Biblical Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness has a long history. Almost always, the Old Testament clearly shows that being truly sorry (i.e. repentance: turning away from sin; see 2 Chronicles 6:21) comes before forgiveness : 

In Jewish theology, only the victim has the right to forgive an offense against another person, and an offender should repent toward the victim before forgiveness can take place. — Dr. Adam B. Cohen 

Forgiveness should be unlimited, but not unconditional. Leviticus instructs, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (19:17; emphasis mine). Correcting one’s neighbor is, according to the Bible, not only a kind response; it is also an obligation. — Dr. Maria Mayo1 

Before Jesus, John the Baptist was God's greatest prophet (Matthew 11:11). He used the foundation of the Old Testament to prepare the way for the Savior of the World:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand... And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is being cut down and thrown into the fire” Matthew 3:2, 10.

Jesus confirmed John’s message, bringing alive the Old Testament from the beginning (Matthew 4:17) to the end of His ministry:

Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “So it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke 24:45-47

Jesus is ready to forgive everyone in the world on one condition: We must believe (John 3:16). If we believe Him (Luke 6:46, Luke 11:28, Romans 10:10, 1 John 2:4, James 1:22), He has told us to repent of what is sinful. He also expects us to forgive those who have wronged us on the condition that we see repentance in their lives (Matthew 18:15-20). With God’s help (Philippians 4:13), that is really something we can do, even 490 times in a day (Matthew 18:21-22): 

In other words, [Jesus’s] disciples should be ready always to forgive. He does not say that the one who offends should not be rebuked. He should be made to appreciate his fault, but when he sincerely repents, he should be forgiven – even if he repeats his sin over and over. – J. Vernon McGee

…if he repent and desire to be friends again, we must be free and familiar with him, as before. – Matthew Henry

In New Testament times, the obvious requirement for forgiveness was the repentance of the sinner (Luke 17:4). But our confusion comes because some think forgiveness should be unconditional, despite what the Bible says. Here are several verses they hold up as proof that forgiveness is unconditional (ignoring the need for repentance, or even belief): Matthew 6:9-15, Matthew 18:21-22 (compare Luke 17:3-4), Luke 6:37-38 (compare Matthew 18:29), Luke 11:4, Luke 23:34, Acts 7:60, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, etc. None of those verses say that God expects us to forgive unconditionally, but as with Ephesians 4:32b, everyone must forgive "just as God through Christ has forgiven you."2    

Though Jesus is ready to forgive everyone that believes Him (John 1:29, John 3:16, Revelation 16:8-9), there are many verses clearly saying that Jesus does not forgive everyone: e.g. Genesis 18:20-21, Numbers 14:18, Psalm 73:1-22, Isaiah 66:24, Matthew 25:41, Mark 9:42-46, Luke 16:23, John 3:36, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Peter 2:4-13a, Jude 1:4-19, Revelation 22:12-15 etc. Matthew chapter 18 gives us an interdependent teaching on humility, offenses, and forgiveness (see also Universalism and Narcissism), finishing with a parable that clearly shows how a wicked servant ignored the repentance of his fellow servant. In other words, the fruit (Luke 6:44) of the wicked servant proved that he never believed, and was therefore doomed to hell (Luke 6:46-49).  

In addition, here are just some of the verses that make no sense unless forgiveness is conditional on belief and repentance, e.g. Exodus 34:7,  Joshua 24:19-20, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Proverbs 28:13, Isaiah 55:7, Jeremiah 36:3, Matthew 18:17, Mark 4:11-12, Luke 16:30, Luke 17:3-4 (compare Matthew 18:21-22), John 3:20-21, John 20:23, Romans 2:4, Acts 3:18-19, 2 Corinthians 7:10, 2 Peter 3:9, Revelation 2:22, etc. It should be clear that denying the need for repentance is denying most or all of the Bible. But of course, many preachers are known for ignoring Bible verses they don’t like (see Occam’s Razor). 

Rejecting Universalism allows us to accept the wisdom of the Bible. Jesus said “I will not leave you comfortless“ (John 14:18). We can apply God's wisdom to the trials we go through on this earth. Consider what the Apostle Paul taught Timothy:

Alexander the coppersmith did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him in keeping with his deeds. You be on guard against him too, because he vehemently opposed our words. 2 Timothy 4:14-15

Is Paul bitter and vindictive, so this a just another contradictory part of the Bible we should overlook? Is Paul openly defying Jesus’ command to forgive? No, Paul understood Jesus better than we do. With love, Paul warns Timothy how Lucifer works (1 John 3:8), and how his servant Alexander could do unspeakable harm to God’s work unnecessarily. 

Echoing Moses (Deuteronomy 32:35), David (1 Samuel 24:12), Solomon (Proverbs 20:22), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 25:17), and the author of Hebrews (10:30), Paul (Romans 12:19) does not try to get revenge on Alexander, nor wish any malice on him (Ephesians 4:31, 1 Peter 2:1-3), but has faith that the Lord will take care of that situation (Galatians 6:7-8). Instead of trying to take over God's responsibility to bring justice to this earth (1 Samuel 25:32-33), Christians should have the faith to know that a more perfect and even terrible justice will surely be done (Revelation 19:13). Truly understanding that can bring some peace, if not perfect peace (Isaiah 26:3, Philippians 4:7).  

The meaning of forgiveness has radically changed since Biblical times. Today, forgiveness often means condoning abuse and somehow blaming the victim (see The Sunflower). If we understand that conditional forgiveness clearly makes sense of the whole Bible (not just selected parts of it; see Occam’s Razor), Jesus expects us to apply this principle (Matthew 18:14-15), not just stick with convenience, habit or whatever the rest of the world is comfortable with. When someone harms us and is obviously not sorry, we should not feel any pressure to forgive (Matthew 18:15-17, Street Smart Forgiveness).


1. Mayo, Maria. The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Eugene, OR. 2015.

2.  Jesus asked God to forgive those that murdered Him (Luke 23:24a). But some say that Jesus forgave the whole world unconditionally, despite the conditionality of John 3:16, etc. Later, Stephen also forgave those that murdered him (Acts 7:60), but that would mean that he didn't understand Christian forgiveness (since Jesus supposedly forgave everyone before, there would be no point in forgiving again). Applying the same principle, the question for Universalists becomes ‘What is the point of the Bible if everyone is forgiven anyway?’ Further, ‘What is the point of God creating everything if He was simply going to forgive everyone by fiat?’ In practice, many Universalists do not see the point of the Bible, nor allow any religion to restrain their behavior, so the world becomes a valueless, justice-less, pointless place where everyone competes for their own happiness: 'Do unto others before they do unto you' (see Universalism and Narcissism). Instead, the Bible points to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and a physical and very real heaven for those that simply believe what Jesus says is true (John 3:16, Revelation 21-22).