Forgiveness in the New Testament

Great words of the Bible continued.

V. Norskov Olsen, President, Newbold College, England

In the New Testament "forgive" and "forgiveness" appear 66 times as the transla­tion of four Greek words which appear in about 250 places with different render­ings. Because of the transla­tion by one English word of several Greek words, each with different renderings, it is important that careful study be made of the usage of these words in order that a clear conception of "for­giveness" may be obtained.


Apoilia appears sixty-eight times in the New Testament. In the King James English version, this one Greek word is translated by ten different words. Only twice is it translated "forgive." Thirteen times apoluo is translated "send away" and that same number of times "let go." In all the four­teen passages where apoluO is translated "put away" it is in connection with divorce. A typical text is Matthew 5:31, "It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away [apoluo] his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement." The other verbs used in translating apoluo in English are "release," "loose," "dismiss," "depart," "set at liberty," and "divorce." The only text in which apoluo is translated "forgive" is in Luke 6:37: "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive [apoluo], and ye shall be forgiven [apoluo]".

No doubt the thought of this verse is the same as when Christ taught His disciples to pray: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). The force of apoluo is "to take away," "release," or "dismiss." Man's part in obtaining divine forgiveness is here emphasized: he must have the attitude expressed by apoluo toward his debtors and enemies before he can receive a similar apoluo from God.


Aphiemi is found in the New Testament in approximately 142 passages. It has been translated by the verbs "leave," "suffer," "forsake," and "let alone." In forty-six passages it has been translated "forgive." It is interesting to notice that out of the sixty passages in which the English New Testament reads "forgive" forty-six are given for aphiemi. Each time the idea is that of being "taken" or "sent away," and this emphasizes that forgiveness is an actual reclaiming from sin. A typical text is 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, he is faith­ful and just to forgive Laphiemi: "take away from"] us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."


Charizomai appears twenty-three times and is rendered in the English Bible by the words "give," "freely give," "deliver,' and "grant." In twelve passages it is found that charizomai is translated "forgive," and in each one it is possible to read the basic idea assigned to charizomai, namely "to show grace," or "grant a favor." Forgive­ness expressed by charizomai is "pardon" as read in Luke 7:42: "And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave [charizomai] them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?" By using the Greek word charizomai to ex­press the idea "to forgive," the writers of the New Testament emphasize that for­giveness is a gift freely given and a favor or grace bounteously granted. This idea inherited in charizomai points to the fact that "the ground of all forgiveness is found in the unmerited love of God." 1


Aphesis is given nine times as "remis­sion," once as "deliverance," and "liberty"; and six times as "forgiveness"; in each case the basic idea of aphesis, namely "release," is apparent. When Christ instituted the Lord's Supper He said, "This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission [aphesis: "release"] of sins" (Matt. 26:28). Two different ren­derings are given of aphesis in Luke 4:18. "He hath sent me to heal the broken­hearted, to preach deliverance [aphesis] to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty [aphesis] them that are bruised." The idea of aphesis in this verse corresponds closely to the sig­nificance of the Feast of Jubilee, which in the LXX is called the feast of aphesis.

It is interesting to notice that this positive conception of forgiveness of sin is advocated by Aulen, a present-day Swedish Lutheran theologian:

Forgiveness does not imply simply a remission of "punishment." As long as the relationship be­tween God and man is conceived of in juridical terms, the question is principally about acquittal and freedom from punishment. . . . 'What happens is simply that the punishment is remitted and the accused is set free. It is quite a different situation when it is a question about a purely personal relationship. . . .

The question is whether the former confidential and intimate personal relationship can be re-estab­lished and continued anew. This can be done in only one way—forgiveness. . . . According to the testimony of the history of Christian thought the principal danger is that forgiveness might be in­terpreted negatively as simply a remission of punish­ment. Such an interpretation is not satisfactory and does not exhaust the rich content of this idea. The essential element is the positive re-establishment of broken fellowship. When Luther so consistently uses forgiveness as the principal word in his Cat­echisms and elsewhere, he pours into it this full positive significance; where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and blessedness.2

When the writers of the New Testament convey the idea "to forgive" by apoluo and aphiemi, then they make use of words that strongly emphasize separation. This is il­lustrated by their usage to express "di­vorce," "put away" and "liberation," "re­lease" or "freedom." Much "evangelical" preaching disregards this significant fact of forgiveness and gives forgiveness the char­acter of laxity, but Aulen says:

No approach could be more foreign to faith than the assertion that forgiveness has the character of laxity and palliation. Even though human forgiveness often may have this character, divine forgiveness is immensely different. On the con­trary, it is clear to faith that forgiveness does not weaken or cancel God's opposition to evil, but that this is expressed most emphatically in the very act of forgiveness.3

The actual "taking away" of the sin makes forgiveness a regenerative power in the sinner's life. This is beautifully il­lustrated in Jesus' healing of the paralytic. This actual taking away of the sin by for­giveness as a recreative power is stated in the following words:

The same voice that spoke life to man created from the dust of the earth had spoken life to the dying paralytic. And the same power that gave life to the body had renewed the heart. He who at the creation "spake, and it was," who "commanded, and it stood fast" (Ps. 33:9), had spoken life to the soul dead in trespasses and sins. The healing of the body was an evidence of the power that had re­newed the heart. Christ bade the paralytic arise and walk, "that ye may know," He said, "that the Son of man bath power on earth to forgive sins." 4

The recreative power which outflows from forgiveness is not to be considered as a separate gift or grace, but is a part of forgiveness in its work of reclaiming from sin. This fact is very clearly brought out by Bishop Aulen:

When Christian faith conceives of the salvation obtained through forgiveness as life, the meaning is not that "life" is something added to forgiveness, so that we might speak of two separate "gifts."3

It has been noticed that generally in the writings of Ellen G. White forgiveness in some form or another is tied up with the regenerated life, as illustrated in the fol­lowing lines:

The "new covenant" was established upon "bet­ter promises,"—the promise of forgiveness of sins, and of the grace of God to renew the heart, and bring it into harmony with the principles of God's law.6

The positive aspect of forgiveness as a regenerative power is expressed by Aulen:

The opposition between God and evil is apparent in the fact that forgiveness becomes a regenerating power in human life. . . . Forgiveness cannot be ex­plained on the basis of regeneration, but is caused solely by divine love and includes regeneration.7

The Greek word aphesis, which in the New Testament is translated "forgiveness" and "remission," also is translated "deliver­ance" and "liberty." In the Epistle to the Colossians an illustration is given of the use of aphesis. Paul writes of Christ, saying: "In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness [aphesis] of sins" (Col. 1:14). Literally translated, this verse would read: "In whom we have redemption through his blood, that will say, release (liberty, freedom, or deliverance) from sins." The plural tOn hamartion, "the sins," might be considered an ablative expressing separation. Understood in this way, the actual reclaiming from sin is also expressed by the use of the Greek word aphesis. Ellen G. White writes;

Forgiveness has a broader meaning than many suppose. . . . God's forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from con­demnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart." 8

When considered in its fullness it can be said that forgiveness of sins is that divine act of favor through which divine love, as it is manifested in the crucified Saviour, covers the sinner with the righteousness of Christ; then by the same loving act sub­dues sinful man and makes him actually free from sin.


1 ElIen G White. Christ's Object Lessons, p. 251.

2 Gustaf Aulen, The Faith of the Christian Church, pp. 257, 258.

3 Ibid., p. 261.

4 White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 269, 270.

5 Aulen, op. cit., p. 269.

6 White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 372.

7 Alden, op. cit., p. 262.

8 White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 114.

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V. Norskov Olsen, President, Newbold College, England

July 1963

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