Any time a serious discussion about forgiveness begins, parties begin to evaluate the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation. If the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” are used in their normal English sense, most would insist that there are times you forgive (and by that they mean, “not be bitter”) but not be reconciled.
However, The New Testament does not envision a situation in which someone is forgiven but not reconciled. Indeed, the terms are both used to refer to salvation. Paul rarely, very rarely, used the most word most commonly translated “forgiveness.” Below are somewhat technical thoughts (not from my forthcoming book) on the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Forgiveness: The Case of the Missing Words
I admit it up front, it’s not Sherlock Holmes or the Hardy Boys. But, this is a mystery none the less. And, the mystery is this. Why didn’t the Apostle Paul say more about “forgiveness”? What happened to the missing words Jesus used for “forgiveness” in Paul’s writings?
When I raise that question, I am not playing Bible trivia. The solution to the mystery of the missing forgiveness words has significant implications for:
- How we understand the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation.
- How we seek to live out and embody forgiveness in our relationships.
“Forgiveness” is, of course, no small topic in the New Testament. All have sinned and incurred an infinite debt. Forgiveness makes reference to how one party can be pardoned from his or her guilt.
Vorlander writes, “. . . Forgiveness takes the central place in Christian proclamation as the means whereby [the relationship between God and humanity] is restored. It stands as the action of God in the face of the sinful behavior of man, and is based on Christ. . .”
Given this central place of forgiveness, it is not surprising to note forgiveness words are featured in the New Testament Gospels. The two closely related words, ἀφίημι / aphíēmi , ἄφεσις / aphesis occur frequently. For instance, Jesus uses the former word six times in Matthew 6:12,14-15.
12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:12, 14-15.
Mysteriously, however, these two words (ἀφίημι / aphíēmi ἄφεσις / aphesis) are endangered species in Paul’s writings. Ivory billed woodpeckers are more common. With three exceptions (Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14, Romans 4:7) Paul does not use these same forgiveness word in connection to salvation. And, Romans 4:7 is a quotation of Psalm 32.
What happened? Where is Nancy Drew when you need her?
Granted, Paul does use a word sometimes translated “forgiveness,” “χαρίζομαι / charizomai.” Fifteen of 23 times it appears in the New Testament are Paul’s. Indeed, Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13 are central verses in understanding how the Gospel should shape our relationships with one another. The word “χαρίζομαι / charizomai” appears twice in each verse.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).
. . . bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Colossians 3:13).
However, χαρίζομαι / charizomai is a different word than the one Jesus favored. It is from the same family of words as the word translated “grace.” This verb might be translated, “being gracious to” as in Romans 8:32.
But, we can allow that a sliver of the reason that Paul does not use ἀφίημι / aphíēmi ἄφεσις is because he prefers χαρίζομαι / charizomai. But, there must be more to it than that. Why does Paul not use the same words for forgiveness? And, why does he refer so infrequently to “forgiveness” at all? Why do we not find Paul referring to forgiveness of sins over and over again in Romans, his grand systematic presentation of salvation?
Is it because Paul does not believe that God pardons sin? Obviously not.
Or, is it that Paul has a different theology of forgiveness than Jesus. Is Paul more “grace” oriented than the Lord. The answer is, again, obviously, “no.”
Or, is it because the idea of “forgiveness of sins” is far from Paul’s thoughts? Surely, not. After all, he does summarize the Gospel in that way both in Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14.
The argument here is that the reason that Paul so infrequently refers to forgiveness of sins is that he has broken the overarching concept of “forgiveness” down into a systematic presentation. Vorlander writes:
“In Paul the terms aphiemi and aphesis virtually disappear. This is because the proclamation of forgiveness appears in Paul’s writings as a thought-out and systematized doctrine. The fact that forgiveness is not merely a remission of past guilt, but includes total deliverance from the power of sin and restoration to fellowship with God, is expressed by Paul in his doctrine of justification . . . and of reconciliation. . . with God. This has taken [place in Christ and is the center of the gospel. Forgiveness takes place because God gives himself completely in the sacrifice of his Son and so gives man a share in his own righteousness. Thus ‘in Christ’ man becomes a pardoned sinner and a ‘new creature’. This teaching represents a summary and theological consolidation of the early Christian preaching of forgiveness.” (Vorlander, H. “Forgiveness.” In The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, 1, 697-703. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971, page 702.
Vorlander’s point is that Paul favors terms like “justification” and “reconciliation” because they facilitate a systematic understanding of forgiveness of sins. So, in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 rather than referring to the Gospel as “forgiveness of sins,” Paul speaks of the “ministry of reconciliation.” Paul did not intend that “reconciliation” would be understood” as something apart from forgiveness or even in addition to it. Rather, “reconciliation” is a different view of the Gospel.
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:20-21.
Think of it this way. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.” She then went on to explain her thesis (“I love you”) by reciting different words that explained the quality and depth of her love. Similarly, the Gospels are the grand statement of Christ’s love. Within the Gospels, the life of the Lord demonstrates his love. He loves us enough to enter into human history, he loves us enough to be a servant, he loves us enough to go to the Cross. He loves us enough to forgive our sins.
But, Paul goes on to count the ways that Christ loves us by amplifying the doctrine of forgiveness of sins. Paul describes the greatness of our salvation by explaining that in being forgiven of our sins, we are justified. That is, we are declared righteous in Christ. We are reconciled with God and have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We are sanctified, set apart for holiness we might be increasingly conformed to the image of Jesus from one degree of glory to another.
Paul would not have accepted the notion that someone could be forgiven but not reconciled. Rather, he saw reconciliation as a component of forgiveness. This, of course, would extend to interpersonal relationships as well as salvation (Ephesians 4:32).
 Luke 7:21; 42; 43; Acts 3:14; 25:11; 16; 27:24; Romans 8:32; 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 2:7; 10 (3x); 12:13; Galatians 3:18; Ephesians 4:32 (2x); Philippians 1:29; 2:9; Colossians 2:13; 3:13 (2x); Philemon 22.