What Is Forgiveness? What it Does & Does NOT Mean
- Dr. Michael A. Milton Author
- 2020 18 May
We have to have it. We are commanded to give it. Forgiveness. What does it mean? To pardon, give up resentment, and grant relief to an offender.
But do we ever pause to come to terms with what the word, the concept, means in God’s Word? What do you really know about forgiveness?
There are many places in the Bible to learn more. Let me select one scriptural verse that I have spoken publicly at least once per month for the last three decades.
4 Healing Truths about Forgiveness from the Lord’s Supper
“For this is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28 NKJV).
When a believer comes forward to receive Holy Communion (the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper), the words of the institution recalibrate us back to the shed blood of Jesus. In fact, that is why this is not a one-time sacrament, like baptism. This is a continuing sacrament (“for as often [my emphasis] as you eat this Bread and drink the Cup.” 1 Corinthians 11:26).
Allow your mind and whole person soak in the life-giving, healing salve of this one saying:
1. “For this is
2. My blood of the New Covenant,
3. which is shed for many
4. for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28 NKJV).
In those radiant words spoken by our Blessed Savior, we may discern a theology of forgiveness. Get reacquainted with the concept that changed your life and sustains you in common life with others and, especially, with your Creator. For the glorious Biblical truth is that God has made forgiveness available to any who call upon Him.
We observe this divine revelation through four fundamental Gospel truths about forgiveness.
1. There Is an Incalculable Cost to Unforgiveness
When Jesus fulfilled the Passover meal and restated the terms of salvation more clearly—He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world; we are saved by His shed blood on the doorposts of our lives; by His life lived and His death on the cross, we are free—everything changed. And even more so much was made plain.
Unforgiveness is spiritually and physically unhealthy.
We need forgiveness to live spiritually balanced, hopeful lives. Since the pathologies of the soul often migrate to the body (and vice versa) we can even assert that we need forgiveness for our very health. This is not merely “preacher talk.” If you prefer, then scientists have also observed the cost of unforgiveness. Consider only one of the many psychiatric researchers’ reports on the terrible costs of unforgiveness:
“First, unforgiveness is often a core component of stress resulting from an interpersonal offense, and stress is associated with decreased mental health. Second, unforgiveness resulting from intrapersonal transgressions may increase levels of guilt, shame, and regret that in turn negatively impact one’s mental health.”
Forgiveness is necessary because of sin.
Jesus’ statement tells us a great deal about our condition.
What a simple opening sentence. Within those words rages the reason that the Second Person of the Triune God came to earth. “For this is . . .” are words that introduce a divine solution to a devastating situation. Jesus taught that we are sinners in need of forgiveness from God. The rest of the Scriptures affirm this plight of humankind resulting from the Fall.
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (John 1:8-10).
When He took the bread and the cup and inviting others to eat and drink in remembrance of Him, He was saying, “For this is . . .”why you need Me. You are unforgiven without this sacrifice.
In a life of pastoral ministry, I have encountered many individuals who literally decayed (in mind, in spirit, and in body) because of unforgiveness. Some died of unforgiveness. The incredible weight of past offenses to spouses, parents, children, friends, and church members took its toll on their entire personhood. And nothing in this world could provide that most elusive elixir: forgiving ourselves. Dear reader, we will certainly die without forgiveness.
So, the first truth in the theology of forgiveness is that we are in fact in need of this grace. Forgiveness is necessary because transgressions exist.
This existential human reality of sin—with its root and branches—has infected all things. Our relationship with God has been infected. And that loss of a “vertical signal” (with God) has created serious “static” in our horizontal relationships (with each other). Something just had “to give.”
So, God gave. And that is the second fundamental Gospel truth about forgiveness.
2. There Is a Firm Foundation for All Forgiveness
Jesus points to the fruit of the vine filling the Cup as the blood of a new divine “arrangement,” that is, a new “Covenant.”
Forgiveness in the Old Testament
In his book, Palmer Robertson called this covenantal arrangement a “bond in blood sovereignly administered.” God made that bond in blood with Abram, with Moses, and the same covenant is referred to throughout the Old Testament. It is the Covenant, whereby God will provide for Israel what the Israelite could not provide for himself: a blood sacrifice for sin. Thus, Moses sprinkled the blood of sacrificial animals upon the people:
“And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (Exodus 24:8).
The writer to the Hebrews explained that “without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). In the Old Covenant (i.e., “the Old Testament”) the blood of certain animals was used in divinely dictated sacrifice to point to God taking the oath upon Himself to forgive.
Forgiveness in the New Covenant
This is precisely what Jesus is saying is happening when He breaks the bread and pours the cup. Jesus is the Lamb of the New Covenant, the “Mediator” of the “sacred bond sovereignly administered,” as stated in this Reformed Review article. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for our sins. Hallelujah!, as expressed in this Book of Common Prayer.
The firm foundation of forgiveness is the Covenant whereby God will provide atonement for our sins and righteousness for our lives. He does this through Jesus Christ.
Now, this leads us to consider the third glorious truth about forgiveness from Matthew 26:28.
3. There Is a Princely Price for Forgiveness
We read the next phrase in this Lord’s Institution of the New Passover and we learn that His mission on earth is entirely concerned with forgiveness by the price of His own blood. For we read, “…Which is shed for many…”
Not one drop of Jesus’ blood is wasted on the Cross. Jesus died for the remission of the sins of “man.” Not all will believe. The doctrine of “particular redemption,” as the Baptist, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, put it, teaches us what we read in narrative in Acts.
4. There Is a Supreme Power of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a gracious act of God grounded in the Covenant of Grace, mediated by the Lord Jesus, fully God and fully Man, who lived a perfect life (for our righteousness) and shed His blood (as an atonement) for sinners on the cross, and (by grace) offered to any who would repent, believe and come to Christ through the proclamation of the Word of God.
But what is the power that opens one’s heart, causes one to believe, receive forgiveness for sins and bring about reconciliation with God, and, thus, with others?
How Can I Forgive Others and Forgive Myself?
I profited greatly from research into this question by reading several journal articles on the subject from the work of behavioral health scientists. One noted authority on forgiveness and reconciliation wrote:
“The inability to come to terms with one’s anger or strife often can lead to stress disorders, mental health disorders, and relationship problems. Forgiveness is a personal decision.”
My greatest concern for those who are seeking forgiveness, reading this article, is that, theologically, the final sentence of an otherwise insightful article is, theologically, incomplete. The exception to the idea that forgiveness is merely personal is well-grounded in Scripture.
Indeed, we must insist, from Scripture, that “total forgiveness” (God, others, self) is not, at its root, a personal decision. Forgiveness becomes a decision when the internal operating system of one’s soul is transformed, that is, repaired.
Without such a divine transformation authentic forgiveness is incomplete. For the power of forgiveness is applied by the Holy Spirit. The power of forgiveness, then, flows from God to you, then, from you to others, and, mercifully, to yourself.
Read and pray the final phrase of this verse: . . . For the remission of sins.Consider it in its fullness: “For this is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” [my emphasis] (Matthew 26:28 NKJV).
The need for forgiveness is because of original and actual sin. There is an incalculable cost to the sin of unforgiveness. But there is a firm foundation to genuine forgiveness carrying a princely price (the life of the Prince of Peace). Finally, there is a supreme power to forgiveness, both in its application to our lives and in its consequences in our relationships.
Jesus came that you might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). To receive that life of freedom, you must crucify yourself and receive the gift of God: forgiveness in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is not merely a personal decision made on your own. This is a supernatural activity of the living God. It requires faith. And faith is the gift of God: a gift that God gives to all who come to Him in humility and brokenness of self.
The result? Forgiveness is an incomparably powerful solvent that cuts through even generations of hatred, years of guilt, and deep-rooted spirits of bitterness.
Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in North America. First. Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 1 John 1:8-10.
Everett L. Worthington, Jr. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. Routledge, 2013.
Kendall, R.T. Total Forgiveness. Charisma Media, 2010.
Oliver, Robert W. History of the English Calvinistic Baptists, 1771-1892: From John Gill to CH Spurgeon. Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.
Osterhaven, M. Eugene. “Calvin on the Covenant.” Journal. Reformed Review. Last modified 1980.
Robertson, O. P. The Christ of the Covenants. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1981.
Toussaint, Loren, and Jon R Webb. “Chapter Twenty-One: Theoretical and Empirical Connections Between Forgiveness, Mental Health, and Well-Being.” In Handbook of Forgiveness, edited by Everett L. Worthington, Jr., 349–362. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.
Photo Credit: Pexels/Kat Jayne
Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.