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What Is Forgiveness?

In the New Testament, “forgiveness” comes from the Greek word aphiemi. Literally this means to send away, or to put apart. Thus the root meaning of forgiveness is to put away an offense. In secular Greek literature, this word was fundamental. It was used to indicate the sending away of an object or a person. Later it came to include the release of someone from the obligation of marriage, debt, or even a religious vow. In its final form, it came to embrace the principle of release from punishment for some wrongdoing.

The Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, contained many of these ideas. In the Old Testament, aphiemi spoke of releasing a prisoner or remitting a debt, but it also came to mean pardon or forgiveness. The New Testament contains 142 references to this word. Of these, 129 are found in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). This leaves only 13 for the remainder of the New Testament. In other words, forgiveness is tied closely to the life and teachings of Christ.

From a Christian standpoint, the most important meaning of aphiemi is that of pardon or forgiveness. God is the great Source of forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 6:12). When John the Baptist came he proclaimed the necessity for such forgiveness (Mark 1:4). Jesus confirmed His deity by forgiving sins (Mark 2:5; Luke 7:47). In His final days on earth, Jesus urged His disciples to proclaim forgiveness worldwide (Luke 24:47). Peter’s Pentecost sermon ended with an invitation to forgiveness (Acts 2:38), which was a vital part of the apostles’ preaching (Acts 5:31; 10:43). Paul also emphasized the forgiveness of sin (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14). Likewise the Apostle John placed primary emphasis on forgiveness (1 John 1:9; 2:12).

In forgiveness, one puts away all grudges. This is the majestic spiritual importance of this common Greek word. It is important for every Christian to learn the art of forgiveness, or else his or her relationship with the Lord will remain forever clouded, to say nothing of relationships with other people.

—Condensed from New Testament Words in Today’s Language by Wayne Detzler.