Scriptural Forgiving Ethics

By H. L. Bruce

George Herbert once said, “He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.” Benjamin Franklin put it like this, “Doing injury puts you below your enemy; revenging one makes you but even with him; forgiving it sets you above him.” “Forgive and forget.” Charles Spurgeon said, “When you bury a mad dog, don’t leave his tail above the ground.” Many a man will be lost, not because he was a liar, adulterer, or murderer, but because he refused to forgive.


There are seven words in the scripture which denote the idea of forgiveness, three in the Hebrew and four in the Greek. In the Hebrew Old Testament they are “kapar, ” to cover; “nasa, ” to bear-take away guilt; and “salah, ” to pardon. “Nasa” is used of both human and divine forgiveness. The other two, “Kapar” and “salah, ” are used only of divine forgiveness. In the Greek New Testament the words are “apolyein, ” “charizesthai, ” “aphesis” and `paresis.” “Apolyein” is found numerous times as “to put away,” e.g. a wife (Matt. 5:31), but only once to signify forgiveness (Luke 6:37). “Paresis” is also found only once (Rom. 5:23), and suggests “disregarding,” but without any suggestion of indifference. “Charizesthai” is used only by Luke and Paul, and only by the latter in the sense of “to forgive sins” (2 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 4:32; Col. 2:13; 3:13, etc.). It especially expresses the graciousness of God’s forgiveness.

The most common New Testament word for forgiveness is “aphesis.” It conveys the idea of “sending away” or “letting go.” The noun occurs fifteen times. The verb with the same meaning is used about forty times (see Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p. 226).

The God of heaven, through the greatest and grandest book that was ever written, offers unto us the most sublime blessings extant. Among those blessings, one will find the forgiveness of sins. Jehovah-God promised through the prophets and inspired the New Testament writers to confirm, that he would remember our sins no more (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12; 10:17). Through God’s communicated revelation, we find extensive teachings on remission of sins. In it we read, “I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely” (Hos. 14:4). “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).

The Need For Forgiveness

The need for forgiveness is universal. In Gal. 3:22, the apostle Paul wrote, “But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” Along this same line, the apostle John concluded, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and 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 Jn. 1:810).

It is necessary that we not only recognize the scope of our guilt before God, but we must also have a forgiving heart. As a matter of scriptural ethics, there are no limitations whatever as to the number of times that we forgive others. Jesus taught that we extend forgiveness “seven times a day” (Luke 17:4), and until “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). Limitlessness is the idea! We will not be forgiven of our heavenly Father if we fail to forgive others their transgressions (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:23-35). We should forgive, on and on, those who sin and turn to us for forgiveness.

Duty to Forgive

We are our brother’s keeper and we have a responsibility to each other. If a brother sins against us, we have a responsibility to try to save him. In Matt. 18:1518, Jesus said, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” Another passage emphasizes the same enjoined obligation. Jesus said, in Luke 17:3, “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him, and if he repent, forgive him.” In far too many instances the obligation to rebuke a brother, with a view to his restoration, is completely ignored.

On the other hand, we also have a responsibility: If a brother has something against us, we have an obligation to go and seek reconciliation. Jesus said, in the sermon on the mount; “Therefore if thou bring thy gift before the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matt. 5:23-24).

According to this, we have an obligation either way: If we have been transgressed against, we have an obligation to go, rebuke and try to restore. If, on the other hand, we know of one who has “aught” against us we have a responsibility to go and be reconciled.

In many instances, the hard, cold truth is that problems exist when the involved parties do not want them solved. Grudges are held without any desire or intent to forgive. Then there are offenders who have too much adamant, stubborn pride to repent. When conditions like these exist, unsolved problems may be expected to linger. However, when all parties are respectively penitent and forgiving-conciliate and restoring-problems will soon be amended. We should heed and practice the inspired admonition, “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:13).

The Cost of Forgiveness

It is not only important that men have a forgiving attitude toward one another, but we all must receive forgiveness from God or else we will die in our sins and consequently, meet the Lord unprepared (see Jn. 8:21). In Revelation 21:27 we read, “And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” To understand the importance of forgiveness, look to Calvary. Jesus Christ came into this wicked, sinful world, lived among men, died the ignominious death on Calvary’s cross for the sins of mankind. My friend, he died for us. The Hebrew writer said “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Heb. 2:9). In another text, the apostle Paul wrote, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). Christ died for us. He considered our sins important. His blood is the price paid. He poured it out that we might have forgiveness of sins. According to Luke, Jesus said, “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).

Alien sinners need forgiveness. In their state of alienation, they are lost. In describing their plight to the brethren at Ephesus, the apostle Paul explained, “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

In order for them to be saved, aliens must believe in the Deity of Jesus (Jn. 20:30-31, repent of their past and alien sins (Acts 17:30), confess Christ before men (Romans 10:9-10), and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). In doing this, they enter Christ (Gal. 3:27). It is in Christ that “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” can be enjoyed (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14).

Truth Magazine XIX: 30, pp. 470-471
June 5, 1975