How Forgiveness Works
What is forgiveness? In the New Testament, the word usually translated "forgiveness" or "remission" means just that: a release from something that once held you captive. In the secular world, you can be forgiven of debt, as we read in Jesus' parable in Matthew 18:
The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And the lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. (vs 26, 27)
In the parable, it's easy to see what forgiveness meant: the servant was no longer obligated to pay his debt. It was no longer held to his account. In a spiritual sense, the word is often applied to sins or transgressions, two words pointing to the same concept. In Hebrews, the writer quotes Jeremiah 31:34 to explain this type of forgiveness:
And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more." Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:17-18)
When the thing being forgiven is sin, that sin is no longer charged to the person's account, and he is no longer guilty of that sin in the forgiver's eyes. God says that He will forget the sins of the forgiven one. What an amazing thought, that no matter how sinful your life has been, God is still willing to forgive you of that sin!
Forgiveness of God
Forgiveness of sins is a major theme throughout the gospel accounts and the book of Acts. John came preaching baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4), and Jesus followed with the same teaching. So many people in the world are bound by their sins (whether they know it or not), and only Jesus offers release. While He was on earth, He forgave many people who had faith in Him (Mark 2:5-12), and faith is still a requirement for anyone wanting to receive forgiveness (Acts 10:34).
Another necessary prerequisite to receiving God's forgiveness is repentance, and this should almost go without saying. Would God really forgive someone who actively rejects Him by living a sinful life? Acts 2:38 lays out the plan for salvation clearly:
Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When a person repents of his sins and is baptized, he comes into contact with the blood of Jesus, the only thing that can take away sin! (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:22) If you have not been forgiven, don't carry your burden any longer. Jesus will set you free if you follow these steps to salvation!
Forgiveness towards other people
God's forgiveness is an awesome thing, but what about forgiveness between people? After all, the Bible does say
be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
This verse, along with Colossians 3:13, actually uses a different word for "forgiving." Instead of the idea of releasing one from something that had bound them, this word has to do with being kind, giving freely, and having grace. It was through Christ's grace and lovingkindness that we are saved, and that's the attitude we should have towards other people. Colossians 3:13 adds "if any man have a complaint against any." Whenever such things as complaints and quarrels get between Christian family, it is necessary to resolve them so we can live in harmony.
But the New Testament also speaks of the release type of forgiveness as it should be practiced among people. Jesus used this word in Luke 17:3-4 when telling His disciples how many times to forgive someone. Notice the wording:
And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. (vs 4)
Can a human release another human from their sin? Of course not, unless you are Jesus Christ! Clearly this is not the same kind of forgiveness that God offers a person. Notice the phrase "against thee" in the preceding passage. All sins are against God, since they break His law, but some sins are also against people. If I have wronged you somehow, either by an action or something I've said, I have sinned against you. You have the option to hold that against me, but if you are a God-fearing individual and I come to you and repent, you are to forgive me. That act alone will not make me right in God's eyes (I must go to Him for that ultimate forgiveness), but it will reconcile you and me.
Forgiveness is a gift
As we saw in the second sense of the word "forgive," forgiveness is something that is freely given by the grace of the one who is owed. Let us give thanks to God every day for setting us free from our sins, and let us continue to forgive those who repent of sins against us!