Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 30th, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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FORGIVENESS . Like many other words employed to convey ideas connected with the relations of God and man, this covers a variety of thoughts. In both OT and NT we have evidences of a more elastic vocabulary than the EV [Note: English Version.] would lead us to suppose. 1. The OT has at least three different words all tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘forgiveness’ or ‘ pardon ,’ referring either to God’s actions with regard to men (cf. Exodus 34:7 , Psalms 86:5 , Nehemiah 9:17 ) or to forgiveness extended to men by each other (cf. Genesis 50:17 , 1 Samuel 25:28 ). At a very early period of human, or at least of Jewish, history, some sense of the need of forgiveness by God seems to have been felt. This will be especially evident if the words of despairing complaint put into the mouth of Caln be tr. [Note: translate or translation.] literally (see Driver, The Book of Genesis , on Genesis 4:13 , cf. RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). The power to forgive came to be looked on as inherent in God, who not only possessed the authority, but loved thus to exhibit His mercy ( Daniel 9:9 , Nehemiah 9:17 , Jeremiah 36:3 ). In order, however, to obtain this gift, a corresponding condition of humiliation and repentance on man’s part had to be fulfilled ( 2 Chronicles 7:14 , Psalms 86:5 ), and without a conscious determination of the transgressor to amend and turn towards his God, no hope of pardon was held out ( Joshua 24:19 , 2 Kings 24:4 , Jeremiah 5:1; Jeremiah 5:7 ). On the other hand, as soon as men acknowledged their errors, and asked God to forgive, no limit was set to His love in this respect ( 1 Kings 8:36; 1 Kings 8:50 , Psalms 103:3; cf. Deuteronomy 30:1-10 ). Nor could this condition be regarded as unreasonable, for holiness, the essential characteristic of the Divine nature, demanded an answering correspondence on the part of man made in God’s image. Without this correspondence forgiveness was rendered impossible, and that, so to speak, automatically (cf. Leviticus 19:2 , Joshua 24:19; see Numbers 14:18 , Job 10:14 , Nahum 1:3 ).

According to the Levitical code, when wrong was done between man and man, the first requlsite in order to Divine pardon was restitution, which had to be followed up by a service of atonement (Leviticus 6:2-7 ). Even in the case of sins of ignorance, repentance and its outward expression in sacrifice had to precede forgiveness ( Leviticus 4:13 ff., Numbers 15:23 ff. etc.). Here the educative influence of the Law must have been powerful, inculcating as it did at once the transcendent holiness of God and the need of a similar holiness on the part of His people ( Leviticus 11:44 ). Thus the Pauline saying, ‘The law hath been our tutor to bring us to Christ’ ( Galatians 3:24 ), is profoundly true, and the great priestly services of the Temple, with the solemn and ornate ritual, must have given glimpses of the approach by which men could feel their way and obtain the help indispensable for the needs adumbrated by the demands of the Mosaic institutions. The burden of the prophetic exhortations, ‘Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?’ ( Ezekiel 33:11; cf. Isaiah 44:22 , Jeremiah 35:15; Jeremiah 18:11 , Hosea 14:1 , Joel 2:13 etc.), would be meaningless if the power to obey were withheld, or the way kept hidden. Indeed, these preachers of moral righteousness did not hesitate to emphasize the converse side of this truth in dwelling on the ‘repentance’ of God and His returning to His afflicted but repentant people ( Jonah 3:9 , Malachi 3:7 etc.). The resultant effect of this mutual approach was the restoration to Divine favour, of those who had been alienated, by the free act of forgiveness on the part of God ( Psalms 85:4 , Isaiah 55:7; Isaiah 59:20 , Jeremiah 13:17; Jeremiah 13:24 etc.).

2. We are thus not surprised to learn that belief in the forgiveness of sins was a cardinal article of the Jewish faith in the time of Jesus ( Mark 2:7 = Luke 5:21 , cf. Isaiah 43:25 ). Nor was the teaching of Jesus in any instance out of line with the national belief, for, according to His words, the source of all pardon was His Father ( Mark 11:25 f., Matthew 6:14 f.; cf. His appeal on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them,’ Luke 23:34 ). It is true that ‘the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins’ ( Mark 2:10 = Matthew 9:6 = Luke 5:24 ), but the form of the expression shows that Jesus was laying claim to a delegated authority (cf. Luke 7:43 , where, as in the case of the palsied man, the words are declaratory rather than absolute; see Plummer, ICC [Note: CC International Critical Commentary.] , in loc. ). This is more clearly seen by a reference to NT epistolary literature, where again and again forgiveness and restoration are spoken of as mediated ‘in’ or ‘through’ Christ ( Ephesians 4:32 , Colossians 2:12 ff., 1 Peter 5:10; cf. Ephesians 1:7 , Revelation 1:5 , 1 John 2:12 etc.). Here, as in OT, only more insistently dwelt on, the consciousness of guilt and of the need of personal holiness is the first step on the road to God’s forgiveness ( 1 John 1:9 , cf. Psalms 32:5; Psalms 51:3 etc.); and the open acknowledgment of these feelings is looked on as the natural outcome of their existence ( Acts 19:18; cf. Romans 10:10 , 1 John 1:9 ). The hopelessness which at times seemed to have settled down on Jesus, when confronted by Pharisaic opposition, was the result of the moral and spiritual blindness of the religious teachers to their real position ( John 9:40 f.).

3. Again, following along the line we have traced in the OT, only more definitely and specifically emphasized, the NT writers affirm the necessity for a moral likeness between God and man (cf. Matthew 5:48 ). It is in this region, perhaps, that the most striking development is to be seen. Without exhibiting, in their relations to each other, the Divine spirit of forgiveness, men need never hope to experience God’s pardon for themselves. This, we are inclined to think, is the most striking feature in the ethical creations of Jesus’ teaching. By almost every method of instruction, from incidental postulate ( Matthew 6:12 = Luke 11:4 , Mark 11:25 ) to deliberate statement ( Matthew 18:21 ff; Matthew 6:15 , Mark 11:25 , Luke 17:4 ) and elaborate parable ( Matthew 18:23-35 ), He sought to attune the minds of His hearers to this high and difficult note of the Christian spirit (cf. Colossians 3:13 , 1 John 4:11 ). Once more, Jesus definitely asserts the limitation to which the pardon and mercy even of God are subjected. Whatever may be the precise meaning attaching to the words ‘an eternal sin’ ( Mark 3:29 ), it is plain that some definite border-line is referred to as the line of demarcation between those who may hope for this evidence of God’s love and those who are outside its scope ( Matthew 12:32 ). See art. Sin, iii. 1.

4. We have lastly to consider the words, recorded only by St. John, of the risen Jesus to His assembled disciples ( John 20:23 ). It is remarkable that this is the only place in the Fourth Gospel where the word tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘forgive’ (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) occurs, and we must not forget that the incident of conferring the power of absolution on the body of believers, as they were gathered together, is peculiar to this writer. At the same time, it is instructive to remember that nowhere is St. John much concerned with a simple narrative of events as such; he seems to be engaged rather in choosing those facts which he can subordinate to his teaching purposes. The choice, then, of this circumstance must have been intentional, as having a particular significance, and when the immediately preceding context is read, it is seen that the peculiar power transmitted is consequent upon the gift of the Holy Spirit. On two other occasions somewhat similar powers were promised, once personally to St. Peter as the great representative of that complete faith in the Incarnation of which the Church is the guardian in the world ( Matthew 16:19 ), and once to the Church in its corporate capacity as the final judge of the terms of fellowship for each of its members ( Matthew 18:18 ). In both these instances the words used by Jesus with regard to this spiritual power differ from those found in the narrative of the Fourth Gospel, and the latter is seen to be more definite, profound, and far-reaching in its scope than the former. The abiding presence of the living Spirit in the Church is the sure guarantee that her powers in judging spiritual things are inherent in her (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-15 ) as the Body of Christ. Henceforth she carries in her bosom the authority so emphatically claimed by her Lord, to declare the wondrous fact of Divine forgiveness ( Acts 13:38 ) and to set forth the conditions upon which it ultimately rests (see Westcott, Gospel of St. John, in loc. ). Closely connected with the exercise of this Divinely given authority is the rite of Baptism, conditioned by repentance and issuing in ‘the remission of sins’ ( Acts 2:38 ). It is the initial act in virtue of which the Church claims to rule, guide, and upbuild the life of her members. It is symbolic, as was John’s baptism, of a ‘death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness’ ( Mark 1:4 = Luke 3:3; cf. Romans 6:4 , Colossians 2:12 ). It is more than symbolic, for by it, as by a visible channel, the living and active Spirit of God is conveyed to the soul, where the fruition of the promised forgiveness is seen in the fulness of the Christian life ( Acts 2:38 , cf. Acts 10:43; Acts 10:47; Acts 19:5 f.).

5. On more than one occasion St. Paul speaks of the forgiveness of sins as constituting the redemption of the human race effected by the death of Christ (‘through his blood’ Ephesians 1:7 , cf. Colossians 1:14 ); and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes this aspect of the atoning work of Jesus by showing its harmony with all with which previous revelation had made us familiar, for ‘apart from shedding of blood there is no remission’ ( Hebrews 9:22 ). The same writer, moreover, asserts that once this object has been accomplished, nothing further remains to be done, as ‘there is no more offering for sin’ ( Hebrews 10:18 ) than that which the ‘blood of Jesus’ ( Hebrews 10:19 ) has accomplished. The triumphant cry of the Crucified, ‘It is finished’ ( John 19:30 ), is for this writer the guarantee not only that ‘the Death of Christ is the objective ground on which the sins of men are remitted’ (Dale, The Atonement , p. 430 f.); it is also the assurance that forgiveness of sin is the goal of the life and death of Him whose first words from the cross breathed a prayer for the forgiveness of His tormentors.

J. R. Willis.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Forgiveness'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​f/forgiveness.html. 1909.
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