What Is Forgiveness?


In the New Testament the word for “forgiveness” typically refers to putting something aside, leaving it alone, or letting it go. In the context of human relationships, forgiveness is the act of releasing someone else from their moral debt to you, even though you have the right to demand payment for their wrongs against you; as the forgiver, you are freeing the offender from their obligation to compensate you.


As it stands, forgiveness needs to be distinguished from other actions which people can confuse it with. Two clarifications are critical here:

First, it does not mean excusing the other person’s behavior or being in denial about what happened. Trivializing and downplaying the severity of an offense has nothing to do with forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness means letting go of the inexcusable in the other person. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”[1]

Forgiveness names the wrong that’s been committed. It does not excuse or deny it.

Second, forgiveness is not the same as trust or reconciliation. It is possible to let go of an offense, but not always possible to mend the broken trust between people. We are never called to be “doormats”; nor should we continually place ourselves in the position of being hurt again – this just enables the offender’s bad behavior. Trust can only be restored when healthy boundaries are implemented in the relationship; these boundaries create an environment of safety and protection so that the forgiver can pursue healing and the offender can start to demonstrate good character again.

In an ideal world, forgiveness would always lead to reconciliation and healed trust, but in in a broken world like ours, it does not and (sometimes) should not.
In an ideal world, forgiveness would always lead to reconciliation and healed trust, but in in a broken world like ours, it does not and (sometimes) should not.

Ideally, boundaries result in restored trust as both parties work together to pick up the broken pieces of the relationship, but this does not always happen. Indeed, sometimes it should not happen, as when perpetrators remain unrepentant or are likely to reoffend in serious ways. In these cases, the original relationship between the forgiver and the offender needs be redefined or terminated to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all parties involved. But in the meantime, the hope of the Christian is that one day God will either heal the broken relationship or bring the wrongdoer to account if justice has not already been meted out. This hope may not come to fruition until God renews all things at the end of time.

If you haven’t already noticed, forgiveness is a tall order. It feels unrealistic at the best of times and downright unfair at the worst of times. So why does God even command it? Let’s look at the Lord’s Prayer to address that question.[2]


In Matthew 6:12 we are told to pray the following: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and later on in verses 14-15, Jesus warns, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” For the modern reader, these words sound harsh because they are difficult to reconcile with the love and mercy of God. So how should we interpret this passage?


One of the “hard line” interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer suggests that God is unwilling to forgive until we forgive others. I do not personally agree with this interpretation because it paints an inaccurate picture God, as one who is stingy with his love and waiting for us to make the first move. The Bible is very clear about God taking the initiative to love us first. Romans 5:8 declares, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And 1 John 4:19 confirms this: “We love because he first loved us.” God doesn’t wait for us to make the first move; he doesn’t sit in heaven withholding his forgiveness until we are able to prove ourselves worthy. No. He understands that we need to have forgiveness modeled to us before we are able to give it away to others. The Cross did just that. It modeled God’s prior willingness to forgive.

But if God is willing to forgive – and already extends His gift of forgiveness to us in Christ – then why does the Lord’s Prayer appear to make His forgiveness depend on our actions? That’s a tough question, but to answer it, we need an alternative to the “hard-line” interpretation outlined above. I propose that Jesus wasn’t talking about God’s unwillingness to forgive us, but our own inability to receive forgiveness from God when we persistently hold grudges against other people.

Part of my rationale for this different interpretation stems from (what I call) the “law of payback.” This law states that “debts should be paid back by the offender and no one else.” Now suppose for a moment that you live by this law on all accounts. By implication, you insist that everyone should get what they deserve, and so should you. This means that others must fully compensate you for their wrongs against you, and you must repair all the wrongs you’ve committed against them. Sound fair? Perhaps. But you are now faced with an impossible task. It would take you many lifetimes to pay for all the harms you’ve have done to others; and that’s assuming you don’t do more harm in the process! What’s worse, your trespasses against God are piled so high that it would take an eternity to pay him back. You may not like that fact, but it’s the logical outcome of following the law of payback.

Perhaps to avoid this conclusion you decide to grant yourself an exception and only require that others pay for their wrongs. Problem solved, right? Wrong! Such a solution would be inconsistent, self-serving, and hypocritical. If you want an exception for yourself, you cannot deny that same privilege to others just because they don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve it either! Similarly, if you want God to grant you unearned forgiveness, then you must also extend that same generosity to others. If you don’t – if you insist that others earn your forgiveness – then God has no choice but to apply the same standard to you. God may be ready, willing, and able to forgive you, but you will be unable to receive His forgiveness because you are still insisting that others earn yours.[3] You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

If my interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is correct, it follows that we cannot expect to be forgiven by God if we persist in holding grudges. By receiving God’s unearned forgiveness, we are obliged to give up on the law of payback and extent the same generosity to others, despite the fact that they deserve otherwise.

With that said, we need to keep God’s love and mercy in perspective too. He knows that forgiveness is hard work. He knows that it takes time and that human forgiveness is rarely perfect in this life. We need His power and His people to work through these things, and He is not threatening to withhold salvation from someone just because they struggle to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Yet, this prayer is a stark reminder that God’s generosity cuts both way: if you want it for yourself, you can’t deny it of others.

[1] CS Lewis, “Forgiving and Excusing,” The Christian Way. Ed Walter Hooper. (London Harper Collins, 1992), p.76.

[2] By the way, our Bibles should really have called this “the Disciples Prayer” since they are the ones who are supposed to be praying it! But alas, I shall not break with tradition on this point.

[3] See the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:12-35.

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