What Is Forgiveness?
What is forgiveness of sins? Is God really willing to give us a fresh start? Or are there things that are beyond what even a loving God will forgive?
One of the best-known historical accounts in the Bible is that of King David and his affair with Bathsheba. Not only did David commit adultery with the wife of another man, but he also murdered her husband (Uriah) by giving an order to have Uriah placed in the front lines of a battle. When a prearranged withdrawal of forces left him exposed, Uriah was killed.
After these events, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David about his sins. Nathan spoke of a wealthy man who had many flocks and herds, yet instead of taking and preparing one of his own lambs to serve a visitor, he took the one and only pet lamb of a poor man.
David was so enraged that he ordered the death of the wealthy man. Nathan then told David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). David saw for the first time the enormity of his sins.
David’s reaction and God’s response show us in condensed form what God expects of us and what He is willing to do for us. “So David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die’” (2 Samuel 12:13).
What is forgiveness? God demonstrates
God’s reaction to David’s sin and David’s subsequent confession is consistent with God’s words to us throughout the Bible. God is willing to forgive human sin. Notice Psalm 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Verse 11 shows us what a merciful nature God has: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him.”
When God forgives our sins, He removes them from us forever—they will never again be associated with us. Hebrews 8:12 tells us God no longer remembers sins He has forgiven: “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
The apostle John sums up sin, repentance and God’s forgiveness this way: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just 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 1:9-10). God will forgive our sins when we admit them to Him and seek forgiveness.
What do we have to do to receive God’s forgiveness?
David’s response to being confronted by his sins was the key to God’s forgiveness. He acknowledged his sins. Furthermore, Psalm 51 shows the depth of his sorrow and repentance for his sins. Repentance before God for our sins is required if we are to be forgiven.
Acts 2 contains an account of the apostles shortly after Christ’s crucifixion. Peter addressed a crowd in Jerusalem and told them very eloquently (and bluntly) that they had crucified the Son of God. The crowd was “cut to the heart”—they suddenly saw the enormity of their sins. They asked Peter what they should do.
Peter gave them the answer in Acts 2:38: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
God even forgives a sin as monstrous as the killing of His own Son! And, since our sins are the reason Christ had to die, in a sense each of us was responsible for His death.
Repentance is more than just feeling sorry for our sins. Repentance is a change of heart and change of direction. It involves a determination to stop sinning and not to sin in the future. King David was sorry and repentant for his sins, and he did not repeat those sins. God forgave him.
Is there anything else we must do?
Once God forgives us, we must also forgive others for their sins and offenses against us. Christ’s model prayer, often called the Lord’s Prayer, clearly explains what is required of us: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
The word “debts” used above is the Greek word opheilema. It is defined in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words as “that which is legally due … metaphorically, of sin as a debt, because it demands expiation, and thus payment by way of punishment” (1997, p. 269).
When God forgives us, He removes that sin and the penalty of death that would have resulted. So, as God forgives us, we need to forgive others in like manner.
Seeking forgiveness, giving forgiveness
What is forgiveness? It is the wonderful gift of a merciful God who will absolutely forgive our sins when we show repentance and ask for His forgiveness. When sin is acknowledged and repented of and forgiveness is humbly requested, He shows forgiveness and mercy to us.
His nature is one of mercy, as shown in Psalm 103:8: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” God is not anxious to punish us for our sins, but rather He desires to forgive us.
In return, God requires that we show the same forgiving attitude toward our fellow human beings. Matthew 6:14-15 sums up God’s approach to us and our sins: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”