August 29, 2014

Defining “Forgiveness”

by Lyndon Unger

Have you ever used a term for a while and one day come to realize that you may have been using the term incorrectly?

Being in the church and using “Christan language” as much as I do, I have used the term “forgiveness” for decades and a little while ago, I realized that I wasn’t really clear on a definition of the term.

Using that word

I’ve heard and read a lot about forgiveness.  There are tons of books out there that address various aspects of forgiveness, but they all seem to regularly suffer from the same flaw: I rarely find a satisfactory biblical definition of the term “forgiveness”.

– People will often talk about what forgiveness looks like, meaning they’ll talk about no longer “bringing it up” once you’ve forgiven someone…but that only tells me what forgiveness does, not what it is.

– People will talk about how God forgives and quote various passages that deal with the frequency or gracious nature of forgiveness (seventy times seven, right?), but again those tell me about how forgiveness looks, not what it is.

I recently wanted to really put my thumb down in a biblical idea of what forgiveness is in its essence; a single statement to summarize a definition of “forgiveness” that is positive and gives my mind a nail on which to hang thoughts about forgiveness.  I’m not going to answer all the questions on forgiveness at all, but only try to define the term from the scriptures.  So, here’s a short definition of “forgiveness” that I’ve come up with some biblical explanation:


***Forgiveness is a promise to no longer remember one’s sin and cease holding it against them***

Here’s some of the passages that lead me to that definition:

Jeremiah 31:34 “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”.  Hebrews 10:15-18 also quotes Jeremiah 31:33-34, pointing out two elements of the new covenant as (1) having the law written on the hearts and minds, and (2) having their sins and lawless deeds no longer remembered.  That is why Hebrews 10:18 says “where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin”.  God always knows a person’s sin, but if he chooses to no longer remember it, he no longer holds it against them.

– In Deuteronomy 9:27, Moses asks for forgiveness for Israel  by asking God to “do not regard their wickedness or their sin…”

– In Psalm 25:6-7 David asks for forgiveness for the sins of his youth by saying : ” (6) Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. (7) Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!”

– It is very interesting to note how David talks to God: Remember  your mercy which is old, but do not remember my youthful sins, and remember me in accord with your love and for the sake of your goodness.  David knows full well that God is fully aware of every detail of his sin; he only asks God to not remember his sin.

– In Psalm 109, David asks God to deal justly with the wicked who attack him.  He implores God to treat them justly, and in ascending magnitude of punishment he asks God to serve them back their wickedness. David asks God to appoint a wicked person against them (6), reveal his sin and ignore his prayer (7), cut his days short (8), bring him to the grave (9), may his children be beggars (10), may the bank seize all he owns and may bandits steal his stuff (11), let he and his family be kept from pity (12), may his name be cut off (13), and finally “May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord, and let none of the sin of his mother be blotted out!”  This is a call for ultimate judgment; a call for God to hold his sin against him.  This is the worst and greatest punishment possible.


– In the trial of the false gods in Isaiah 40-48, God speaks in Isaiah 43 and defines himself as “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (43:25).  Those two statements are parallel; God blots out one’s sin (through the death of Christ the payment for sin is made) and the action that follows from that is “not remembering”.  God doesn’t actually make the sin so as to have not happened, but as the payment for sin is paid upon Christ, he can be just and no longer remember it, no longer holding it against the sinner.

– In Jeremiah 14:1-9, Jeremiah speaks regarding a famine.  14:1-6 describes the famine, 14:7-9 is a prayer for help.  Then, starting at 14:10, the Lord answers and says “They have loved to wander thus; they have not restrained their feet,; therefore the Lord does not accept them; now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.”  The famine was simply a just punishment for the sins of the nation of Israel.

– In Ezekiel 33:14-16, God comments on how if a wicked man turns from his sin walks in the statutes of life, “none of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him.”

Hosea 8:13 & Hosea 9:9 comment on how God’s punishment involves God remembering the iniquity of Israel and punishing their sin.

– In Revelation 18:5, when Babylon is finally judged, a voice from heaven says “for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”

Now as I said previously, I wasn’t attempting to give a comprehensive lesson on forgiveness, but only to give a short and clear definition of the term.  I hope that this post has been both informative and helpful to you.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “Forgiven” Unger

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him didn’t.
  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    As a woman with the memory of an elephant, I must continually remind myself that love keeps no records of wrongs. Thanks for the great and timely reminder, Lyndon.

    • Lyndon Unger

      You’re welcome Jane!

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  • Melanie

    I do not understand how it is wise to “not remember” someone’s offense towards you. I believe Joseph had forgive his brothers, but he didn’t forget what they had done to him, and he tested them before he trusted them again.

    Is this what you would say to an abuse victim? Does forgiveness mean one thing when the offense is small and another when the offense is big?

    I’m not challenging you, but I am thinking out loud. These are my real questions about forgiveness. I’ve tried to define forgiveness myself, but cannot seem to come up with a short definition that covers all the scenarios.

    • Melanie – I think the biblical concept of forgiveness implies that you do not hold the sin against the person in the sense that they still owe any sort of payment, that is, you take the punishment upon yourself. Lyndon’s definition doesn’t imply at all that you would continue to allow yourself to be hurt by someone you forgive; simply that you no longer demand justice for the past act which requires forgiveness.

      Biblical forgiveness is never combined with a lack of wisdom or naïveté. By “remember their sins no more” God doesn’t mean we are to be forgetful. In fact, it is impossible for an omniscient God to forget, truly.

      But the concept is that the sins are no longer remembered for the purpose of holding it against the person, like a debt which remains to be paid, for example.

      I can forgive someone a debt of 100 dollars – and that doesn’t mean I have to loan them money again. But I can take the debt upon myself instead of holding it against the other person’s account. That is the concept of forgiveness in the Bible. God didn’t actually forget our sins – Christ really paid for them. He took our penalty upon himself. When you forgive, you take the punishment someone else deserves on yourself.

      • elainebitt

        you forgive, you take the punishment someone else deserves on yourself.”

        Michael, to be true, ‘your concept of forgiveness’ (as you called it) has to work in any scenario. If someone tries to murder me and they are caught, if the person repents and asks me for forgiveness and I forgive them – should I go to prison in their place?
        The answer is clear: although forgiveness is granted to the repentant sinner, not all consequences are eliminated. The offended party is not asked to bear the consequences of the sin the offender committed.

        I like Lyndon’s definition. But I think Chris Brauns’ definition goes deeper into it:
        “Forgiveness: A committment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.” (Unpacking Forgiveness, page 55).

        “God didn’t actually forget our sins – Christ really paid for them. He took our penalty upon himself.”

        There is something wrong in the above, I am thinking it’s part of a longer and more detailed thought, because the way it is makes no sense to me.
        Here’s how I see it: the free offer of forgiveness is on the cross. Christ paid the debt. We repent, God forgives. He forgets in the sense that He promisses not to bring those sins up anymore.
        But… we still die.

        • Thanks, Elaine. You are not understanding my point which was probably not well communicated.

          The point isn’t that there are no consequences for sin. I never said that and Lyndon never said that. The point is that when you choose to forgive, you no longer hold the sin against the person. It doesn’t mean the person does not have consequences. By taking the punishment on yourself – it means that the true debt will not be paid by the person. No one can ever actually pay you back for trying to murder you…

          • elainebitt

            Thanks Michael.

            You did say: “When you forgive, you take the punishment someone else deserves on yourself.”

            I know Lyndon and you didn’t say there aren’t consequences for sin. But I guess that is the problem: no one said that there are.

            I know this is a post on how to define forgiveness, and not how it works, but even the definition will generate questions on the “how”. Maybe Lyndon will expand the issue in his next post. 😉

          • I understand your point and agree that forgiveness includes far more implications that 140 character sound bites.

            My poorly worded phrase should read more like “when you forgive – you incur the injury caused by the offense without retribution” as a better pithy sound bit. Again, I would guess 6-8 weeks of teaching and practical workshops on the topic and many of us would feel we are only scratching the surface.

            Me forgiving you doesn’t mean that no one else can hold you accountable for your actions, nor does it mean I have to be your friend. It also doesn’t mean that everything is OK or that there is no action still required on either person’s part. As Lyndon said, it is a promise to cease holding one’s sin against them.

            I love this topic because I have been forgiven so much because of Christ. It is almost unimaginable. I couldn’t believe it if I didn’t read it in the Bible.

          • elainebitt

            “I would guess 6-8 weeks of teaching and practical workshops on the topic
            and many of us would feel we are only scratching the surface.”

            I agree.

          • 🙂 Have a great day. I do intend to read the book sometime. Just been too busy for that one.

          • Alex

            May I add, that in your attempted murder scenario, there is a distinction to be made between the victim’s forgiveness and the state’s forgiveness. The victim cannot extend the offer to accept remission for the crime upon themselves, because they do not have the ability to demand remission as individuals. Essentially, and legally, the only “payment” that the victim can require is a moral culpability for the offense. (Civil proceedings notwithstanding.)

            So, the victim can choose to remove from the perpetrator the moral culpability for their actions, from the perspective of the victim alone. The state still retains the authority to demand “payment” for crimes committed against their citizens. This is why criminal cases have nomenclature that reads, “the state versus criminal X.”

            Not that this distinction helps in the creation of a definition of forgiveness. But, it is relevant to the scenario you created.

          • elainebitt

            Fair enough, I agree with you Alex. Thank you.
            I should have thought longer to try and find an example that I could use. My point was only that the offended won’t bear the punishment that the offender deserves.

          • Lu

            I agree with Elaine and I forgive Lyndon and Michael for misstating what forgiveness is and is not.

          • Lyndon Unger

            I’m not sure if you’re being sassy or not…

          • Lyndon Unger

            Well, I don’t plan on writing a whole systematic theology of forgiveness…at least not yet.

            Taking up the attempted-murder idea, if they repent to me and I forgive them, I no longer hold their attempted murder against them. That means that I no longer bring it up to myself, others or God. I don’t entertain it in my mind. I don’t tell others about it. I don’t ask God to give them justice for their actions.

            I don’t express this in the same way that Michael did, since I believe that language is from Jay Adams and is somewhat misleading. I don’t “take the punishment” that someone deserves in the legal sense. I release my demand for them to receive their just punishment; I release it to God and ask him to strengthen me to treat them as he does. I choose to no longer remember their sin and hold it against them for the purpose of condemnation.

    • Lyndon Unger

      I pretty much agree with Michael here. You can forgive someone and no longer hold their offenses against them. That would mean that you no longer bring up their sin between yourself and them, yourself and others, and yourself and God (for the purposes of condemnation).

      Please remember that the ONLY thing I did here was give a short, punchy definition of “forgiveness”. I wasn’t building a theology of forgiveness, working out the implications of the idea, or exploring practical scenarios.

      When you choose to no longer remember someone’s sin, you don’t forget it. You make an active decision to no longer bring it up ever again.

      When an sin (not offense, but sin; they’re different things) is multi-faceted, there’s multiple facets to biblical restoration. For example, a thief doesn’t just express his repentance verbally and consider the matter done; he must also make restitution and also become a worker who exemplifies generosity (i.e. Ex. 22:7; Luke 19:8; Eph. 4:28). Sometimes there is a process of restoring trust that takes a matter of time (sometimes serious amounts of time), but the person who forgives shouldn’t hold the sin against the offender during that process. If someone steals from you, says “I’m sorry” and then leaves without making restitution and a plan for replacing their sinful behaviour with righteous behaviour, they either don’t understand what they’re supposed to do or are actually unrepentant. Still, if they express verbal repentance and then ask for money, you’re supposed to take their expression of repentance at face value and give them the money they ask for (assuming that they have, as part of their repentance, a plan to pay you back and whatnot). That’s where Matt. 18:22 comes into play.

  • Linda Rice

    Thanks, Lyndon. I appreciate the Bible-based definition. Also, Michael in reply to Melanie–good explanation.
    Some thoughts on the forget idea: Do you remember that song with the words, “He forgives and forgets, He forgives and forgets…”? While I appreciate what I hope was the intent of the author, I never did like that song because it is not a true representation of Scripture and it implies that God is not eternally omniscient. If Scripture is eternal, then the offenses recorded there are on eternal record. I also think it minimizes sin and, thereby, the sacrifice of Christ. “I forgot” is passive and can be accidental, or even selfish. Refusal to bring it to mind in order to hold it against the offender is active and is a self-sacrificing counter to an offense that, in God’s case, cost Him His Son. It upholds truth in that it doesn’t treat the sin like an oops, but agrees to the weight of the offense and the guilt of the offender and the fact that guilt requires justice. It is active love (redundant, I know) that applies mercy and grace. So God’s character is magnified.

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

      Linda, loved your point that forgiveness is, “refusal to bring it to mind in order to hold it against the offender.” I would also add that praying for those who have hurt us demonstrates trust in God’s sovereignty and justice.

  • Mark

    With this definition of forgiveness in mind, I have a question that I have discussed with others before: within relationships for example, can there be true forgiveness by the person sinned against without the repentance of the offending party?

    • elainebitt

      This is not a “yes” or “no” question. But the short answer is no.

      A question to you Mark: if forgiveness cannot be granted without repentance from the offender, what do you think the offended person should do?

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Elaine, are you saying that forgiveness cannot be granted without repentance by the offender? If so, then what do we make of Jesus command to forgive even if someone comes back seven times in one day claiming repentance? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

        • Mark

          Luke 17:4, “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

          Notice the offender indeed is returning and repenting. Upon this forgiveness is to be granted.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            But then why did Jesus ask for the forgiveness of those who crucified him since there was clearly no repentance?

          • elainebitt

            Jesus asked God to forgive them. Jesus didn’t tell them He was forgiving them.

          • Melanie

            That is an interesting distinction I had never thought of….

          • elainebitt

            Exactly Frank. Thanks.

            Jane, since “we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven”, what exactly you think that means?

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            That means I extend the same unmerited, undeserving grace that I myself have received from God. It means I turn the other cheek, I pray for those who mistreat me and I do good to those who hate me. I rely and entrust myself to God who judges justly, understanding that if I don’t forgive “from the heart” I will not be forgiven despite the offenders repentance or lack thereof.

          • elainebitt

            God does not forgive unconditionally. You had to repent, right? The offer of forgiveness was free, unmerited as you say, but He does not forgave you until you repented. To believe that God forgives unconditionally leads to universalism.

            The problem with biblical forgiveness (to forgive as God has forgiven us) is that most people think when we say forgiveness should be withheld until one asks for repentance are also saying that we should not be loving, we should not to show any grace, we should hold a grudge, etc. None of that is included in the concept. Did God show you grace even before you repented? I am sure you will say yes. Did He forgive you before you repented?

            Biblical forgiveness involves an attitude of always being ready to forgive, to loving your “enemies”, not to hold grudges, not to be bitter or resentfull, etc., while waiting for the time when the offender will repent.

            A heart that refuses to forgive when forgiveness is been asked, it’s a serious thing and it might demonstrate that the offended is not even saved.

            “To turn the other cheek” has nothing to do with forgiveness. It has to do with our reactions when evil is done to us – we should not pay evil with evil.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Well, I may be the oddball in the room, but in my case God did forgive me (and saved me) before I even knew what repentance was. As a Jehovah’s Witness, salvation through Christ had never been on my radar. I was saved by reading through the Bible in a month. And from Genesis on I knew I was changing, but I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew I was different. I had so much love inside of me and as silly as it sounds it was as if everything was brighter and more beautiful.

            When I got to the New Testament I read about Christ, the forgiveness He offered and the indescribable joy that the Holy Spirit would give and it was at that point I understood what I had received. I will never forget dropping to my knees to say thank you for something so unmerited and yes, unconditional. To be sure, repentance followed, but it was not a prerequisite in my case. It was a result. God’s kindness led me to repentance.

            Now I know that’s not everyone’s testimony, but it is mine and I will forever try to show that same unmerited and unconditional love to others.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Elaine and Mark, one other question, when Jesus, “chose Saul” on the road to Damascus according to Acts 22:14, was it in response to Saul’s repentance or God’s grace in election (and thereby forgiveness)?

          • Mark

            That is a great testimony Jane. Praise God for your salvation!

            When Saul was on the road to Damascus it is easily understood that this is when he was saved. We know that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (cf. Eph 2:8-9). In Saul’s conversion in Acts we are more or less left to reading the white spaces. There is no mention of his specific repentance or faith either. However repentance and faith is assumed because of what the Scripture teaches about salvation. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin which results in salvation. Saul or Paul was also singularly unique because God chose him for a specific apostolic purpose. So he is not the norm case if you will.

            Paul’s message was also that of repentance/faith: Acts 26:19-20 (cf. 17:30). This message is also found elsewhere, to name a few: Acts 2:37-38; 3:19; Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 7:10.

            It very well may be that one repents without even know the label for it which is fine. The one thing we have to be careful of is not defining things by our experience per se, but allowing Scripture and its definitions to interpret our experiences.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Agreed, and thank you for the thoughtful response.

          • elainebitt

            No one is saved by election only. The bible teaches that one’s salvation requires belief in Jesus AND repentance (not one or the other, but both). Every single elected person will come to believe and repentance. No one dies only elected.

            Because the bible teaches belief and repentance, the fact that’s not mentioned clearly in Paul’s story does not mean he did not believe and repent. It was omitted from the account, but when we understand what repentance does to a person, that is, it’s a 180 degree turn from what they were and what they were doing, and we consider how quickly was Paul to obey every word Jesus spoke to him, and to turn away from what he was doing, we know that Paul repented.

            Paul was not chosen (elected) at that point on Damascus road. He had been chosen before the foundation of the world, like every other elected person has. The concept of God choosing us because we repented is not biblical (although many believe that way).

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            I’ll let someone else take a stab at that one since I’m pulling an Inigo Montoya with your definition of election.

          • elainebitt

            What’s your definition of election?

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Election is God’s predetermined plan for our salvation. In other words, predestination identifies the point prior to time when God determined that He would elect. The election is the actual choice, at which time we are quickened through the Holy Spirit to understand the salvation God has freely given us.

          • elainebitt

            Thanks Jane.

            Now, can you tell me where you can find that teaching in the Bible? It doesn’t have to be one single verse, of course, since we use the entirety of the bible to understand doctrine.

            I am curious though. Where did you learn that?

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            From John MacArthur actually. However, I had already understood this from the entirety of scripture.

            As far as supporting scriptures, a quick online search on predestination and election from the gty site will identify them all.

          • elainebitt

            I’d be interested in seeing where exactly you learned that from MacArthur.

            Just to make sure, can you clarify somethings for me? You believe that sometimes God saves people without them repenting, which was the case of Saul (Paul). Correct? And in your case repentance was not a pre-requisite to salvation, but a consequence of salvation.

            You believe that election is not a point in time when God chose especific people to be saved, that God elects when the person understands the salvation, correct? Is it fair to say that you believe election/salvation occur at the same time?

            You said you were saved by reading the bible in a month. Somewhere else in another blog post you said you were “brought to Jesus” through a pamphlet written by an-ex JW (or current JW, you don’t know). My question is, being saved and being brought to Jesus are two different things for you?

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Forgive me, but this is feeling more like word games to me at this point. But no, you misread my post in that I do believe that election is the point in time when God chooses specific people to be saved. And yes, I believe being saved and brought to Jesus are the same. It is the moment we receive God’s Spirit through whom we are able to understand the grace that was given us.

          • elainebitt

            I apologize. In any case, I think I managed to sort of deviate the topic slightly, and it’s not a good thing. Thanks for the interaction.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            No problem, Elaine. I’m still learning my Christian terminology so I probably don’t always explain things the right way. Have a great weekend, God bless!

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand
          • Melanie

            Helpful thoughts, Elaine!

            I think this discussion is so beneficial, because if we get the very definition of forgiveness wrong, on the one hand we can potentially further harm and victimize those who have been abused. On the other hand, we can risk violating an important command of Scripture. As one of my friends says often, being more conservative than God also harms people and compromises the Gospel.

            If we define forgiveness as taking the punishment of the perpetrator on ourselves (as Jesus did for us), we could conceivably make a victim believe that he or she should at best, not prosecute a crime done against them (or be a witness in the case), or at worst, convince a victim that he or she should be willing to take on and serve out the prison sentence deserved by the perpetrator. Both of these beliefs would be devastating to a victim. I don’t believe anyone here would actually agree with those outcomes, not even those who are defining forgiveness in this way.

            Maybe we should clearly define, as Elaine is encouraging us, what exactly Jesus’ forgiveness of us looked like. Also, I would doubt that God would hold us to a standard that is not humanly possible, like “forgetting” what our offender has done to us. Although God “remembers our sins no more,” does He expect us to do the same?

            This discussion is worth the time invested, in my mind. I, for one, appreciate all these comments. I do hope more posts will further clarify or tweak the “official” definition of forgiveness, keeping both doctrinal purity in mind while also keeping the health and healing of the victim in mind.

      • Mark

        It is just a question for thought. I would hold to the short answer being no as well. But not everyone does.

        To begin to answer your question in practical terms, the offended (believer) should live as he or she ought to as a Christian… He should go to his brother and “show him his fault in private” (Matt 18:15) to win his brother. He should also not live in bitterness towards the other (i.e., James 3:14) even if there was no repentance.

    • Lyndon Unger


      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Why nope?

        • elainebitt

          He went for the short answer. =)

      • Eric Dodson

        This is a question for Lyndon or anyone who says there cannot be forgiveness without the other person coming to show repentance. How do you then handle Mark 11:25?

        “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your father who is in heaven will also forgive your transgressions.”

        • Lyndon Unger

          Well, I’d suggest that Mark 11:25 boils down to whether or not aphieme is translated “forgive”, or “leave” as it’s translated in Matthew 5:24.

          Those two are similar passages, and Matthew suggests that one should leave their gift at the altar and seek reconciliation before continuing their worship. I’d suggest that Mark MAY possibly be making the same case: if you’re praying and remember that you have something unresolved with anyone, stop and go be reconciled. If you don’t seek reconciliation with men, you shouldn’t expect reconciliation with God.

          I imagine that one might look at the passage and realize that aphieme appears twice in the verse. That could be because both instances should be translated “forgive”. That may definitely be the case, but it could also be a bit of wordplay where aphieme is used in two separate ways that are overlapping and highly related.

          It’s not a hill I’d be willing to die on at all, but just an idea to suggest that Mark 11:25 may not be a total slam dunk.

          That’s also from around 10 minutes of looking into the passage and the vocabulary of the passage and attempting to find some sort of somewhat reasonable solution.

          • elainebitt

            e-Sword would be a tool to be used for quick reference to those words. It’s free:

          • elainebitt

            Again adding to Lyndon’s thoughts: the most used word for “forgiveness” in the NT is the one Lyndon mentioned: aphiemi. It occurs 143 in the NT. According to what I read, it is a word with a wide range of meaning, and often used in contexts that don’t have anything to do with forgiveness. An example from the author I read is Matthew 4:20, 22 where aphiemi refers to Peter and Andrew leaving their nets behing.

          • Eric Dodson

            Thanks Lyndon! Many blessings!

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Okay, let me get this straight. The question was, “Can there be true forgiveness by the person sinned against without the repentance of the offending party”? And the short answer is no?

        Please show me the verses that support that? I’m really struggling with the concept that there are exclusions to Jesus’ command to forgive in our human relationships.

        And yes, I understand the example of God forgiving on the basis of our repentance, but even our ability to repent is granted by God. We are not God, and therefore isn’t it a dangerous concept to justify unforgiveness for any reason? Help, Lyndon!

        • elainebitt

          You have been reading the comments in this blog post, haven’t you? The question is silly, but not out of place, for it seems to me that I have presented such verses since the beginning. You should read it all again, it would be helpful to you.

          I should point this out though: according to your own words, there are “special” circumstances where you believe God forgives without the sinner’s repentance. So to tell you that God NEVER forgives without repentance of the sinner/offender is a moot point. But here it goes: the Old Testament: you are not going to find such a concept of God forgiving without the sinner/offender repentance anywhere there.

          The New Testament: the problem is that a lot of people read what’s clearly written but since they are trying to support their opinions they don’t see it. To use Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13 to try and support that we should forgive other people unconditionally it’s truly amazing to me, because both verses say:

          “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, JUST AS GOD IN CHRIST ALSO HAS FORGIVEN YOU.” Eph. 4:32

          “[…]bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a
          complaint against anyone; JUST AS THE LORD FORGAVE YOU, SO ALSO SHOULD YOU.” Col. 3:13

          (caps mine)

          So we see that the crux of the matter is to understand how the Lord God has forgiven us. And He only forgives upon repentance. If you, or anyone, believe otherwise, your theology is wrong. Plain and simple wrong. I will not discuss this point with you because you seem to be convinced by some personal experience that in your case (odd ball) God has done so. And you even present the Apostle Paul as another case. Oh well.

          We all can stay here until the day the cows fly, or pigs, or whatever, it won’t matter a bit until we come to terms with those two verses, and all that Scriptures teach on how God forgives. Any discussion without that being the base of our trying to understand forgiveness in our lives (how it works in practical ways) is a waste of time, imo.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Forgive me for my ignorance then. I’ll forgive you for your unkindness.

        • Lyndon Unger

          Off the top of my head?

          Here’s some scripture to consider that deals with forgiveness:

          Matthew 18:21-35. When the repentance is shown to be false in in v. 29-30, the master recinded the forgiveness in v. 31-34. The lack of legitimate repentance broke the transaction of forgiveness.

          Mark 4:11-12 – The turning precedes the forgiveness.

          Luke 17:3-4 – The forgiveness is a response to repentance.

          Acts 8:22 – Again, forgiveness is a response to repentance.

          1 John 1:9 – Confession precedes forgiveness.

          In the scripture, we see God forgiving unilaterally, but God is also the one who grants repentance in the first place.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Thanks, Lyndon.

        • elainebitt

          Another thing Jane: our ability to believe the Gospel is also granted by God. Nevertheless, we are commanded to believe the Gospel.

          Withhold forgiveness is not the same as refusing to forgive when forgiveness has been asked. This is not a dangerous concept, but a biblical one. You just don’t accept it.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            What I do not accept is that I have the right to wait for repentance from sinners who are incapable of repenting outside of the grace, mercy and kindness of God, like I myself was.

            God willing my forgiveness of those who are not sorry gives them a glimpse of grace whereby God will grant them true repentance.

          • elainebitt

            What I try to make clear to you was that ALL the commandments of God are impossible for us to perfectly obey without His grace.

            Nevertheless God expects us to obey them. Just take a look at Israel in the OT. Take a look at the Apostle Paul.

            We do not `have the right`to wait, in the way you keep putting it. A truly saved person will be willing and eager to forgive. But to forgive as God has forgiven us is 100% impossible if the person does not ask for forgiveness.

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Well on this point we disagree. No hard feelings.

    • *We* can forgive the person (truly) without their repentance, (I think?) but without their repentance they are not forgiven in & through Christ.

      I’m having a hard time equating “repentance” with activity between men, I can only think of that word as it relates to activity between us and God..but maybe I’m missing something..?

      • elainebitt

        If I may say so Suzanne, I believe the answer to your last line is yes, you are missing something. There are many times people will use the word “forgive” in the sense of “overlooking an offense”. An offense is not a serious sin. There are many times in our Christian lives that we take offense for silly sins, or our pride gets in the way. I am sure you know what I am trying to say; forgive my not-so-very-clear way of writing this.

        Consider, for example, Matthew 18, the bit about church discipline. Would you say that’s talking about a serious sin or just an offense? How about when Paul wrote to the Phillipians:
        “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Phi. 4:2
        Do you think in the above it was some serious sin that made the two women not to be in agreement with each other? Or was it just a petty case?

        The more you look to all the many times the “concept” of forgiveness/overlooking an offense is used and you keep in mind that sin and offense are not the same thing, the more you will be able to understand why it sometimes seems that the writer is talking about to forgive unconditionally but he is not. After all, you have built your foundation for the understanding of forgiveness starting in “how does the Lord forgive”, because of Eph. 4:32 and Col.3:13.

        What I believe you are having a hard time with is that we are fallen and although redeemed we are still sinners, so even though God has commanded us to forgive others as He forgives us, we can’t do that as perfectly as He does, but we still aim for that perfection. After all, should any commandment of God be dismissed because we are unable to accomplish it? I am sure your answer will be no.

        • Thanks Elaine, but perhaps I wasn’t issue wasn’t with distinguishing between the offenses. Where I’ve used the word “offense” in here is in its biblical meaning (as in offense against God-of which none are small) I understand the point you made though, and agree. I do want to point out one thing you said, that “ sin and offense are not the same thing“. I find that to be at odds with scripture, where “sin” and “offense” are practically synonymous. (but I still got your point)

          In “my last line” I wondered-aloud about the word “repentance” as it relates between men, I wondered if the bible ever describes repent/repenting/repentance in terms of man to man, as in (conceptually) replacing “I apologize” with “I repent”. “Will you accept my repentance?” It just feels like that word in any context is meant to be directed toward God. Which appears to be a point where the comments have gotten somewhat tangled.

          In trying to figure this out..(was this common vernacular for the first century church and no longer used?)

          I found the word “repent” is used 37 times in scripture (ESV), and in every instance it is toward God, or between man and God; the same with “repentance” (20 times). The one time I saw where the concept of repentance might be construed as a thing between men is in Luke 17- “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (17:3). (“Repents” was found 3 times)

          I think what it comes down to is that even as we “repent” of our transgressions against another person we *are* repenting to God as well.

          To address something else you said in your response to me:

          “What I believe you are having a hard time with is that we are fallen and although redeemed we are still sinners,”

          I know I have much to learn, but that is a Truth that, sadly, I know all too well…! #heartcheck 😉

          To the rest of that last paragraph I’ll repeat what I said here: Like perfect love, (agape) perfect forgiveness can’t be realized in the human heart. Can we love as Christ as loved-forgive as He does? Impossible.

          It seems several of us in this meta conversation are speaking from differing terms–if even from different donkey’s, LOL… internet dialog is a study in missing the point, most often I am the one missing it!

          Blessings all ~

          • elainebitt

            Suzanne, I`ve been paying some attention to your comments, not only here at TCG but other places (I am assuming you are the Suzanne on gty’s blog). I just didn`t want to assume things for the sake of others readers. I apologize if my reply seemed inadequate that way.

            I think you are talking semantics with the word repent. Forgiveness is a word that thanks (not really) to secular phylosophy and psycology has lost its meaning to us biblical Christians. We have been sold a lie and incorporated false phylosophy to something the bible clearly teaches. Proof of that is this discussion: as soon as someone says `we can only forgive people who asked for forgiveness` most people will say that holding grudges and bitterness is against all biblical teaching. Do you see that? Most Christians, sadly, have a wrong view of forgiveness, their view has been tainted with wordly platitudes and trying to play “nice”.

            One last thing before I forget. Every sin is ultimately against God. We learned that from David, right? How many times he was broken knowing that his sin had created distance between he and God?

            Forgiveness’ goal is reconciliation. That’s a tough scenario as well, there are many instances where reconciliation is only possible to a certain point because of sin’s consequences. My point is this, with all the information we have in the bible about fixing relationships and be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, it’s impossible for me not to see that David too did something to try and fix what he had done to others.

            I am thinking of Zaccheus now, who said:
            “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I
            have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”

            That was the fruit of a saved and repentant heart. When a person truly repents, they will seek reconciliation and do anything for that to happen (this is not a comment on how hard or easy this reconciliation is.)

          • Yes, agree with all of that.

            It’s been many months since I’ve commented at TGC or GTY. The “T” is always beside my name wherever I do comment 🙂

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  • Frank

    I love the picture you chose for this. The first one. Perfect!

    • Lyndon Unger

      I aim to please Frank!

  • brad

    Great definition!! I try to make this type of forgiveness central to my life and ministry! Thanks Lyndon!

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks Brad! Would that we all labor to forgive in such a manner!

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  • Really good thoughts on forgiveness to ponder in light of thorough, well mined scripture references.

    Seems like Love is the grandmother of forgiveness and needs mentioning. Like perfect love, (agape) perfect forgiveness can’t be realized in the human heart. Can we love as Christ as loved-forgive as He does? Impossible.

    Forgiveness is a promise to no longer remember one’s sin and cease holding it against them

    I think that’s an excellent definition. Just a few added thoughts on the “remember” part-

    Different believers are going to be called to different levels of sanctifying ‘row-hoeing’ (if you will) through these concepts of love and forgiveness, so “no longer remember” will play out in the heart differently. Some might say with the tongue “I forgive” and mean it, embrace it, however the heart can still sting. In the more serious situations the kind of healing that truly “forgets” takes time through prayer and the support of godly fellowship.

    Thanks for spurring us on here, Lyndon!

    • Lyndon Unger

      You’re welcome Suzanne! You’re certainly right to suggest that this will be played out differently, but difficultly, in every individual heart. Thank God we have his Spirit to work out the details for each one of us!

      • elainebitt

        You know me, I have to ask. =)

        Are you saying that the same scenario would play itself out differently for different people?

        • I totally think so, Elaine. People react differently to stress because we’re all wired differently. I can see how this is played out in the people in my own church…and I think it’s part of the beauty of the local church and how God uses us all together 🙂

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  • Jason McMurray

    I would request a follow up article by Lyndon regarding when forgiveness is to be given. I have heard and studied a couple of different points of view. One being that a christian is to forgive at all times regardless of whether the offender has repented and sought forgiveness for a harm. The other is that forgiveness cannot be given unless there is repentance from the offender. For the record I am not referring to holding a grudge or seeking vengeance as I do not believe either is scriptural at any time.

    • Interesting contrast between the two points of view, and I’m sure more can be said.

      FWIW-I think that as true believers we are most certainly to “forgive” under any circumstances because of one simple yet profound reason: all that we have been forgiven. As a regenerated, blood bought child of God I just could not see myself saying “I can’t forgive”, or “will not forgive” another, no matter the offense or even their standing with God.

      In the case of an unrepentant person being the offender this is Gospel opportunity. In the case of another believer it is sanctifying opportunity. Of course depending on the situation there may be extra heaping helpings of grace-tapping needed, and coming-along-side-of the ‘offended’ as they go through the forgiveness process. I don’t think forgiveness has to always be about “forgetting”, but is always about how the “heart” chooses to “remember”.

      Lord, give us eyes to see each other as You do..

    • Lyndon Unger

      I might try Jason, but it won’t happen in the next few weeks. That would require a substantial amount of study to give a firm answer, and I don’t have that sort of time available anytime in the coming several weeks.

      • Jason McMurray

        Understood Lyndon. I would be grateful to see your exposition if and when you can.

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