Word Study: FORGIVE

What is “Forgive (as well as its variations of forgiving, forgiveness, forgave, forgiven)” as used in Scripture?  What does it mean to forgive someone? What does it mean that God, in Christ, has forgiven those who trust in Christ?  What are the results of being forgiven?

In Scripture, forgiveness is a spiritual issue, deals with Sin as defined by God, and is for the cleansing of the one committing the Sin.  It seems to me, from my experience, that “forgiveness” can be used inappropriately if the true import of Sin, that is, how God views Sin, is taken too lightly.  We must never take Sin as only a mistake or human error, for God does not take it that way.  The consequences of sin are devastating, destructive, humiliating.  This elevates the meaning of True Forgiveness.

There are two basic words in the New Testament Greek, “aphiami” and “charizomai”.  The first means “send away, remove, leave”.  The second means “bestow a favor unconditionally”.  It is important to see how and where these two words are used, the context in which they are used, and what the true meaning is.

Two questions arise: 1- are the conditions to receive forgiveness; 2- are there conditions to forgiving another?

Many say, ”No”, and cite Matthew 18:35 and similar verses, but the context is rarely considered.  In these passages, there is a condition of acknowledgment attached, or what also called “repentance”.  In other words, forgiveness is freely given, but the offender is required to acknowledge their actions, wrongdoing, guilt, responsibility, sin.  No payment is required, as the payment is already made by the blood of Christ on the Cross, and His Resurrection.  However, there is a condition of repentance in order to receive forgiveness.  Repentance is agreeing with God that what was done was a sin, according to His Word.  Ultimately sin is against God.

The definition we assign to forgiveness, then, is of the utmost importance.

Please note that this article is not meant as a complete word study.  It is meant to provide basic word study details, examples.  It is up to each individual student of God’s Word to apply the proper definition of “forgive” to the passages where it is used, keeping it in the context of that passage.

All words, especially in the Bible, must be properly defined and then used according to that definition.  When we use words apart from their clear definitions, regardless of our intentions, we hinder good communication.  When speaking from God’s Word this is even more critical.  If we do not properly understand the definitions that God has given to words, then we will be we hindering communication from and with God Himself.

Forgiveness involves two parties:  both must be involved if forgiveness is to be complete.  Forgiveness is mainly for the benefit of the offending party.  It is not mentioned in Scripture as a psychological or emotional benefit to the one offering forgiveness.

Also, keep in mind that, if a follower of Christ truly forgives, then they are setting the offender free from all punishment and guilt as if nothing ever happened.  It is a type of “cleansing”. 

I.  Freedom from bitterness, anger, despair

One benefit often associated with “forgiveness” is that of setting oneself free from bitter and harmful feelings.  These are detrimental to the spiritual, mental, and even physical health of those afflicted by them.  There is a great need to be able to put away the damaging effects, to be set free from the anger and desire to “get even”.

       A.  Romans 12:17-21.  This passage teaches that we are not to allow the desire for vengeance to dominate us when wronged by another.  Instead, we are told to do just the opposite of what we would like (as humans) to do.  Some of the teachings comes from the Old Testament, Proverbs 25:21,22.

       B.  Matthew 5:43-48.  In this portion of the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus commands us to do good to those who would harm us.  Verse 48 provides the reason:  this is what the Father does.

       C.  Matthew 6:9-14.  Here Jesus provides a pattern for prayer, which includes “forgiving” others so that we, too, may be forgiven.  The clear command is that forgiving others is our duty. (later in this article another thought from this passage will be expounded).

       D.  Ephesians 4:30-32.  The Apostle Paul teaches here that we are to be tenderhearted toward one another, forgiving when necessary.  The Church is filled with imperfect people, and we must not let anger, wrath, bitterness dominate.

       E.  1 Peter 3:9-17.  This is a passage that reminds/teaches us that there will be times that we are offended, harmed, and will suffer.  However, the Lord commands those who know Him to not allow these things to guide our actions.

Many other Scriptures teach us that we are not to hold grudges, get revenge, return evil-for-evil;  instead, we are to do good so that The Lord God will be glorified.  Read the letter of 1 Peter and note how often this is mentioned.

       F.  Proverbs 19:11.  This is an excellent verse to know.  Here, we learn that it is honorable to overlook a transgression rather than take vengeance, or harbor a grudge.  The offense may make one angry, but wisdom recognizes that not all offenses require correction.  Now, it does not mean that every transgression can or should be overlooked.   Actual crimes must be dealt with in a lawful manner.  Then there are the things that are clear SINS according to God’s Word.  Sins can never be overlooked.  However, the offended one can still refuse to take vengeance, although real Sin must be exposed. 

       G.  1 Peter 3:21-23.  This passage is one that helps us to deal with the hurt, pains, and anguish of what others do wrongfully.  Jesus Himself had to take on the hurts and pains, but He did it because it was His Father’s will.  The follower of Christ has the Holy Spirit indwelling them, and He gives grace and strength to deal with the hurts, for these may never go away.  Read Colossians 1:11.

Sometimes, maybe most times, we will have to accept the pain, and forgiveness does not remove it.  Forgiveness benefits the one who does the wrong.  Forgiving shows that the Lord is showing His strength in you.  However, only the Lord can help you and me to deal with the resultant pain.  He may remove it, He may not.  Whichever He allows, He will be our strength to deal with it.  In Heaven these will all be gone, forever.

Now, when “forgiveness” is taught as a method for letting go of bitterness, etc, this is actually a misuse/abuse of forgiveness.  We must define the word as God does and not allow society to determine its true meaning.

There are two basic words that are translated into English as “forgive” (or a variation).

II. First is the Greek word “aphiami”.  This word is translated in many ways, and several times as “forgive”.  Again, its basic meaning is “to send away, leave, let go”.  To translate this word as “forgive” means to do something in regard to the sins committed by another, to” let the guilt and responsibility go, to send these away” as if nothing ever happened.  It is a judicial kind of word and sets one free from punishment and condemnation.  It also includes “removal of the cause” of the guilt.  This is akin to what the Bible calls “justification”.  Again, it is a legal term and sets people free from the punishment and guilt of sins.  Only God can ultimately set people free in this way.  However, the followers of Christ are commanded to ‘forgive as Christ has forgiven”.

Some passages where this word is used include Matthew 6:12-15; Matthew 18:21-35; 1 John 1:9; Revelation 2:4.  

       A.  Matthew 6:12-15

            1.  This is part of a larger passage, chapters 5-7 commonly known as The Sermon on the Mount.  

            2.  Jesus is teaching the disciples about real praying, and then gives them a pattern to follow.

            3.  The pattern includes forgiving others, and so also receiving forgiveness ourselves.  The condition for a believer receiving forgiveness is that we willingly and honestly forgive those who have sinned against us.

           4.  Nothing is said about the ones we forgive having any conditions placed on their forgiveness.

       B.  Matthew 18:15-35

            1.  This passage is about forgiving others.

            2.  This is an answer to a question from Peter about the extent of forgiveness.  It is due to Peters Old Testament understanding, that sins are to be harshly and swiftly punished.

            3.  Jesus commands that His followers forgive others.

            4.  18:22-35 provide an explanation, which includes the condition of “Acknowledgment” of sin, wrongdoing, guilt, responsibility, the accountability of the one desiring to be forgiven.  In other words, here Jesus provides clear teaching that forgiveness does have a condition: acknowledgment, or, “Repentance”.  Now, keep in mind that repentance is not a “cleaning up of ourselves first”, or making any kind of “payment”.  It is an agreement with God’s Word that HE is right and we are wrong.

            5.  Therefore, we see that receiving forgiveness has a condition attached.  The fact that Matthew 6 does not say this does not negate it.  If Jesus teaches it here in Matthew 18, it is true for all other passages as well.

(note how verse 20 fits into the context.  Do not use this verse to mean something that the Lord Jesus did not use it to mean)

       C.  1 John 1:9

            1.  This is written specifically to the followers of Christ.  

            2.  God is willing to forgive and make clean 

            3.  Confession (repentance) is the condition – note that this means an agreement in specifics.  It does NOT mean a general confession without naming the specific sin.  Also, this verse is not meant for non-Believers.

       D.  Revelation 2:4 – this is one instance of the same word being translated as “left”.  This is to show that “aphiami” is a term meaning to leave or let loose, not a term of tolerance.

III. Second is the Greek word “chaizomai”.  This is translated in many ways:  deliver, give, freely, grant, and forgive.  It carries the meaning of “granting a special favor unconditionally”.

Now, the “unconditionally” part means that there is no payment required because Christ has already made the payment.  Christ’s shed blood on the Cross was the full payment, His Resurrection assures forgiveness.  However, it does not mean that there is not a condition of repentance.  This can be seen in the following passages.

       A.  Ephesians 4:25-32.  Take careful note:  this is one paragraph.  Do not take one verse and separate it from its context.

            1.  The passage teaches how the followers of Christ are to treat one another.

            2.  We are commanded to “forgive one another”.

            3.  The example is “even as God for Christ sake has forgiven you”.

            4.  The question is, then, how did God forgive us?  Did He require anything, such as repentance?  The answer is “YES”.  He willingly grants forgiveness as a special favor without any condition of payment on our part, but repentance is still required.  If it were not, He would have to forgive everyone for all time, including Satan.

Read Peters sermons in Acts 2:14-40 (note verse 38); Acts 3:12-26 (note verse 19); and Paul’s statement in Acts 20:21.  Each of these provides for the condition of repentance.

       B.  Colossians 3:5-17 (again, a single paragraph)

            1.  As in the Ephesians 4 passage, the way we are to treat one another.

            2.  “Forgive one another, even as Christ forgave you”.

            3.  Again, HOW did Christ forgive us?  Is there a condition? Yes: repentance.  

The conclusion is that, if we are granting forgiveness to another, that person is required to repent, or, acknowledge.  This is how Christ forgives, and we cannot change His teaching on this.

Never in Scripture is receiving forgiveness taught apart from the condition of Repentance  (Please, remember that repentance is agreement with God, according to His written Word, that He is right and we are wrong;  the result of true repentance is a change of behavior).  People can only know how to repent if the Word of God is the source of the Truth.

Now, here it is very important to remember:  forgiveness, as taught in the New Testament, is a type of spiritual cleansing.  

That is, when one forgives another, they are offering to cleanse the offender from all wrongdoing as if it never happened.

1.  Cleansing implies that there is a need for being cleansed.

2.  Cleansing cannot be done for someone who does not wish to be cleansed

3.  Cleansing cannot be done if the offender sees no need for cleansing.

4.  Cleansing cannot be forced upon someone.

5.  Cleansing cannot be given secretly, unknowingly

This is an extremely important aspect of forgiving another.  The one offering forgiveness must be prepared to cleanse the offender of the “crime” committed, removing all guilt.  

In the case of crimes against society, there may still be punishment from the laws of the land.  This does not mean that forgiveness has not been given and received, it simply means that there are other earthly consequences to pay.  Forgiveness is a spiritual issue, not a societal issue.

IV.  Additional Scriptures for Study

       A.  Romans 12:9-21 (a single paragraph)

            1.  Teaches a variety of qualities and actions.

            2.  Verse 17 commands us to let go of revenge.

            3.  We are not given the right to hold grudges, get back at people, repay evil for evil.  This is where the bitterness comes in.

            4.  We can “forgive” in the sense of letting go of the right to exact payment, but we cannot grant forgiveness to the offender.  Only God can do that, and only after there is repentance.

       B.  1 Corinthians 6:1-11

            1.  Paul rebukes the people for taking each other to court

            2.  “Why not rather be wronged?” is his question in verse 7.

            3.  The teaching is that we should be willing to be hurt, wronged, and let it go before we take any kind of revenge.

            4.  This does not mean that there will not be anguish.

            5.  This does not mean that any kind of relationship will be restored.

           6.  This does not mean that the person is forgiven by God.

           7.  This does mean that we allow Christ to rule in our lives, and we are willing to suffer wrongfully even as He did.

This is not the same thing as forgiving.  It is accepting being wronged, not taking revenge, but is NOT the same as giving forgiveness – forgiveness is NOT for the offended, but rather for the offender and only is fulfilled with repentance, acknowledging the truth of sin according to God’s Word.

This is an especially important passage.  It reminds us that we can never hold on to the hurt caused by others to us.  We are to be as Christ, allowing ourselves to be wronged if necessary.  In fact, we are to do just the opposite of what was done to us, to do “good” to the offenders.

Hopefully the offender will be able to receive forgiveness from God through Christ, but that means that we will have to pray for them and possibly show them from God’s Word what is their wrong.  This is part of genuine New Testament “Love”.

Many other places in Scripture we are commanded to let go of bitterness, forsake wrath, not take vengeance.  These do not promise merely a psychological benefit, setting us free from any pain. The pain may never go away.  It is our commitment to the Lord to obey Him even when it hurts.  That is His example.

The one giving forgiveness can move on, not reliving the pain and hurt done wrongfully.  When we forgive, we simply do not allow the past to control our lives as we follow Christ.  Forgetting is not easy, not everything is restored as before, not everything will be made fair.  This is how Jesus lived on the earth, and He is our example.

The one receiving forgiveness can be free from eternal guilt, can learn to live rightly, and can learn to forgive others.  Relationships are not always restored, either in full or in part.   Lessons learned can be painful.  Accepting full responsibility for one’s actions is humbling, but is part of forgiveness.  See Psalm 51:3,4.  

Special notes:

1.  Matthew 18:15-20.  When Church discipline is being enacted, forgiveness is not an issue.  It is necessary for the one being disciplined to be chastened.  Forgiveness comes AFTER there is repentance.  

Why would Jesus teach this if all that was needed was to “forgive” the person and be done with it?

(Note what Jesus answers Peter in Matthew 18:21;22.  Repentance is mentioned, and the context of the passage is regarding church discipline.)

2.  1 Corinthians 5:1-23.  This is a passage about one who is openly sinning.  The church is commanded to remove him from their midst, not offer forgiveness until there is true repentance.  The punishment inflicted by the church is instrumental in the process of forgiving.

3.  2 Corinthians 2:1-11.  This refers to the one from 1 Corinthians 5:1-23.  Once the discipline has been effective, full forgiveness is provided.

4.  1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20.  In these two verses, the Apostle Paul turns someone over to Satan.  This is not a practice followed today, but is a form of early “excommunication”. It means to turn the person away from fellowship in the Church, out into the world that is controlled by Satan, in order to be chastened and for repentance.  After that, there can be forgiveness.

Why would Paul teach this?  What did he not simply command the people to “forgive” and be done with it all?

5.  2 Thessalonians 3:11-15.  This passage teaches that forgiveness must come after chastening and repentance.

6. 2 Timothy 4:14:  Paul speaks about Alexander the coppersmith.  Paul does not say that he forgives this man, but instead warns others about him.

7.  In the Old Testament prophets, it is often written that God will forgive His people, the Israelites.  When the contexts are considered, the cleansing is ALWAYS preceded by chastening and repentance.

What we can see in these passages is that forgiveness is not meant as a benefit to the one forgiving, but for the one who has committed the “crime”.  Forgiveness is commanded by the Lord Jesus, and all of His followers must forgive.  However, actual forgiveness comes AFTER chastening and/or repentance, after hearing Gods Word and accepting full responsibility for their actions.

7.  Luke 23:34. Here Jesus asks the Father to forgive His murderers because they don’t know what they are doing.  

a.  Jesus is purchasing their forgiveness right at that moment;

b.  Jesus was praying for specific people; 

c.  Read Acts 2 and following.  This is where the Father answers Jesus’ prayer regarding forgiving those crucifying Him, but repentance is still the condition.

8.  Acts 7:60.  Here, Stephen is dying and asks the Lord to “not lay this sin to their charge”, that is, the people stoning him.

       a.  This shows an incredible compassion and desire for others to be saved;  this certainly is like the Lord Jesus and should be the attitude of the followers of the Lord Jesus.  We see compassion and desire for others to be saved, even the worst of our enemies.  This is a great lesson for all of God’s people.

       b.  Stephen understood the Lord’s Grace and Justice;

       c.  Nothing is said about God’s response; (Remember, Acts is a record of what happened, not a theological treatise)

       d.  Stephen is not the one doing the forgiving; he is asking the Lord to forgive.

       e.  Repentance is still a condition.  This is what happened with Saul in Acts 9 as he meets the Lord on the Road to Damascus, and repents.

9.  Matthew 6:15.  This is a verse often used by those who claim that forgiveness does not require repentance.  However, the overwhelming teaching of the New Testament is that repentance IS a condition.  The fact that Jesus does not mention it here does not remove the condition.   In fact, the people He was speaking to, Jews, would have already understood from the Old Testament Law that repentance was commanded.

When forgiveness is supposedly given without repentance, the result is that the person who needs to be cleansed, in truth, continues to be un-cleansed.  In other words, they are left in their sin and spiritually dirty condition.  Only when forgiveness is given biblically is true cleansing accomplished.  

V. Conclusions:

        A.  Forgiveness is for the benefit of the one receiving it, not the one giving it.

Does God need or receive a benefit by forgiving?  No.

Does God need to be freed from bitterness?  No.

Remember, we are to forgive in the same manner that God has forgiven.

       B.  Repentance is ALWAYS a condition because people need to see the wickedness and destructiveness of sin.  If repentance were not a condition then people would not see this and would think that sin is tolerated.  This just leaves people in their sin.

Repentance is not a work, it is a belief and agreement with God’s written Word about sin and the payment made.

No Scripture passage removes the condition of Repentance.  When it is not specifically mentioned it is certainly understood from the whole of Scripture.

       C.  Followers of Christ should truly desire that others repent.  This is true biblical “love”.  Therefore, to simply tolerate sin and use “forgiveness” as a psychological tool is to not love others.

Now, if anyone believes that I am advocating a lack of forgiveness, then you have completely misread this article.  My purpose is not to remove forgiveness, my purpose is to properly define forgiveness so that we can communicate with one another and with the Lord properly.

God is the One Who has given the definition, we are simply to agree with Him.

Forgiveness- this is what separates Christianity from every other religious belief.  That God would freely forgive is an incredible thought, maybe one that we should give much more consideration to.  

There is an old hymn, “At Calvary”.  Verse four goes like this:  “Oh, the love that drew salvations plan, Oh, the Grace that brought it down to man,  OH, THE MIGHTY GULF THAT GOD DID SPAN at Calvary”.  Those words about the mighty gulf – we were dead in sins, dead to God, without God, without hope, separated from God, His enemies, with no possibility of reconciliation until Christ came and died and arose.  

When we think about what it means to be forgiven by God- to be cleansed, set free, released – how tremendous is that forgiveness!!  

When we “forgive” someone, we are doing the same thing.  We who forgive derive no benefit, the one being forgiven derives all the benefit.  They are cleansed, set free, released.  Again, this is an incredible thing.  If the person needing forgiveness does not want to be cleansed, then cleansing is impossible.

However, there is much to be said in favor of the one giving the forgiveness as being freed from certain emotions.  While this is not the Scriptural teaching, it certainly does seem to be something that the Spirit does in those who forgive.  Still, we cannot change the meaning or intent of forgiveness to suit our own needs.  If we truly forgive and the pain remains, then we must give it to the Lord as He gave it to His Father.

When we say that we “forgive”, do we consider the awesome thing that we are really doing?  Some may say, “it’s just semantics”. However, if we change how God defines forgiveness, then we make ourselves out to be above Him, we change His communication to us, and if we teach it to others we become false teachers.  Do we comprehend the seriousness of this?

When we consider the wonderful gift of forgiveness, we see that to forgive another is so much, much, much more than giving ourselves freedom from bitterness.  It is giving a gift to another that is undeserved, paid for by another, and sets them free, cleansing them from all guilt.  This is an incredible gift,  not to be done with lightness or without a clear understanding.  

May we be forgiving people, because we too were cleansed, because others need to be cleansed and because it is to be obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ.

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