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What Forgiveness Isn't


Since reading chapter 16 of the book entitled "The Shack", I feel compelled to restate my position concerning Biblical forgiveness.  Many Christians and non-Christians alike forgive this person or that person.  People forgive themselves.  They forgive others who haven't even offended them.  They even forgive Hitler, as if he wanted to be forgiven.  When asked to define forgiveness people usually say it's the "letting go" of bitterness they hold against the offender.  The author of "The Shack" agrees with this when in his book God tells Mack to forgive his daughter's murderer by "letting go" of the bitterness he holds against him.  The "letting go" of bitterness is meant to bring needed peace to Mack's life.  Relinquishing bitterness is important for our health, but is it forgiveness as defined in Biblical terms?      


To understand Biblical forgiveness we must understand how Biblical writers defined their word that is translated as "forgive" in our English Bibles.  We often redefine their words with our modern definitions, and that's not right.  The New Testament was written in first century Greek, so there are language and cultural concerns to be considered when interpreting Biblical words.  The Greek word "aphiemi" is translated as "forgive" in our English New Testament.  "Aphiemi" means to "send away".  Therefore, other terms you might use to help define "aphiemi" could be, to cancel, to release, to delete, to erase, or, "to let go".   


"Aphiemi" was not a religious word.  It was a common word used in daily conversation in first century Roman Palestine.  It was often used with reference to cancelling a financial debt, as can be seen in Matthew 18:27 and 32.   If you think of "aphiemi" as a bookkeeping term, that is, the cancelation of a financial debt, you'll begin to understand Biblical forgiveness.  So, if the bank forgives your car loan, your loan is canceled, deleted from their computers, and "sent away" to the computer's trash can, never to be seen again.   


Here is the important question that I've never heard asked when discussing forgiveness.  When the Bible speaks of forgiveness in terms of  "sending away", or "letting go", because that's what "aphiemi" means, what is to be "let go"?  Is it our resentment and bitterness as most people think?      


To answer this question we need to understand that because God is just, He keeps account of our sins for future judgment.  This sounds archaic in our post-modern world, but that's what the Bible says. (Revelation 20:12)  Understanding this will help you understand what needs to be "let go" of in the process of forgiveness.   


In Matthew 26:28 Jesus said, "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."  In Luke 3:3 John the Baptist preached "repentance for the forgiveness of sins."  Peter, in Acts 5:31 stated that God "grants repentance for the forgiveness of sins."  In Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14 Paul said that Jesus gives us "forgiveness of sins."  The common phrase in these verses and others is, "the forgiveness of sins".  This tells us what needs to be "let go" of in the process of Biblical forgiveness, and it's not bitterness. 


The above verses clearly state that it is sin, not bitterness, that is "sent away" or "let go of" in the process of Biblical forgiveness.  As these verses point out, forgiveness only takes place once the offender repents of his sins.  The prerequisite to forgiveness, the cancelation and letting go of sin, is repentance.    


Are we to view forgiveness differently than how we see God view forgiveness in the above passages?  I don't think so, but most of us do.  We've adopted the world's view of forgiveness by viewing forgiveness as the "letting go of bitterness" when it's really the "letting go of sin".    


I don't believe Jesus expects us to do something He Himself doesn't do.  So when someone offends us, we need to do what Jesus does, and that is cancel the debt of sin when, and only when, our offender repents of the sin.  Upon repentance we delete the offense, not the bitterness, from our mental records as if it never existed in the first place.     


I know what you're thinking, and you're right.  We need to "let go" of bitterness, but that's not Biblical forgiveness.  It's actually an act of love. The Bible teaches us to love our offender, whether he repents or not, and you can't love him when you resent him.  The world's view of forgiveness as being the "letting go" of bitterness is selfish.  Most people "let go" of bitterness to find personal peace of mind. There's a more Biblical and less selfish reason to "let go" of bitterness, and that's to love the offender in order to help bring him to repentance and forgiveness of  sins.  Personal peace will naturally come when we "let go" of bitterness, but it shouldn't be the only reason why we let bitterness go.      


Christians have one very important ministry as we walk this earth as representatives of Jesus.  He has given us both the responsibility and the authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins upon the repentance of the sinner. (John 20:23)  On the behalf of Jesus we are to cancel, or "let go" of the offender's sin.  If we don't understand Biblical forgiveness in this light, we will certainly fail to carry out our responsibilities of this ministry.  I do  believe we have failed in this respect.  Our adoption of a selfish world view does nothing to further the ministry Jesus has given us. 


In reaction to Catholicism, Protestants have unfortunately set aside the Biblical mandate for us to forgive sins upon the repentance of the sinner.  Such a mandate  sounds too Catholic for Protestants, so we've left that for Jesus, when He has asked us to help Him with this.  On the other hand, Catholicism has defiled the mandate to forgive sins by making it a ministry for priests only.  The New Testament states that we are all priests.  Christians have the same responsibility and authority in this respect as Jesus has.  Like Jesus, we are to reconcile the world unto God by canceling sins directed towards us and God upon the repentance of the offender. (2 Corinthians 5:19) 


This is the process of Biblical forgiveness.  The offended one "let's go" of bitterness as an act of love in order to help bring the offender to repentance.  As a matter of godly justice, the offense cannot be canceled until it is accounted for and recognized as being an offense by the offender and then repented of.  At that point only, the offense is forgiven, canceled, or "let go of".   The process of Biblical forgiveness is a matter of love and justice working hand in hand. 


Jesus loves unconditionally.  That's why He paid the price for our sins to be canceled.  We should love unconditionally too.  Jesus forgives, or "lets go" of sins only when the sinner repents.  We should forgive, or "let go" of sin only when our offender repents too.  That's simple Biblical logic.   





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