What Does it Mean for Christians to Forgive?

Just as Jesus has shown us grace, we should show forgiveness to others. To forgive is to choose to imitate Christ’s love by not holding the sin of others against them.

What Does it Mean for Christians to Forgive?

C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” We are quick to acknowledge the truth of Lewis’ words, but how many of us truly live out forgiveness?

One reason why many Christians fail to offer forgiveness for others is that we do not know what forgiveness means. The worldly philosophy adds to a spirit of unforgiveness since songs and movies often encourage us to hold on to grudges and bitterness in our hearts.

As Christians, though, we should listen to God’s Word, not the teaching of the world. We forgive because God has forgiven us.

What Forgiveness Is Not

Before delving into a biblical definition of forgiveness, we need to include what forgiveness is not. Giving a negative definition can help us better understand topics, including what it means to forgive others based on God’s Word.

First, forgiveness is not saying that what the other person did is okay. By forgiving another person, you are not justifying their wrongdoing or acting as if it were not hurtful.

People do wicked and sinful things to others, which is harmful and destructive. Although children commonly learn that they should respond to pleas of “I’m sorry” with “It’s okay,” the hurtful things others do are not okay.

Second, forgiving others is not acting as if they never did anything wrong. From Scripture, we know that there are consequences for our actions. 

If someone does something illegal to another person, the legal repercussion will not lessen because the other person responds in grace. Furthermore, God will hold us accountable for all we do and speak (Romans 14:12).

Thirdly, forgiveness is not about whether a person deserves our forgiveness or not. We should not force people to earn our forgiveness, nor should we wait until we feel like we are in a forgiving mood. Neither must we wait until the other person changes or apologizes.

What Forgiveness Is

A scriptural basis for forgiveness is the salvation we receive in Christ. As Ephesians 4:32 states, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

We forgive because of what God has done for us. Just as we have been forgiven despite our unworthiness, we can forgive others even if they do not deserve our love and grace.

While we were sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Humans do not deserve God’s mercy since we willingly choose to sin against Him (Romans 3:23). Even the good things we do are filthy rags compared to our wrongdoing (Isaiah 64:6).

Despite our sinfulness, God decided to show us mercy and grace. He did not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). God the Son lovingly came to die in our place and take the punishment we deserve (John 3:16; 1 Peter 2:24).

The forgiveness God gives to others freely by grace through faith is a result of His loving character, not because of anything we do (Ephesians 2:4-9).

Jesus gave His followers the parable of the unforgiving servant to teach them about the value of forgiving others. In the story, the servant owes the king ten thousand talents (Matthew 18:24-25). Because the servant asks for mercy, his master chooses to forgive his debt (Matthew 18:26-27).

However, the servant fails to show similar mercy to a man who owes him a hundred denarii, which was only the amount of a day’s work (Matthew 18:28-29). The servant threw the man in prison, which infuriates the master (Matthew 18:30-32).

As the master asked, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 28:33). Through an emotionally moving story, Jesus emphasizes the fact that since believers have been forgiven much, they should show similar mercy to others.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a choice we make to not treat another person’s sin as it deserves. We offer them the same grace that Jesus has given us.

Even if the other person shows no sign of change or remorse, we can lay down that wrongdoing and hurt against us and choose to show mercy. In so doing, we demonstrate a Christlike attitude and love.

The Dangers of Unforgiveness, Hatred, and Bitterness

If we pictured our unforgiveness as a heavy bag hanging on our back, we might better understand the consequences of unforgiveness. Because we know Christ, we can lay down our burdens (Matthew 11:28).

The Lord never meant for us to carry a heavy burden or “bag” of unforgiveness and bitterness. Refusing to forgive others places a heavy burden on our hearts that infects us like insidious cancer.

One of the dangers of holding onto our bitterness is that we will grow to hate the other person. By doing this, we treat other human beings as if they are our enemies. In reality, our enemies are Satan and his demons, who want us to fester with unforgiveness (Ephesians 6:12; 1 Peter 5:8).

The devil would love to see believers fall into ineffectiveness since hatred hinders our witness for Christ. We cannot testify to the love of God while holding hatred and bitterness in our hearts (1 John 3:10, 4:20).

Another hazard of failing to offer grace and mercy to others is that it will interfere with our relationship with God. Even though salvation frees us from enslavement to sin, believers can experience interference in their relationship with Christ because of sin in their lives.

Whether this sin is anger, gossip, or unforgiveness, it hinders our spiritual walk. If we are holding onto unforgiveness, we need to repent of our sin, choose to forgive the other person, and turn back to Christ.

Finally, unforgiveness casts a shadow on the mercy that the Lord has shown us. Rather we like it or not, the outside world bases the credibility of Christianity on the actions of believers.

If we demonstrate bitterness and hateful attitudes toward those who have hurt us, then what type of testimony are we presenting to others? The Lord has forgiven us in grace.

Likewise, we should seek to forgive others. As Colossians 3:13 says, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Practical Steps to Take Toward Forgiving Others

First, an important step to take toward forgiving others is to study God’s Word. Seek to understand forgiveness from God’s perspective and consider the cross.

For instance, passages such as Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 6:37; Ephesians 4:31-32; and Colossians 3:13 teach about forgiveness.

Also, reflecting on the gift of salvation can help in understanding the importance of grace (Romans 5:1-11; Ephesians 1:3-10).

Next, dealing with past hurts is essential. Forgiving others does not mean the hurt and pain we have experienced are minimal or worthless.

Instead of burying our pain, we need to allow ourselves to heal. The Lord cares about our pain and is near those who are brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18).

Talking to God about our feelings can help us address unforgiveness without minimizing the pain the other person has caused.

Also, talking to a Christian counselor, therapist, or pastor can assist believers in the path of healing and forgiveness, especially if feelings of hatred and bitterness are deeply rooted.

Christian books about emotional health are other useful tools for dealing with past hurts and feelings. One book that I have found beneficial in my walk with Christ is Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero, which assisted me in dealing with past hurts.

Finally, the most important step that we can take in regaining spiritual wholeness is to choose to forgive the person or people that have hurt us.

Even if the person who hurt us is unreceptive, inaccessible, or no longer living, we can tell Christ about our choice to forgive the other person because of the grace He has given us.

Once a person forgives another, they feel the heavy burden of bitterness fall away. Forgiveness brings freedom.

Why Does This Matter?

Inevitably, we will all experience hurt in this life. The fallenness of humanity means that relationships are negatively affected and that individuals can often act hatefully toward others.

Falling into bitterness and unforgiveness is easy to do, especially when the world encourages us to hold grudges and revenge in our hearts. Jesus calls us to a different life where His followers demonstrate His love to others in action and words.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can experience salvation despite our sinfulness. We do not deserve His love, but He offers us forgiveness anyway.

Just as Jesus has shown us grace, we should show forgiveness to others. To forgive is to choose to imitate Christ’s love by not holding the sin of others against them.

For further reading:

6 Beautiful Psalms That Teach Us about Forgiveness

What Is the Relationship Between Salvation and Forgiveness?

What Is the Significance of Seventy Times Seven in Forgiveness?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Natalija Grigel


Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.