Leave a 75th Birthday Greeting to Honor Dr. Michael Youssef for His Ministry Leading The Way!

What Does the Phrase ‘To Err Is Human, to Forgive Is Divine’ Mean?

The saying “to err is human, to forgive is divine” has been in use since it was coined by Alexander Pope in the early 18th century. Our intention is to stop erring or sinning because we love the Lord and wish to obey him as a result.

Contributing Writer
Aug 16, 2021
What Does the Phrase ‘To Err Is Human, to Forgive Is Divine’ Mean?

Erring is “making a mistake, an error.” An error is not always a sin, and there is more to sin than making an error. All human beings make mistakes and commit sins, but not everyone forgives. In fact, forgiveness is a divine gift.

Ancient Roots of a Modern Proverb

The saying “to err is human, to forgive is divine” has been in use since it was coined by Alexander Pope in the early 18th century. One source suggests that Pope was inspired by a poem by Thomas Jones in which he wrote, “To err, is human; to recover, is Angelical; to persevere is Diabolical.”

A further source locates the inspiration for Pope’s statement even further back to the time of Plutarch, a Greek philosopher from the 1st century AD. There is no such saying in the Bible, although its sentiments are evident.

Error Vs. Sin

Everyone makes mistakes. An example of an error, which is not a sin is making a mistake on a test due to anxiety, forgetting the answer, or just not knowing because the information was not taught. Choosing a wrong turn on a long road trip and winding up at the end of a no-through road is not a sin but an error. Breaking an ornament while cleaning is an unfortunate mistake.

Sin, however, is failing to know the answer because instead of studying, the student was lazy or distracted, attending parties and watching random videos on the internet. Sin is stubbornly refusing to ask for directions and becoming lost due to that prideful tendency. If one is cleaning carelessly, with no thought for the belongings of other people, selfishness is the sin.

What Is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness, as worded by Sam Storms, is “deciding to live with the painful consequences of another person’s sin. You are going to have to live with it anyway, so you might as well do it without the bitterness and rancor and hatred that threaten to destroy your soul.”

Christ forgave us while we were still sinning (Romans 5:8) and continues to forgive us as we make mistakes and sin outright. He expects us to repent of our sins but does not wait for sinners to be good enough for his grace and mercy. Jesus ate with sinners, not because he loved their sin. He loved the people who sinned.

After seeing the faith of a paralyzed man and his friends, Christ declared to the paralytic, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20). He said this before healing the man’s body because forgiveness was Jesus’ offer to restore them to relationship with God — the supreme healing.

Forgiveness is a free gift of God, bought by Christ at the cross. It is also a command: “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13).

Why Is Forgiveness Divine?

1. Forgiveness was a statement of Jesus’ divinity. By forgiving the paralytic, Jesus was stating that he was One with God. Forgiveness, as in forgiveness of debt (pardon), is a divine prerogative. “The scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, ‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (Luke 5:21).

They did not care so much about the physical healing because there were other healers around at the time. As Dr. John Dickson explains, “there are numerous reports of healing and exorcism from the period of Jesus [...]. [Jesus] fits into a cultural context well accustomed to the supernatural; it was a ‘magical’ world.”

2. Forgiveness is a pardon. Only God can restore someone to a relationship with himself. Wayne Jackson writes that although “all Christians are to forgive one another, i.e., have a forgiving disposition (Ephesians 4:32), ultimately, only God can bestow absolute pardon [...]. The Lord did not grant that right to the apostles or anyone else.”

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). This is not the same as offering them a pardon before the Lord.

3. Forgiveness seems impossible without Christ. Psalm 118:8 confirms that man is not to be trusted so “it is better to take refuge in the Lord.” Forgiving someone means saying “I do not want vengeance upon you.” Many unbelievers hope that “what goes around comes around,” which means that, eventually, all bad people will be caused to suffer.

They are essentially saying “I am a good person.” In humility, the Christian realizes that there is no way to sustain this argument and still believes that Christ died for our sins. Only God is good. (Mark 10:18).

4. “True forgiveness pursues relationship and restoration. True forgiveness is not satisfied with simply canceling the debt. It longs to love again.” Sam Storms defines what is difficult to stomach and to understand in a vengeance-hungry society.

Christ, by his forgiveness of all people who will believe in him for salvation, though they nailed him to the cross by their sins, demonstrated that his disciples are expected to do something the world cannot understand and does not support. Only by following Jesus’ divine example can we do something so radical. True forgiveness is truly divine.

When Forgiveness Is Divine

Forgiveness is divine under certain circumstances:

1. One forgives out of obedience to Christ. This is not an autonomous act but an example of obedience. “Your responsibility is to do whatever you can within your power to be at peace. If they refuse to be at peace with you, the fault is theirs. You will at least have fulfilled your responsibility before God.”

2. Forgiveness must be real, not just words. It begins with the heart, not with the mouth.

3. Forgiveness is costly. Romans 12:20 instructs us “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” When we forgive in Christ-like fashion, we continue to want the best for that other individual rather than pretending they do not exist.

We pray to pray for and even help such people in practical ways. This is perhaps the most convincing reason why one cannot forgive without God. One can walk away and cease thinking about someone, but this “cutting out” is a kind of murder: a way of nullifying that individual.

4. Forgiveness glorifies God. A choice to forgive so fully as to turn around and love (though not necessarily trust) the other person “disarms” the offender, says Storms. “The last thing they expect is sustained kindness and strength” (Ibid.). Curiosity should lead the offender to wonder about the forgiver’s Christ-like attitude.

5. Forgiveness must be done with humility. The forgiveness we offer to others was first given to us by Christ. His sacrifice was for all sin, for all time, and no one needs that gift more than any other person. We are all equally indebted to God and only the work of Christ satisfied that debt for all who believe.

A Continued Plea

Consequently, we continue to ask the Lord to forgive us. We ask although we know the answer if we ask with true repentance (or else we have not truly sought forgiveness.) Our intention is to stop erring or sinning because we love the Lord and wish to obey him as a result.

We truly repent by trying to turn away from sin with the Lord’s help. Meanwhile, he still loves sinners when they fall down. “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8). God is perfect, and he did not make a mistake at the cross.

For further reading:

How Does Our Sin Make Salvation Necessary?

If We Confess Our Sins, Will We Be Forgiven from All Unrighteousness?

Does God See Our Failures?

What Does it Mean to be a Slave to Sin?

How Can We ‘Go and Sin No More’?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/francescoch

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

Related podcast:

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.

Related video:


Christianity / Theology / Christian Terms / What Does the Phrase ‘To Err Is Human, to Forgive Is Divine’ Mean?