International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Of the seven words, three Hebrew and four Greek, which are used to express the idea of forgiveness, the last two occur in this sense only once each.
2. Pagan and Jewish Ideas
Forgiveness was not a pagan virtue. The large-souled man might disregard offenses in cases where he considered them beneath his notice, but to forgive was weak-spirited (F. W. Robertson on 1 Corinthians 4:12 ). Even in the Old Testament, man's forgiveness of his fellow-man is infrequently mentioned. In every case the one asking forgiveness is in a position of subserviency, and is petitioning for that to which he has no just right (Genesis 50:17; Exodus 10:17; 1 Samuel 15:25; 1 Samuel 25:28 ). The Imprecatory Psalms attest the fact that forgiveness of enemies was not esteemed as a virtue by Israel. They could appeal to the law which enjoined upon them to seek neither the peace nor the prosperity of their avowed enemies (Deuteronomy 23:6; compare Ezra 9:12 ). Jesus gave the popular summing-up of the law and not its exact words when he said, "Ye have heard that it was said ... hate thine enemy" (Matthew 5:43 ), and this certainly does represent their attitude and their understanding of the teaching of the Scriptures.
3. The Teaching of Christ
Christ taught that forgiveness is a duty. No limit can be set to the extent of forgiveness (Luke 17:4 ) and it must be granted without reserve. Jesus will not admit that there is any wrong so gross nor so often repeated that it is beyond forgiveness. To Him an unforgiving spirit is one of the most heinous of sins (Bruce, Parabolic Teaching , 376ff). This is the offense which God will not forgive (Matthew 18:34 , Matthew 18:35 ). It is the very essence of the unpardonable sin (Mark 3:22-30 ). It was the one blemish of the elder son which marred an otherwise irreproachable life (Luke 15:28-30 ). This natural, pagan spirit of implacability Jesus sought to displace by a generous, forgiving spirit. It is so far the essence of His teaching that in popular language "a Christian spirit" is not inappropriately understood to be synonymous with a forgiving disposition. His answer to Peter that one should forgive not merely seven times in a day, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21 , Matthew 18:22 ), not only shows that He thought of no limit to one's forgiveness, but that the principle could not be reduced to a definite formula.
4. Conditions of Forgiveness
Jesus recognized that there are conditions to be fulfilled before forgiveness can be granted. Forgiveness is part of a mutual relationship; the other part is the repentance of the offender. God does not forgive without repentance, nor is it required of man. The effect of forgiveness is to restore to its former state the relationship which was broken by sin. Such a restoration requires the coöperation of both parties. There must be both a granting and an acceptance of the forgiveness. Sincere, deep-felt sorrow for the wrong which works repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10 ) is the condition of mind which insures the acceptance of the forgiveness. Hence, Jesus commands forgiveness when the offender turns again, saying, "I repent" (Luke 17:3 , Luke 17:1 ). It was this state of mind which led the father joyfully to welcome the Prodigal before he even gave utterance to his newly formed purpose (Luke 15:21 ).
5. The Offended Party
It is not to be supposed, however, that failure to repent upon the part of the offender releases the offended from all obligation to extend forgiveness. Without the repentance of the one who has wronged him he can have a forgiving state of mind. This Jesus requires, as is implied by, "if ye forgive not every one his brother from your hearts" (Matthew 18:35 ). It is also implied by the past tense in the Lord's Prayer: "as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12 ). It is this forgiving spirit which conditions God's forgiveness of our sins (Mark 11:25; Matthew 6:14 , Matthew 6:15 ). In such a case the unforgiving spirit is essentially unrepentance (Matthew 18:23-35 ). "Of all acts, is not, for a man, repentance the most Divine?"
The offended is to go even farther and is to seek to bring the wrongdoer to repentance. This is the purpose of the rebuking commanded in Luke 17:3 . More explicitly Jesus says, "If thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone" (Matthew 18:15-17 ). He is to carry his pursuit to the point of making every reasonable effort to win the wrongdoer, and only when he has exhausted every effort may he abandon it. The object is the gaining of his brother. Only when this is evidently unattainable is all effort to cease.
The power of binding and loosing, which means forbidding and allowing, was granted to Peter (Matthew 16:19 ) and to the Christian community (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23 ). It clearly implies the possession of the power to forgive sins. In the case of Peter's power it was exercised when he used the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19 ). This consisted in the proclamation of the gospel and especially of the conditions upon which men might enter into relationship with God (Acts 2:38; Acts 10:34 ). It was not limited to Peter only, but was shared by the other apostles (Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18 ). Christ left no fixed rules the observance or non-observance of which would determine whether one is or is not in the kingdom of God. He gave to His disciples principles, and in the application of these principles to the problems of life there had to be the exercise of discriminating judgment. The exercise of this judgment was left to the Christian community (2 Corinthians 2:10 ). It is limited by the principles which are the basis of the kingdom, but within these principles the voice of the community is supreme. The forgiveness here implied is not the pronouncing of absolution for the sins of individuals, but the determination of courses of conduct and worship which will be acceptable. In doing this its decisions will be ratified in heaven (Westcott on John 20:23 ).
That there is a close analogy between human and Divine forgiveness is clearly implied (Matthew 5:23 , Matthew 5:14; Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; Colossians 1:14; Colossians 3:13 ). God"s forgiveness is conditional upon man's forgiveness of the wrongs done him, not because God forgives grudgingly but because forgiveness alone indicates that disposition of mind which will humbly accept the Divine pardon.
6. Divine and Human Forgiveness
Repentance is a necessary ingredient of the fully developed forgiveness. There is no essential difference between the human and the Divine pardon, though the latter is necessarily more complete. It results in the complete removal of all estrangement and alienation between God and man. It restores completely the relationship which existed prior to the sin. The total removal of the sin as a result of the Divine forgiveness is variously expressed in the Scriptures: "Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back" (Isaiah 38:17 ); "Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19 ); "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34 ); "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions" (Isaiah 43:25 ); "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12 ). Ideally this same result is attained in human forgiveness, but actually the memory of the sin remains with both parties as a barrier between them, and even when there is a complete restoration of amity the former state of alienation cannot entirely be removed from memory. When God forgives, however, He restores man to the condition of former favor. Release from punishment is involved, though Divine forgiveness is more than this. In most cases the consequences, which in some instances are spoken of as punishment, are not removed, but they lose all penal character and become disciplinary. Nor does the forgiveness remove from human mind the consciousness of sin and the guilt which that involved, but it does remove the mistrust which was the ground of the alienation. Mistrust is changed into trust, and this produces peace of mind (Psalm 32:5-7; Romans 5:1 ); consciousness of the Divine love and mercy (Psalm 103:2 ); removes fear of punishment (2 Samuel 12:13 ); and awakens love to God.
7. Forgiveness and Justification
Paul rarely uses the term "forgiveness," but in its place prefers justification. They are to his understanding practically synonymous (Stevens, Theology of the New Testament , 418). He preferred the latter, however, because it was better fitted to express the idea of secure, present and permanent acceptance in the sight of God. It connoted both a complete and a permanent state of grace. In popular thought forgiveness is not so comprehensive, but in the Biblical sense it means no less than this. It removes all of the guilt and cause of alienation from the past; it assures a state of grace for the present; and promises Divine mercy and aid for the future. Its fullness cannot adequately be conveyed by any one term or formula.
Divine, like human, forgiveness is always contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions. It must be preceded by repentance and a firmly fixed intention not to repeat the offense. In addition to this, one was required to conform to certain legal or formal acts before the assurance of pardon was his. These acts were expressive of the sinner's state of mind. They consisted of certain acts of sacrifice in the pre-Christian times and of baptism during the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3 ) and under Christ (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16 ). These acts are never regarded as in any sense a quid pro quo in return for which the benefit of forgiveness is granted. It is an act of pure grace on God's part, and these acts are required as expressions of the man's attitude toward God. The state of mind required in order to obtain the gift of forgiveness is that to which the Prodigal Son came ( Luke 15:17-19 ), and that of the sinner who went to his house justified rather than the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14 ), because he realized that forgiveness was to him an act of pure favor.
There was real and actual forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament times as well as since Christ. Certain passages have been construed to teach that the Law provided only for a passing over or rolling back of sins, and that there was not then an actual forgiveness.
8. Old Testament Teaching
The sacrifices prescribed by the Law were not adequate atonements, so that there was constant necessity of yearly remembrance of sin (Hebrews 10:3; compare Leviticus 16:21 ). The atonement of Christ is, however, of permanent adequacy, and became retroactive in the sense that it unified in Christ the Divine arrangement for saving mankind in all ages (Hebrews 11:40 ). "The passing over of the sins done aforetime" (Romans 3:25 ) does not imply a partial or apparent forgiveness, but means that they were forgiven, though seemingly without adequate recognition on the part of God of their heinous character. In view of God's righteous character men might naturally have expected punishment, but instead the offenders were spared (compare Acts 14:16; Acts 17:30 ). No expression in the Old Testament suggests any inadequacy of the forgiveness extended to Israel, but on the other hand many passages may be quoted to show how rich and full it was deemed to be (Ps 103; Micah 7:19; Isaiah 38:17 , Jeremiah 31:34 ).
9. Limitations of Forgiveness
Two passages seem to limit God's forgiveness. They are Christ's discussion of the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:31 , Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10 ), and the one which mentions the sin unto death (1 John 5:16; compare Hebrews 6:4-6 ). In the former passage there is mentioned a sin which has no forgiveness, and in the latter, one on behalf of which the apostle cannot enjoin prayer that it be forgiven, though he does not prohibit it. In both cases the sin is excluded from the customary forgiveness which is extended to sins of all other classes.
The act of the Pharisees which led Jesus to speak of the unpardonable sin was the attributing of a good deed wrought by Him through the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28 ) to Beelzebub. No one could do such a thing unless his moral nature was completely warped. To such a person the fundamental distinctions between good and evil were obliterated. No ordinary appeal could reach him, for to him good seemed evil and evil seemed good. The possibility of winning him back is practically gone; hence, he is beyond the hope of forgiveness, not because God has set an arbitrary line of sinfulness, beyond which His grace of forgiveness will not reach, but because the man has put himself beyond the possibility of attaining to that state of mind which is the essential condition of Divine forgiveness. It is practically certain that John did not have any particular sinful act in mind when he spoke of the sin which is unto death. See BLASPHEMY .
There is no possible way of determining what specific sin, if any, he refers to. Probably the same principle applies in this case as in that of the unpardonable sin. God's forgiveness is limited solely by the condition that man must accept it in the proper spirit.
There are some passages which seem to imply that forgiveness was the principal Messianic task. This is suggested by the name given to the Messiah during His earthly career (Matthew 1:21 ), and by the fact that He was the Saviour. The remission of sins was the preparation for the advent of the Messiah (Luke 1:77 ), and repentance and remission of sins were the prerequisites to a state of preparation for the kingdom.
10. Christ's Power to Forgive Sins
It is not surprising, therefore, that we find Jesus laying claim to the power to forgive sins. This provoked a bitter controversy with the Jews, for it was axiomatic with them that no one could forgive sins but God only (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21; Luke 7:49 ). This Jesus did not question, but He would have them infer from His power to forgive sins that He was the possessor of Divine power. Jesus asserted His possession of this power on two occasions only, though it has been insufficiently inferred from John 5:14; John 8:11 that He was accustomed to pronounce absolution upon all of those He healed. On one of these occasions He not merely asserted that He possessed the power, but demonstrated it by showing Himself to be the possessor of the Divine gift of healing. The impostor might claim some such intangible power as the authority to forgive sins, but he would never assert the possession of such easily disproved power as the ability to heal the sick. But Jesus claimed both, and based His claim to be the possessor of the former on the demonstration that He possessed the latter. God would not support an impostor, hence, his aid in healing the paralytic proved that Jesus could forgive sins. The multitude accepted this logic and "glorified God, who had given such authority unto men" ( Matthew 9:2-9; compare Mark 2:3-12; Luke 5:18-26 ).
On the other occasion when His possession of this power was under discussion (Luke 7:36-50 ), He offered no other proof than the forgiven woman's deep gratitude and love. One expression that He uses, however, has raised some discussion as to the relative order in time of her love and forgiveness (Luke 7:47 ). Did she love because she was forgiven, or vice versa? Manifestly the forgiveness precedes the love, in spite of the fact that Luke 7:47 seems to assert the opposite, for this is the bearing of the parable of the Two Debtors ( Luke 7:41-43 ), and the latter part of Luke 7:47 has the same implication. It is clear that she had previously repented and had been accepted, and the anointing of Jesus was an outpouring of her gratitude. The phrase of Luke 7:47 , "for she loved much ," is proof of the greatness of her sin rather than a reason why she was forgiven. In both cases where Jesus forgave sins, He did so because the state of mind of the person forgiven showed worthiness of the blessing. To this as a condition of forgiveness there is no exception. Christ's prayer on the cross (Luke 23:34 ) would not avail to secure the pardon of His murderers without their repentance.
11. The Need of an Atonement
Though forgiveness is on God's part an act of pure grace prompted by His love and mercy, and though He forgives freely all those who comply with the condition of repentance and abandonment of sin, yet this does not dispense with the necessity of an atonement. The parable of the Prodigal Son was spoken to teach the freedom of God's forgiveness and acceptance of returning sinners, and the duty of men to assume the same attitude toward them. This much it teaches, but it fails to set forth entirely God's attitude toward sin. With reference to the sinner God is love and mercy, but with reference to sin He is righteous, and this element of God's nature is no less essential to Him than His love, and must be considered in any effort to set forth completely the doctrine of God's forgiveness of sinners. The atonement of Christ and the many atonements of the Law were manifestations of this phase of God's nature.
12. The New Testament Doctrine of Atonement
The idea of an atonement is fundamental in the teachings of the New Testament (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Colossians 1:21 ). It is very clearly implied in such terms as reconciliation and propitiation, and is no less present in pardon, remission and forgiveness. The doctrine of the atonement is not developed by Jesus, but it is strongly hinted at and is unmistakably implied in the language of Matthew 20:28; Matthew 26:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 24:46 , Luke 24:47 . John the Baptist's salute, "Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29 ), also implies it. In the writings of the apostles it is repeatedly and clearly affirmed that our forgiveness and reconciliation to God is based upon the death of Christ. "In none other is there salvation" (Acts 4:12 ); through Him is the redemption (Romans 3:24 ); God set Him forth to be a propitiation (Romans 3:25 ); through Him "we have now received the reconciliation" (Romans 5:11 ); "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19 ); "Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf" (2 Corinthians 5:21 ); and "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us" (Galatians 3:13 ). Such citations might be greatly multiplied. That which was so perfectly accomplished by the offering of Christ was in an analagous though imperfect way accomplished by the sacrifices required by the Law. It had "a shadow of the good things to come" (Hebrews 10:1 ).
The unvarying effect of sin is to produce an estrangement between the injurer and the wronged. The nature of God is such and the relationship between Him and man is of such a character that sin brings about an alienation between them. It is this presupposition of an estrangement between them which renders the atonement necessary before forgiveness can be extended to man. This estrangement must be removed, and the alienation be transformed into a reconciliation. In what then does the alienation consist?
The sin of man produces a changed attitude toward each other on the part of both God and man. God holds no personal pique against man because of his sin. The New Testament language is very carefully chosen to avoid any statement which would seem to convey such a conception. Yet God's holy righteousness is such that He cannot be indifferent to sin. His wrath must rest upon the disobedient (John 3:36; Romans 1:18 ). It is not merely impersonal. It is not enough to say He hates the sin. Man's unrighteousness has not merely alienated him from God, but God also from him. The word "enemies" (
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Forgiveness'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/f/forgiveness.html. 1915.