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The idea of forgiveness is found in either religious or social relations, and means giving up resentment or claim to requital on account of an offense. The offense may be a deprivation of a person’s property, rights, or honor; or it may be a violation of moral law.


Distinction between human and divine forgiveness

In the Bible there are instances of both human and divine forgiveness. This does not mean, however, that there is a basic difference between them. God is self-existent and eternal, while man is dependent and temporal, but both are personal beings and as such are similar in their attitudes and actions. Therefore Jesus Christ|Jesus could teach His Disciple|disciples to Prayer|pray, “And forgive us our debt|debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12), and could conclude the parable of the unmerciful servant with the statement, “So also my heavenly Father will do” (Matt 18:35).

God’s greater readiness to forgive

Though according to the Bible human and divine forgiveness do not differ essentially, God is acknowledged as far more forgiving than man. The clearest Old Testament statement to this effect is that of Isaiah 55:8, 9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” These words are often taken to point to God’s otherness, to His remoteness and inscrutability; but read in their proper context, they point to something far more comforting and thrilling. Immediately preceding them is one of the most striking assurances of God’s pardon in all the Bible, and as an explanation of its truth the passage states that His thoughts and ways are higher than man’s. They evidently are that because they are truer, nobler, better, wiser, and morally and spiritually more exalted. When injured or wronged, men tend to bear a grudge and seek revenge; they are apt to insist on their rights and demand restitution. Not so God: He will show mercy and abundantly pardon.

This greater readiness of God to forgive is strikingly exemplified by Jesus. When Peter asked him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:21f.). It is also clearly evidenced by the wonderful truth declared in John 3:16 and confirmed by the cross. In the light of this truth, all human readiness to forgive fades into relative insignificance.

Biblical teachings about forgiveness

Distinctiveness of the Biblical teaching of God’s forgiveness

It is noteworthy that divine forgiveness is distinctively a Biblical concept. Zoroaster of Persia had a high ethical concept of God but knew little of His redeeming love and mercy. According to Him there was no hope for the wicked, who in crossing “The Bridge of the Separator” fell off it into hell (see J. H. Moulton, Early Religious Poetry of Persia, p. 71). Hinduism believes in the inexorable law of Karma, according to which a man’s deeds, both good and bad, work themselves out in one life after another. The only escape from the wheel of reincarnation|reincarnations is found in becoming wholly apathetic or in attaining insight into some allegedly releasing truth. Buddhism, too, has its law of Karma and knows of no such divine forgiveness as that set forth in the Bible. The idea is present in Islam, but not as prominent as in Judaism and Christianity. It is in the Bible that it comes to its own; and subsequently it has remained an important feature of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, one that for its adherents lifts this tradition above all other religions and marks it as definitely superior.

Old Testament teachings about forgiveness

Jesus' teachings about forgiveness

Christ taught that forgiveness is a duty. No limit can be set to the extent of forgiveness (Lu 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, 376 ff). This is the offense which God will not forgive (Mt 18:34,35). It is the very essence of the unpardonable sin (Mr 3:22-30).

It was the one blemish of the elder son which marred an otherwise irreproachable life (Lu 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 (Mt 18:21,22), 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.

Jesus' power to forgive

Jesus lays claim to the power to forgive sins. This provoked a bitter controversy with the Jews, for it was axiomatic with them that no one but God could forgive sins (Mr 2:7; Lu 5:21; 7:49). This Jesus did not question, but let them infer from His power to forgive sins that He was the possessor of Divine power. Jesus asserted His possession of this power on only two occasions, though it has been sufficiently inferred from Joh 5:14; 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. An 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" (Mt 9:2-9;Mr 2:3-12; Lu 5:18-26).

On the other occasion when His possession of this power was under discussion (Lu 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 (Lu 7:47). Did she love because she was forgiven, or vice versa? Manifestly the forgiveness precedes the love, in spite of the fact that Lu 7:47 seems to assert the opposite, for this is the bearing of the parable of the Two Debtors (7:41-43), and the latter part of 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 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 (Lu 23:34) would not avail to secure the pardon of His murderers without their repentance.

The doctrine of 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, this does not dispense with the necessity of an atonement. The parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates the freedom of God’s forgiveness and acceptance of returning sinners, and the duty of men to assume the same attitude toward them. But it does not lay out 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.

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 holiness|holy righteousness is such that He cannot be indifferent to sin. His wrath must rest upon the disobedient (Joh 3:36; Ro 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" (echthroi) of Ro 5:10 is passive, and means the object of God’s enmity (Sunday, at the place). It was because of this fact that God set forth Christ to be a propitiation to show His righteousness because of the passing over of sins done aforetime (Ro 3:25,26).

God’s passing over, without inflicting punishment, the sins of pre-Christian times had placed in jeopardy His righteousness; had exposed Him to the implication that He could tolerate sin. God could not be true to Himself while He tolerated such an imputation, and so instead of visiting punishment upon all who sinned--which would have been one way of showing His righteousness--He set forth Christ to death ("in his blood"), and in this way placed Himself beyond the imputation of unrighteousness while it enabled Him to show mercy to sinners. The effect of sin upon man was to estrange him from God, to lead him farther and farther away from his Maker. Each successive sin produced a greater barrier between the two. Now the atonement was designed to remove the cause of this estrangement and restore the former relationship between God and man.

This too, it has been observed, is the purpose of forgiveness, so that the atonement finds its completion in forgiveness. It should be noted that the reconciliation originates with God and not with man (Ro 3:25; 2Co 5:19). God woos man before the latter seeks God. The effect of the atonement on man is to reconcile him, attract him, to God. It shows him God’s love for man, and the forgiveness, in that it removes sin completely, takes away the estranging factor between them and so wins man back to God. "We love, because he first loved us." At the same time the atonement is such a complete expression of both the love and the righteousness of God that, while on the one hand it exhibits his yearning for man, on the other it shows that He is not tolerant toward sin. In the atonement of Christ, therefore, is the meeting-place and the reconcilement of God’s holy horror of sin and the free bestowal of forgiveness upon penitent believers.

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 (Mr 1:4; Lu 3:3) and under Christ (Ac 2:38; 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 (Lu 15:17-19), and that of the sinner who went to his house justified rather than the Pharisee (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.

Instances of forgiveness in the Bible

Instances of human forgiveness

In some of these instances no term signifying forgiveness is used; but the attitude and deed are there, though not in every case to an equal degree nor always for the same reason. Esau’s forgiveness of Jacob seems quite genuine and wholehearted, prompted by Jacob’s evident recognition of guilt and his humility and good-will. Joseph’s forgiveness is likewise genuine. But Solomon’s forgiveness of Adonijah is definitely conditional—likely for political reasons—and when in Solomon’s opinion he oversteps the bounds laid down he is executed (1 Kings 2:22-25). Jesus characteristically expects a man’s forgiveness to be from the heart and counsels Peter never to stop forgiving his brother.

Instances of divine forgiveness

As in the case of human forgiveness, divine forgiveness in the Bible is often implied rather than explicitly stated. In the story of the Fall of man, judgment is pronounced upon Adam and Eve and they are expelled from the Garden of Eden; but Abel presently appears as one accepted by God. Enoch some generations later walks with God. Noah is singled out as a righteous man; and after the Flood Abraham becomes the friend of God and a covenant is established with him.

Who and what is forgiven

It is man in every instance who is forgiven, whether by God or other men. In no case does man forgive God. The presupposition throughout is that God is holy and righteous and never in need of forgiveness, while all men are sinful and in need of it. Were God in need of forgiveness He would be subject to a principle higher and more perfect than Himself, which is inconceivable, for then He would not be truly God. But men, not animals or unconscious objects, are in need here. Forgiveness in any meaningful sense of the word presupposes guilt, and guilt understanding, moral consciousness, and responsibility. As agents endowed with these qualities, men are repeatedly guilty of injury and wrong done to others and of offense given to God. Consequently bad attitudes, evil intentions, and perverse deeds on their part call for forgiveness. Admittedly, these attitudes, intentions, and deeds may largely be what they are because of what a man is due to his intelligence, disposition, experience, and training, as the latter in turn may be influenced by his heredity and environment. Yet insofar as they are not forced upon a man, but willingly accepted by him, insofar as he approves them and knowingly identifies himself with them, he is responsible for them. To this extent, he is not a helpless victim of them, but a guilty agent. It is on this supposition that the Bible judges men according to their endowments, opportunities, and knowledge (Matt 11:20-24; 25:14-30).

The analysis of the human situation and of man’s need of forgiveness is not yet complete. Underlying and informing man’s various evil attitudes, intentions, and deeds is apt to be a deeper factor that requires attention. It is nothing less, in fact, than a wrong commitment of life. Deuteronomy 6:5 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” and Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “On these two commandments,” said Jesus, “depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:40). The very essence of sin in all its forms and the real determinant of the wrong one does to a neighbor would seem to be, primarily, the violation of the former and, secondarily, the violation of the latter of these commandments. In pride, man cherishes himself, and his ability and worth, supremely rather than God; in greed, material wealth; in sensuality, bodily desires. In all of them he subordinates his fellow man. As a result, his rights and opportunities are trampled on and curtailed. Jeremiah 2:13 states: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” This was true not only of ancient Israel, but also is true of men today. This is what must be forgiven. Basically sin and human wrong are a matter of living by a wrong scale of values. This scale must be changed to achieve a harmonious, meaningful life; living by it one must be forgiven, if he is to be reconciled with God and his fellow men (see Vincent Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, 3).

It has been said that nature does not forgive. Physical, mental, and social consequences of human deeds work themselves out according to dependable processes. It is to be observed, however, that even the consequences of evil deeds may in God’s providence serve higher ends for one who knows he is forgiven. God ordained and ordered nature, and by anticipation, He has correlated its events with the exigencies of various human situations. Not only this: the influence of God’s Spirit in men’s lives can also counteract the effects of sin in them. Furthermore, a changed and forgiven man can in dependence on the same processes mentioned above initiate a new and better series of consequences. Nature in a sense may not forgive, but it will respond to new endeavor.

The "unpardonable sin"

In Matthew 12:31f., Mark 3:28-30, and Luke 12:10, Jesus speaks of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit|Spirit as a sin that will not be forgiven. John Calvin|Calvin holds that they alone are guilty of this sin “who, with evil intention, resist God’s truth, although by its brightness they are so touched that they cannot claim ignorance” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, 617). One might ask: Resist God’s truth to what extent? With what degree of evil intention and knowledge? The nature of this sin cannot perhaps be precisely stated in one short sentence. Certainly Calvin’s characterization of it is not perfect, let alone complete. It would seem that the unpardonable sin presupposes such spiritual perversity and blindness that neither the truth of God appeals nor does its true light appear. It may also presuppose such indifference as cares not for forgiveness or such hostility as flippantly derides what is holy. At all events, this sin apparently implies a situation in which true repentance never eventuates. He who truly desires forgiveness and would sincerely repent, need not fear that he has committed it.

Conditions of forgiveness

Conditions of human forgiveness

The foregoing notes that there were different reasons why men in the Bible forgave others. A question is, Are there any conditions according to the Bible that offending persons must meet to expect forgiveness? Some passages do not speak of any. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (Matt 18:21), asks Peter, and Jesus tells him how often. There is no reference made to any condition the offender must meet. The parable that follows Jesus’ answer to Peter clearly implies that forgiveness is being sought; and in a comparable passage (Luke 17:3f.) repentance is specified as a condition. Moreover, though repentance on the part of the offender is not always mentioned, in some of the instances cited above it was evidently present. It may be concluded that a man must forgive his fellow man, if he repents; he should himself repent when he is the offender, and should in any case be ready to forgive. Should he ever forgive the impenitent man who knowingly has done wrong? Doubtless as far as personal offense or injury are concerned, though not as far as violation of moral principle goes. It was obviously an absence of personal offense and his compassion for his spiritually blind persecutors that made Stephen pray the notable prayer he did (Acts 7:60).

Conditions of divine forgiveness

On this question of the condition, or conditions, required for forgiveness, recent and contemporary theologians differ. Karl Barth represented an extreme position. He held that all of life apart from God’s own action in it falls under the judgment that it is sin. Christian|Christians live solely by God’s forgiveness. Even repentance has been made for them (Dogmatics in Outline, 150ff.).

Paul Tillich spoke of the unconditional character of the divine act in which God declares him who is unjust just. Transcending justice destroys in man what must be destroyed, if reuniting love is to reach its aim. This which must be destroyed is the hubris of trying to conquer the evil in one’s being as such, and to reach reunion with God by one’s own good will. Such hubris, said Tillich, avoids the pain of surrendering one’s own goodness to God’s sole activity in a reunion with Him, a surrender that occurs in him who accepts the divine acceptance of himself, the unacceptable. The courage of this surrender is the central element in the courage of faith (Systematic Theology, III, 226).

Emil Brunner emphasizes the need of repentance as a condition of forgiveness (The Divine-Human Encounter, 98ff., 149ff.), a view shared by Rudolf Bultmann, Frederick C. Grant, H. R. Mackintosh, Ernest F. Scott, Vincent Taylor, and Benjamin B. Warfield, as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. XV). Nor does Brunner stop here. Instead he goes on to take exception to a one-sided advocacy of the doctrine of forensic justification. He says, “God not only declares, He creates a new man....We not only believe in the new man, but in faith we put him on” (101). Repentance for him entails condemning the old man within and putting him off; it means accepting the death of Jesus Christ as a divine judgment upon oneself (101, 151).

The late Herman Bavinck of the Netherlands, like Brunner, underscored the requirement laid down in the Bible for God’s forgiveness. Specifically, he held that regeneration, faith, and conversion are conditions for the forgiveness of sins and other benefits of the covenant of grace (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, IV, 160). One’s entry into the kingdom of heaven depends on them (202). But, unlike Brunner, he adhered to a rather strict theory of forensic justification. The forgiveness of sins is not brought about by faith nor gained by man’s endeavors. It is found completely in Christ, precedes faith, and is accepted only by faith (201f.). All works are excluded from the faith that is reckoned as righteousness (168). G. C. Berkouwer of the Free University of Amsterdam seems in substantial agreement with him, except that he significantly distinguishes between works of the law and works of faith in the writings of Paul (Faith and Justification, 104ff.). For him, however, these works of faith give form to faith; they show its nature, rather than themselves constituting part of the basis of God’s acceptance of man.

How are such passages to be understood? In the light of them, Brunner is doubtless right when he sees the death of Jesus Christ as a divine judgment upon oneself; and one may add a judgment which the truly penitent man, when confronted with it, will accept as his due and thus be assured of God’s forgiveness. The sinner can by faith take the cross of Christ into his life, he can identify himself with Christ on the cross, and so be crucified with Him (Gal 2:20). He can die to sin that he may live to righteousness (1 Pet 2:24), the righteousness that Christ has shown but he admittedly has failed to achieve, and will never achieve fully. In this way he rejects his sinful self and returns to the Shepherd and Guardian of his soul (1 Pet 2:25); he is healed by Christ’s wounds and brought to God (1 Pet 2:24; 3:18).

A further condition of God’s forgiveness is found in another teaching of Jesus which He stated explicitly on at least three occasions. The first statement occurs in the Sermon on the Mount. After formulating the Lord’s Prayer Jesus says, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14f.). Equally clear and unqualified is His comment at the close of the parable of the unmerciful servant, referred to earlier in this article. This servant refused to forgive his fellow servant a debt, though his master had forgiven him a much greater one. His master thereupon revoked his cancellation of the debt and delivered him to the jailers until he should pay in full. “So also,” said Jesus, “my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:35). The third statement is found in Mark 11:25: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” The import of this teaching of Jesus is plain: a man must forgive others to be forgiven by God. This requirement evidently rests on the genuineness of one’s repentance. A person who seeks forgiveness but does not forgive others hardly knows what he is asking for and is not worthy of it.

Ethically, too, repentance is required for receiving the forgiveness of God. God is holy and righteous. He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab 1:13). Because He is self-existent and the great Creator and Upholder of all including the highest principles of reality and life, personal offense given Him by man can hardly be distinguished from moral violation. In view of this, for Him to forgive without requiring repentance would be like condoning sin or being indifferent to it. It would also mean that He did not deal with man as the responsible moral agent He has made him. Hence, God is for man, but not as a sinner; only as a potential saint. He accepts the unacceptable, but only as the unacceptable becomes acceptable by repenting, that is, by acknowledging God’s righteous judgment of him in Christ and by committing his life wholly to God. See Reconciliation; Repentance.


  • A. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1900), 38-79

  • C. T. Ovenden, “The Forgiveness of Sin,” HJ, V (1906-1907), 587-599

  • D. White, Forgiveness and Suffering (1913)

  • B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (1915)

  • H. R. Mackintosh, The Christian Experience of Forgiveness (1927)

  • H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, IV (1930), 159-214

  • F. H. Wales, The Forgiveness of Sins (1940)

  • P. Lehmann, Forgiveness, Decisive Issue in Protestant Thought (1940)

  • E. Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter (1943), 98-103, 149-151

  • P. Tillich, Systematic Theology, I (1951), 286-289

  • R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, I (1951), 22-26, 33-40, 72-74, 85, 114-121, 135-144, 270-285

  • R. V. Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation (1952)

  • G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification (1954), 103-122; K. Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (1959), 149-152

  • P. Tillich, Systematic Theology, III (1963), 217-245

  • J. G. Emerson, Jr., The Dynamics of Forgiveness (1964)

  • H. McKeating, “Divine Forgiveness in the Psalms,” JTS, XVIII (1965), 69-83.