An Overview of Biblical Words for Forgiveness

Chris —  June 6, 2008

Here is an appendix of Unpacking Forgiveness.  This may be too technical for many.  AND I ASSURE YOU THAT THE OVERALL BOOK IS NOT WRITTEN THIS TECHNICALLY.  I do want readers to know that my conclusions rest on a thorough exegetical study.  We all need to understand forgiveness and surveying the biblical words is a good place to begin.

Why not stretch your mind and read this?


 Biblical Words for Forgiveness

. . . 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 . . .” H. Vorlander[1]

It would be a mistake to imply that we can plumb the rich depths of biblical narrative and theological reflection through word studies by themselves.  However, it is worthwhile to survey forgiveness words from the Scriptures even as we reflect on particular passages.  The goal of this appendix is to help readers not equipped with the original language better understand biblical forgiveness words and the contexts in which they appear.

The Bible uses three major word groups for “forgiveness.”  One of these is in the Old Testament.[2]  The other two are in the New Testament. 

In the Old Testament

The Old Testament word, “סַלָּח / salah”  means “to practice forbearance, pardon, or forgive.”[3]  It occurs 47 times and is found in:

Exodus 34:9; Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35, 5:10, 13, 16, 1, 6:7; 19:22; Numbers 14:19, 20,15:25, 26, 28, 30:5, 8, 12; Deuteronomy 29:20; 1 Kings 8:30; 34, 36, 39, 50; 2 Kings 5:18 (2x), 24:4; 2 Chronicles 6:21; 25; 27; 30; 39; 7:14; Psalm 25:11; 86:5; 103:3; Isaiah 55:7; Jeremiah 5:1; 7; 31:34; 33:8; 36:3; 50:20; Lamentations 3:42; Daniel 9:19; Amos 7:2.

This word is usually translated “forgive” or “pardon” by the ESV.

Two things stand out about סַלָּח / salah.  First, it is used exclusively in connection to God forgiving or pardoning.  It is not used relative to one person forgiving another.  Second, God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance.[4]  A cluster of uses of this word in Leviticus 4 illustrate both points.

Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven (Leviticus 4:20).

And all its fat he shall burn on the altar, like the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. So the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven (Leviticus 4:26).

And all its fat he shall remove, as the fat is removed from the peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar for a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven (Leviticus 4:31).

And all its fat he shall remove as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on top of the Lord’s food offerings. And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven (Leviticus 4:35).

There are no Old Testament examples of God forgiving apart from faith or repentance on the part of the one being forgiven.

While not a “major” forgiveness word in the Old Testament, the word, נָא / nāśā’ is also translated “forgiveness.”  See for example, Genesis 50:17.  In these contexts, it can be defined as “to take away, guilt, iniquity, transgression.”[5]  For other examples see, Exodus 10:17, 23:21, 32:32, Isaiah 2:9.[6]

In the New Testament

In the New Testament the most common word for forgiveness is word is ἀφίημι / aphíēmi.  It occurs 143 times in the New Testament, 127 of the uses being in the Gospel accounts.

Matthew 3:15 (2x); 4:11; 20; 22; 5:24; 40; 6:12 (2x); 14 (2x); 15 (2x); 7:4; 8:15; 22; 9:2; 5; 6; 12:31 (2x); 32(2x); 13:30; 36; 15:14; 18:12; 21; 27; 32; 35; 19:14; 27; 29; 22:22; 25; 23:13; 23 (2x); 38; 24:2; 40; 41; 26:44; 56; 27:49; 50; Mark 1:18; 20; 31; 34; 2:5; 7; 9; 10; 3:28; 4:12; 36; 5:19; 37; 7:8; 12; 27; 8:13; 10:14; 28; 29; 11:6; 16; 25(2x); 12:12; 19; 20; 22; 13:2; 34; 14:6; 50; 15:36; 37; Luke 4:39; 5:11; 20; 21; 23; 24; 6:42; 7:47 (2x); 48; 49; 8:51; 9:60; 10:30; 11:4 (2x); 12:10 (2x); 39; 13:8; 35; 17:3; 4; 34; 35; 18:16; 28; 29; 19:44; 21:6; 23:34; John 4:3; 28; 52; 8:29; 10:12; 11:44; 48; 12:7; 14:18; 27; 16:28; 32; 18:8; 20:23 (2x); Acts 5:38; 8:22; 14:17; Romans 1:27; 4:7; 1 Corinthians 7:11; 12; 13; Hebrews 2:8; 6:1; James 5:15; 1 John 1:9; 2:12; Revelation 2:4; 20; 11:9.

This word has a very wide range of meaning and is often used in contexts other than those dealing with forgiveness.  Hence, our English translations appropriately use different words to translate it depending on the usage.[7]  For instance, in Matthew 4:20,22 ἀφίημι / aphíēmi refers to Peter and Andrew leaving their nets behind.[8] 

Vorlander summarizes:

Oddly enough aphiēmi occurs only 45 times in the sense to forgive (17 times in Matt.; 8 times in Mk.; 14 times in Lk.-Acts; twice in John; and only once in Paul!). . . In most cases, however, the NT uses aphiēmi  in the original sense of to let (Mk. 1:34; 5:19, 37 par.; Acts 14:17, etc.); to dismiss, divorce, release (Matt. 13:36; 1 Cor. 7:11-13, etc.); to leave (Mk. 1:20; 10:28 par., etc.); to leave behind (Mk. 1:18 par., etc.); and to abandon (Mk. 7:8; Rom. 1:27, etc.).[9]

The closely related ἄφεσις / aphesis appears 17 times in the New Testament.  Fourteen of the 17 occurrences are in the Gospels.

Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4; 3:29; Luke 1:77; 3:3; 4:18 (2x); 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:22; 10:18.

While this word is usually translated “forgive,” in Luke 4:18 ἄφεσις / aphesis appears twice and the ESV translates it, “liberty.”

In the context of forgiveness, ἄφεσις / áphesis and ἀφίημι / aphíēmi mean, “to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence, to cancel, remit, or pardon.”[10]  John uses the word ἀφίημι / aphíēmi in 1 John 1:9 and stresses that forgiveness, is conditioned on confession.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).


Louw and Nida explain that forgiveness removes guilt.

Some languages make a clear distinction between guilt and sin, and terms for forgiveness are therefore related to guilt and not to the wrongdoing. Therefore, ‘to forgive sins’ is literally ‘to forgive guilt.’ Though terms for ‘forgiveness’ are often literally ‘to wipe out,’ ‘to blot out,’ or ‘to do away with,’ it is obviously not possible to blot out or to wipe out an event, but it is possible to remove or obliterate the guilt.[11]

There is no sense in the New Testament in which someone could be forgiven, yet still go to hell.

The other major word for forgiveness in the New Testament is “χαρίζομαι / charizomai.”  It is found 23 times in the New Testament.  Fifteen of 23 occurrences are in Paul’s writings. 

This word is in the same family of words as the word translated “grace.”  It can have the following connotations: (1) to give freely as a favor (2) To cancel a sum of money that is owed (3) To show ones self gracious by forgiving wrongdoing.[12]  The ESV translates it using forms of the words: bestow, cancel, forgive, give, and grant.

The word “χαρίζομαι / charizomai” appears twice in both Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13. 

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).

We might paraphrase “forgiving” in these verses as “graciously forgiving.”  God expects believers to extend grace to people in the same way it was extended to them.

Why Doesn’t Paul Use the Same Forgiveness Words ?

For those of us who get excited about such things, one of the more interesting aspects of studying biblical words for forgiveness is to notice the change in New Testament vocabulary.  While extremely common in the Gospels, the two words ἄφεσις / áphesis and ἀφίημι / aphíēmi are endangered species in Paul’s writings.  With three exceptions (Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14, Romans 4:7) Paul does not use the same forgiveness word in connection to salvation as the Gospels.  And, Romans 4:7 is a quotation of Psalm 32.

Granted, Paul does use the word sometimes translated “forgiveness,” “χαρίζομαι / charizomai as shown above.” Fifteen of 23 times it appears in the New Testament are Paul’s.[13] 

This difference in vocabulary begs the question.  Why the change? A sliver of the reason that Paul does not use ἄφεσις / áphesis and ἀφίημι / aphíēmi, may be that he prefers χαρίζομαι / charizomai.  But, there must be more to it than that.  In the first place, Paul does not say too much explicitly about forgiveness.  A different preference in vocabulary does not explain why Paul says so little directly about forgiveness.  Why, for instance, do we not find Paul referring to forgiveness of sins over and over again in Romans, his grand 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?  Again, surely, not.  After all, Paul does summarize the Gospel relative to forgiveness in both Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14.

Agreeing with Vorlander, I believe 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.  He 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 facet of the many splendored Gospel.

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).[14]


Even a brief survey of the biblical vocabulary for forgiveness affirms the emphases of this book.  Biblical forgiveness is not primarily a feeling.  Rather, it is something that happens between two parties.  Biblical forgiveness is conditioned on repentance and results in the elimination of guilt.  God only forgives those who repent.  While some consequences may remain, it would contradict biblical meaning to insist that God forgives everyone unconditionally or that someone forgiven could still go to hell.  Still, while actual forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance, forgiveness should be graciously offered to all.

[1] H. Vorlander, “Forgiveness,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 701.

[2] The amount of explicit discussion about forgiveness of sins is much smaller in the Old Testament than in the New Testament.  McKeating notes, “The Christian who explores the idea of forgiveness in the Old Testament is likely to be surprised at first at the relative lack of interest which Old Testament writers show in the subject.  He goes on to cogently argue that it was seen as a part of salvation as a whole.  Henry McKeating, “Divine Forgiveness in the Psalms,” The Scottish Journal of Theology 18 (1965): 69.

[3] J.P.J. Olivia, “Slh,” in The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology, ed. William Van Gemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 265.  See also Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and others, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament : With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic : Based on the Lexicon of William Gesenius as Translated by Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 699.

[4] Olivia, 262.

[5] Brown, Driver and others, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament : With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic : Based on the Lexicon of William Gesenius as Translated by Edward Robinson, 671.

[6] See also, Victor Hamilton, “Ns,” in The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology, ed. William Van Gemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).

[7] For instance, the NIV translates it 28 different ways!  Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 1692. 

[8] Arndt, Gingrich and others.  See also, Vorlander.

[9] Vorlander, 700-701.

[10] Arndt, Gingrich and others.

[11] Louw and Nida.

[12] Arndt, Gingrich and others.

[13] 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.

[14] I reject on theological and hermeneutical grounds the solution to this question set forth by Shults and Sandage.  Utilizing a “trajectory hermeneutic,” they argue that the biblical presentation of forgiveness changes throughout the chronology of the Bible.   For instance they write, “We have seen a trajectory in the Hebrew Bible that moves from an early interpretation of God as not at all forgiving, to a picture God as easily angered. . .”  F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage, The Faces of Forgiveness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 133.

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