Notice the language and depictions: pardon, pass over, tread underfoot, cast into the depths of the sea. Were we to take these steps, what would become of the offenses of those we forgive? Of course, all these actions of God point us to Christ. In Him and by Him these actions are effected and realized for us. As God in Christ forgave us, so we are to forgive others.
The best way to grasp the meaning of forgiveness is not through a dictionary but a lectionary. While a dictionary can give us synonyms and phrases that carve out the contours of forgiveness, it is the unfolding story of redemption in Jesus Christ that brings the concept to us in three-dimensional glory and vivid Technicolor.
A lectionary walks us through the church calendar, following the path of Christ’s advent, incarnation, life, sacrifice on the cross, resurrection, ascension, reign and intercession on high. It relates a story focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ, where forgiveness promised becomes forgiveness procured, and stands as forgiveness proclaimed.
The Bible is a story of forgiveness. Jesus, in explaining the theme of the story, said this: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45–47).
The goal, the gain, and the granting of forgiveness are related through the story of Jesus. That means we best grasp the ins and outs, the cost, everything about forgiveness by studying the person and work of Christ.
Paul tells us that we are to forgive one another, even as God in Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32). God is held up as a model for our forgiveness of others, but not just God; it is God in Christ. We are to wrestle with what God did through the giving of His Son in order that we might grasp forgiving in His Son.
But a dictionary does serve us in the practicalities of forgiveness. Four words help us get a grip on the concept for its application. Two derive from the New Testament and two from the Old.
The two most prevalent terms for “forgive” in the New Testament are aphiēmi and charizomai. Aphiēmi is found in the Lord’s Prayer: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). The sense is “to drop, to let go, dismiss.” If someone sins against you and you forgive, that means that you release your hold on what you have against them, and so release them from the debt owed to you. In discarding it, it is no longer available to hold over them or use against them.
The other prevalent term in the New Testament is charizomai. We find it used in that great charter of Christian unity, Colossians 3:12-17: “…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” (3:13). Charizomai means to give generously or to give grace. When we forgive, we exercise grace. Grace in the model of God is undeserved, unexpected, and unearned. We forgive as we have been forgiven.
Aphiēmi tends to the negative. We refrain from something. We restrain a right to afflict. Charizomai tends to the positive. We give grace. We seek to give lavishly, to bless.
Two terms related to forgiveness in the Old Testament are nasa’ and kasah. Nasa’ looks “to lift, take away, unburden.” Kasah speaks to covering or concealing. Both terms are found in Psalm 32: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (32:1). The psalmist goes on to enhance the depiction of God’s work: “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity” (32:2).
These two words fill out our appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ. The guilt of our sin is removed from us, as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). Our transgressions are hidden from God’s sight, behind His back (Is. 43:25).
God gives us these images to help us grasp the wonder of His redeeming love. They also help us to exercise the grace of forgiveness to others. He offers us a compelling picture at the close of the book of Micah to show us the exercise of forgiveness.
“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18–19).
Notice the language and depictions: pardon, pass over, tread underfoot, cast into the depths of the sea. Were we to take these steps, what would become of the offenses of those we forgive?
Of course, all these actions of God point us to Christ. In Him and by Him these actions are effected and realized for us. As God in Christ forgave us, so we are to forgive others.
A lexicon, a dictionary of terms, helps us to define forgiveness. But it is a lectionary that breathes life and love into that understanding.
Richer still, we are not only to define forgiveness. It is to define us. We are a people forgiven by God, who are to be known by our love in forgiving others with the grace we have received.
Stan Gale is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the author of Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.