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Lent: What is forgiveness?

We talk a lot about forgiveness in churches, but do we know what it means? Recently we had this discussion in our community group. We’ve been reading The Prodigal God by Tim Keller and discussing it each week. We tried to define significant theological words along the way.

Note these four characteristics of forgiveness:

Voluntary and Intentional

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Matthe 5:23-24 NIV

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

Mark 11:25 NIV

Whether you have been wronged or the one who has wronged another, the ball is always in your court. We are responsible for forgiveness and reconciliation. We don’t wait for the other person to speak up first. Instead, we voluntarily and intentionally go to the other person to forgive and, if possible, to be forgiven.


It is through the Son, at the cost of his own blood, that we are redeemed, freely forgiven through that full and generous grace which has overflowed into our lives and opened our eyes to the truth.

Ephesians 1:7 Phillips

Forgiveness is canceling the debt of another, absorbing the hurt to release the other from any form of vengeance. It’s costly. Someone always pays the debt. In our sin, we owed a debt we could not pay. And praise Him! Jesus paid that debt for us – a debt He did not owe. But it cost Him His life’s blood.

When we forgive others, we give up the right to repayment for any harm done to us. Forgiveness is not necessarily mean forgetting, nor does it mean we don’t feel the pain done to us. We give up vengeance. We choose to bear the cost.

Requires humility

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.

Colossians 3:12-13 NLT

To forgive means, we must resist feeling superior to others. And we must release others from the liability of their debt. I contend we cannot truly forgive without the humbling power of the Spirit of God at work in our lives. The Apostle Paul teaches us that God’s love working through us “does not insist on its own rights or way, for it is not self-seeking; it is not touchy, fretful, or resentful; it takes no account of the evil done to it” (1 Corinthians 13:5 AMP). 

Forgiveness requires the same kind of compassion that Jesus had for us … we must be moved to the very depths of our being for others, recognizing “but for the grace of God,” His unmerited favor, we would be in the same position.

Builds community

God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.

2 Corinthians 5:19-21 MSG

Here are a few ways in which forgiveness helps us build a Christian community:

  1. Forgiveness reflects God’s love and mercy
  2. Forgiveness can be a powerful way to heal relationships broken by sin or conflict in the Christian community.
  3. It promotes a culture of empathy, compassion, and service.
  4. By forgiving each other, Christians demonstrate their commitment to living out their faith.
  5. Creating a culture of forgiveness builds a strong, supportive, and loving community that reflects the values of Christ.

Forgiveness is the voluntary and conscious act of releasing another from responsibility for the hurt of an actual or perceived wrong.


Jesus, You who spoke the words
Of forgiveness even from the cross
As Your people spitefully and determinedly
Tortured You to death –
You who know the true
Cost of forgiveness –
Teach us how to forgive, even
As You have forgiven us.
May we not harbor grudges,
Anger or resentment against others
But quickly and intentionally seek
Forgiveness, So that we might walk
Worthy of Your calling, and be
Effective ambassadors of reconciliation.
Thank you, Jesus, for giving
Yourself to free us from our sin,
Absorbing the pain in obedience
To the Father’s will
To God be the glory forever –


I was thinking about forgiveness a year ago and wrote a paraphrase of Psalm 32 expressing joy in forgiveness. You can find it here.

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