Forgiveness has been called the virtue we profess to believe, fail to practice, and neglect to preach. Forgiveness is an overloaded, undervalued, and largely misunderstood grace. Here are ten principles of true forgiveness:
#1 — Forgiveness is ultimately from God
Since sin is first against God, forgiveness is finally from God: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). We find forgiveness not in the things we do or the people we ask, we ultimately find forgiveness from God. This is also true concerning how we forgive others. When we forgive others we extend to others the grace of God that He extended to us in Christ.
#2 — Forgiveness is conditioned on repentance
Conditioned on repentance as an act of faith not works, just as salvation is said to be condition on repentance as an act of faith. As with Esau, who without repentance remained guilty even though he was “sorry” with tears over his choice: “For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears” (Heb 12:17 NASB). That forgiveness is conditioned on repentance is plain in the “if” of Christ’s instructions: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).
#3 — Forgiveness is a grace
Forgiveness is not only hard it is impossible in the economy of justice. Forgiveness without atonement is not a virtue, it is injustice. Forgiveness is not a mere overlooking of a crime; it is the promise that the penalty for the crime has been diverted to another on the guilty’s behalf. Forgiveness is never deserved, merited, or earned. Therefore, forgiveness is ultimately the gift of divine grace through Christ. The “forgiveness of our trespasses” are “according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
#4 — Forgiveness is a promise
To forgive is to for + give = “not give” what is due or deserved. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the for prefix (as used in forgive) denotes the notion of passing by, abstaining from, neglecting, or withholding. It is in class with the word “forgo” (to abstain or refrain from) and related to the word “forbid” (to bid not). Thus, to forgive is to give not what is due.
Forgiveness is a promise. Not a feeling and not merely an attitude. To forgive a sin is to promise not to use the guilt of that sin against the offender. If I forgive, I resolve to acquit and not accuse. It is a promise to not bring up the charge of that sin to the person I forgive, to others, and to my own mind. This may be why it is often said that it is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend. To forgive is to bury in an unmarked grave. The Lord describes how He forgives with this notion: “He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19); “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12); “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions … and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).
#5 — Forgiveness is both (a) intrapersonal and (b) interpersonal
Intrapersonal in that it involves the disposition of the heart. It begins within. It fundamentally is a promise of self-denial; a denial of one’s own right to accuse. In this sense, forgiveness is a heart disposition to always be “ready” to forgive. Although not everyone will be forgiven, yet God repeatedly reveals Himself as a “forgiving” God: “For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive” (Psalm 86:5 NASB). We typically describe this intrapersonal forgiveness, or attitudinal forgiveness, as being “forgiving”—so: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving” (Psalm 86:5 ESV). Intrapersonal forgiveness is not conditioned on the repentance of the offending party. Therefore, Christ teaches us to pray to have a forgiving heart: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Interpersonal forgiveness is transactional (Matthew 18:15; Luke 17:3). Interpersonal forgiveness is conditioned on repentance. This is where the promise of forgiveness is granted. This is where atonement is applied. This realized form of forgiveness is a key feature in the principle of salvation; God saves those who seek His forgiveness through repentant faith in Christ (Acts 5:31; 8:22; Romans 4:7).
#6 — Forgiveness is costly
True forgiveness costs nothing less than the crucifixion of the Son of God (Isaiah 53:5, 11; John 1:29; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). We must remember that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22; cf. Eph 1:7). Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until it costs them deeply to extend it.
#7 — Forgiveness is an act of love
God repeatedly links His gift of forgiveness to His love for sinners: “keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7); “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you” (Psalm 86:5); “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:17); “the LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Numbers 14:18); “Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now” (Numbers 14:19); “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).
#8 — Forgiveness is relational
Forgiveness is not merely a legal pardon; it is a means of relational restoration and harmony: “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-13). The Lord says to Israel that the purpose for which He “blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist” was so that they would “return” to Him: “return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22; cf. Isaiah 31:6; 55:7; Acts 3:19).
#9 — Forgiveness is uniquely Christian
While we thank God for His common grace that restrains revenge and works in people of all of beliefs to extend a measure of personal pardon for offenses suffered, true forgiveness is uniquely Christian.
Sin is first against God (Psalm 51:4), repentance is first away from sin and to God (Isaiah 55:7), and forgiveness is finally from God (Daniel 9:9). Since forgiveness is based on a concrete transaction and not some whimsical strength to simply overlook a violation, it is uniquely afforded through the substitution of Jesus Christ on the cross. The gospel is the good news of forgiveness for sinners to be restored to a right relationship with God through Christ and Him crucified on their behalf: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Notice that “forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Because Christ is the only substitute for sinners, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), in other words, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
Forgiveness is uniquely Christian because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22) and yet “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4); the only possibility is a perfect human substitute. It is in Christ alone that “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7).
#10 — Forgiveness is for the glory of God
Forgiveness makes much of God’s love and grace, His mercy and wisdom, His kindness and forbearance, His compassion and tender-heartedness—forgiveness makes much of God. We must forgive, first, because it glorifies God. Not first because it heals us, or helps us, or even because we were forgiven, but first because it makes much of God. We should forgive in the same priorities that God forgives: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake” (Isaiah 43:25). May we cry out with David, “For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great” (Psalm 25:11).