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What is Biblical Forgiveness, and Who Should be Forgiven?
Copyright © 2008 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth


One Sunday I sat in church and listened to a disturbing sermon. The pastor recounted how his adult son had been assaulted some months earlier, beaten by a lone brute and suffered a broken cheek bone. Following the incident the pastor and his family prayed for the capture and conviction of the criminal. God answered that prayer for justice. Days before the sermon, the brute had been convicted in court of criminally assaulting the pastor's son. Congregational applause followed the announcement of the conviction.

What was disturbing was the next set of comments. During the final phase of the trial, after the conviction was decreed but before sentence was imposed, the pastor told how he went up to the convicted brute, right in the middle of the courtroom, and told him, "I have forgiven you of your action and so has my son." Thunderous applause erupted from the congregation as they heard of their pastor’s magnanimity and compassion toward the convict. He concluded the sermon by stating that this act of forgiveness released him from his anger and bitterness and benefited him greatly, the "true value" of forgiveness. More applause. He finished the story by stating how he watched with satisfaction as the convict was sentenced to serve twenty years in prison for his crime.

This story has disturbed my thoughts and haunted my memory for years. Only recently have I come to what I believe is an understanding of why the story is disturbing to me and what the solution is for those questions that nagged at my mind.


What is Biblical Forgiveness?

Forgiveness, as used in the English language, is defined by Encarta World Dictionary as the:

  1. act of pardoning somebody: the act of pardoning somebody for a mistake or wrongdoing
  2. forgiving quality: the tendency to forgive offenses readily and easily.

Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Since forgiveness is principally the act of granting pardons, it is necessary to also understand pardoning. A pardon is:

  1. release from punishment: the act of officially releasing somebody guilty of a crime or wrongdoing from facing punishment
  2. paper authorizing freedom from punishment: an official document stating that somebody may be released without receiving any or any further punishment
  3. act of excusing somebody: the excusing of an impolite act or the forgiving of the person committing it

Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Common English language understands forgiveness as the action of granting someone else, who is guilty of committing a wrong, a release from all further punishment. In other words, the victim graciously absolves the offender, pronouncing him blameless for his past misdeeds and releases him from all obligations to provide restitution or to suffer any further punishment.

It is an action. Forgiveness is an action. It is the action of releasing a man of his deserved punishments and obligations.

Legitimate forgiveness is only possible when the victim can look the offender in the eyes and with honesty state, "I hereby extend God's mercy to you and waive any further punishment you rightly deserve and eliminate any further restitution or reparations you may owe to me.  Your debt is entirely and fully gone.  You are free of any further liability in this matter."  In other words, the offender is pardoned.

That differentiates forgiveness, as an action, from feelings. Forgiveness is not an emotion or a feeling. It is an action, the intentional act of deciding to grant full absolution to one who does not deserve it. It is the action of surrendering one’s rights to be compensated, or to be given reparations, or to seek rightful civil punishment against another who is the wrongdoer. Forgiveness is an action.

Biblical forgiveness is equally matched with our contemporary understanding of the same concept. In Hebrew, the dominant word in the Old Testament that is translated as forgiveness is nasa/nasah. It means "to lift," as in, "to lift someone’s punishment from off of him." Similarly, in the New Testament the most often used Greek word translated as forgive is aphiemi. It means "to send away," as if to say, "to send away someone’s punishment."

One who is forgiven in the Bible is released from his duly "earned" punishments or obligations of restitution. The first instance of the word forgive (nasa/nasah: to send away a person’s punishment) is found in Genesis 50:17. Joseph’s brothers begged him to forgive them and to not bear a "grudge against us and pay us back in full for all the wrong which we did" (Genesis 50:15-17). Notice the circumstances. His brothers really were guilty of doing him wrong, they acknowledged their guilt, and they knew they had never been fully punished ("paid back") for the evil actions they performed. Here they wanted Joseph to forgive this moral debt entirely, to take no further punitive actions, and to release them from the just penalty that they deserved. Joseph took the action of absolving them, agreeing to impose no further punishment.

Such is the nature and typical formula of biblical forgiveness. A man admits his guilt (or stated another way, he confesses his sin), requests release from punishment, and is granted forgiveness from the one he offended (forgiveness being the very act of releasing a man from his deserved punishment).

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

Personally, I have always hated thinking of spirituality in terms of "formulas." Yet, forgiveness is usually patterned this way in the Scriptures. Someone sins against another man or against God, he confesses his guilt, asks for forgiveness (i.e. release from further punishment), and is granted the same. One exception, to be discussed later, is the option of the offended to forgive minor insults or small personal sins without being asked. Release from punishment without confessing one’s guilt, and without asking for forgiveness, is not the typical description of forgiveness in the Bible.


Obligated to Confess: The Typical Pattern

"Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." (Luke 17:3-4)

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (Matthew 18:15-17)

Does the guilty person really need to confess his guilt to be forgiven (that is, to be released from his deserved punishment)? Scripture certainly does lend itself to that understanding. Few, if any, are the instances in Scripture where any person is forgiven anything without first acknowledging his guilt and asking for clemency.

God, on the basis of the blood sacrifice that Jesus made, is righteous when He forgives our sins. Had Jesus not given Himself as a sacrifice, it is arguable that God would not be faithful to His own holiness or righteous if He forgave sins. Similarly, it is arguable that if He forgave our sins without our confession of guilt, He also would not be faithful to His holiness or be perfectly righteous.

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

Further, not admitting true guilt is offensive to God. This is because expecting to be forgiven without admitting or acknowledging our guilty sinfulness is not only illogical, but it also makes God a liar. Why a liar? Because God has called us sinners, and when we refuse to confess our sins, we are implicitly denying that we are sinners, which is essentially calling God a liar. People who have just called God a liar through the act of not acknowledging their sins are not in a position to be granted release from punishment, nor would God necessarily be righteous to do so while we remained in a state of denial.

When the Jews began going through the empty motions of temple worship, offering sacrifices and prayers but not admitting the guilt of their sins, God professed to be offended. He referred to their offerings, which were offered absent any recognition of the people’s ongoing sins, as being unacceptable and not pleasing.

Then the Lord said, "Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, (Isaiah 29:13)

"Hear, O earth: behold, I am bringing disaster on this people, The fruit of their plans, Because they have not listened to My words, And as for My law, they have rejected it also. For what purpose does frankincense come to Me from Sheba And the sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable And your sacrifices are not pleasing to Me." (Jeremiah 6:19-20)

If a sacrifice is rejected by God because the one making the offering is not truly repentant of his sins and refuses to acknowledge his own guilt, then can that sacrifice atone for sin? If that rejected sacrifice cannot atone for sin, does the punishment for that unconfessed sin remain in force against the sinner? If the sinner’s punishment remains, then how can it be true that anyone is forgiven until they confess their sinful guiltiness?

Many will say, "But we are Christians. We already confessed our sins once and have been forgiven all our unrighteousness in Christ, our sins past, present, and future are no more, so what need do we have of confession or forgiveness?" Yet, the Holy Spirit warns in the Word that even while Christ has indeed forgiven our sins and will not judge us for them in the eschaton, we must still confess and repent of our ongoing sins so as to remain useful to Him here. If we refuse to admit our ongoing sins, though we will still be eternally redeemed, we will be spit out of His mouth here on earth, becoming useless to Him.

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 'I know your deeds, that you are neither cold [able to refresh the saints] nor hot [able to be a healing influence to the saints]; I wish that you were cold [refreshing] or hot [restorers]. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, "I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing," and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.' (Revelation 3:14-22)

Laodicea was a Christian church. Christ was writing to Christians, His own people. But they refused to acknowledge that they were still sinners (spiritually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked sinners), thinking themselves to spiritually rich and having no spiritual lack. However, because God loved them, He reproved and disciplined them so as to call them to zealous repentance. Can any man repent without confessing his wretched and blind condition? Surely such loved ones of God are saved for eternity, but when Christ spits them out of His mouth it indicates that they have damaged their relationship with Him while still on earth to the point that they are no longer useful to Him.

Did not God warn even true believers that if we refuse to confess our sins that He will not even listen to our prayers? God calls the attempted prayers of believers, who decide to be unrepentant regarding certain sins, an abomination.

There is such ample evidence that salvation (regeneration and the resulting eternal release of the sinner from all future punishment for sin) is given only to those whom He calls, and who subsequently repent by confessing their sins while believing on Christ in their hearts, that the matter is fairly beyond debate. Similarly, above is the ample evidence that relational forgiveness on earth between believers and between the saint and Christ is contingent on the saint admitting his guilt for ongoing sins. In this way (by confessing one’s guilt to the offended and victimized saint) the offended saints may grant release from further punishment (forgiveness in a civil or earthly sense) to the offender.

In fact, when a brother or sister does readily confess his sin against a fellow believer, the victimized believer is required to forgive that repentant saint (Matthew 6:14, Mark 11:25, Luke 11:4, 17:4, 2 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, James 5:15-16). Forgiveness wipes away any further punishment or restitution owed by the offender to the victim, and the matter is closed.


Restitution to the Saint: Part of the Pattern

One caveat needs to be mentioned. Confessing one’s guilt for having sinned against a fellow believer involves freely making financial restitution when needed. A confession that withholds restitution (restitution is the restoring to the victim of what is owed, and it is making his position whole again by replacing what was taken from the victim) is insincere and is worthless. Just as God rejects insincere sacrifices, so an apology lacking restitution for theft or replacement for real damages incurred in a careless accident, are of no value to the victimized saint.

When a saint refuses to genuinely acknowledge his guilt by restoring what the victim lost, the church may act as judge in the matter and require the offender to pay what is owed (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Only after the restitution is handed over can the victim truly say to the offender, "I forgive you and release you from all future punishment." To say to the offender, "I forgive you" before restitution is made indicates that the victim no longer desires to seek restitution, and has closed the matter. One must be careful with one’s words.


Not Obligated to Confess: Opting Out of the Pattern

There are times when the victim does not need to hear a confession or an apology from the offender. These generally fall under the category of personal insults.

In a previous article I have discussed dealing with insults more fully, "In Fear of Punishment." The entire article may be read here: ( http://thefaithfulword.org/fearpunishment.html ). I will only comment briefly on insults and invite the reader to access the full article for a more complete explanation.

Insults may be real (because they were obviously intended to cause pain) or they may be perceived (it is unclear whether the slur was intentional or simply some form of misunderstanding). In either case the one offended has options. The most obvious is that they can bring the matter to the attention of the speaker of the insult. This must be done cautiously and not in an accusing manner (the perceived slur may turn out to be entirely innocent). The point is that the weight of action is on the one who desires to close the matter.

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)

But it is not necessary to actually talk to the offender to forgive them. In such minor matters, especially when the relationship is otherwise unharmed, it may be better for a person to simply ignore the incident, forgive the person mentally (never again seeking punishment or restitution, which means never again mentioning the matter), and continue on as though nothing ever happened.

To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kind hearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek [a slap was a cultural way of insulting another Jew], turn the other to him also. (Matthew 5:39)

Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all transgressions. (Proverbs 10:12)

He who conceals a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends. (Proverbs 17:9)

Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)

It is important to bear in mind that forgiveness is the end of the matter. It is the renunciation by the victim of all future intentions to obtain further punishment, confessions, or monetary reparations from the offender. For minor issues, particularly for some personal insults, simply covering over the matter, giving mental forgiveness, closes the matter. This is initiated only by the offended party and does not involve going to the offender. It is hard to ever imagine a situation when it would be proper to tell someone who has not expressed remorse or culpability, "I forgive you!" Such an announcement would generally be answered not with a "Thank you!" but with a "What for…who do you think you are…are you judging me?" Secretly forgive small matters if you like, but do so in silence. Take large matters to the one who offended you, but only in a gracious and loving attitude.

Crimes, Civil Actions, and Love

Coming full circle to where we began, we can now say that the pastor mentioned at the beginning of this article should not have said to the convicted assailant, "I forgive you." In truth, the pastor had not forgiven the unrepentant brute. That pastor admitted he desired to see the man fully punished for his criminal act and to experience the heavy weight of the law. In truth, the pastor did nothing to assuage the man’s sentence, for he did not speak on the convict’s behalf nor petition the court for leniency. The words of apparent "forgiveness" he uttered to the convict carried no biblical meaning and granted no release from any kind of punishment. What those words really conveyed was, "Because you are finally getting your due penalties, I have been emotionally released and don't feel angry any more."  That is an emotional outcome associated with justice realized, but it is not an example of extending biblical forgiveness.

In our contemporary society the victim's emotional release from the anger and bitterness that emerge after a criminal offense, or even after an insult, has become more important than the disposition of the offender.  Yet, emotional release for the offended person is a subject separate from that of genuine forgiveness.  Forgiveness is an act of mercy extended by a victim to the one who is guilty of committing the offense, and forgiveness should not be confused with the victim’s effort or success at setting aside his anger toward the offender.

Imagine for a moment, and please, only for a moment, that God used the word forgiveness in the loose manner that many today desire to use the word. Pretend that God considered forgiveness to mean "I am not emotionally angry toward you anymore, but you must still be punished for doing wrong." We stand before God on judgment day. God tells us, and everyone else, "Sinner, depart from Me into Hell." You answer back, "But Lord, I was forgiven of my sins in Christ. How is that I am condemned to Hell?" God responds, "Oh, I forgave you, that is, I stopped being angry at you, but your deserved punishment was never released from you. Now off to Hell with you."

There are not two definitions of forgiveness in the Word or with God, thankfully. Forgiveness only and always means to free someone from their warranted punishment. Christians were forgiven of their sins, so they will never be eternally punished for them. It is a sad commentary on modern Christianity that so many have diluted the word forgiveness to the improper and worthless concept of, "I am not angry with you but you must still pay for your wrongdoing." Our entire eternal destiny and assurance of resurrection to everlasting life depends on there being only one valid meaning for the word forgiveness in the Bible, "to be freed from one’s own deserved future punishment."

Crimes should be punished. In desiring to see a dangerous and violent criminal punished for his blood lust, the pastor was thinking righteously. This is called justice. Justice is exacting punishment equal to the degree of the crime committed (Exodus 21:23-24). God established governments expressly for the purpose of pursuing justice (Romans 13:1-10). Believers are required by the Lord to implement justice (Exodus 23:6, Leviticus 19:15, Deuteronomy 16:19-20, 27:19, Proverbs 1:3, 17:23, 20:8, 21:3, 21:15, Micah 6:8, Luke 11:42).

The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, And the LORD will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way, And clouds are the dust beneath His feet. (Nahum 1:3)

There is nothing wrong or sinful in desiring to see justice done and criminals punished. Justice is necessary for the operation of a crime restrained society. Criminals ought to be fearful of breaking laws and being punished for doing so. It would be utterly wrong to forgive every criminal and allow them to walk away without punishment, for that would be the death of justice and a violation of God’s commandments.

How then is it possible to convey to an unrepentant criminal that you want him to suffer punishment for his crime but that you have surrendered your anger? Trying to redefine a biblical word like forgiveness (which already has a meaning given to us from God) to carry a manmade meaning of, "I am not angry at you anymore but I still want to see you punished, so, I forgive you," is not any kind of proper solution. Rather, the best approach is probably the honest one. Tell the criminal that you have released your anger against him to God, but you desire that he be punished. This is not forgiveness for the criminal, but it is honest. Such a speech might take this form:

"Though you have injured me and my family, we want you to know that as Christ loves all men, we also love you. We have turned our grief and anger over to God, and pray that you will one day repent and receive Christ as your Lord and Savior. And though we are no longer directly angry with you, it is good and just that you be punished, not by us but by the government, that you might come to see the error of your chosen life style and might one day reform, or even better, find Christ."

Forgiveness is an action of releasing an offender from all future punishment. Forgiveness is not a psychological assent that you have overcome your emotional anger toward the offender. The notion of forgiveness being an overcoming of anger is alien to the Scriptures. Forgiveness is an action that exonerates the guilty from deserved punishment.

If a victim desires release from his anger and bitterness toward an offender, especially an unrepentant one, he must do as the Scriptures require: bless your offenders and enemies, pray for them, do good to them, and work to do loving actions toward them (James 5:13, 1 Corinthians 4:12, Romans 12:14, 12:20, Luke 6:35). This is not a magic formula, it is a set of actions. Anger must be intentionally resisted and turned over to God in prayer. Always bear in mind that Scriptures express that doing good includes rebuking sinners, correcting those who are in error, and refuting those who have espoused evil.  Doing good to enemies and offenders never includes lying to them or taunting them. Doing good also does not require denying or perverting justice.

Offering an individual false forgiveness (that is to tell him "I forgive you" while still seeking his punishment) is the sin of lying, and to release all criminals without punishment is to pervert justice. Neither of those is a valid way to gain peace of mind for the victim. In my experience, false forgiveness (telling someone "I forgive you" but still desiring to impose punishment on that guilty person) is one of the most commonly advocated psychological techniques espoused today to free not the offender, but the victim from his anger. Morality should guide the Christian away from this humanistic and lie-based technique that promises "mental health" but fails to deliver. How can lying to the offender (offering false forgiveness) gain true peace for the victim? Has this not simply added sin on top of sin? In fact, such a lie is a form of taking personal vengeance against the offender--holding out false hope to the offender of being absolved from punishment but then punishing him anyway--an act that is forbidden by Scripture.

Ridding oneself of anger and bitterness regarding a wrong suffered is just plain intentional hard work. Gimmicks, like offering false forgiveness, may make great public spectacle but they only compound the real problem. Only Christ can make one feel safe and whole again. This He will do through the Holy Spirit.

You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly. You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the LORD. You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:15-18)



Forgiveness is the action of informing a guilty person that they have been freed of the future punishment they should have incurred. Forgiveness can only be freely initiated and offered by the victim, else it becomes a perversion of justice. Forgiveness is not a feeling or an emotion inside the heart of the victim, and true forgiveness should never be mistaken for that.

When a wrongdoer confesses his guilt, only then does he become eligible for requesting and receiving forgiveness. God does not even hear the prayers of those who refuse to acknowledge their guiltiness.

When an offender refuses to repent, the victim may righteously seek punishment under the civil or criminal law, and may pursue restitution under ecclesiastical law. Or the victim may quietly forgive minor sins, such as personal insults. In any case, the victim must turn his anger and bitterness over to God in prayer and leave them behind. In no case may a victim offer the wrongdoer false forgiveness (telling the offender he is forgiven while still attempting to impose punishment on him).

In every case, when a Christian brother or sister confesses his guilt to the victim and seeks forgiveness, the Christian must give it. The goal is always peace in the body and the unity found in reconciliation. As Ken Sande has written in his book, The Peacemaker, reconciliation is the restoration of a relationship to where it used to be before the offense occurred.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

To study more about forgiveness, you are invited to read Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Forgiveness. To read more about asking for forgiveness, please consider reading “I Am Sorry You Were Offended” and Other Insincere Apologies.

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Page Originally Posted: October 21, 2008
Page Last Revised: October 21, 2008