Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

8 Feb 2016

What Is Forgiveness?


In the past few months I have encountered several conflicting ideas about forgiveness in unexpected counseling situations. Nor is the confusion confined to the uninformed or immature. The biblical idea of forgiveness is an elusive one that is often missed entirely or sometimes mixed with other ideas—ideas that are not necessarily bad, but that are not exactly what the Bible is trying to convey by its use of the word forgiveness, either. Note the following:

  • Forgiveness is clinically defined as releasing thoughts/feelings of animosity, bitterness, or revenge toward someone who has wronged you. Biblically speaking, this is the immediate response required of all those who have been wronged. Period. We should not harbor and nurture bitter thoughts of vengeance—vengeance is not the proper purview of the individual, but rather that of God and the state; further, such bitter intentions can be personally/psychologically debilitating (Rom 12:19, etc.). The idea of “letting go of bitter feelings,” however, while necessary to biblical forgiveness (the root meaning of ἀφίημι, in fact, is “to release” or “let go”), is more of a prequel to forgiveness than the act of forgiveness itself. IOW, while forgiveness requires “letting go,” it is more than this.
  • Forgiveness is legally defined as releasing the wrongdoer from all punitive or legal debt/obligation. This legal definition is sometimes reflected in Scripture, especially when the forgiveness of a material debt in in view (Matt 18:27), but this definition likewise does not exhaust the semantic range of the term. We also observe in Scripture that while the cancellation of the consequences of sin may be a gracious accoutrement of forgiveness, it need not be in every case. Even God’s own forgiveness of his children does not mean that he will automatically free us from every consequence of sin. This is particularly important in a counseling setting, in that it makes room for a Christian victim to seek legal protection from, file legal complaint against, and even seek reparations from a wrongdoer without violating God’s command to be ready to forgive.
  • Forgiveness is popularly imagined at times to involve ignoring an offense or pretending that a sin has never happened. For this understanding, appeal is sometimes made to 1 Peter 4:8, where “love covers a multitude of sins.” Now this verse surely teaches that, having been biblically addressed and forgiven, sins should not be made a matter of public broadcast to be rehearsed over and again (so also 1 Cor 13:5). Peter is most definitely not teaching, however, that believers must adopt a general policy of ignoring or concealing sins (so Matt 18:15, among dozens of other texts). Not only is such a policy detrimental to the spiritual life of the offender, but it can also put the safety of other potential victims at risk (e.g., when we “cover up” chronic abuse, sexual assault, or tendencies to physical violence)….so again, counselor, be warned. Forgiving and forgetting are not coextensive concepts; more than this, forgiving and ignoring are mutually exclusive concepts.
  • An amalgamated construct of forgiveness extracted from pieces of all three concepts above is the idea that forgiveness necessarily includes the reinstatement of a wrongdoer to the status/office/rank that he held before being caught in a sin. This simply does not follow. Just as there may be lingering legal consequences for the forgiven, so also there may be practical consequences for the forgiven. An elder, for instance, who violates the qualifications requisite to his office (1 Tim 3) forfeits his office even when he is forgiven. And it goes without saying that we should not restore a person caught abusing a child or embezzling funds, upon being forgiven, to the functions that he may have had in prior to his sin in, say, children’s ministry or the treasurer’s office, respectively. That simply is not what forgiveness is. That’s stupid!
  • What, then, does biblical forgiveness require? Well, some of the ideas above contribute to our understanding, but none, I think, captures the totality of the idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness begins by abandoning feelings of bitterness and vengeance and may graciously expand to include the cancellation of debts (financial and/or punitive), but these are not properly forgiveness, the former being a prequel to forgiveness and the latter a hopeful accessory of forgiveness. The heart of biblical forgiveness is instead reconciliation, or the restoration of a mutual relationship and even mutual respect (1 Cor 5:17–21). The term mutual is critical here, and suggests that forgiveness rests necessarily on an overture by the wrongdoer: forgiveness in its proper sense is not a unilateral action; the offender must instead humble himself to seek it by expressing repentance. Only then may the “record of the offense” be erased and the sin “covered.” The biblical requirement is not that believers forgive willy-nilly, but that they stand ready at all times to extend forgiveness to those who confess and repent of their sins, following the example of God in Christ (Eph 4:32; 1 John 1:9).

To summarize, God’s requirement that we forgive others as God has forgiven us does not mean that we must (1) ignore sin, (2) conceal sin, (3) endure sin silently, (4) let sins go unresolved, or (5) abandon all hope of relief from abusive sin.

But his call to forgive others as he has forgiven us does demand that the obedient Christian (1) eschew bitterness/vengefulness, (2) seek reconciliation and stand ready to extend it instantly upon a genuine expression of repentance, and, thereupon, (3) respect the repentant wrongdoer enough to “cover” the sin without resentment or personal censure.

For more information on this topic, see Moises Silva, NIDNTTE, 1:444–49 and esp. Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness (Crossway, 2008).

13 Responses

  1. Kent McCune

    Mark — Good stuff. Would you mind unpacking what you believe reconciliation entails in this context? I.e., is the obedient Christian biblically obligated to restore the fractured relationship to previous levels of closeness or favored status once the wrongdoer expresses genuine repentence? I would suppose the answer would vary depending on the nature of the relationship (e.g., marriage, friendship, business) and/or the type and severity of the offense. But is there a relational bare minimum assumed in reconciliation?

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Great question, Kent, and one that caused me to agonize over the wording of this post. I’m not saying that the original relationship must be restored in every specific. A forgiven pastor who grossly transgresses the pastoral qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 may be forgiven, but he should no longer be viewed as having a pastoral “relationship” with anyone. That relationship is gone forever. If my best friend betrays me and I forgive him, this does not mean that I must demote my new best friend and restore my original best friend to his his former rank. Even a forgiven spouse need not be restored to his/her relationship as a spouse–in some cases, in fact, this could be impossible (say, if remarriage has occurred).

    The closest word I could come up with (and I invite a better one) was that of respect. The specifics of a relationship may be gone forever, but forgiveness should establish a disposition of mutual respect. So, for instance, my fallen but repentant pastor may no longer be my pastor, but his credible expression of repentance should result in me extending to him the respect that belongs any brother in Christ and the dignity of not rehearsing his sins over and again. A philandering or abusive husband may never achieve his prior place as a husband, but if he credibly repents and seeks forgiveness, he should be rewarded with the respect that belongs to any brother in Christ and the dignity of not rehearsing his sins again and again. And so forth.

    Perhaps this response cries out for a careful definition of “credible repentance,” but until that happens, I rest.

  3. Kent McCune

    Mark — Thanks for the response. At least practically speaking I would agree with your response. But what about a passage like Eph 4:32 (“… forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”) Knowing God’s complete forgiveness and re-acceptance of us after we confess our sins (which were heinous and in complete high-handed rebellion against Him), including an intimate daily relationship, it seems like your “mutual respect” construct falls a little short of that level of reconciliation.

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    When I say “respect” I think I may mean more than you’re hearing—like I said, I’m having trouble coming up with the best word. What I’m saying is that if true repentance occurs, I should be able to get to a point of respect (perhaps “admiration” nuances my intention better?) for a person who has borne his/her shame meekly and sought restoration. I include here a full restoration of Christian recognition and ecclesiastical fellowship. What I don’t see as necessary to forgiveness is a restoration to every office or particular of a prior relationship.

    I’m thinking of several relationships right now—individuals who set aside the covenant of marriage to pursue lives of dissolution, pastoral acquaintances who lost their office due to gross sins, several even having committed felonies of various sorts, etc.—who repented and sought forgiveness with tears. I respect them deeply for exhibiting the fruits of repentance and taking the steps requisite to recovery in the face of stiff odds. I admire them. I extend to them Christian recognition and, when they were connected to a church where I held membership, I gladly extended ecclesiastical fellowship. I’ve seen church discipline work well and can attest that the joy associated with successful church discipline is among the more exhilarating forms of joy I have known.

    But that did not mean that the particulars of every relationship were restored. Families destroyed by sin did not, upon repentance, necessarily return to what they were, nor in some cases could they have done so; Christian spouses walked away with biblical sanction and never went back, irrespective of the repentance displayed, and I cannot hold the innocent spouse guilty of error; Christian employers dismissed employees guilty of laziness, pilfering, or other more serious criminal activity, and were by no means bound to automatically drop criminal charges and rehire them upon repentance; churches dismissed their pastors and never entertained the idea of reinstating them, no matter how genuine the repentance, and I would argue in the strongest of terms that they did the right thing. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t forgive.

    And that’s because consequences sometimes persist after repentance/forgiveness. Even God’s forgiveness of us did not erase every consequence of sin. Barring the Second Coming, you and I will both grow old, wither away, and die as a result of sin (both personal and racial), and while God has the power to prevent this, he will not. That does not mean that God’s forgiveness or love for us is for this reason to be seen as incomplete, cold, or suspicious. It just means that some consequences of sin are permanent and unavoidable—scars that can never be removed in this life.

    I guess the bottom line is that forgiveness does not simply turn back the clock so that everything goes back to the way that it was before the sin occurred. In fact, this idea in some cases can be downright devastating.

  5. Kent McCune

    I appreciate your detailed explanation. I think your next to last paragraph hits the nail on the head for me vis-a-vis Eph. 4:32.

  6. Ed

    The heart of biblical forgiveness is instead reconciliation, or the restoration of a mutual relationship and even mutual respect (1 Cor 5:17–21). The term mutual is critical here, and suggests that forgiveness rests necessarily on an overture by the wrongdoer: forgiveness in its proper sense is not a unilateral action; the offender must instead humble himself to seek it by expressing repentance. Only then may the “record of the offense” be erased and the sin “covered.”

    I understand you to mean that true forgiveness requires repentance on the part of the offender. This makes sense to me, but brings to mind a discussion from a bible study a few years back, where there seemed to be a collision between forgiving as Christ has forgiven you (assuming repentance on the offender’s part), and Jesus prayer at the crucifixion, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”, a request made apparently apart from repentance. I confess a lack of any real biblical training, which makes posts on this sort of thing very helpful. Could you clarify?

  7. Mark Snoeberger

    Ed, great question. Chris Brauns deals briefly with this text (Luke 23:34; see also Acts 7:60) on p. 55 of his volume Unpacking Forgiveness, but does not give much detail. Specifically, he notes that Christ requests forgiveness of God and thus displays a willingness to forgive his murderers, but stops short of telling them, “I forgive you.”

    It’s probably best to see this as a prayer for salvation as a package. So Darrell Bock: “Jesus desires that they change their thinking and that God not hold their act against them” (Luke, 2:1850).

  8. Pingback : February 18, 2016 Resources: Lent; Forgiveness; Religion; Word Study Fallacy | Pastor Ham

  9. Jill

    Thank you for your post on forgiveness. I appreciate what you are saying. I have gone back and forth on forgiving before an offender asks for forgiveness and standing ready to forgive before an offender asks for forgiveness. You are leaning toward the “standing to forgive” as I understand what you have posted.

    When you counsel someone (or counsel your own heart) when you have been wronged, what do you biblically call “standing to forgive”? Is it, the confession of my own bitterness about the offender? Is it confession of my pride (because I would never had done such a thing)? I would like to put some better biblical language around “standing to forgive”.

    I like your definition “The heart of biblical forgiveness is reconciliation, or the restoration of a mutual relationship and even mutual respect”. What I am after is what do you call what is required of the one that was offended before you get to this point (if ever) that you have defined? I counsel situations where the offender has not asked for forgiveness for many, many years. What should the offended be doing over this wait period? I understand, don’t be bitter, pray for their repentance and your own heart to be soft and ready to listen and restore if the day ever comes that they ask you to forgive them. But do you have anything more that I could add to help me convey the “standing to forgive” (but you have not had the opportunity to say “I forgive you”) time period?

  10. Mark Snoeberger

    Standing ready to forgive is simply being willing to forgive someone the instant they repent. It may require someone to forsake feelings of bitterness or vengeance if these have developed. Depending on the circumstances it may also involve an active quest for repentance (so Matt 18:15–16), but it doesn’t seem that the offended party needs to commit to an endless pursuit of repentance in the face of perpetual recalcitrance. The onus is on the offender to repent.

    1. Jill

      Your first sentence in your reply “Stand ready to forgive is simply being willing to forgive someone the instant they repent.” is confusing to me because that explains what the offended must do once the offender asks for forgiveness. What is the offended doing before the point the offender asks for forgiveness? It seems the offender has to do some kind of forgiving during this wait period to not be bitter or revengeful so they are able to forgive when/if the time comes they are required to do so? Or, does the offended keep reminding herself “I am willing to forgive but will not forgive” until the offender asks for my forgiveness?

  11. jill

    another typo in my above post… I meant to say….It seems the offendeD has to do some kind of forgiving during this wait period to not be bitter or revengeful so they are able to forgive when/if the time comes they are required to do so?

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