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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Three words are used in the Gospels which are rendered in English by the word ‘forgive’:—ἁτολύειν, to set free, once only, in Luke 6:37; χαριζεσθαι, to show oneself gracious, or forgive frankly, in Luke 7:42-43; and ἀφιέναι, to remit, or let off, 37 times in the Synoptic Gospels. The noun ἀφεσις, ‘remission’ or ‘forgiveness,’ is found 8 times in the Synoptics, the words ‘of sins’ or ‘of trespasses’ being either added or closely implied.
In the treatment of the subject in this article three things must be borne in mind. First, that the words employed by Christ and the ideas they represent are not entirely new as they come from His lips. Our Lord presupposes and then puts His own characteristic impress upon a doctrine of forgiveness with which His hearers were for the most part familiar, and which for us is embodied in the OT. Secondly, that no complete study of Christ’s teaching concerning forgiveness can be made, unless other words, such as ‘save,’ ‘justify,’ and ‘cleanse,’ are taken into account, and the whole subject of release from the guilt and bondage of sin, as promised by Him, is kept in view. And, thirdly, that to stop short with the recorded words of Christ Himself on the matter is—speakingly reverently—not to know His whole mind upon it. It was impossible for Him in the course of His earthly ministry to set forth the full significance of His work for men, before it was accomplished. Hence for a complete account of the significance of His death we turn to the teaching of the Apostles, enlightened as they were by the Holy Spirit whom He had promised. In due course were revealed those ‘many things’ concerning His cross and passion which His disciples could not ‘bear’ during His lifetime. Down even to the very close of His short ministry on earth the rudimentary spiritual intelligence of the Apostles was unequal to carrying the full burden of the gospel as they afterwards understood it. The way in which that gospel was to he emphatically one of forgiveness, that ‘through this man is proclaimed remission of sins, and by him every one that believeth is justified from all things from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses,’ was only made clear afterwards. It being therefore carefully borne in mind that the OT prepared the way for Christ’s teaching on forgiveness, and that the Epistles developed and completed it, this article will deal only with that stage in the biblical doctrine of the subject which is represented by Christ and the Gospels. The consideration of it will be divided into four sections: (1) the Divine forgiveness of man, (2) Christ’s own power to forgive sins, (3) the duty of men to forgive one another, (4) the extent to which authority to forgive is vested in the Christian community.
1. God the Father as forgiving the sins of men.—The first reference chronologically to this subject in the Gospels is found in the Benedictus, or Psalm of Zacharias (Luke 1:77). The prophecy concerning John the Baptist announces that he is to give ‘knowledge of salvation unto his people, in the remission of their sins, according to the tender mercy of our God,’ etc. The whole tenor of the canticle goes to show that God’s ancient promises were about to be fulfilled in the coming of a Saviour through whom the great boon of remission of sins was to be secured in a fuller sense than had hitherto obtained. When the time came, John the Baptist is declared to have preached the baptism of repentance ‘unto remission of sins’ (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). In the same connexion may be taken the interpretation of the name Jesus in Matthew 1:21 ‘he shall save his people from their sins,’ and the ‘Saviour, Christ the Lord,’ of Luke 2:11, though the word ‘forgiveness’ does not occur. It was indeed implicit throughout our Lord’s ministry, all His declarations concerning His coming ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matthew 9:13), ‘to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:10), and His promise of ‘rest to the souls’ of men (Matthew 11:29), showing that the object of His ministry was to reclaim from sin, by bringing men to that forgiveness and cleansing which God had promised through repentance and faith in Him.
The explicit references to forgiveness of sin are comparatively few, but they are clear and definite in character, and quite sufficient to establish doctrine on the subject. They are: (a) the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our debts,’ Matthew 6:12 (‘our sins,’ Luke 11:3), combined with Matthew 6:14-15, Mark 11:25, which assert God’s willingness to forgive under certain conditions. With these join Luke 6:37, a parallel passage with a different turn of expression, ‘Release and ye shall be released,’ the reference clearly being to sin. (b) The parables of Luke 15, especially that of the Prodigal Son, and of the Pharisee and the Publiean in Luke 18:9-14. (c) Our Saviour’s prayer on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them,’ etc., Luke 23:34. (d) Statements concerning God’s willingness to forgive all sins, including those ‘against the Son of man,’ but excluding the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10; add also Mark 4:12, in which Isaiah’s prophecy is represented as being fulfilled, ‘lest they should repent and be forgiven (healed).’
Putting these passages together, we are warranted in concluding that Christ taught the readiness of the Father always to hear the prayer of the truly penitent and in His mercy to pardon their sins, the chief questions being, What is the exact nature of forgiveness? Is it free to all mankind, or to those only who are in covenant relation with Him? Is any condition besides that of repentance laid down?
The meaning of the word ‘forgiveness,’ and the relation between God and man implied in it, must be gathered largely from the OT. Doubtless under the old covenant a progressive revelation is to be recognized, an advance in spirituality of teaching being discernible in its later stages. Doubtless also it is necessary to bear in mind the distinction between the ceremonial standpoint of the Law with its elaborate ritual and appointed sacrifices on the one hand, and the more purely spiritual view of the prophet and psalmist on the other. But, broadly speaking, Christ, like the more ‘Evangelical’ OT prophets, represents forgiveness as a pure act of grace on the part of God, Who on the repentance of the sinner receives him graciously and pardons his transgression in the sense of replacing the offender in his former relation of acceptance and favour. Forgiveness is not mere remission of penalty, the forbearing to inflict deserved punishment, though such release is for the most part included. Punishment may still be exacted, but it has lost its penal character and becomes Divine chastisement inflicted for the improvement of the offender, or for the sake of others. Neither does forgiveness imply any false or arbitrary dealing with the past, any condoning of sin—which is essentially immoral—or ignoring of the transgression, as if it had not been committed—which would imply a weak and false attempt to secure the impossible. Nor, again, can any kind of remission of sins be predicated of God which implies unrighteousness in any form, the solemn sanctions of the eternal law of righteousness being secured by the conditions upon which forgiveness is granted.
But the essence of forgiveness lies in the establishment, or restoration, of a personal relation between sinful man and a grieved and righteously angry God. Omnipotence itself cannot erase the event from the history of the past, and holiness will not permit any concealment or pretence as to the heinousness of the offence committed. But the sin may be ‘covered,’ the guilt cancelled, in the sense that on certain conditions it shall be as if it had never been, so far as the relation between God and the sinner is concerned. Hence sin when forgiven is said to be ‘cast into the depth of the sea’ (Micah 7:19), ‘cast behind thy back’ (Isaiah 38:17), removed ‘as far as the east is from the west’ (Psalms 103:12), ‘remembered no more’ (Jeremiah 31:34) against the sinner.
Ritschl says: ‘God, in forgiving or pardoning sins, exercises His will in the direction of not permitting the contradiction—expressed in guilt—in which sinners stand to Him to hinder that fellowship of men with Him which He intends on higher grounds.’ It does not, he adds, ‘free them altogether from the consciousness of guilt, but from that mistrust which, as an affection of the consciousness of guilt, naturally separates the injured man from the offender.’ And again, it is ‘a reconciliation of such a nature that while memory, indeed, preserves the pain felt at the sin which has been committed, yet at the same time the place of mistrust towards God is taken by the positive assent of the will to God and His saving purpose.’
Forgiveness can never be adequately understood by means of any figure of speech, commercial or other. It represents a relation of persons, and its essence lies in the restoration of impaired confidence, affection, and favourable regard. It has to do not only with the past, but the present and the future, and it is exercised by God towards men just in proportion as they are capable of receiving it.
Repentance is the one condition clearly laid down and repeatedly insisted on in the Gospels. It is necessary as between man and man, much more between man and God. When John the Baptist comes to prepare the way of the Saviour, nothing can be done without that thoroughgoing repentance which implies reformation so far as man can effect it. Repentance is indeed a necessary ingredient of forgiveness if the two terms are rightly understood. Sorrow for sin and complete renunciation of it are not arbitrary conditions which the Sovereign chooses to exact before bestowing a boon; they belong to the very essence of the personal relation between Father and son which has been impaired or broken by error and disobedience, and which is to be restored in forgiveness. For an impenitent sinner not to be punished is conceivable, but for such a one to be forgiven is a contradiction in terms. The necessity for a forgiving spirit in one who hopes himself to be forgiven is dealt with below.
God is then ‘good and ready to forgive’ (Psalms 86:5), a God ‘keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin’ (Exodus 34:7). It would, however, be misleading to generalize and say that this attribute of mercy obviates all necessity for an atonement, or vindication of the law of righteousness, and that throughout the whole history of the world nothing more is needed to obtain Divine forgiveness of sin than confession and repentance on the part of man. The promises of the OT were given to those who stood in a covenant relation with God, in which His righteousness was effectually safeguarded. Christ’s ministry was exercised amongst Jews in the first instance, and the presuppositions of OT Scripture must be taken into account.
The same may be said of the two gracious parables of our Lord which chiefly deal with this subject. It is impossible to found accurate doctrine on a parable only, and it is always a mistake to suppose that one parable can cover the whole range of doctrine. The three recorded in Luke 15 were uttered to show the nature of Christ’s mission and His desire to seek and save the worst sinners, as well as the willingness of God to receive such, and the joy of heaven and earth when the penitent returns and is pardoned. The moral basis on which this becomes possible in the Divine government is another matter. The cosmic conditions of forgiveness are described in their proper place in Scripture. But in the parable of the Prodigal Son the lesson is impressed that the utmost failure in filial duty will be readily forgiven, if the wanderer will but repent and return. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican the essential teaching is the same—the danger lest those who comply with rules of ordinary morality should so plume themselves on their obedience as to lose the sense of their own deep need and ill-desert, and the fact that grave offenders against the fundamental laws of righteousness, like the publican and the harlot, may find their way into the kingdom of grace before the self-righteous Pharisee. But it would be utterly misleading, even to the subversion of the very foundations of ethics, if the inference were drawn that it matters nothing how deeply a man sins, provided that when his evil course is over he regrets his errors and asks for pardon, and that there is no reason in the moral government of the Universe why such a man should not be at once forgiven without infraction of the eternal law of righteousness.
This general conclusion is borne out by Christ’s strong language concerning sin, and especially that sin which cannot be forgiven (see Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10). In spite of the long controversy which has taken place as to the mysterious sin against the Holy Ghost and the misunderstandings concerning it which have caused unspeakable spiritual anguish to thousands, there seems little question that the only sin thus pronounced unpardonable is that of wilful and persistent sinning against light till light itself is turned into darkness,—the perverting of truth at its very source, where the Holy Spirit Himself instructs the conscience, and thus poisoning the wells of the soul. Therefore, not in virtue of an arbitrary fiat of the Almighty, but by the necessity of the case, such sin cannot be forgiven. ‘A lamp’s death when, replete with oil, it chokes; a stomach’s when, surcharged with food, it starves.’ With this explanation harmonizes the Saviour’s prayer in Luke 23:34 ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The sin of Christ’s murderers, heinous indeed beyond expression, was a sin against the Son of man, and—at least in the case of most of those implicated and so far as the full gravity of the offence was concerned—it was not such a deliberate and complete perversion of conscience as to amount to a sin against the Holy Spirit. The reason why the unforgiving cannot be forgiven is to be similarly understood. Hence the general doctrine is laid down in the Gospels in unmistakable terms, that God the Father is ready to receive and pardon all sinners except those who shut themselves out from its possibility by wilfully cherishing a spirit known to be evil, and deliberately hardening their own hearts against the grace which was ready to receive and renew them. See Unpardonable Sin.
2. It is clear that Christ’s teaching concerning forgiveness was not exhausted by the proclamation of the Father’s willingness to receive the penitent. He Himself claimed the power to forgive, which was recognized by all to be a Divine prerogative. In Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5 is recorded the narrative of the healing of the paralytic, which had evidently impressed itself strongly upon tradition, since it is given by all three Synoptists at greater length than usual and almost in the same words. It was one of the grounds of offence which ultimately caused the death of Jesus, that, whilst lowly in demeanour, He put forth claims for Himself so lofty that to a reverent Jew He appeared often to blaspheme. Jesus does not deny the fundamental assumption that none can forgive sins but God only. To a true believer in one God this is an axiom; there is but one Governor and there can be but one Fount of pardon. Jesus did not thereupon disclaim the possession of a Divine prerogative. He put His own claims to an easily applied test, Whether is it easier to tell a sufferer that his sins are forgiven, or to heal him of an incurable malady? In other words, any prophet may speak words of comfort or absolution, but one who shows the power of healing in order to establish his claim to pronounce forgiveness is no ordinary messenger, but proves Himself to be the Son of God with power. The whole incident evidently made a deep impression, for we are told that the people wondered, praised God, and acknowledged that unprecedented and superhuman power had been entrusted to a son of man.
The close connexion between the work that Christ did for the bodies of men and the power that He claimed over their souls in the forgiveness of sin, is suggested in other narratives, though somewhat less clearly. The inference has been drawn from John 5:14 and the early tradition recorded in John 8:11, that Jesus habitually pronounced remission of sin and gave power to amend the life in future, but the brief records in these cases hardly warrant such a conclusion.
The narrative of the woman who was a sinner, recorded in Luke 7:36-50, is full of instruction on the subject of forgiveness. The mission of Christ to save the outcast and the abandoned is here delicately and beautifully shown. The only doubtful point of interpretation relates to the ground of forgiveness as described in Luke 7:47. Many commentators, including the chief Roman Catholic authorities, make the forgiveness extended to the woman to depend upon the love she showed, and at first reading this might seem warranted by the phrase ‘for she loved much.’ But on examination this is seen to be impossible. For (1) the whole scope of the parable of the two debtors shows that forgiveness precedes love; (2) the latter part of Luke 7:47 enforces the same lesson; and so (3) does the absolution pronounced in Luke 7:48. The only ambiguity lies in the pregnant use of ὅτι in Luke 7:47, and the meaning of the clause may be expressed by the paraphrase, ‘This is the reason why I tell you that her many sins are forgiven—for (see) she has shown much love; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ Her repentance and acceptance had taken place before, her grateful love was manifested in return by the outpouring of the ointment; and in Luke 7:48 Christ authoritatively confirms the assurance of her free and full pardon as One who had an absolute right to do so.
The doctrine of the forgiveness of sins on the basis of atonement through the death of Christ is not, properly speaking, revealed by Christ Himself. The Fourth Gospel contains passages like John 1:29 and a reference in John 19:36 to the Paschal lamb (?), but neither of these comes from the lips of the Master. The nearest approach to such teaching is found in the institution of the Lord’s Supper and the reference to His blood as shed for the remission of sins in Matthew 26:28, also perhaps in the directions given to the Apostles in Luke 24:47. By the time of St. Paul’s earliest Epistles the doctrine of the atoning death of Christ as the ground of the forgiveness of sins was fairly developed, and the question is, How far had progress been made in this direction before the death of Christ took place? The answer appears to be that—as with the doctrines of the Incarnation and a Future Life in the OT—foreshadowings only had been given, hints and indications of a revelation which could not be clearly and definitely made until Christ’s work was complete and the full gift of the Spirit bestowed. A reference is found in Matthew 20:28 to the giving up of life by the Son of man ‘as a ransom for many,’ but the Apostles could not in Christ’s lifetime understand at all the need for His death and the full meaning of the shedding of His blood upon the cross; and its connexion with the forgiveness of sins dawned upon them only gradually under the illumination of the promised Spirit.
3. One of the most noteworthy features in Christ’s ethical teaching was His inculcation of the duty of almost unlimited forgiveness of man by man. The standard thus set up was practically new. In Pagan ethics to revenge an injury and punish an enemy to the utmost was manly, to forgive was mean-spirited. Some affronts might be passed over by the magnanimous man, simply because it was beneath his dignity, or disturbing to his equanimity, to notice them. But the idea of not only abstaining from vengeance, but actually restoring an offender to a relation of kindly regard, on the ground of human brotherhood and for the sake of helping an erring one to regain his forfeited position, was quite alien to the spirit of ancient morals.
Christ taught not only the duty of forgiveness on repentance, but that it was to be unlimited both in quality and in quantity. No offence was so serious, no repetition of offences so excessive, that forgiveness might be withheld, provided only that penitence were shown. The former of these points is not enlarged on by Christ, but it is involved in the proverbial completeness of the phrase ‘unto seventy times seven’ (Matthew 18:22). Such forgiveness of injuries was based upon two fundamental principles of Christian ethics: (a) the duty of repressing all personal resentment, closely connected with the virtues of meekness and humility; and (b) that love to all men, including enemies, which—paradoxical as it might appear—Christ enjoined as fundamentally incumbent on all His disciples (Matthew 5:44). The ‘love’ and forgiveness thus inculcated do not depend upon personal merits, for they are to be exercised even towards the unthankful and the evil. But the one necessary condition—repentance—is insisted on, else the moral character of forgiveness is lost. For, as already explained, forgiveness is a relation between persons, and if it be included as a duty in a moral code, it must imply an ethical relation, such as is altogether lacking if evil is condoned, or its seriousness slighted. Hence the offender must, so far as in him lies, put away the evil thing, if it is to be no longer a barrier between him and one whose course is determined by the law of righteousness. The truly moral nature of Christian forgiveness is brought out in Luke 17:3, where it is closely joined with the duty of reproving sin—‘If thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.’ With this may be compared Leviticus 19:17, where the reproof of an evil-doer is spoken of as a mark of love. Just as in the Law the righteous man is bidden to rebuke his neighbour and not ‘bear sin because of him,’ so under the gospel he is bidden to forgive the penitent wrong-doer, that he may help him to a better life.
The close connexion between God’s forgiveness of man and man’s forgiveness of injuries against himself is brought out in Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:15, Luke 11:4; see also Luke 6:37 and Mark 11:25-26. In the last passage, as well as in Matthew 5:23-24, the duty of being ‘in love and charity with our neighbours,’ and ‘in perfect charity with all men,’ is laid down as a condition of acceptable prayer to God. The reason is akin to that described above. There are some states of mind in which a worshipper is not fit to pray, in which he asks for blessings that he is not capable of receiving. The principle is not to be understood as a kind of Divine lex talionis, as in the parable of the Unmerciful Debtor (Matthew 18:35)—that a man does not deserve mercy himself, if he will not show it to others, though this is true and appeals to a natural sense of justice. Rather is it to be understood that the unforgiving man shows essential impenitence, or at best an uneducated conscience in respect of his relations with his fellows. A man who cherishes hardness of heart towards those who have injured him so offends against the law of love that he cannot be received by the God of love, and cannot enjoy the restored relationship which he asks for in the Divine forgiveness, the whole significance of which is due to the supremacy of love. Or, as Beyschlag expresses it, ‘he who would belong to the kingdom of love as a recipient must belong to it as an agent.’ The merciful alone can obtain mercy, or rightly use it when it is granted to them.
4. Similar principles to those which regulate the relation of individuals are to be applied where Christian communities are concerned. The two are closely connected, as is shown by the passage Matthew 18:15-18. Christ deals first with the offending individual; if it can be avoided, recourse must not be had to the authority of the Christian society. It may be that personal remonstrance will suffice to set right the offender, or at least the moral influence of the brotherhood exercised in private by the presence of two or three witnesses. If the whole community is compelled to act, the utmost penalty inflicted is expulsion from the brotherhood, the only rights then remaining to the excommunicated person being the inalienable ones of a fellow-man.
The question of forgiveness or condemnation as exercised by the community arises from the phraseology concerning binding and loosing contained in Matthew 18:18, with which should be compared the words addressed to St. Peter in Matthew 16:18, and those addressed to a company which seems certainly to have included more than the Apostles, in John 20:23. The power granted to the Christian community in the words, ‘Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained,’ is not to be confused with Divine forgiveness of sins on the one hand, or with individual forgiveness on the other. Whilst more significant than the latter, it stops far short of the former. Individual Christians are to do their best privately to stop the progress of ill-feeling and enmity, but ‘offences’ will still arise. A power of checking them is therefore lodged with the community for the maintenance of purity and the avoidance of scandal. This is described as the power of ‘binding and loosing.’ Acting in the name of Christ, and presumably in the spirit of Christ, His Church will, He says, in a sense exercise His authority, and their action, whether of permission or prohibition, of condemnation or acquittal, will be ratified in heaven. This power, while great and important, is clearly not comparable to the Divine forgiveness of the individual sinner. This involves a full knowledge of circumstances and of the disposition of the inmost heart which no man can possess in relation to his fellow-man. No authority is given by Christ to a community—still less to a ‘priest,’ of whom it is needless to say that the Gospels know absolutely nothing—to exercise or to pronounce ‘forgiveness’ in the case of any individual. But just as an offender belonging to a Christian community needs to be rebuked by the Church in order that the Divine condemnation of wrongdoing may be echoed on earth, and earthly penalties may be inflicted which may arrest further evil and so prevent the terrible danger of worse punishment to come; so the penitent needs assurance from an earthly authority to help him in his upward course of reformation, though the real and ultimate transaction of forgiveness must rest between himself and God alone. The high authority thus conferred upon the Christian society and the responsible character attached to its judgments depend entirely upon its possession of that spiritual discernment which the Holy Spirit alone can bestow, and its acting always in the name of Christ and under the direction and control of the Spirit of Christ.
Literature.—From amongst the numberless books bearing directly or indirectly on the subject may be mentioned: Beyschlag, NT Theology, bk. i. ch. iv. § 11, and ch. vii. §§ 3 and 4; Stevens, NT Theology, pt. i. ch. viii.; Moberly, Atonement and Personality, chs. 2 and 3; Seeley, Ecce Homo, chs. 22 and 23; Knight, Christian Ethic, ch. 11; and especially Ritschl, Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, 1874, vol. iii. [English translation under the above title, 1900]; see also Bethune-Baker, art. ‘Forgiveness’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible.
W. T. Davison
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Forgiveness (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/f/forgiveness-2.html. 1906-1918.