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What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness of Sins?

Frequently Asked Questions

Introduction

Sin is disobedience to God's commandments, either by doing what is forbidden or failing to do what is required. (See the Ten Commandments, the Greatest Commandments of Jesus, Mark 7:20-23, Galatians 5:19-26). In the Bible, sin is a serious evil that disrupts our relationship with God (Matthew 5:29-30, Mark 9:42-48, Romans 8:7-8, Romans 6:23).

Availability of Forgiveness

The good news is that, no matter how serious the sin, God is always seeking us out and is willing to forgive and forget our sins and give us a fresh start. As long as we live, it is never too late to ask for forgiveness and make a new start!

So Jesus used this illustration: "If you had one hundred sheep, and one of them strayed away and was lost in the wilderness, wouldn't you leave the ninety-nine others to go and search for the lost one until you found it? And then you would joyfully carry it home on your shoulders. When you arrived, you would call together your friends and neighbors to rejoice with you because your lost sheep was found. In the same way, heaven will be happier over one lost sinner who returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven't strayed away! (NLT, Luke 15:3-7)

When we have sinned, we can ask God for forgiveness, as in the Lord's Prayer:

and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. (TLB, Matthew 6:12)

Related verses: Psalms 25:7, Psalms 32:1-2, Isaiah 43:25, Matthew 1:21, Matthew 18:12-14, Matthew 26:28, Luke 15:11-32, Acts 10:43, Acts 13:38, Romans 4:7-8, Hebrews 10:17.

Conditions of Forgiveness

Although God is always ready and willing to forgive us, He requires two things of us as conditions of forgiveness: repentance and forgiveness of others.

Repentance

Repentance means a sincere resolve to turn away from sin and toward God.

From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (NIV, Matthew 4:17)

True repentance involves sorrow for acts of sin and leads to a fundamental change in attitude. We are all sinners in our own ways (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8), and we may fail time and again in our attempt to avoid sin. God is always willing for us to start over and make another attempt. However, if we ask for forgiveness with the intention of sinning again, we have not really repented.

Related verses: Matthew 3:2, Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Mark 6:12, Luke 3:3, Luke 5:31-32, Luke 13:3-5, Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19, Acts 8:22, Acts 17:30-31, Acts 20:21, 2 Corinthians 7:10.

Forgiveness of Others

Jesus said we must be willing to forgive people who sin against us:

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT, Matthew 6:14-15)

Forgiving another person means pardoning the offender and ceasing to feel resentment or hold a grudge. We are not able to completely forget what happened, but we must let go of the anger and resentment.

There should be no limit to our willingness to forgive others (Matthew 18:21-22). We should have a forgiving spirit whenever someone has committed an offense against us (Mark 11:25). Some people believe there is no obligation to forgive unless the offender repents, but that condition is mentioned in only one of the many passages on this topic (Luke 17:3-4). Continued anger and holding a grudge are always wrong (Matthew 5:21-24). Holding a grudge turns a person bitter and blocks the love of God.

Forgiving others does not mean we are required to remain in an abusive or exploitive situation. Neither does it deny the right of governments to punish offenders. Jesus and other New Testament leaders supported the authority of civil governments (Matthew 22:15-22, Romans 13:1-7).

Related verses: Matthew 6:12, 18:23-35, 5:43-47, Luke 6:37, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13

Confession

As part of repentance, we should confess our sins to God, and also to other people when appropriate (Matthew 3:1-6, Matthew 18:15-18, Luke 15:21, Acts 19:18, James 5:16-17, 1 John 1:8-9). There is an old saying that "confession is good for the soul," and humbling oneself with a public confession or confession to another person can be an important step toward true repentance and healing a relationship.

However, some Christian counselors warn that we must use wisdom in deciding when and how to confess secret sins. We must consider how the other person will react and whether good or evil will result. For example, confessing a romantic infatuation to a jealous spouse could lead to the greater evils of divorce and emotional damage to the children.

Restitution

The Old Testament had specific rules about restitution when one person sinned against another (Exodus 22:1-15, Leviticus 6:1-7).

The New Testament does not specifically state that making restitution, making amends or otherwise correcting the wrong done are requirements for forgiveness. However, doing what is possible to correct the wrong done could be an important part of sincere repentance (Luke 19:2-10).

The Unpardonable Sin

Jesus said blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an unpardonable or unforgivable sin:

I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin. (NIV, Mark 3:28-29)

The nature of this sin has been the subject of much debate. In context, Jesus was referring specifically to the sin of the scribes (teachers of the law) (Mark 3:22-30) who said Jesus was possessed by demons and had an evil spirit. The total spiritual blindness of those who mistook the work of Jesus for the work of Satan put them beyond hope of repentance, faith and forgiveness.

Some people worry about committing the unpardonable sin accidentally or in a moment of weakness, but most Bible experts say there is no need for such worry. It is not that any sin is beyond the power of God's grace. The sin of the scribes was not forgiven because their own stubborn perversion of the truth and hardness of heart prevented them from repenting. Those people who are concerned enough to worry about their sins are not in danger of committing an unpardonable sin.

Related verses: Matthew 12:31-32; Luke 12:10.

Apostasy

Apostasy is a deliberate abandonment of faith. Several New Testament passages (Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26, 2 Peter 2:20-21) seem to say that someone who has fallen away from Christian faith has no chance to repent and come back. These passages have been interpreted many different ways, and it is fair to say that no one is really sure of their original intent.

In their original context, these were warnings, in the strongest possible terms, to the first century Christians not to abandon their new faith because of persecution or false teachings. Thus, the authors may have used some hyperbole (exaggeration) to emphasize the point. [Jesus also sometimes used hyperbole for emphasis (Matthew 7:3-5, Mark 10:25).]

If these verses really mean that a person who has fallen away has no chance to repent, that would seem to contradict many other New Testament teachings about God's mercy and constant willingness to forgive. These verses are probably not directed at people who have doubts or who lose their faith and come back later. It is the person who deliberately, permanently and hard-heartedly rejects faith who will never repent, and thus can never be forgiven.

Related article: What Does the Bible Say About Faith?

Process of Forgiveness

Nearly all Christians agree that repentance and forgiveness of others are key elements of forgiveness, and that forgiveness comes from God. However, there are some doctrinal differences about the process of forgiveness.

Catholic Doctrine

Jesus had the power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:2, Luke 5:20). Jesus granted that authority also to His apostles (Matthew 16:18-19, Matthew 18:18, John 20:22-23). In Catholic doctrine, that authority is now vested in the Church through the bishops as successors of the apostles. The Church exercises that authority to forgive sins, through its bishops and priests, in the sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as confession or the sacrament of Penance). A sinner confesses his or her sins to the priest who assigns a penance (often some prayers to recite) and grants forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." The sacrament of Reconciliation is practiced in Catholic and Orthodox churches, although some other Christian churches also have rites of individual confession.

Protestant Doctrine

Severe penances, such as fasts, pilgrimages and floggings, were often imposed in early Church history. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Church fell into the corrupt practice of selling "indulgences" to reduce the severity of such penances in exchange for monetary contributions to the Church. This was a major factor leading to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Protestants rejected the Roman Catholic Church's sacrament of Penance, its claims of apostolic succession, and its authority to mediate forgiveness of sins (1 Timothy 2:5). Authority on doctrine was placed in "Scripture alone" rather than in the Church. For most Protestants, the Church is instrumental in bringing people to repentance, but forgiveness of sins comes directly from God.

Forgiving Oneself

Many people find they still feel guilty and unworthy, even after completing the steps required for God's forgiveness. However, there is no need to feel that way; the Bible assures us that God does not hold our forgiven sins against us (Luke 15:7, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Hebrews 10:15-22). Of course, some sins against other people cannot be undone, and that is reason enough for extra resolve not to repeat the sin. However, there is no need to keep hating oneself. Instead, we can view it as a learning experience and an incentive to do good in the world in the future instead of evil. 

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