God’s Forgiving Us and Our Forgiving Others
Dr. Paul Manuel
Rev. Paul Manuel is pastor of the German Seventh-Day Baptist Church in Salemville, PA. His Ph.D. is in Hebrew and Semitic Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
There is a common and unqualified assumption in Christian circles that the proper response to all personal offenses is to “forgive and forget” (“let bygones be bygones”), and that not to do so places one at risk of divine condemnation. As Jesus warned the disciples,
Matt 6:15 … if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
The immediate difficulty with such an assumption is that it holds the believer, who, Jesus says, must forgive all, to a higher standard than it holds God, who needs not forgive all. Several New Testament passages link or condition God’s forgiveness of the believer with the believer’s forgiveness of others, but is forgiveness completely one-sided and open-ended? Are there restrictions on what the believer can and should forgive? For the answer, we must look to more explicit passages.
First, it is necessary to understand the definition of the term “forgive.” The Hebrew and Greek words mean to release a person from guilt or punishment. Forgiveness is a legal (judicial) designation that eliminates the indebtedness of one party to another and, thereby, alters the status of their relationship. It includes both a remission of guilt and a restoration of fellowship.
I. God’s Forgiveness in the Old TestamentForgiveness is the wiping out of an offense from memory; it can be effected only by the one affronted. Once eradicated, the offense no longer conditions the relationship between the offender and the one affronted, and harmony is restored between the two.
God and the biblical authors make clear that, despite man’s sin, God is willing and able to forgive.
Exod 34:6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7a maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.Almost all references to divine forgiveness, however, explicitly include the prerequisite of repentance. (1)
2 Chr 7:14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I…will forgive their sin….In fact, there is no indication that God pardons unrepentant sin. (2)
Jer 5:7 Why should I forgive you? Your children have forsaken me and sworn by gods that are not gods. I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes.Persistent and deliberate sin is beyond forgiveness. (3)
When man does repent, the result of God’s forgiveness is reconciliation, as He removes the offense and restores the relationship. (4)
Ps 51:9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Ps 85:1 You showed favor to your land, O LORD; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. 2 You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.When man does not repent, God, in His compassion, may pass over sin, restraining His wrath and delaying His judgment to allow time for repentance (or recalcitrance), but that delay is not forgiveness. It is merely a stay of execution. (5)
Jer 18:8 …if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
Gen 15:16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.II. God’s Forgiveness in the New Testament
New Testament references confirm these observations from the Old Testament. Despite man’s sin, God is willing and able to forgive. (6)
1 John 1:9 …he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.God’s forgiveness is contingent (where explicit) upon repentance. (7)
Acts 2:37a When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart…. 38a …Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.In the absence of repentance, God does not forgive.
Acts 8:22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.Again, some sin is beyond forgiveness. (8)
When man does repent, the result of God’s forgiveness is reconciliation, as He removes the offense and restores the relationship.
Col 1:21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—
Col 2:13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,When man does not repent, God, in His compassion, may pass over sin, patiently delaying judgment, but that delay is not forgiveness. (9)
Rom 2:4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?III. Man’s Forgiveness in the Old Testament
If God offers His pardon only to those who repent, it is likely this same condition obtains for the believer. There are, however, very few Old Testament references to the forgiveness that man imparts to man, and none in didactic literature.
IV. Man’s Forgiveness in the New Testament
The New Testament makes a significant contribution in its greater treatment of horizontal forgiveness. God expects the believer to emulate Him and be willing to forgive. (10)
Col 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.Also like God, however, obtaining the believer’s forgiveness has the same prerequisite: repentance. (11)
Luke 17:3b If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.Notice that the response to sin is not forgiveness but rebuke. (12) Only after the offender repents is it proper for the believer to forgive. (13) There is no indication that the believer pardons unrepentant sin, as Jesus makes clear in the rest of his statement.
Luke 17:3b “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”The believer forgives as God forgives—repeatedly but conditionally (i.e., upon repentance). (14) Forgiveness, regardless of the source, is not an automatic response to sin. Rather, it is dependent upon a change in the offender. Without such a change, there can be no restoration of fellowship. Hence, it is necessary for him to seek forgiveness. When he does, the result of his brother’s forgiveness is reconciliation, as his brother removes the offense and restores the relationship.
Matt 5:23 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.Without repentance, neither God nor the believer is under any compulsion to forgive. (15) We must be careful, though, not to reduce all relationships to a cycle of offense, repentance, and forgiveness. There are numerous instances when an offender does not repent because of pride or ignorance. In such cases, the believer should emulate another divine response, forbearance, the particular expression of which may vary according to the situation.
- In response to (church) family disputes, where close contact often brings sundry slights and annoyances, the most helpful quality may be love.
Lev 19:18 Do not…bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor….
1 Cor 13:5c-d [Love] is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
1 Pet 4:8b …love covers over a multitude of sins.
- In response to exploitation, where the offender takes advantage of his superior position, the most helpful quality may be patient endurance. (16)
Matt 5:39b If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
- In response to vindictive opposition, where the offender is intent upon acting contrary to your interests, the most helpful quality may be benevolence. (17)
Matt 5:44b Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…. 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Rom 12:20 “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” [= Prov 25:21-22a] 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
- In response to a crime, where the offender is unrepentant or even unknown, the most helpful quality may be faith in the recompense of God, who will “not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exod 34:7b; Num 14:18b; Neh 1:3a). (18)
Rom 12:19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.The believer is to mirror God’s response, but that response is not open-ended. For example, there is a limit to patient endurance: insult not injury, cloak not pants, two miles not three, loan not bankruptcy. There is also a purpose to benevolence: the shaming of one’s enemy into repentance. Just as God will not continue offering reconciliation to those who prove stubbornly unreceptive to His positive overtures, so the believer need not continue his efforts in this matter if it is evident the offender has no such interest. These qualities all come under the rubric of forbearance (not forgiveness).
Although some people use the term forgiveness broadly, to describe any positive attempt to deal with interpersonal conflict, it has the specific connotation of a judicial pronouncement. It also has specific results: a remission of guilt and a restoration of fellowship. When a situation does not lend itself to that kind of resolution, there are still constructive alternatives to anger or frustration. Those alternatives are not the same as forgiveness, but they enable us to avoid bitterness over unresolved disputes and to put such matters behind us. (19)
(1) Repentance can take several forms:
• Sacrifice Lev 5:10 The priest shall…make atonement for him…and he will be forgiven. [= vv. 13a, 16b, 18b; 6:7]
• Contrition Ps 130:2b …be attentive to my cry for mercy…. 4 But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
• Confession Ps 32:5 …I acknowledged my sin to you…and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
• Restitution Lev 6:5 He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering…. 7 In this way the priest will make atonement for him…and he will be forgiven….The prophets speak of national forgiveness in the Messianic Age, yet that, too, will follow national repentance.
Jer 50:20 In those days, at that time,” declares the LORD, “search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare.
Zech 12:10 And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son…. 13:1 On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.(2) That is, He withholds pardon until the offenders repent.
Lam 3:42 We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.Furthermore, divine pardon does not eliminate all consequences, only the most dire one(s). Though forgiven, man may still suffer the results of his sin.
Exod 34:7 …forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”(3) There are several examples in scripture.
Deut 29:20a The LORD will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man.
1 Sam 3:14b The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.(4) It was David’s experience and Isaiah’s exhortation.
2 Sam 12:13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.
Isa 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.(5) In some cases, God does not acquit the guilty but rather ‘carries on’ the sin from one generation to another, until expiated.
Exod 20:5 [= Deut 5:9] …I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,
Ps 79:8 Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need.
2 Sam 12:13b Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.”(6) This is solely God’s prerogative.
Mark 2:7b Who can forgive sins but God alone?(7) As in the Old Testament, repentance may take several forms.
• Sacrifice Eph 1:7a In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins…
• Contrition Luke 7:44b …she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair…. 47a Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much.
• Confession 1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins….
• Restitution Luke 19:8 …Zacchaeus…said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”(8) Even as Jesus extols the breadth of God’s forgiveness, he warns his followers about the limit of that forgiveness.
(9) When in forbearance He does relent, it is just a temporary stay of judgment.Matt 12:31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.Jesus’ and Stephen’s final prayers may reflect their concern that the offenders are perilously close to blasphemy. Nevertheless, although the offense is against the two victims, they do not express their forgiveness but intercede with God for His mercy.
Luke 23:34a Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”Perhaps Jesus and Stephen are hoping for or anticipating some future change of heart. In any case, there is also no indication that God granted their request. He did not grant even His son’s every petition.
Acts 7:60a Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Mark 14:36a “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.”Likewise, God did not always grant the petitions of His people.
2 Cor 12:8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.The two incidents with Jesus and Stephen are historical narrative, which does not have the same force as didactic material. They may also not be complete transcriptions. Given what scripture actually teaches on this subject, including what Jesus instructs elsewhere (e.g., Luke 17:3), he and Stephen were probably not requesting a blank check for absolution but were tacitly assuming the biblical prerequisite: “when they realize their error and repent.”
Rom 3:25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—
1 Thess 2:16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
(10) God’s forgiveness becomes a model (as well as a basis) for the believer’s forgiveness.2 Pet 3:9b He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.In the end, the delay will only underscore the guilt of the unrepentant.
Eph 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.In addition to expressing one’s gratitude, forgiving others contains an element of self-interest.
Luke 6:37c Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Mark 11:25 …if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
(11) Here, as well, repentance can take various forms.
• Contrition 2 Cor 2:7 …you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
• Confession Luke 15:18 I will…go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
(12) Elsewhere, Jesus repeats the importance of confronting sinful behavior and outlines a graduated approach.
Matt 18:15a If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.(13) The onus is with both parties to make the first move.
• Offended Matt 18:15 If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
• Offender Luke 12:58 As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.
(14) Again, even short-lived repentance seems sufficient grounds for forgiveness, perhaps because it is not always possible to make the distinction.
Luke 17:4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.(15) Forgiveness is also an inappropriate response by the believer to sin that affects someone else. “Should we forgive the Columbine shooters?” is an entirely irrelevant question for those who suffered no personal loss. We are not in a position to forgive the offenders. As for those directly affected by that tragedy, the answer is “No,” as well, because the culprits gave no indication of remorse for their crime. In this, too, we mirror God’s attitude, for He will not forgive them and will, in fact, punish them far more severely than society ever could. It is this assurance of justice that should, in part, allow those affected to put the event behind them and “to get on with life.”
(16) A related quality may be hope—that God will somehow turn a bad situation to your advantage.
Rom 8:28 …in all things God works for the good of those who love him….(17) Luke’s wording is even more direct.
Luke 6:27 [ v. 35] …Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.(18) Paul demonstrates this response…without the slightest hint of forgiveness.
2 Tim 4:14 Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done.(19) A person may develop a bitter spirit by refusing to forgive another, but the link is not a necessary one. There is still a difference between bitterness and unforgiveness, the former being a willful and emotional decision, the latter a legal (and potentially dispassionate) disposition.