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Anglicised text of the New International Version

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

– Psalm 103: 11, 12 –


. . . in a very real sense, without forgiveness, there is no future.


These words of wisdom were uttered by Desmond Tutu in 1981 when summoned before a tribunal of the South African apartheid government. That he was voicing a fundamental Bible truth might have escaped their comprehension, but Tutu was fearless in defending his faith: ‘The Little Black Bishop stabbed a finger toward the five white commissioners sitting before him and declared: “You whites brought us the Bible; now we blacks are taking it seriously. We are involved with God to set us free from all that enslaves us and makes us less than what He intended us to be.”’ It was a curious scene, the black bishop all intensity and animation delivering a theological lecture strewn with Biblical quotations to his five staid, stony-faced inquisitors.’ (  (Link Broken.. 2013)


This eminent man of God, now an Anglican Archbishop, was speaking in the context of South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, with all it encompassed of individual human suffering. In the broader context it appears that man’s inhumanity to man has no bounds, and that the exercise of forgiveness is, with few exceptions, an impossible dream. In a world with so much pain, so much hatred and animosity between races, between nations, tribes, cultures and religions, is total forgiveness realistic?



It may be variously defined as a ceasing to hold resentment against or to blame another, a pardon, a peace offering, an amnesty, release from a debt or an obligation, and most significantly, a Divine attribute. As Alexander Pope aptly expressed it, ‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’

 ( (copy and paste link into internet browser)


There is much confusion about the conditions upon which forgiveness of sins may be expected. This is not the fault of the Bible, which makes the matter very clear, but it is the result of confused theologies. The whole world, as the children of Adam, rest under Divine sentence of death, with no offer of hope directly made to them. But God’s purposes for the unbelieving world are deferred until the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on the earth. ‘. . . . When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness’ (Isaiah 26: 9). The mercies and favours of God, including forgiveness of sins, are recognised and valued at the present time only by those who exercise faith in Christ and who to the best of their ability live in harmony with the Divine standards. ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit’ (Psalm 32: 1, 2).


God’s forgiveness of sins is, of course, a fundamental Bible doctrine, and our salvation depends upon it. If God did not forgive us, we would be burdened with a load of guilt that could never be removed. In the Christian dispensation, the means of gaining God’s forgiveness is through repentance and faith in the sacrifice of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace . . . .’ (Ephesians 1: 7).


During the pre-Christian era it was faith in the promise of a redeemer to come that would gain the Lord’s favour of forgiveness. In every case, that forgiveness was a temporary, or tentative, arrangement giving believers a standing with God and they would be regarded as justified  made right  by their faith until such time as the blood of Christ would be applied on their behalf, and they would be in their resurrection made perfect, free from sin and its penalty: ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6: 23).



‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ (Matthew 18: 21). Peter′s question to Jesus is one that Christians still ask from time to time. Being far from perfect ourselves, and often in the company of those who are selfish, critical, and inconsiderate of others’ rights, it is natural for us to ask when we are offended or persecuted, ‘How long should I forgive this behaviour?’

Or even, ‘Should I be forgiving at all?’


Jesus’ answer to Peter makes quite clear our proper reaction to those who treat us unjustly: ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ (v. 22). Of course, Jesus did not use the number 77 in a literal sense, but to illustrate the principle that we should always be prepared to forgive, regardless of the number of times we are wronged.


There is something in the human mind which naturally appreciates justice and takes special note of any injustice done toward oneself. The attitude of the world in general is to demand what they consider to be their just rights, even to the extent of using violence to achieve their aims, with little or no regard for the just rights of others. But as followers of Christ, we are seeking to live by His precepts and example, showing compassion mercy to those whose weaknesses may have led them into wrongdoing.


It is true that justice is the foundation of Divine government that God is just. But He is also loving and kind, and to be in the Divine likeness we must govern our own conduct on the basis of justice, while viewing the conduct of others by the rules of love, sympathy, generosity and forgiveness. In advising Peter to forgive a brother 70 x 7, we see the great breadth of generosity in our Saviour’s heart, a recognition of the frailty even of those called to be ‘brethren’. And at His crucifixion,

Jesus’ prayer, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’, manifested His great compassion towards His bitterest enemies (Luke 23: 34).



It is not impossible that a seldom-activated faculty of the human brain may be able to erase from memory the details of a deeply disturbing experience. In some cases this might be a defence mechanism, an escape from the constant re-living of a trauma that permits no peace of heart and mind.


Almost invariably, however, ‘forgetting’ is achieved by an act of will, a positive choosing to remember no more the offences of those who have injured us, or sinned against us. The Scriptures set forth the Divine example: ‘I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more’ (Isaiah 43: 25). It is not that God, having blotted out our transgressions, can no longer bring them to mind. Neither in human terms does forgetting mean that we somehow wipe out of our mind the record of what happened. Forgetting means that we choose not to remember it, in the sense that we resolve to hold no grudge against someone who has wronged us.


Nor does it mean that we condone sinful behaviour or set aside its consequences. It does not mean that repeated abuse should be ignored, and there may be cases where the danger to oneself or to others requires a determined confrontation with the wrongdoer. Such a challenge might also be necessary where the good name of Christian brothers and sisters is threatened and the honour of the Church might be called into question. Because of the frailty of human nature there may be occasions when it is proper to rebuke a fellow-Christian, and this should be done only after careful consideration and prayer, and in a spirit of humility and helpfulness.


While it is not our business to try to put the world right at the present time, as ‘children of light’ it may sometimes be proper and sometimes even a duty  to speak or act in opposition to darkness.


But simply letting the light shine in our daily lives is in itself a reproof of sin, which may touch the hearts of the less depraved and draw them into the light. Experience often teaches us, however, that the more depraved may be infuriated, rather than blessed, by the evident goodness of others. As the Apostle John puts it: ‘Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed’ (John 3: 19, 20).



Another statement on forgiveness seems to imply that before it is granted, it should at least be desired, if not actually requested (Luke 17: 3, 4). For one to say, ‘I am sorry’, implies repentance, and forgiveness should be readily shown. Yet our Lord’s conduct makes it clear that even where no evidence of repentance is seen, we should in our hearts forgive, even if wisdom leads us to wait for evidence of repentance before expressing that forgiveness to the offender. In many cases the offender will deny having done anything that needs to be forgiven, but such an attitude does not prevent our exercising forgiveness. We do not need the permission of the wrongdoer.


It seems today that all the world is angry, and in our increasingly rage-ridden society, the gracious faculty of living peaceably with all men is seldom seen.

. . . in a very real sense, without forgiveness, there is no future.

But let us lift up our heads and rejoice! In due time Christ’s Kingdom will be established, a righteous government destined to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all people. Conscious of the loving mercy of the great Creator, earth’s millions will exult in a universal outburst of loving forgiveness toward all, and look in happy anticipation to a future more glorious than human vision has ever imagined.


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