What Does the Bible Really Say about Forgiveness?

Everyone is sure that the Bible is full of messages about forgiveness, but when it comes down to it, few people can identify exactly what the text actually says about it.
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When I teach church classes about forgiveness, I begin with a question: What do you think the Bible says about forgiveness?

The first thing someone calls out is usually "70 times seven," a reference to Jesus' instruction to his disciples that they must forgive without bound. Next, students mention the Lord's Prayer, citing the verse, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Often there is a lull at this point, and then someone remembers Jesus' words from the cross, "Father, forgive them." With most groups, the discussion falters here.

Everyone is sure that the Bible is full of messages about forgiveness, but when it comes down to it, few people can identify exactly what the text actually says about it.

The Old Testament has very little to offer on interpersonal forgiveness. The most salient example is Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers who had sold him into slavery (Genesis 45:1-15), although this is arguably more a story about reconciliation than it is about genuine repentance and forgiveness. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the focus is on petitionary prayers to God for the forgiveness of wayward individuals or groups, especially through the sacrificial system established with the covenant. Examples include animal atonement offerings (Leviticus 5:14-16, 6:67; Numbers 28), Job's prayer for pardon (Job 7:21) and Moses' plea for the restoration of Israel (Exodus 32:32). In the prophetic literature, God's forgiving responses are recorded, as in the promise to Jeremiah to restore Israel (Jeremiah 33:8), and in Isaiah to "blot out" and "not remember" Israel's sins (Isaiah 43:25). God's forgiveness stands out as a theme throughout the Old Testament.

The New Testament continues this concern for the forgiveness of an entire people, but shifts the focus to Jesus as the "perfect sacrifice" who replaces the old sacrificial system (Hebrews 10:8-10). At the Last Supper, Jesus declares, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28).

However, Jesus also offers direct teachings on forgiveness, and while his words are sometimes contradictory, it is clear that interpersonal forgiveness is an important concern. While he does instruct his disciples to forgive "70 times seven times" in the Gospel of Matthew (18:21-22), in Luke he qualifies this teaching, saying, "If there is repentance, you must forgive" (17:3). Both Gospels include the reciprocal formula in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us as we forgive others," but where Matthew's version talks about forgiving debts, Luke's prayer asks for forgiveness of sins (Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4). The Greek word translated as "forgive" in all of these passages is also the standard term for the remission of a financial debt.

In all four Gospels, Jesus notes the importance of forgiving others to ensure God's forgiveness. Matthew includes the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, in which a freed slave who does not forgive the debts of another is thrown into jail to be tortured. Jesus concludes this story with a less-than-comforting moral, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:35).

One of the most celebrated forgiveness texts is Jesus' prayer from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). This is often cited as the quintessential moment of unconditional Christian forgiveness, and held up as a model that believers should seek to emulate. Often, pastoral caregivers present victims of violence with this verse to demonstrate the perfect Christian response to persecution and wrongdoing. This becomes especially problematic when victims -- especially of domestic violence -- are pressured to reconcile quickly and unconditionally with their abusers based on an idealized portrait of Christian forgiveness.

While Jesus is certainly an advocate of forgiveness -- in addition to the verses cited above, he claims the authority to forgive sins on earth (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:23) and announces his mission as one of "forgiveness of sins" (Luke 24:47) -- he is far from consistent on the issue of interpersonal forgiveness. When he cries out from the cross, he does not say to his attackers, "I forgive you," or, as he has before, "Your sins are forgiven you." Instead, he prays that God might forgive them. Considering that earlier in Luke's Gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that repentance was required for forgiveness (17:3), and since no repentance is forthcoming from the men who are attacking Jesus, we might assume that forgiveness is a non-issue in this case. Indeed, nowhere does Jesus plainly state that unconditional forgiveness is a virtue or a requirement for the new covenant community. However, in the same Gospel, Jesus does instruct his followers to "bless those who curse you [and] pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:28), which appears to be exactly what he is doing on the cross.

I ruffle a lot of feathers when I suggest that Jesus might not be forgiving his attackers as he is being crucified. But this interpretation pays off for victims who are concerned about living faithfully in the aftermath of violence. Instead of a Jesus who appears to be endlessly and impossibly forgiving, here is a Jesus who is true to his teachings and also easier to imitate.

Praying for one's attacker is an easier -- and much safer -- task than offering unconditional forgiveness and reconciling with unrepentant abusers. Requiring repentance before granting forgiveness gives victims another way to protect themselves while remaining true to the biblical text.

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