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 could teach His disciples to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (
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
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” (
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 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 (
It was the one blemish of the elder son which marred an otherwise irreproachable life (
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 (
On the other occasion when His possession of this power was under discussion (
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 (
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 holy righteousness is such that He cannot be indifferent to sin. His wrath must rest upon the disobedient (
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 (
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 (
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 (
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 (
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.
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"
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?” (
Conditions of divine forgiveness
On this question of the condition, or conditions, required for forgiveness, recent and contemporary theologians differ. Christians live solely by God’s forgiveness. Even repentance has been made for them (Dogmatics in Outline, 150ff.).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.
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 ( , III, 226).
Emil Brunner emphasizes the need of repentance as a condition of forgiveness (The Divine-Human Encounter, 98ff., 149ff.), a view shared by, Frederick C. Grant, H. R. Mackintosh, Ernest F. Scott, Vincent Taylor, and Benjamin B. Warfield, as well as the 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 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 (
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 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” (
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” (