“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Psalm 32:1, NKJV)
There is also merit in turning to a lexicon to explore the various terms used by God to express forgiveness. We can mention four—two from the New Testament and two from the Old.
The Greek word used by Peter in Matthew 18 when he asks Jesus how often he should forgive his brother is aphiemi, which is also the term found in the Lord’s Prayer recorded in Matthew 6. Aphiemi means to let go or to drop. We might think of the burden of a college debt being accrued and then cancelled, so that no payment is owed. The student who was saddled with oppressive debt is now freed from the obligation of repayment.
Another word often translated as “forgive” is charizomai. We find this in Ephesians 4:32: “Forgive one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” If aphiemi conveys the negative sense of not doing something but rather letting it go, charizomai carries a positive sense of conveying something to another. The heart of charizomai is charis, meaning grace. We give grace. The grace exhibited by God in Christ is something that is undeserved, unearned, and unexpected.
These two words lay out two sides of forgiveness, a put off/put on of sorts. In forgiving, we withhold what a person deserves, letting it go, cancelling the debt of sin against us, and we extend grace, taking on the debt to love one another (Rom. 13:8-10). Forgiveness is expressed in terms of love. In His interaction with a Pharisee named Simon in Luke 7:41-47, Jesus tells another story of two debtors. One owed 500 denarii and the other 50. After saying that the lender cancelled the debt of each, Jesus asks Simon which of the two would love the lender more, and Simon says, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt” (v. 43). Jesus approves the answer and concludes by saying, “he who is forgiven little, loves little” (v. 47). Part of giving grace is loving the one who offended us with the kind of love described in passages like Romans 12:14-21 and 1 Corinthians 13.
The Old Testament also supplies us with language related to forgiveness. The two most prevalent Hebrew terms are nasa’ and kasah, both found in Psalm 32:1: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1). Nasa’, here translated “forgiven,” means to lift off or remove. Seminarians will often use the mnemonic device of association to help them learn vocabulary. For me, I associate the Hebrew word nasa’ with NASA and think of a rocket being launched into space. A person’s offense is lifted from him and launched into space, far removed from him.
Kasah means to conceal or cover. The idea is that if something is covered, it is not seen. Out of sight, out of mind. We sometimes speak of Jesus’ blood covering our sin or washing it away. Not that His blood acts as a detergent, but that His death atoned for sin. Still, the image of concealing communicates something of the power and outworking of forgiveness. The psalmist in Psalm 32 plays on this idea: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (v. 5). If we do not cover up our sin but instead confess it to God, God will cover over our sin, pointing us to the work of Christ, who covers with His blood what we uncover in our confession.
The individual biblical words serve as brushstrokes for God’s portrait of forgiveness. But that portrait is made vivid in brilliant color through phrases and images God provides. One of my favorites is from the prophet Micah:
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)
Imagine your sins sinking into the depths of the sea, undetectable and irretrievable. You were the one who should have had a millstone around your neck, weighing you down in eternal death and destruction. But it is your sin that is cast into the depths while you are alive and free and unencumbered, safe and secure in the arms of your Savior!
Or think of your sin being ground into the soil under the victorious warrior’s boot of the God who defeated your adversary and accuser at Calvary. While you were God’s enemy, while you were a sinner, God gave His Son to deliver you. Why? Because He delights in steadfast love. He is a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. The cup of wrath foaming with the righteous anger of a holy God, a cup you deserved to drink, was taken from your hand and consumed to its very dregs on the cross by Him who loved you and longed to carry out His Father’s will. In its place, He gives you the cup of blessing, fragrant with the aroma of grace.
- Drawing from biblical vocabulary, how would you define forgiveness?
- Why does God use images and metaphors to describe forgiveness? Use a metaphor from Micah 7 to describe your forgiving someone’s offense against you.
Father, teach me the weight of forgiveness. Help me to forgive not only in word but in deed, not only in theory but in practice. May Your Spirit work His transforming grace in my heart in such a way to realize the resurrection power of Jesus Christ that I might know the freedom from sin’s penalty and power and freedom for forgiving as You have forgiven me.
For more on forgiveness as a basic doctrine of the Christian faith, see The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. For more on the perspective and practice of forgiveness see Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.