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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Forgiveness

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The purpose of this article is not to discuss the large theological problems involved (see Atonement), but to consider the passages in which the term actually occurs in the Acts and the Epistles. The general word is ἀφίημι, of very common occurrence in the NT, especially in the Gospels, meaning ‘send away from oneself’ (Matthew 13:36), ‘let go’ (Matthew 4:20) ‘turn away from’ (Matthew 19:29, 1 Corinthians 7:11), ‘pass over’ or ‘neglect’ (Hebrews 6:1, Matthew 23:23), ‘relinquish one’s prey’ (used of robbers [Luke 10:30] or a disease [Matthew 8:15, Mark 1:31, Luke 4:39, John 4:52]), or simply ‘leave a person free’ (Mark 10:14; Mark 14:6, John 11:44, Acts 5:38), or treat him as if one had no more concern with him. Hence it is used of remitting a debt (Matthew 18:27; Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:14), equivalent to οὐ λογἱζεσθαι (2 Corinthians 5:19; see also Sanday-Headlam, Romans 5 [International Critical Commentary , 1902], 100); the creditor tears up the bill, so to speak, or never enters the debt in his ledger. The verb, however, is rare outside the Gospels in the sense of ‘forgive.’ It occurs in Acts 8:22 (the forgiveness of the thought of Simon’s heart), James 5:15, 1 John 1:9; 1 John 2:12 (in each case with ‘sins’), and, as a quotation, in Romans 4:7 (the forgiveness of ‘lawlessnesses,’ ἀνομίαι).

Side by side with these instances, however, we must put the noun, ἅφεσις. This is very rare in the Gospels (it is never attributed to Christ Himself, save in quotations and in the institution of the Eucharist in Matthew 26:28 -not in the parallels). It is more frequent in the Acts: Acts 2:38 (baptism for forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ), Acts 5:31 (repentance and forgiveness of sins), Acts 10:43 (forgiveness of sins through His name), Acts 13:38 (through Him the forgiveness of sins is preached), Acts 26:18 (forgiveness of sins … by faith that is in Christ). Here, the object is always ‘sins’; forgiveness is sometimes explicitly joined to repentance and baptism; but more particularly connected with Christ, Christ’s name, or faith in Christ. The procedure suggested by these passages is simple: preaching Christ, belief in Christ, and the resultant acceptance of the new position of freedom from sin. This might be all that was explicit in the experience of the early believers; it is obviously not the last word for the preacher, the theologian, or the believer himself. Hence, the fuller expression of St. Paul in Ephesians 1:7, ‘in whom we have our redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of our transgressions’ (cf. Colossians 1:14). Here, the figure of the cancelling of a debt is joined to another-rescue from some usurping power; and this (in the passage in Eph., not in Col.) is definitely connected with the shedding of the blood of Christ at His death; so in Hebrews 9:22 (‘apart from shedding of blood there is no remission of sins’). The only other passage in the Epistles where the word occurs is Hebrews 10:18, where forgiveness of sins and lawlessnesses is regarded as equivalent to their being remembered no more (Jeremiah 31:34), and so needing no further sacrifice.

At first sight, it would seem strange that ἀφίημι is not used oftener; it does not occur at all in Rom. in the sense of forgiveness, save in a quotation (Romans 4:7, from Psalms 32:1). But the reason is not far to seek. The conception, as already said, was not final; it was a figure, and one of several possible figures; and it was a single term applied to a mysterious and far-reaching experience which required further analysis. The writers of the Epistles do not neglect the experience, but they pass beyond the expression. In the primitive apostolic teaching of the Acts, it was enough to announce that Jesus was the Messiah, that He had risen from the death to which the rulers of the Jews had condemned Him, and that in Him the old promises of forgiveness of sins wore fulfilled-forgiveness even for the sin of putting Him to death. The cardinal notes of the apostles’ early preaching are the facts of the Resurrection and Messiahship of Jesus, and the necessity of believing in Him for the promised spiritual change. But it was inevitable that further questions should arise. How can this forgiveness be reconciled with God’s unchanging abhorrence of sin? What is the connexion between the death of Christ and the change in me? To answer these, St. Paul takes up the suggestion implied in the word ἄφεσις, ‘a cancelled debt,’ already familiar to Pharisaic thought, and develops it into his doctrine of justification: there is a debt-all men owe it-caused by the nonperformance of the necessary works; judgment must therefore be given against us; but with the Judge who would pronounce the sentence there is also grace. Christ the Son of God dies for our sin; and this same death we also die, by faith, to sin; hence, we are justified before God-that is, we are like men who have never contracted a debt; and there is nothing for us but acquittal. This forensic figure is worked out by St. Paul more fully than any other; but he lays equal stress on the more mystical conceptions of redemption (see above) and death to sin (Romans 6:11 ‘estimate yourselves to be mere corpses with regard to sin’). ‘The importance of faith, however, is never left unexpressed, faith being at once surrender to, reliance on, and identification with its object. Here, St. Paul brings us to the circle of the thought of St. John, which only once refers to forgiveness (see above), but moves round the act of believing which joins man to God.

As kindred expressions we may notice the words χαρίζεσθαι-properly, ‘do a favour to a person,’ or, with the accusative of the thing, ‘make a present of’-sometimes in the sense of making a present of an act of wrong-doing, i.e., not insisting on the penalty for it (2 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 2:13); πάρεσις (Romans 3:25), ‘a temporary suspension of punishment which may be one day inflicted,’ and therefore entirely distinct from forgiveness (see R. C. Trench, NT Synonyms8, 1876, p. 110ff.); καλύπτειν, ‘to conceal, cover over’ (cf. the Hebrew kipper) (Romans 4:7 [quoting from Psalms 32:1], 1 Peter 4:8); and λύειν, ‘to loose’ (Revelation 1:5).

Literature.-Forgiveness has very little modern literature devoted to it; but it is discussed in all literature dealing with Atonement and Reconciliation, and, at least Indirectly, in that referring to Sin and Conversion. See the articles Atonement, Conversion, Justification, Repentance, Sin, with the Literature there cited. Reference may also be made to G. B. Stevens, Theology of the NT, 1899; A. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, Eng. translation , 1900; W. E. Orchard, Modern Theories of Sin, 1909; W. L. Walker, The Gospel of Reconciliation, 1909; P. T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ, 1910; R. Mackintosh, Christianity and Sin, 1913.

W. F. Lofthouse.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Forgiveness'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/f/forgiveness.html. 1906-1918.

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