What is forgiveness?


I was talking through what is means to forgive with another vicar recently asking “what is forgiveness?”  It would seem to be obvious but it’s not.  If someone sins against you, then how do you forgive?

For lots of people in the inner city, forgiveness is the same as not letting it get to you when people sin.  Therefore, there’s lots of behaviour which goes unchallenged and unchanged.  But  forgiveness is more than an emotional ability to let it go, it is also legal, an agreement not to punish where punishment is due.  Where forgiveness is asked for and offered, it avoids fights, either physical or verbal, leading to restoration of relationship.

Emotionally, forgiveness is a lack of bitterness, the letting go of hurt, not hating but still loving the enemy.  God so loved the world…he sent his Son into the world not to condemn it…whilst we were still enemies of God (John 3:16, 17 and Romans 5).  God’s forgiveness involves overcoming the emotional bitterness and hatred associated with sin and we should do likewise.  But this only half of forgiveness.

Many people, including Christians today, stop at this level of forgiveness, claiming, rightly that bitterness is not God’s will for us, as it only hurts us to continue to be bitter.  The godly thing to do is to let go of bitterness, to forgive.  But forgiveness is also legal.  If someone’s sin causes material damage and cost, or if sin requires a judicial sentence, or even some form of recompense, then forgiveness is not forgiveness until that cost is forgiven.  As the Scottish version of the Lord’s prayer puts it, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  Forgiveness includes the release of the perpetrator from the cost or penalty of transgression.

God said “in the day you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will surely die.”  God’s forgiveness does not overlook the need for justice with respect to broken law, but the cost of forgiveness is the substitution of Christ in the place of the transgressors.  Forgiveness is only forgiveness if someone, either the sinner or the victim, pays the price of forgiveness:  the broken window, the stolen car, the wounded reputation or whatever.  God who is the victim of our sin also pays the penalty for it, making relational restoration both emotion and legal.  And so forgiveness is only properly made once it has been asked for by faith and received by faith.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” John 3:36

In this sense it is right for us to forgive emotionally when sinned against but for forgiveness to only be finally made once is has been asked for and the cost of restoration made, by sinner or victim.

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One Response to What is forgiveness?

  1. Jen says:

    What about the ‘forgetting’ part of forgiving? Recently read someone reminding us that Bible says that God will remember our sins no more … yet God knows all, so chooses to not remember … A good, if challenging, model.

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