Is Forgiveness Something God Does or Gives?

How the cross redefined forgiveness

Posted on June 20, 2012 by Paul Ellis // 46 Comments

When you sin against someone, your relationship with that person comes under strain. There’s this Thing that comes between the two of you. To be reconciled you need to deal with the Thing.

Jesus said if you are bringing your gift to the altar and you remember your brother has some Thing against you, go and deal with that Thing (Matt 5:23).

He also said if your brother sins against you seven times in a day and seven times says, “I repent,” forgive him. “Send that Thing away” (see Luke 17:4).

You knew that, right?

But here’s the thing. God is not like you or me. He doesn’t wait for you to act before he does his thing with your Thing.

That Thing that was between you and him – your sin – he’s dealt with it. He has already forgiven you. To forgive literally means to send away, and on the cross the your sins and my sins were sent away.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psa 103:12)

The Thing is not the thing

So what in the wide world of sports was John thinking when he wrote: “If you confess your sins, God will forgive you” (1 John 1:9)?

Technically, this is not true. God won’t forgive you because he has forgiven you. God doesn’t judge the same sin twice and at the cross he judged all sin. Jesus will only die once and he did that already.

No further sacrifice for sins remains.

You may think that God is angry with you on account of your sin – your Thing – but the gospel says God is no longer counting your sins against you. As far as God is concerned the Thing is not the thing anymore.

So why does John say that God will forgive our sins as though it was something he hadn’t already done?

In a recent article on 1 John 1:9, we saw that John was quoting an Old Testament scripture to illuminate a New Testament truth. In that post we looked at the word “confess” but today I want to look at the word “forgive” because John’s choice of words is rather strange.

John describes forgiveness as a verb (aphiemi in Greek) when other New Testament writers usually describe forgiveness as a noun (aphesis). This puzzle prompted me to do some counting and here’s what I found: prior to the cross, God’s forgiveness is almost always described as a verb. After the cross it is almost always a noun.

Do you see?

Prior to the cross God related to the Israelites on the basis of the law-keeping covenant. “If you do A, I will do B. If you turn from sin, I will forgive your sins and heal your land, etc.”

This is called conditional forgiveness and it’s what Jesus preached prior to the cross: “If you forgive others, God will forgive you.” It’s an eye for an eye and a verb for a verb.


New covenant nouns

But after the cross, everything changed. The law was fulfilled, grace was revealed and verbs became nouns.

Forgiveness was no longer conditional on you doing A, B, and C. Forgiveness became a free gift paid for by the blood of the Lamb. The Risen Lord was the first to announce this:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness (aphesis – a noun) of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”  (Luke 24:46-47)

Take a moment to check that passage in your own Bible. What does it say? Does it read “repentance for forgiveness” or “repentance and forgiveness”? The difference is huge.

Repentance for forgiveness is what John the Baptist preached. It’s forgiveness conditional on you turning from sin. It’s a verb for a verb.

But that is not what Jesus said after the cross.

In Luke 24 Jesus said, “From now on, forgiveness is a noun. Forgiveness is not something God does, it’s something he’s done.”

This is clear in the King James: “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations.”

Forgiveness that has taken place is called remission. When were all our sins remitted? On the cross (see Matt 26:28 and Heb 9:22).

And this is what Jesus said we should preach – nouns, not verbs; gifts, not works.

Forgiveness is not something to earn but receive

Jesus said the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name and that’s exactly what Peter, Paul, and the other apostles did (see Acts 5:31, 13:38). They proclaimed the good news of forgiveness – forgiveness as a noun, forgiveness as a done-deal – and invited people to believe in it. They encouraged people to receive the gift paid for by Jesus.

But John didn’t.

He said, If you confess, God will forgive. John went with the old verb instead of the new covenant noun.

Why? Was John not in the room when Jesus made his Luke 24 announcement? Did he not get the memo that a new and better covenant was in town and that God’s forgiveness has been lavished upon us according to the riches of his grace?

No, John uses the old verb for the same reason Paul does in Romans 4:7-8 – they were both quoting Old Testament scripture. Indeed, they were both quoting the same Old Testament scripture – Psalm 32:1 “Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned” (GNB).

John did not preach conditional forgiveness and neither should we. We should tell people the same thing Jesus told his disciples, and this John does:

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. (1 John 2:12)

Forgiveness is not something to work for, but a gift to receive.


Please share this good news!

46 Comments on Is Forgiveness Something God Does or Gives?

  1.  savedbygrace // June 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm // ReplyI’ve learn from neuroscience that our brain will associate actions, looks – the physical attributes to identify a person.
    it totally makes sense when the scripture says renew your mind.
    therefore we are called Righteous not because of righteous actions, but by name.another good one! keep em coming!– amen
  2.  Richard Williamson // June 21, 2012 at 12:36 am // Reply“As far as the East is from the West”…is a long, long way”…great post…
  3.  Peter Wilson // June 21, 2012 at 3:45 am // ReplyHi Paul, Great discovery! you know how to do your thing!
    I’m glad you brought out about the O.C. Scriptures because in the same verse of Rom 4:7. Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. 
    Under the N.C. Our sins are not ‘covered’, they are as you say, ‘sent away’. There are a number of choruses we sing today that use the word ‘covered’ rather than ‘cleansed’ or ‘sent away’.
    I also find it amazing that even when it is pointed out that 1Jn 1:9 is the only Scripture that speaks about confessing sin, and that John was addressing Gnostics in the Church – and you give them the overwhelming evidence of what Jesus did for us at the cross – they still cling onto 1Jn 1:9 with ferocity and great anger!
  4.  William Seabrooke // June 21, 2012 at 4:38 am // ReplyGreat stuff Paul. Keep it coming!
  5.  Craig Lucinsky // June 21, 2012 at 11:18 am // ReplyThere is also another most import fact that we have been forgiven is that Jesus is resurrected.
    If we haven’t been forgiven then Jesus would still be in the grave because he became our sinful nature and paid the penalty of death for it.
    One man brought death because of his disobedience,One brings Life because of his Obedience.Also he sat down and we also have sat down with him.This is to confirm that there is no more a require for a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin.When the High preist each year did his duty to offer the sacrifice they would confess there sin’s and the animal would be punishment for with death for the people’s disobedience this would happen year after year.Jesus Death and Resurrection has change all that.
  6.  Dennis DeMagistris // June 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm // ReplyHi Paul, thanks again for another great insight on our forgiveness because of The Cross of our Wonderful Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! My 89 year old dad & I are learning so many good bible truths from all of your posts about Gods Salvation. You are sure helping us know our freedom in Christ so that we can really enjoy our Heavenly Father in a Real & True way. I believe God really enjoys when we have our minds renewed in His Truth of Total Forgiveness. What Great Joy He give us as a Free Gift!! Love Learning of our Gods Love & Grace!!
  7.  jennie // June 23, 2012 at 2:54 am // Replypastor paul, can i be the nerdy disciple for a minute? lol
    in luke 24:46-47: “repentance AND forgiveness of sins”…
    i am wondering why the greek word that IS used (eis) is translated “and” instead of “in” or “into” ? (“kai” is not used like it is in acts 5:31)
    because it still makes the strong case (maybe even stronger?) that repentance/change of mind (which, i might point out, is also a noun – not a verb) comes from being in forgiveness/pardon.
    its a “thing” inside of a “thing” = we’re in forgiveness first, and repentance is found being IN that forgiveness… a gift in a gift
    because this actually agrees w/ paul’s statement: “the goodness/kindness of God leads you to repentance” (rom 2:4)
  8.  Randal // July 6, 2012 at 5:12 am // ReplyPaul,
    Ive always been taught that 1John 1:9 is a statement made to unbelievers but more contextually in this case it was directed to a group of gnostic followers who were perverting the true Gospel.Can you please comment. Thanks again for the wonderful site. In Christ. -Randal-
  9.  samson sundeep // February 12, 2013 at 9:34 pm // Replypaul absolutely wholesome stuff .thank u.
  10.  Brian Midmore // September 17, 2013 at 8:05 am // ReplyOn a point of fact I have counted how many times after the cross that forgiveness and forgive are used in connexion with God. I counted 5 forgivenesses Acts 5.31; 13.38; 26.18, Eph 1.7, and Col 1.14 and in its various forms i.e forgive forgiven and forgave 8 forgives. Forgive (1) 1 John 1.19, forgiven (6) Acts 8.22, Rom 4.7, Eph 4.32, Col 2.13, Jas 5.15, 1, Jn 2.12 forgave (1) Col.13. This does not seem to tally with what is written above.
    •  Paul Ellis // September 17, 2013 at 8:54 am // ReplyI’m not sure that I would accept or reject grace by tallying scriptures. Probably better to filter everything you read through Jesus and his finished work. Regarding the many scriptures on forgiveness, this picture should help.
  11.  Lance D // January 25, 2014 at 9:27 am // ReplyLove you, Paul.
    This idea, however, that God has already forgiven everyone is incorrect. Most obvious is 1 John 1:9, which you explained away.
    Less obvious is that everything we receive, we receive because we are ‘in Him’; if we are forgiven, then we are ‘in Him’. The alternative is that we were in Him for forgiveness, but not for life, for which there is no biblical support.
    Furthermore, we are not so much just forgiven, as we die in Him. Our sin was condemned and we died (in Him); we were not left in the flesh and had the ‘thing’ removed. Our sin was not simply removed the way we remove a splinter; we died and were resurrected. It is very different.
    • Paul Ellis // January 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm // ReplyLance, there is much riding on the meaning of the word forgive. When I say God has forgiven us, I am being literal. To forgive literally means to carry away sin and on the cross Jesus did that already. He will never do it again. It’s true that many hold on to their sins, hence 1 John 1:9, but God does not. Love keeps no record of wrongs.I totally agree that the reality of forgiveness is only experienced by those in Christ. You may be interested in my post Why do people need to receive forgiveness if the whole world is already forgiven? I am sure you have found my many posts on 1 John 1:9. (If not, you can find them using the search box.)
      •  Lance D // January 28, 2014 at 6:44 am //Paul, 🙂your site advances the idea that there are 3 different messages for 3 different types of people:
        1. IF they deny that they ever sinned and are closed to grace, then I tell them to confess their sin and be forgiven
        2. IF they are legalistic and self-righteous and are closed to grace, then I tell them to repent and pray and (maybe) they will be forgiven.
        3. IF they are open to grace, then I tell them that they are already forgivenwhat you’ve effectively done is taken the minority example (3) and called that ‘the reality’, and ignored the majority (1 and 2) and called those ‘special cases’. [this is not to say that i agree with your interpretation of (3).] does that really make sense to you?still, you have become so convinced of it, that i don’t think you can actually consider the any event, most of the people on this earth, i would classify as either (1) or (2). by your own classification system, that means that your message should very seldomly look like (3).regards
      •  Paul Ellis // January 28, 2014 at 8:17 am //I guess my writing reflects the world I inhabit just as Christ’s words reflected the world he inhabited.In my world, very few people are going around acting like they are Mr. or Mrs. Perfect. My world consists of broken, messed-up people who are trying to keep their heads above water, struggling to be good parents or students, etc. What I love about these people is they are honest. They know they make mistakes. They don’t need the law to tell them they are not perfect – their consciences have already told them that. Honest folk like this are RIPE for grace. When I tell them about the unconditional love of their heavenly Father their faces light up. The good news brings them great joy.
      •  Lance D // January 28, 2014 at 8:37 am //that’s interesting, because the implied (and sometimes direct) theological message i hear in the USA is that God (1) accepts everyone who is 50.00001% good, (2) ‘looks past’ the 49.99999% bad (forgiveness is not really necessary), and (3) deciding what is ‘good’ is up to you anyway (relativism is alive and well).that is really not what you hear over there? none of this ‘50% good is good enough’ or ‘i, personally, get to decide what is good and what is evil/ get to judge myself’ stuff?these people definitely have the idea that ‘i do not need to be forgiven’…
  12.  Henry A // August 10, 2014 at 12:50 am // ReplyHiya people! In In regards to Mathew 5:23 (If you remember your brother has something against you,leave your gift and first be reconciled to your brother…). I really need help with this, to do with the whole finished work message. Lately, basically every time I come into the presence of God, I just feel so guilty and don’t even feel worthy to declare Gods promises over myself. I keep thinking that somewhere I’ve not reconciled with someone (I mean sure like maybe 5 years ago or something). And its just robbed me of my boldness before God. Please help. Can I come and enjoy Gods presence by faith or do I somehow somewhere need to sort out some relationships with people first?
    •  Henry A // August 10, 2014 at 12:56 am // ReplySorry for the length of this… But my question really is, do I need to sort anything out in my life before I come and enjoy Gods presence? Or even before I come and give an offering (Matthew 5:23)…?
      Thanks for this site Paul.
    • Paul Ellis // August 10, 2014 at 8:58 am // ReplyThe Bible exhorts us to come boldly to the throne of grace in our hour of need (Heb 4:16). You are not coming at all because of a feeling of guilt and unworth. Do you see? You are rejecting God’s good and precious promises because of a bad feeling! This is defeat. This is walking by sight. Faith isn’t a good feeling. Faith is a decision to trust God despite your bad feelings. Faith says, “Even though I don’t feel worthy, I will come boldly to my Father’s throne of grace because Jesus is worthy and he has made a way. Even though I feel like a miserable sinner with all sorts of issues, I will trust that God loves me because Jesus died and rose again.” You need to tell yourself, “I am the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus” (2 Cor 5:21) and do it again and again until the seed of that word takes root in your heart and grows. It is the gospel. Believe it!
      •  Henry A // August 10, 2014 at 9:12 am //OK thank you so much!! I’ll come boldly today! I used to you know, but I guess I kinda doubted in some way… I’m Righteous!!! If I think about it, the only times since being a Christian that I’ve ever actually ‘felt’ good and healthy were the times that I believed in faith that yes I am righteous!!
      •  candy // May 13, 2015 at 2:43 pm //If we did something wrong to someone thirty years ago do we need to find them and ask for forgiveness before we can worship in church or make an offering? Does this prevent us from going to heaven?
      •  Paul Ellis // May 14, 2015 at 2:07 pm //No.
      •  Andrew Sulyma // April 20, 2022 at 1:24 am //Thank you I have never seen it put so beautifully and so simply like this ever! WOW
  13.  treasurewood // December 14, 2014 at 4:45 am // ReplyJust stumbled upon your blog by googling “do we need to confess our sins?”… love your stuff! Have been a Christian for over 30 years and just come across this way of thinking recently. Would love to know what you think about why Jesus told us to pray every day in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins”. Why would we have to keep asking if it has already been done? Is it because Jesus taught this prayer to the Jews before he actually died and rose again? And now it would be different? And also, I guess we don’t need to keep singing songs like “Create in me a clean heart, oh God, and renew a right spirit in me” over and over when it’s already been done and we don’t need to keep on asking and asking for God to renew our spirit again and again every time we sin? It makes sense that David would have, because he was born before Christ and had to offer sacrifices over and over every time he sinned… Thanks!! 🙂
  14.  candy // May 15, 2015 at 12:23 am // ReplyThank you so much Paul!
  15.  Laurence Edgar // June 2, 2016 at 6:32 pm // ReplyHi Paul. I’m new to your books and your posts, I have read some of but not a lot of your posts. Recently I read an article comparing repentance and confession. In the book of Revelation John confronts the churches time and again with the need to repent. Repent or else, says John can you explain this in light of confessing our sins and repenting of our sins.
    •  Paul Ellis // June 2, 2016 at 6:38 pm // ReplyHi Laurence, welcome to E2R. I have written extensively on the Revelation churches. You can find all the articles in the Archives > Scripture Index. Thanks.
  16.  Nana // June 4, 2016 at 12:07 am // ReplyThank you Paul for underlining the part “repentance and forgiveness”. In my Dutch Bible it says “repentance for forgiveness”. So I looked it up in the original Greek text where it says “and”. Thank you for this eye opener!
  17.  Adrian // October 18, 2017 at 3:13 am // ReplyHi Paul, I also saw a sermon that said that the word confess comes from the the greek word homologeo.
  18.  Danrich // November 5, 2017 at 5:17 am // ReplyLearned alot here.• The Gift of Repentance and forgiveness
    – (Acts 5:31) : “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.”
  19.  Cheryl // October 10, 2019 at 4:12 am // ReplyLove this! I hope you don’t mind that I shared your words. Be blessed!
  20.  Ventriss // October 10, 2019 at 8:57 am // ReplyThese words are such a blessing. Every time Rea Beloved teaches about our SOLID forgiveness in Christ, peace rishes over us like a river.
    Thank you so much.
  21.  Truth Seeker // June 13, 2020 at 2:14 am // ReplyFirst John was not written to different audiences, but to believers as a whole. John recognizes believers at different levels of growth (he identifies spiritual children, young men, and fathers), but when he refers to those outside the faith (including false teachers and those holding false beliefs) he clearly refers to them in the third person (they). John refers to his “little children” (believers) over and over and over again, but he never refers to an outside group as being a recipient of his letter. It is terribly ill-advised to presumptuously insert a supposed audience (Gnostics or others) into John’s epistle that he never identified as recipients.Having been deceived, some obsessively and compulsively confessed “sin” (even though it may have only been a temptation). They got on a vicious and tormenting cycle of confessing and re-confessing “sins” and eventually decided that their “confessing sins” was not bringing them victory. As a result, they decided confession of sins must be part of the problem, and so, based on their negative experience, they decided it must not apply to them. In short, they reject the truth of confession because they had experienced a deceptive counterfeit.
    When we confess a sin, we are not groveling before God or wallowing in our sin. We are not trying to “earn” forgiveness, and we are not questioning whether He still loves us or will give us a second chance. No! We come in faith to the One Who promised us cleansing
    •  Paul Ellis // June 13, 2020 at 10:25 am // Reply1 John has messages for both believers and unbelievers. When he’s addressing his dear children, he is referring to the former. But when he is writing to people who have no fellowship with us, he is talking about people disconnected from the living vine. “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). More here.
  22.  Ambangira Edson // August 16, 2020 at 8:50 pm // ReplyThanks. I love “Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. (Ps 32:1, GNB)Forgiveness is not something God does, it’s something he’s done.
  23.  Andrew. S // September 16, 2021 at 1:04 am // ReplyThis is an honest cry for help from a helpless soul in terror I had once know of the love grace forgiveness of the living God in Jesus Christ but I fell away and lived in sin now I have been convinced that there is no hope and no way back to God. I have cried out to Him but still no answer so I despair of God’s forgiveness and I despair of God’s mercy will ever be shown to me. I have suffered constant depression however Suicide is not an option. If what you are saying about forgiveness is true HOW is my question I truly came to know Jesus and know I have passed from death to life, But I turned back this is my stumbling stone all I feel is shame is there any hope for me?
    •  Paul Ellis // September 16, 2021 at 7:58 am // ReplyHi Andrew, you are suffering because you are believing the lie that your sin is greater than your Father’s love. It isn’t. Renew your mind by choosing to believe what God says about you in his word. You are his dearly-loved son and nothing will ever change that. He loves you more than you can know. Read Romans 8:31-39 to yourself out loud every day until you are free. I am praying for you.

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