You will find in the Bible that forgiveness consistently means “to loose” or “to remove” a barrier to relationships. There different kinds of forgiveness dealing with different kinds of barriers and relationships.
God’s Legal Forgiveness
This kind of forgiveness is God’s once for all removal of all legal barriers that block heaven. When this forgiveness is granted, God acts as the Judge to declare our sins are paid in full. From this moment on Christ becomes our Advocate. Along with His Father, He gives us legal immunity from any accusation that might separate us from the love of God. You can see that in Romans 8:28-39. Something we need to remember however, is that even though this is universally available, this forgiveness is not universally applied. This kind of forgiveness is only given to those who personalize God’s mercy. Forgiveness is not effective until we accept it.
God’s Family Forgiveness
This kind of forgiveness happens after we have been legally pardoned and born into the family of heaven. By His mercy, God removes the barriers that block our closeness with Him. In this kind of forgiveness He does not act like a Judge but as our Father in heaven.
We need to remember that when we do disobey God and then we don’t correct ourselves, He gets our attention with some sort of painful circumstance, but only because we are His children. Read Hebrews 12:4-11 to further understand this. The discomfort of this kind of discipline comes from a Father who loves to forget our sins when we honestly confess them and then agree to place ourselves back under the control of His Spirit.
This is a forgiveness very similar to what healthy families experience. For example if a son takes the family car out without permission and then turns around and lies about it, his parents are not going to do him any favors by pretending that it didn’t happen. Instead he more than likely will lose his driving privileges and before he can get those privileges back he must own up to what he did wrong and be forgiven by his parents. His status within the family however, is never in jeopardy, but the basis for trust has been damaged and this is why family forgiveness is needed.
People to People Forgiveness
Our forgiveness of others needs to be patterned after the way that God forgives each of us. From His example we need to learn that while our love for others needs to be unconditional, there is a place for conditional forgiveness. Whether any of us can consider an offense as a dead issue is going to be determined by whether the offender is willing to own up to the wrong. Believe it or not but Christlike love may sometimes make it necessary to withhold forgiveness until the one who has done the harm admits responsibility for it.
Examples of Those Forgiven
Over and over again in the Bible we see God’s own people hurt each other and hurt Him. But God forgave them every single time they would turn back to Him. The first humans were also the first humans to sin and the first to experience God’s forgiveness. Adam and Eve were given the freedom to choose God’s way and obey Him or not and they chose to rebel. However, God did not give up on them and pursued them and made a way for mankind to experience redemption.
Here are a few more examples of those God forgave:
Moses murdered an Egyptian in anger. Yet God used Moses to rescue His enslaved people. Then there was Aaron who made a golden calf and helped the people to participate in idolatry, yet Aaron was later on appointed head of the priesthood.
Rahab who was a prostitute in Jericho, turned to the Lord of Israel and became part of Jesus’ family tree.
Israel’s most immoral king, Manasseh for decades opposed God in some of the worst ways, suddenly repented and God forgave him and even restored his kingdom for him after having been a captive.
Matthew who was a tax collector who had a bad reputation was forgiven the moment he was chosen to follow Christ. Then let’s not forget the criminal on the cross who repented to Jesus on the cross and He was forgiven and welcomed into paradise by Christ. What about Peter? He denied Christ three times at the hour of Jesus’ deepest need, yet he became the cornerstone of the Church. Then there was the woman caught in adultery and the Pharisees trapped her and were about to stone her to death but Jesus exposed their hypocrisy and then forgave her of her sins. And of course, then there was Paul, once called Saul the self-confessed killer of Christians, that in itself is a story of it’s own with his conversion from Christian killer to follower of Christ and credited for spreading Christianity all over the known world and writing some of the most beautiful letters of the New Testament. Paul is a prime example of the grace of God.
What if I Don’t Feel Forgiven?
That’s really a pretty common question. In fact most of us do struggle with feelings of guilt and shame. Long after we have already confessed our sins to God, we often still feel unforgiven, we might even feel that we have been rejected by God. This is exactly what Satan wants you to think. He is always trying to find a way in which he can push us further and further away from God and guilt and shame are weapons he uses often in this battle.
When we feel this way we’re actually telling God that His grace isn’t powerful enough. Somehow, we have to do something else to earn His forgiveness. If you think about it, that’s pretty insulting to God.
When feelings of guilt haunt us, and they often do, we need to remind ourselves that our forgiveness does not depend on how we feel. People who are forgiven can feel like they are hanging by a thread over the fires of hell. Forgiven people can be oppressed by the accuser of our souls, which is Satan. Satan relishes the idea of stirring up our old emotions and bringing them to the surface and loves to send us into anxiety and despair. But we need to realize that our emotions are not telling us the truth about the forgiveness of God. Forgiveness is something God does. It doesn’t depend on whether we forgive ourselves. Forgiveness is what God does when He marks “canceled” over our debt of sin. We are forgiven when He declares us legally acquitted, regardless of how we actually might feel at that moment of forgiveness.
Isn’t Forgiveness Something Between Us and God?
Of course it is. Forgiveness is very personal. No one else is able to decide for us whether we are going to believe in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, only we can do that for ourselves. However this doesn’t mean that our forgiveness is private. When we discover the joy of forgiveness in our lives then we have good reason to go public with it. When you experience the forgiveness of God you need to share it with those who are struggling with it.
Why Does the Bible Say God Will Not Forgive Us if We Don’t Forgive One Another?
This is what Jesus said “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Actually with this statement, Jesus wasn’t teaching lost people how to earn salvation, instead He was teaching His disciples how to stay in a healthy “family relationship with the Father.”
So, Are We Expected to Forgive Unconditionally?
Not really. Like so many other principles of the Bible, there is a time for forgiveness and a time to not forgive. Even though Jesus teaches us to love others unconditionally as He loves us and to seek their goodness rather than their bad, Jesus teaches us that are to always forgive those people who acknowledge they’ve done wrong and take responsibility for what they’ve done. We don’t love very well if we let others knowingly harm us and then not make accountable for that harm.
What will be held against us our unwillingness to forgive the people who have wronged us but have repented and ask for our forgiveness. It will be held against us if we withhold the same kindness and forgiveness that we have received from God.
If We are Forgiven by God, Why Won’t People Let Us Forget the Past?
Just because we have been forgiven by God does not automatically release us from the natural consequences of our sins. For example crimes against the state need to be subjected to legal due process. Acts against individuals do deserve some sort of restitution. For example, the forgiveness of God doesn’t qualify a former embezzler to be entrusted with other people’s money, just as it doesn’t give us reason to entrust our kids to a person who has a history of harming kids. What this is, is wisdom.
Just remember this important truth: when we trust Christ fully, our sins re removed forever. They are completely removed.
God’s promise to Israel applies to all who trust in Christ.
“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:25)