What Is Forgiveness?

(From Theologically Driven. Used with permission.)

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 doesnot 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).

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There are 6 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Good to see things parsed out like this.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Appreciated this analysis as well. I'm constantly encountering confusion on the subject of forgiveness. Part of my own problem has been trying to boil it down to one simple "always works" definition. But the reality is that we use the term so many different ways... and Scripture uses it a few different ways as well.

So maybe the best way to get clear is to distinguish the different ways the term gets used... and look at each biblically.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

BClingaman's picture

One of your points states that forgiveness requires that the offender repent of the sin. What do we do when the apology and repentance never come? I know a man who was offended decades ago and has held a life-crippling grudge ever since. He will never hear an apology from the offender. 

Is there a difference in our response to believers vs unbelievers? 

If we wait for an apology every time we are offended we will become very bitter people.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Great article.  It seems that those of us who believe forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance are in the minority, even in the Evangelical world.  We forgive as God forgives, and God's forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance (or none would be lost).

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture


The article shows that there are different ways to "forgive" and only one of them requires that the offender repent. Full restoration of a relationship does, of course, require movement on both sides: repentance on one and forgiveness on the other.

On the other hand, the sort of forgiveness Mark terms "clinical," (I'm not sure what he means by that term), no repentance is required to let go of bitterness and vengefulness and chose to behave as one who does not hold a matter against another. This part is unilateral. Mark says it's more of a necessary prequel to forgiveness. I see it as simply the "my responsibility part" that waits for the offender to finish the job by doing his/her part.

But whether they ever do or not, I've done my forgiving.

We're really saying pretty much the same thing different ways, but I think my way is better. Smile  Linguistically speaking, it's a bit odd to command people to do something that doesn't depend on them to do... or only half depends. So the command to forgive is a command to do 100% of the part that is yours to do. And having done it, it's done as far as you're concerned.

Someone's repentance is up to them.

But I believe we all agree that:

a. We ought to let go of bitterness and vengefulness

b. We ought to treat the offender as one we are not bitter/vengeful toward

c. We ought to respond to repentance with reconciliation (understanding that some of the sin's destruction may only be very slowly repaired, and some may be irreversible.)

I have no problem with calling all three of these "forgiveness" because I don't see any biblical reason not to.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JETillman's picture

I appreciate the BIBLICAL summary of this topic.  We live in a culture that validates truth based on one's feelings, therefore error is easily validated because error often feels better than the truth. We must obey what Scripture commands.

Scripture teaches the attitude of forgiveness as being part of the robe of humility that the believer wears at all times.  This prevents bitterness and is fulfilled in accordance to the command of Mark 11:25.  The act of forgiveness takes place when repentance is specifically requested.  This distinction prevents the unbiblical extension of forgiveness before is requested by the perpetrator.

Let us always remember that we forgive because we have been forgiven.  Forgiveness is in the spiritual DNA of every believer.

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