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What Does It Mean to Forgive Others?

What does it mean to forgive others and what does it involve? When people sin against us should we seek vengeance, hold a grudge, hurt them with words and threats? Or should we love them, pray for them, and seek their good? When and how do we forgive? Must they repent and confess their sin? Is forgiveness conditional or unconditional?

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Colossians 3:13 – Forgiving one another … even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.

The Bible teaches that forgiving others is essential to our salvation.

(Matthew 6:12-15; Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 18:22-35; Luke 17:3-4; 2 Corinthians 2:6-11; Mark 11:25-26; Luke 6:37)

The purpose of this study is to clarify important concepts about forgiveness.

Protestant churches typically teach there is nothing for people to do to receive God’s forgiveness. Since we should forgive others as God forgives us, why should we be surprised when denominations say we should unconditionally forgive people who wrong us but do nothing to be forgiven? They claim this approach helps heal the pain caused by the wrong done to us.

Also in the Lord’s church we often observe confusion about forgiving others.

The purpose of this study is to help clear up some of this confusion.

Bible Requirements that Differ from Forgiveness

Consider important steps the Bible requires of us when people wrong us. We should initiate these steps regardless of whether or not the one who wronged us has done anything to correct the wrong. These things may help heal the hurt within us. But they are not forgiveness.

Love the sinner (have compassion, desire to help and seek their wellbeing).

Revelation 3:19 – As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Jesus loves sinners, but He rebukes them and requires repentance, so they are not forgiven.

Luke 6:27 – We must love our enemies. Does that mean we have forgiven them? As with Jesus, love means we seek their wellbeing and will help them, but this is not forgiveness.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Can I honestly say I love and want to help ____?

Seek peace (reconciliation), not victory; be willing to forgive.

Psalms 86:5 – The Lord is good and ready to forgive. He wants all to repent so they do not perish (2 Peter 3:9). But people are not actually forgiven until they repent.

Romans 12:18 – If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. But as with God, the fact we desire peace does not mean we have forgiven them.

The goal is to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation, not to win a dispute and get your way!

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Can I honestly say I hope I can forgive and have sought peace with ____?

(Romans 5:1; Matthew 5:23,24)

Avoid vengeance, threats of vengeance, and evil speech.

Romans 12:17,19 – Repay no one evil for evil. Do not avenge yourselves but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.

We must not seek to personally harm people who have wronged us. Some confuse this with forgiveness. But if we expect God to take vengeance on them, how can we say we have forgiven them? Avoiding vengeance is not the same as forgiveness.

1 Peter 2:23 – When Jesus suffered, He did not revile nor threaten. Some people speak words intended to hurt the other person or threaten to harm them or to do something sinful.

If an act would be sinful to do, then it is sinful to threaten to do that act.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Can I honestly say in my deeds, words, and thoughts, I have no desire to hurt _____?

(Luke 6:27,28,31-33; Matthew 5:21,22,38ff; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; Leviticus 19:17,18; 1 Peter 2:21-23; 3:8,9; Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60; Proverbs 24:29)

Avoid bitterness, grudges, and spite.

Leviticus 19:18 – You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love means we do not take vengeance nor bear a grudge wishing we could take vengeance.

Ephesians 4:31,32 – Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And forgive one another just as God in Christ forgave you. Avoid bitterness and evil speech. But this is not the same as forgiveness.

Colossians 3:19 – Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Can I honestly say I hold no bitterness or grudge against _____?

(Psalm 37:1-7; James 3:11)

Examine yourself.

Romans 2:1,3 – Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And do you think that you will escape the judgment of God?

When we accuse others, we often are also guilty perhaps in the way we reacted. Whether or not the other person admits error, God requires us to correct any error we committed.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Can I honestly say I have corrected any wrong I did to _____?

Emphasize Scripture and truth.

Every accusation and teaching must be based on God’s word and the real facts of the events.

2 Timothy 3:16 – All Scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness. Are we sure the person violated Scripture or did he just irritate us or violate our opinions?

John 7:24 – Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment. Often we assume people did wrong when we cannot prove they are guilty.

1 Timothy 6:4 – Disputes and arguments lead to strife, reviling, evil suspicions. Are we sure the person did what we accuse or are we attributing motives and suspicions we cannot prove?

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Can I honestly say I can prove ______ violated Scripture?

(Matthew 18:16)

Pray for them.

Romans 10:1 – Paul’s prayed for Israel that they may be saved. But they were not yet saved.

Luke 6:28 – Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. But like Paul, praying for them does not mean you have forgiven them.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Am I sincerely praying that ____ will be saved?

Bless and do good to them.

Matthew 5:45 – God makes His sun rise and sends rain on the evil and on the good. God does good to all people, but He still considers the sinners to be guilty.

Romans 12:14 – Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Romans 12:20,21 – If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. But this does not mean we have forgiven.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Can I honestly say I am seeking ways to do good to ____?

(Luke 6:27)

Rebuke and discipline (if you have authority); no defending or enabling.

Luke 17:3 – Take heed to yourselves. If your brother [another Christian] sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. Note that rebuking is different from forgiving.

2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2 – All Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction. Preach the word! Convince, rebuke, exhort.

Rebuking does not mean losing your temper, giving a piece of your mind, demanding to get your way, spreading the story to others, trying to send someone else instead of us, brooding and stewing. It means taking out your Bible and showing how they disobeyed God’s word.

Matthew 18:15-17 – If repentance does not result, this leads to discipline by the church.

It may include setting boundaries, limiting association. Avoid defending or enabling them.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Have I sincerely sat down with ___ and shown his sin by the Scriptures?

Expect to receive benefits.

1 Corinthians 10:13 – God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.

James 1:3,4 – The testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (verse 12; Romans 5:3-5)

No matter what wrong is done, God promises you can endure it and will be better as a result.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, ask this question putting their name in the question: Do I truly believe I can endure and be better because of what _____ did?

Trust God to care for the situation properly.

1 Peter 2:23 – When Jesus suffered, He committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.

Psalm 37:1,3,7,8 (NKJV)– Do not fret because of evildoers … Trust in the Lord, and do good … Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him; Do not fret because of … the man who brings wicked schemes to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; Do not fret – it only causes harm.

Psalm 37:1-8 (HCSB) – Do not be agitated by evildoers … Trust in the Lord and do what is good … Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him, and He will act … Be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for Him; do not be agitated … by the man who carries out evil plans. Refrain from anger and give up rage; do not be agitated – it can only bring harm.

God does not compel people to change but does promise to do what is right in the end. Do not brood, replaying the event and reliving your anger and hurt. Entrust it to God.

Trusting God frees us from trying to compel the person to do right. But it is not the same as forgiveness. How can we say we have forgiven when we still expect God to take vengeance?

We must take these steps even if the person who wronged us never repents. If we do, we can please God, release our anger, and the hurt will gradually heal. But none of this is forgiveness.

If you believe someone has sinned against you, can you honestly say you have no desire to hurt them but pray for them, show them their error by the Bible, and leave the outcome to God?

(Romans 12:19)

Bible Meaning of Forgiveness

If the preceding acts are not forgiveness, then what does forgiveness involve?

Pardon / Release from Guilt

To forgive means to remit, to release, to pardon, to cleanse from guilt.

Psalm 32:1,2 – Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity. When sin is forgiven, God no longer imputes iniquity: He no longer considers us to be guilty.

Jeremiah 33:8 – I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned and by which they have transgressed against Me. So forgiveness cleanses and pardons iniquity.

Matthew 6:12; 18:27,32 – Jesus illustrated forgiveness by the canceling of a debt. When the debt is forgiven, it no longer shows on your account. You are no longer responsible for paying it.

1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Forgiveness cleanses us of sin.

When we sin, guilt is held against us in God’s records. When the sin is pardoned, it is no longer held on the record against us. We are back in His favor, no longer subject to wrath.

So when people sin against us, guilt is recognized in our minds as well as on God’s record. When they are forgiven, like God we no longer hold them to be guilty.

If someone sins against you, apologizes, and asks forgiveness, do you still view him as guilty, or can you honestly say you no longer view them as guilty?

(Jeremiah 50:20; Hebrews 10:17)

Assurance of Forgiveness and Love Instead of Rebuke

2 Corinthians 2:6-8 – The punishment inflicted by the majority was sufficient (1 Corinthians 5). On the contrary, you should forgive and comfort him. Reaffirm your love to him.

Rebuke and discipline are done with the hope the sinner will repent. When he does, the rebuke and discipline must cease. It must be replaced by assurances of forgiveness and love.

When God forgives, does He remind you of the sin from time to time and beat you over the head with it? That’s the way people sometimes treat those who have asked for their forgiveness.

If someone sins and asks for your forgiveness, do you hold a grudge and remind them of their guilt? Or can you honestly say you have assured them of forgiveness and love?

Might Not Restore Special Positions or Responsibilities

Do not confuse forgiving a person with restoring special responsibilities. If a person has betrayed the trust of a position in a way that harms God’s work or casts doubt on their ability to do the job, even if they are forgiven, we may choose not to restore them to the position.

1 Timothy 3:10 – Elders and deacons must qualify to be appointed. If they sin so as to cast doubt on their qualifications, they should “prove themselves” before being appointed again.

Acts 15:36-38 – Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first preaching trip but left the work. Paul did not want to take him on the next trip. He was not unforgiving but feared Mark was unqualified. (Note: the church commended Paul in his work – verse 40.)

As with Paul and Barnabas, there is judgment in such decisions. The lesson is that we may forgive a person and yet believe he should not yet be restored to a position of responsibility.

(2 Samuel 12:13,14; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Timothy 1:7; James 3:1; 1 Timothy 4:12; Titus 2:7,8; Psalm 85:1-5; 130:3,4; 32:1,2; Romans 4:7,8; 1 Kings 8:30-39.)

Conditions of Forgiveness

Colossians 3:13 – Forgiving one another … even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.

Matthew 6:12 – And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. (Ephesians 4:32)

When we understand how God forgives, then we understand how we should forgive others.

God’s Forgiveness Is Conditional.

Denominations often claim there is nothing to do to receive God’s forgiveness. However:

Forgiveness for alien sinners is conditional.

Mark 16:16; Luke 24:47; Acts 22:16 – Those who have never been forgiven must hear the gospel, believe it, repent, confess Christ, and be baptized in order to be forgiven.

Is it true that people can be forgiven without meeting the conditions? Are we being cruel if we teach people to meet the conditions to be forgiven? No, that is just taking God at His word.

(Acts 10:43; 26:18)

Forgiveness for God’s children who sin is also conditional.

Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9 – Children of God who sin must repent and pray to receive forgiveness.

Is it true that Christians who sin can be forgiven without meeting the conditions? No, God’s word plainly states conditions that we must meet.

(2 Chronicles 7:14; 2 Peter 3:9; Isaiah 55:7; Matthew 21:28-32; 2 Corinthians 7:10; Revelation 3:19; 1 Kings 8:47-49; Luke 15:18-21; Proverbs 28:13; Psalm 51:2,3,8-12; 32:1-7; 38:18; 1 John 1:9; James 5:16; Matthew 6:12-15; 1 Peter 5:7; Luke 18:13,14)

Our Forgiveness of Others Must Also Be Conditional.

Denominations often teach people to forgive others even when they have not repented or asked for forgiveness. This is denominational error just like teaching that alien sinners can be forgiven without meeting conditions. Remember, we forgive others just as God forgives us.

The gospel states conditions people must meet for us to forgive them.

Luke 17:3,4 – If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, “I repent,” you shall forgive him. This is Jesus’ command, just as much as Mark 16:16.

When a brother sins against us, what do we do? Rebuke him (using the Scriptures). When do we forgive? When he repents and tells us he has repented.

Proverbs 28:13 – He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.

James 5:16 – Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

Until the sinner repents, God continues to consider him to be guilty. If I forgive before he repents, I am saying I hold him not guilty knowing God still holds him guilty!

The idea that we should forgive people who have not repented is denominational and Calvinistic.

(Matthew 5:23,24; Luke 15:17-21; Genesis 50:17)

To forgive people before they meet the conditions is to do them a disservice!

James 5:19,20 (Luke 17:3,4; Matthew 18:15-17; Galatians 6:1) – Turn the sinner from his error and save a soul from death. We must rebuke sinners hoping they will repent and be saved.

What happens if we forgive them before they repent? Remember, if we forgive someone, we must no longer rebuke them. But if they haven’t repented, God holds them guilty. So how do we obey the command to rebuke them if we have declared them to be not guilty?

Claiming to forgive someone before God forgives them means either that we say we forgive but we still rebuke them as being guilty, or else we disobey God’s command to rebuke them. Either way, we mistreat the sinner. If we love them, we will not forgive them till they repent!


Denominational thinking claims that simply releasing our anger and desire for vengeance is forgiveness. Not so. Forgiveness means we no longer hold the person guilty! But forgiveness is conditional and is granted only when he repents and asks for forgiveness.

Until the sinner repents, we must be willing and ready to forgive, hoping sincerely he will repent. We must not seek vengeance but love the sinner, pray for him, seek his wellbeing, and show him his error by the Scriptures. Then we leave the problem in God’s hands.

When the sinner does repent, people against whom he sinned must view the past record as wiped clean and must not drag up the past to make him feel guilty.

All this is difficult but is in our control: we can do it with the help of God. Following God’s pattern helps heal our grief and turmoil. We can be right with God regardless of what others do.

Have you been forgiven by God? Have you made right the wrongs you have done to your brethren? Have you forgiven those who have sinned against you and repented?

(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2021;

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