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What Are Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Bible? Are They Different?

Reconciliation and forgiveness are similar in some respects. So much so that sometimes we confuse the two of them. But they are not the same thing. So then what is reconciliation? And what is forgiveness? How do they apply to me as a person? And as a believer?
Ed Jarrett
What Are Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Bible? Are They Different?

Forgiveness Definition

We are instructed a number of times in the Bible to forgive others. It was an explicit part of Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:7-15. Forgive is the Greek word aphiēmi, meaning “to send away, dismiss, suffer to depart; to emit, send forth.” In relation to an offense against us, it means that we dismiss it, or send it away. We do not hold onto that offense, harboring it in our hearts. Instead, we treat it as if it had not occurred.

Reconciliation Definition

The word “reconciliation” is less commonly used. And generally, at least in the Scripture, it deals with the relationship between God and humanity. Reconciliation is the Greek word katallagē, meaning “an exchange; reconciliation, restoration to favor.”

Reconciliation assumes a broken relationship. Something has happened that has caused two parties to become estranged. The two might have been friends. It might be a business relationship. Or it might be as intimate as marriage. But there is now something between them.

What’s the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation?

Reconciliation involves forgiveness. But it goes beyond forgiveness. When I forgive someone, there is no guarantee that we will have a restored relationship. It may well be that even after I have forgiven someone that we remain estranged. Reconciliation, however, restores the relationship.

Forgiveness may be one sided. But reconciliation requires both parties to be willing to participate in restoring the relationship. It is always possible, and expected, for me to forgive. But reconciliation will not be possible if the other party is not willing to participate.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Human Relationships

Forgiveness is commanded.

Forgiveness is hard. But the follow-up to the model prayer (the Lord’s Prayer) in Matthew 6:9-13 is clear. If we are unwilling to forgive others, we have no reason to expect that God will forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15).

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Forgiveness isn’t necessarily a two-way street.

One problem that many have with forgiveness is that they envision it as a two-way street. They are willing to forgive only when the one who has wronged them repents and seeks forgiveness. But the Scripture puts no such limit on forgiveness.

Quite the contrary. The examples of Jesus (Luke 23:34) and Stephen (Acts 7:60) both demonstrate forgiveness, even when the wrong is occurring. In the midst of their executions, both prayed for the forgiveness of those killing them.

Seek reconciliation where it’s possible.

While Romans 12:18 does not use the word “reconciliation,” I believe it does give us explicit instructions about the need for reconciliation. Paul tells us that “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” I should strive for reconciliation. But it may not always be possible.

In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus also gives instruction concerning the need for reconciliation. He says to us that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Broken relationships with people can impact my relationship with God, hindering my prayer.

What is my responsibility when I have a damaged relationship with another person? I need to forgive them whatever offense is between us. And I should seek reconciliation. But reconciliation may not be possible. I have no control over how the other person might respond. But, for my part, I should make the attempt. And even if it does not work out, I should continue to do my best to live at peace with them.

Forgiveness from God

More important than human reconciliation is in the reconciliation between God and humanity. While the former impacts my life here on earth, the later impacts my eternity. Receiving forgiveness from God and being reconciled to him are of utmost importance.

We need God’s forgiveness.

Why do we need forgiveness and reconciliation in the first place? You do not have to read very far into the Bible to find the answer to that question. The third chapter of Genesis records Adam and Eve disobeying God and becoming estranged from him. And that is the story of all of humanity. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).

We all stand in need of God’s forgiveness. Our relationship with God is broken. We need to be reconciled to him. And the good news is that God has provided us with what we most need: forgiveness and reconciliation.

Blood was required for forgiveness.

In the Scripture, receiving forgiveness is more than the offending party saying “I’m sorry” to the one offended. Restitution is required. Exodus 22:1-15 and Numbers 5:5-7 contain examples of the restitution that is required for a variety of offenses.

But if the offense is against God, the shedding of blood is required (Hebrews 9:22). This generally took the form of an animal offered to God as a sacrifice. The animal pays the penalty for the offense, allowing the offending party to receive forgiveness.

But in the end, the blood of bulls and goats was not able to adequately deal with my sin (Hebrews 10:4). A greater sacrifice was required. And that more perfect sacrifice was Jesus (Hebrews 10:10), who was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).

Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, the offended party, God, has forgiven the offending party, humanity.

Reconciliation with God

God draws sinners into relationship with himself.

Forgiveness does not mean that we are reconciled to God though. Restoring a relationship requires something from both sides of the broken relationship. It requires a desire for restoration. And then acting on that desire.

For God’s part, he has forgiven me for my rebellion against him. But he goes beyond that. He actively woos the sinner back to himself. His Spirit and grace work within the life of the sinner to convict (John 17:7-11) and to enable the desire for restoration (John 6:44, 65).

What is required on the human side of the equation? What is it that God expects of me in the reconciliation process? In reconciling human relationships I generally have to meet the other person halfway. Would that not also be true in reconciling with God? That I meet him halfway; doing my part?

On the contrary. The Bible teaches that all I bring to the table is faith. God has done everything needed for reconciliation. All that he requires from me is that I accept it.

Is reconciliation the same thing as salvation?

In the Scripture we see that we have been saved (Acts 16:30-31), we are working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12), and we will be saved when Christ returns (Romans 13:11). Salvation really starts for us with reconciliation.

In Ephesians 2:8 when Paul says, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” I believe he is referring to reconciliation with God. Reconciliation is an act of God’s grace, a gift freely given to us. A gift accepted by faith apart from any works on my part.

Sinners are reconciled to God in Christ.

Notice that in the passage above that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In Christ is a common phrase for Paul. As believers, we are in Christ. And, being in Christ, his experience becomes our experience. With Christ we experience his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-10). And now we sit with Christ at the right hand of the Father (Colossians 3:1-4).

It is as we come into Christ that we experience reconciliation with God. Christ has created in himself a new humanity. And it is that new humanity that experiences reconciliation with God (Ephesians 2:14-16). The old humanity, represented by the fallen Adam, is broken. It is the new humanity, in Christ, that is reconciled to God.

Ed Jarrett is a long time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of two lovely girls. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.

Photo Credit: Getty/Macniak


Originally published July 09, 2019.