate to fellow man. I don’t think it is ambiguous. I think our focus should be to follow those commands.

  26. Dave, I think you may be on to something when distinguishing between God’s forgiveness and man’s forgiveness. After all, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” There is some amount of similarity between the two, simply because all men are created in the image of God, so there is an analogous relationship between divine and human forgiveness. Only God can forgive sins in the ultimate sense, because all sin is ultimately committed against God. (Christ also gave the authority to forgive sins to his apostles.)

    Seen in this light, human forgiveness is only auxiliary to divine forgiveness. Men’s sins are directed against God, but other men often and usually feel the effects. Thus there is the need for God to be reconciled to men, and on a lower level, for men to be reconciled to each other.

  27. Jon states pretty clearly what I’ve been trying to say. I think the forgiveness that we should extend is born out of that mind-set that we have not truely been sinned against but rather God has been sinned against. We cannot truely forgive sins (as Jon said) but we can pardon or set aside the personal feelings of hurt and the personal desire to have vengence. I say personal because I want to make it clear that the institutions created to exercise justice should do so without hesitation. But as far as a me to you relationship, I should extend grace and I should desire to restore fellowship whenever possible.

  28. Well, I think you’re right as far as that goes. However, Jason still made a good point about the prerequisites for forgiveness. Yes, we should absolutely be willing to offer forgiveness in each and every offense against us. But, true forgiveness still cannot occur until the offender has sought reconciliation (i.e., repented).

    This is not an “easy out” for the offended, because we still should not allow bitterness or anger to grow against any man. We must be willing to forgive when it is asked for, because otherwise God will not forgive us. Christ is quite clear about this. We don’t even know what it’s like to be truly sinned against, only God knows that.

  29. Jon is hitting on something that has been nagging on my mind during this argument, and after being corrected by Anna, I think I have a better understanding of the question.

    Scripture doesn’t forbid forgiveness if the offender refuses to repent. The question here is, is it wise to offer forgiveness without it?

    Some other notes: Jon, we are told in the Lords prayer that we God will forgive us as we forgive others. Doesn’t that demonstrate a connection and similitude between the conditions of forgiveness for God and for us?

    There is a difference between what God and man can forgive, but I don’t necessarily see a difference between the when.

  30. There is a similitude between God’s forgiveness and ours, but only because our forgiveness is based on His forgiveness of us. “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” We are bound to forgive like God, but God has no conditions on His forgiveness. He came freely as a Man to destroy the power of sin and to bring forgiveness. We forgive because He has first forgiven us.

    God offers forgiveness to all men, so we can do no less. We cannot withhold forgiveness from any man. But even though forgiveness must be offered that does not mean that forgiveness must (or can) be given without repentance. God desires the salvation of every man, after all, but He still waits on repentance before granting absolution.

  31. I have issues with using the words reconcile and repent as synonyms. Repentance helps in reconciliation but is not a required part. forgiveness is a required part of reconciliation. I think the dinstinction should be maintained the understand the arguments.

  32. I guess the question for me comes down to whatever you mean by not forgiving. I would like someone, anyone, to describe a situation in which an offence occured and the offended withheld forgiveness. The desciption can be real or fictional but I can’t comprehend what you mean.