What Is Biblical Forgiveness?

If you have an overactive conscience, this post is for you. God hurls your sins into the sea and remembers them no more. An old fashioned word study and basic Bible study, with lots of biblical data put in an easy-to-read format.

It is marvelous how God forgives our sins. So, are we likewise willing to forgive those who hurt us?

Let’s first do some basic word studies and then apply some Scriptures.

Old Testament

It was written in Hebrew (and Aramaic), so let’s look at three verbs.

The verb ḥanan (pronounced khah-nahn and used 77 times). Its basic mean is “to show mercy, favor, be gracious.”

See my post:

Do I Really Know God? He Is Gracious

Another verb is kasa (pronounced kah-sah and used 153 times). It means “to cover” or “conceal” and “hide” and even “forgive.” When you forgive someone’s sins, you cover them, as if they do not bother you. It is used to cover oneself with a garment (2 Kings 19:1-2; Is. 37:2). It can refer to protecting someone (Gen. 9:23; 18:17; Judg. 4:18-19). Hiding sins is the opposite of confessing them (Ps. 32:5; Prov. 28:11). The atonement cover on the ark is a superb meaning because it is also the mercy eat (Lev. 16:13). Most relevantly, “when God ‘hides’ sin, he makes it completely invisible and casts it into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19) (Mounce 144). In Ps. 85:2, he forgives all our iniquities and covered all their sins.

A third verb is nasa’ (pronounced nah-sah and is used 659 times). Its basic meaning is “lift high, raise high, bear, carry.” It sometimes means “to forgive” on God’s part, “to carry or bear sin.” In Exod. 34:6-8, The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity. David said he would confess his sins, and the Lord would forgive the guilt of his sins (Ps. 32:5). Most famously, the suffering servant would carry or bear the sins of another person, and by this he would make many righteous and receive great honor and reward (Is. 53:12).

Jewish commentators on  Lev. 4:20 say that the Hebrew verb for forgive” is “salach,” and it refers only to God’s forgiveness (Torah, p. 771). The NT makes no distinctions in its Greek verb.

Jesus may have used the word when he pronounced forgiveness on a paralytic whom he healed.


The Son of Man Claims God’s Authority to Forgive Sins on Earth

See this offsite post for a quick definition and all the biblical references to salach: https://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_5545.htm

In all its contexts, it truly is the kind of forgiveness that only God can offer.

New Testament

It was written in Greek, and let’s look at a noun and a verb.

The noun is aphesis (pronounced ah-feh-seess and used 17 times). BDAG is considered the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, and it defines the noun as follows: (1) “The act of freeing and liberating from something that confines, release”; (2) “the act of freeing from an obligation, guilt or punishment, pardon, cancellation.” The Shorter Lexicon says: “release” or “cancellation” or “pardon” or “forgiveness.” God lets our sins go, and we should let go of our past the sins and the sins of those who have offended us. God grants us that benefit. We should grant people the same grace.

The verb is aphiēmi (pronounced ah-fee-ay-mee and used 143 times). The NT is a thin document compared to the OT, so it is remarkable how often the verb is used. God must think it is important. BDAG defines the verb with the basic meaning of letting go: (1) “dismiss or release someone or something from a place or one’s presence, let go, send away”; (2) “to release from legal or moral obligations or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon”; (3) “to move away with implication of causing a separation, leave, depart”; (4) “to leave something continue or remain in its place … let someone have something” (Matt. 4:20; 5:24; 22:22; Mark 1:18; Luke 10:30; John 14:18); (5) “leave it to someone to do something, let, let go, allow, tolerate.” The Shorter Lexicon adds “forgive.” In sum, God lets go, dismisses, releases, sends away, cancels, pardons, and forgives our sins. His work is full and final. Don’t go backwards or dwell on it. The verb means to forgive.

Biblical Data

Let’s use an outline format, for clarity and conciseness.

I.. Human forgiveness of others

A.. Esau and Jacob

In Gen. 33:4, Esau had to forgive his brother Jacob, who tricked his older brother out of his birthright. Jacob was nervous when they first met after many years of separation, but the reconciliation was positive.

B.. Joseph and his brothers

Joseph boasted that his brothers would bow down to him, and his brothers resented the very idea and sold him into slavery into Egypt. After many years of troubles, Joseph was promoted, and because of a famine his brother came town into Egypt from Canaan. Joseph disguised himself, but after some trick play, he revealed himself. They wept and had a group hug. All was forgiven. What they had meant for evil God turned it around for god (Gen. 50:15-21).

C.. A father forgives his wayward son

In one of the greatest parables ever told, certainly in the three Gospels, the younger son of a wealthy father demanded his inheritance now, right now! He left for a faraway country squandered it on riotous and debauched living. He came to himself and returned to his father, who saw him at a distance and ran to meet him and hugged his neck. His father forgave and honored him (Luke 15:17-24).

D.. Jesus forgave his enemies who crucified him

In Luke 23:34, Jesus forgave those who crucified him—while he was on the cross.

In Acts 7:60 Stephen, while he was dying from being stoned to death, he forgave the ones killing him.

E.. Paul forgave everyone who deserted him.

He prayed that the Lord would not charge their abandonment to their account (2 Tim. 4:16).

II.. Forgiveness is commanded of Christians.

A.. The Father in heaven will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive

Jesus spoke a heavy and serious word. He said, ending the parable of the unmerciful servant, who refused to forgive someone of a small debt, when he had just been forgiven a massive one, that the servant was put in prison. So the Father would do to us if we refused to forgive. We would be put in prison of our own making (Matt. 18:35).

B.. Jesus simply assumes we’ll forgive because our sins were forgiven

In the Lord’s Model Prayer, Jesus said, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4, my translation). So there is a relationship between God’s forgiveness of us and our willingness to forgive those who sin against us. We forgive because God forgave us.

C.. Paul says the same thing—forgiven, therefore forgive.

Eph. 4:32 says exactly this. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave you” (NIV). We forgive as we have been forgiven.

Col. 3:13 says: “Bear with one another and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone” (NIV). A straightforward command.

III.. The reasons God forgives

A.. Compassion

Exod. 34:6-7 says that God passed in front of Moses, proclaiming that God himself is the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness and rebellion and sin. Therefore God’s compassion and grace moves him to forgive.

Mic. 7:19 promises that God will have compassion on Israel (and us); and he will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities in the sea. So once again God’s compassion moves him to forgive. The image of treading sins underfoot and throwing them into the sea is fantastic.

B.. Love

Psalm 51 is David’s great confession psalm after he sinned with Bathsheba. In the first verse he asks God to have mercy on him, according to his unfailing love.

C.. Grace

Ps. 103:8, 10, 11-12 has great verses about God’s grace. The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love … he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (10) … “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (11-12, NIV). Great promises!

D.. Mercy

Isaiah called out to the wicked to forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. They should turn to the LORD and he will have mercy on them, and he will freely pardon (forgive) (Is. 55:7).

IV.. How God forgives

A.. Shedding of blood

Heb. 9:22 says that he forgives by the shedding of blood. Life was in the blood, and it became the substitute for our own blood. Either we paid for our own sins, or someone else would do it, in our place. Who would be qualified to pay for our sins permanently. The Son of God alone was qualified.

B.. Foreshadowed in the Levitical system

The sacrifice of Christ was foreshadowed in the Levitical system (Lev. 4:1-5:13), In fact Jesus fulfills the Day of Atonement. See my post The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 from a NT Perspective

C.. This foreshadowing was fulfilled by the blood of Christ.

Col. 1:14 says we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Christ who rescued us from the domain of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he love.

Col. 2:13-14 says Christ was nailed to the cross and canceled the legal charge against us that stood against us and condemned us. He has taken it away.

Heb. 9:14, 28 says that Christ’s blood, who offered himself unblemished by the eternal Spirit, cleanses our conscience from acts leading to death. Verse 28, says that Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many.

D.. Jesus can forgive sins

Mark 2:1-11 says that Jesus was about to heal a paralytic, but he first pronounced forgiveness of the man’s sins. The religious guys complained because only God could forgive sins, not some self-proclaimed prophet (as the saw things). Jesus both forgave the man’s sins and healed him.

V.. The results of forgiveness of our sins

A.. They disappear from God’s sight

Is. 38:17 records a prayer written by King Hezekiah that says that God has put all the king’s sins behind God’s back. In other words, the sins are hidden or concealed, out of sight.

B.. They are thrown out

Recall that Mic. 7:19 says God hurls our sins and iniquities in the sea. And Ps. 103:11-12, says that our sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west.

C.. They go out of God’s mind

Is. 43:25 says that God blots out our transgressions, for his own sake, and remembers our sins no more.

Jer. 31:34 and Heb. 8:12 say that God will forgive the people’s wickedness and will remember their sins no more.

D.. They go out of existence

Recall that Ps. 51:1 says that David prayed God would blot out his transgressions. Verse 2 asks God to wash away all his iniquities and cleanse him from his sin. Verse 7 asks God to use hyssop and more washing, so he will be white as snow. Hyssop was an herb uses for cleansing and purifying (Num. 19:6). And verse 9 ask God to hide his face from David’s iniquities and again to blot out all of his iniquities.

Is. 44:22 says that God has swept away offenses like a cloud and our sins like the morning mist.

In apostolic teaching, this time by Peter to his fellow Jews, Peter tells them to repent and turn to God, so that their sins would be wiped out (Acts 3:19).

VI.. How we receive forgiveness.

A.. We confess our sins

Ps. 32:5 is great. David said he acknowledged (confessed) his sin to God and did not cover up his iniquities. He even determined, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” And God answered and forgave the guilt of his sin.

I John 1:9 is for believers. If we confess our sins, he is faith and righteous to forgive us of them and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Some grace teachers claim that this verse is for unbelievers because the first chapter of John’s first epistle was written to proto-gnostics. No. Verse 7 says it was written to believers. Anyone can claim v. 9, whether believer or unbeliever, if he needs it.

B.. We must repent of our sins

Peter preached that his fellow Jews should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). And they would receive the gifts of the Spirit. So does the act of dipping into water save a person? Is the water sacred or holy and have healing virtue in it? This is very difficult to prove. In fact the opposite is easier to prove. People were saved before they were water baptized (Acts 9:18; 10:44-48). Water is a symbol of the inner work of the Spirit and our saving faith and the washing away of our sins (Titus 3:5).

Acts 3:19, as we just read, says that people must repent and turn to the Lord, so their sins would be wiped out. Repenting and turning are the same act. Repentance is more than just “changed mind.” It is a turning 180 degrees. See my post What Is Repentance?

C.. We believe in Christ

In Luke 24:47 says that the disciples are called to go out preach repentance for the forgiveness.

Acts 10:43 says that everyone who believes in him (Christ) receives forgiveness of his sins through his name.

How does this post cause me to grow in Christ?

Forgiveness is a gift of God. He offers it to you on your repentance. When you acknowledge and confess your sins and believe in Christ at the same time, your sins are instantly forgiven. Now you begin a new journey with God through Christ.

Now what about you believers who sin? You too can just whisper a gentle prayer of repentance, when the Spirit convicts you. Yes, the Spirit really does convict believers, despite what grace teachers say. (See my post Does the Spirit Convict Believers?). 1 John 1:9 applies to you. No, you do not need to obsess over your sins, but when the Spirit nudges you to repent, do so. And God’s forgiveness is instant and joyous.

Now what about you believers who have an overactive conscience who obsess over your sins. Pray every day that God would heal your overactive conscience and bring it back into balance. Just meditate on those wonderful Scriptures in Mic. 7:19 and Heb. 8:12. God throws your sins in the sea and remembers them no more. Gradually (or rapidly) your conscience will come into balance.

Now what about your refusal to forgive others? That is a risky place to be. The Father will put you into a prison of your own choice. Your unforgiveness hinders your prayers and growth in Christ. A wise saying: unforgiveness is like your taking a poisoned pill, hoping it will poison the one who hurt you. Instead it poisons only yourself.

Reconciliation and forgiveness are not the same thing. You can forgive, and then God may or may not call your to be reconciled. Don’t be reconciled to an abusive man, if your counselors advise against it. Forgive him, and then move on.

So how do we forgive? Sometimes you have to fight and “smack down” your emotions that won’t let you forgive. You do this by asking the Spirit to empower you. You have to surrender your emotions to Christ and ask him to strengthen your will to forgive. Meditate on how God has forgiven you of your sins, and then it becomes easier for you to forgive others who have hurt you.


The Son of Man Claims God’s Authority to Forgive Sins on Earth

How to Forgive Adultery and Fornication

What Does ‘Salvation’ Mean?

What Is the Source of Salvation?

What Is the Work of Salvation?

How Do We Respond to God’s Salvation?

What Is Repentance?

Regeneration: What Is It and How Does It Work?


Works Cited

At that link, look for the NIV Study Bible.

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