Forgiveness is like an ointment on a wound. It heals the human soul, and instills peace in its inner recesses. Fellowships with God and with man are weakened by sin, and broken by un-repented sins. Divine forgiveness strengthens and restores man’s fellowship with God. Human forgiveness restores fellowship with the offending party upon his repentance. However, distinction must be made between divine and human forgiveness. We analyze herein briefly the major differences between them.
I. Divine forgiveness
God’s forgiveness of human sins requires true repentance, and the atonement that Christ offered on the cross. Divine forgiveness always follows the satisfaction of divine justice. If the sinner repents and accepts the atonement of Christ on his behalf with genuine faith, his sin is transferred to the account of Christ who took its just punishment on the cross, thereby satisfying the justice of God. “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1: 7; 2: 2). “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26: 28). “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrew 9: 22). The fruits of true repentance are good works (Luke 19: 8-10). However, they are not required for divine forgiveness, because the atonement of Christ is all-sufficient.
King David committed the grave sins of adultery with his neighbor’s wife, and conspiring to murder him (2 Samuel 11). God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke him (2 Samuel 12: 1-15). He came back to his senses and realized the gravity of his sins. He repented with tears (Psalm 6: 6) and asked for forgiveness. “So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die’” (2 Samuel 12: 13).
God is capable of forgiving the worst sins. However, a sinner who does not forgive others is incapable of receiving God’s forgiveness. His repentance is incomplete, because he does not love his neighbor (the offending party) and therefore, does not love God. “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4: 20-21). As God the Father is merciful and forgiving, so his children should be. They should grow in his likeness. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5: 48).
II. Human forgiveness
Human forgiveness is different. It leads to the remission and cancelation of the deserved penalty. It does not require repentance by the offending party. Jesus prayed on the cross for the forgiveness of those who crucified him though they had not repented. On the cross, “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do….”(Luke 23: 34). Following the example of Jesus, Stephen, the first martyr, prayed for the forgiveness of those who stoned him to death though they had not repented: “Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7: 60).
Jesus emphasized the importance of human forgiveness in his teachings:
“Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18: 21-35).
The servant owed his master ten thousand talents. This large indebtedness could not possibly be paid by selling his family into slavery. The top price of a slave was only one talent. Paying this massive debt was impossible. Although the master took pity on his indebted servant and forgave him his entire debt, this servant threw his fellow servant who owed him only a hundred denarii into prison to punish him for delaying the payment of his debt. A hundred denarii represented about a hundred days of wages for a common laborer. It is utterly trivial compared with the debt his master forgave him. As a result, his master realized that he was wicked because he did not show mercy to his fellow servant. He turned him over to torturers to be tortured until he pays back all he owed. It is an endless eternal torture, because he could never pay back his enormous debt. Likewise, a sinner owes divine justice an enormous debt that he could not satisfy. Unless he accepts the atonement that Christ completed on the cross by genuine penitent faith, which includes forgiving others, he will spend his eternity in torment, because he could never satisfy divine justice by his own self effort.
Although Joseph, the son of Jacob, could have avenged himself and inflicted harm upon his brothers in Egypt, he did not, because he forgave them the harm they had done to him in the past by selling him into slavery. However, he wanted to ascertain their remorse and repentance in order to reestablish communion and fellowship with them. Therefore, he subjected them to several tests (Genesis 42-45).
Although the Christian believer forgives others unconditionally, communion and fellowship could not be reestablished with the offending parties till after their repentance, because mutual trust and respect are the very bases of partnership and fellowship (Matthew 18: 17).