“Evil always wants forgiveness without confession because that’s the final nail in the coffin of the conscience of their victims. Evil people always want forgiveness without confession–without an admittance of wrong and a genuine seeking of restitution…
“Forgiveness is created by the restitution of the abuser, of the wrongdoer. It is not something to be squeezed out of the victim by further acts of conscience-corrupting abuse.”
You can watch the entire 53-minute YouTube video here.
These are strong words–and powerful words for an abused person to take to heart and begin to heal. I realize that they seem to fly in the face of many Christians’ view of forgiveness, and since forgiveness is such a central topic to Christianity (the majority religion in my society, and the religion I grew up in), I wanted to examine Scripture to see what it really says about this subject.
This examination is a brief, but hopefully sufficient, look into the subject of “forgiveness” in the New Testament. At the end, I will compare its findings with Stephan Molyneux’s statements above.
John the Baptist in Mark and Luke
There is more than one context or meaning of “forgiveness” in the New Testament. One meaning indicates the individual’s forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD, and another refers to the individual’s forgiveness OF SOMEONE ELSE. In a few instances, a third-party individual seems to BROKER (or facilitate) the first type of forgiveness. The first section of our study will examine this latter context.
Chronologically speaking, our study in the Gospels begins with John the Baptist “preaching a baptism of repentance [METANOIAS] for the forgiveness[APHESIN, “REMISSION”] of sins [HAMARTION, “ERROR”]” (Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3). We see here that forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD (at least as John the Baptist brokered it) involved two steps: first repentance and then baptism. Presumably, these two steps were enough “for the forgiveness of sins” (at least until Jesus came a bit later).
This is the first instance of forgiveness in the Gospels. In this case, John the Baptist was not forgiving SOMEONE ELSE of sins, errors, or offences committed against John himself; rather, John was apparently BROKERING forgiveness for others, GIVEN BY GOD.
Jesus in the Synoptics
Jesus acted in a similar fashion when speaking to a “paralzyed” man who was brought, lying on a mat, to Jesus:
When Jesus saw their faith [PISTIN], he said…“…your sins [HAMARTIAI, “ERRORS”] are forgiven [APHIENTAI]” (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20).
In contrast to John’s BROKERED “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” GIVEN BY GOD, Jesus simply declared forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD (to the paralyzed man) in response to “their faith”. Whose faith? In both Mark and Luke (but absent in Matthew), “their” refers to “some men” who had carried the paralyzed man’s mat onto a roof and lowered it down to get him near Jesus.
Whether “their” includes the paralyzed man himself is not clear. Interestingly, it’s also not clear who is the BROKER in this act of forgiveness; is it “some men” or Jesus? Also, it appears that, in the context of Jesus’ personal ministry, someone’s faith [PISTIN] led to their forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD.
Christ in John
Similarly, in the only use of the word “forgive” in the Gospel of John, the risen Christ says to the newly-minted Apostles:
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he BREATHED INTO [ENRPHUSESEN] them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive [APHETE, “YE MAY REMIT”] anyone’s sins [HAMARTIAS, “ERRORS”]…THEY HAVE BEEN REMITTED [APHEONTAI]; if YE MAY RETAIN[KRATETE] them, THEY HAVE BEEN RETAINED [KEKRATENTAI]” (John 20:21-23).
Thus, to conclude this first section of our study, John the Baptist seems to have foreshadowed and exemplified a sort of brokered forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD similar to that which Jesus practiced at least once in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus is also said in the Gospel of John to have explained this brokered forgiveness to the Apostles (immediately after the risen Christ “breathed into” them “the Holy Spirit.”)
Although this information may be interesting and relevant to the individual Christian’s understanding of the roles of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles in “brokering” forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD, it doesn’t address Molyneux’s statement above. Indeed, it seems to model the later priesthood (“forgiveness-brokerage”?), rather than giving guidance about forgiveness OF SOMEONE ELSE in personal relationships.
The Lord’s Prayer
Next, in both Matthew and Luke (but with different wording), we have the Lord’s Prayer, which states either
“forgive [APHES] us our debts [OPHEILEMATA], as we also have forgiven[APHEKAMEN] our debtors [OPHEILETAIS]” (Matthew 6:12).
“Forgive [APHES] us our sins [HAMARTIAS, “ERRORS”], for we also forgive [APHIOMEN] everyone…INDEBTED TO US [OPHEILONTI HEMIN]” (Luke 11:4).
Here we see a relationship described between forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD and forgiveness OF SOMEONE ELSE–namely, that one’s own forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD depends on one’s own forgiveness OF SOMEONE ELSE–especially in Luke’s wording.
To support this idea, Jesus explains elsewhere that “when you stand praying, if you HAVE [ECHETE] anything against anyone, forgive [APHIETE]…so that your Father in heaven may forgive [APHE] you your OFFENCES [PARAPTOMATA]” (Mark 11:25). He repeats this basic idea in both Matthew 6:14 (“if you forgive[APHETE] other people THEIR OFFENCES [TA.PARAPTOMATA.AUTON], your heavenly Father will also forgive [APHESEI] you”) and Luke 6:37 (“RELEASE[APOLUETE], and YE SHALL BE RELEASED [APOLUTHESESTHE]”).
It seems so far that, according to Jesus, one IS NOT forgiven BY GOD unless one HAS forgiven SOMEONE ELSE–but also that one IS forgiven BY GOD if one HAS forgiven SOMEONE ELSE. This seems pretty simple, and much more relevant to the Molyneux statement than the third-party “forgiveness-brokering” described in the first section above.
Seven Times or Seventy-Seven Times?
Now we come to the Gospel teaching that perhaps most directly addresses the present question. The following saying of Jesus is recorded in both Matthew and Luke, but with some variation between them.
In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus says, “If your brother [ADELPHOS]…sins [HAMARTE, “SHOULD ERR”] against you, rebuke HIM [AUTO]; and if HE SHOULD REPENT [METANOESE], forgive HIM [APHES AUTO]. Even if HE SHOULD ERR [HAMARTESE] against you seven times in a day and seven times come[S] back to you saying ‘I repent [METANOO],’ YOU SHALL FORGIVE HIM [APHESEIS AUTO].”
In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive [APHESO] my brother [ADELPHOS]…who SHALL ERR [HAMARTESEI] against me? Up to seven times?” and Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Because of the discrepancy here–and following my personal Bible study guideline that passages present in both Matthew and Luke but NOT in Markmost likely came from a lost source called Sayings Gospel Q–we can surmise that at least one of these passages (if not both) has changed the original saying of Jesus. But which one? Let’s look at what these passages have in common:
“…your brother sins against you…forgive him seven times.”
In Luke, this might read, “If your brother sins against you, forgive him seven times.” In Matthew, it might read, “Forgive your brother who sins against you seven times.” The idea is basically the same in both accounts.
Interestingly, the author of Luke adds (twice) a condition to forgiving one’s “brother”:
“rebuke HIM [AUTO]; and if HE SHOULD REPENT [METANOESE]” and also “come[S] back to you saying ‘I repent’ [METANOO]…”
Perhaps we shall see below why the idea of repentance as a condition of forgiveness is present (twice) here in Luke (although its inclusion begs the question of its absence from the equivalent passage in Matthew).
The Lord and the Wicked Slave
On the other hand, only Matthew expounds upon this teaching. In the subsequent verses (23-35), Matthew has Jesus tell the story known as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. This parable tells the story of “a king [BASILEI] who wanted to settle accounts with his SLAVES [DOULON, “BONDSMEN”].”
One DEBTOR [OPHEILETES] “owed him” about 200,000 years of wages(according to the NIV footnote) and “was not able to pay,” so THE LORD [HO KURIOS] “ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold AND PAYMENT TO BE MADE [KAI APODOTHENAI].”
The BONDSMAN [DOULUS] fell down and DID HOMAGE TO HIM[PROSEKUNEI AUTO], saying, “Be patient with me…and I WILL PAY ALL TO YOU [PANTA APODOSO SOI].”
Then, “HAVING BEEN MOVED WITH COMPASSION, THE BONDSMAN’S LORD RELEASED HIM AND FORGAVE HIM THE LOAN. [SPLAGCHNISTHEIS.DE HO KURIOS TOU DOULOU EKEINOU APELUSEN AUTON, KAI TO DANEION APHEKEN AUTO.]”
Afterward, that servant [DOULUS] went out and found “a FELLOW BONDMAN [SUNDOULON]” who owed him a hundred days of wages(according to the NIV footnote).
Jesus continues recounting the parable:
“He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay [APODOS] back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant HAVING FALLEN DOWN [PESON] begged [PAREKALEI] him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay [APODOSO] it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and CAST HIM [EBALEN AUTON] into prison until he could pay [APODO] the debt [TO OPHEILOMENON]. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their LORD [KURIO] everything that had happened.
“Then HIS LORD [KURIOS.AUTOU] called the servant in. ‘You wicked [PONERE] servant [DOULE],’ he said, ‘I canceled [APHEKA] all that debt [OPHEILEN] of yours because you begged [PAREKALESAS] me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy[ELEESAI] on your fellow servant [SUNDOULON] just as I had MERCY ON[ELEISA] you?’ In anger his LORD [KURIOS] handed him over to the TORTMENTORS [BASANISTAIS]…until he should PAY [APODO] all he owed[OPHEILOMENON].
“THUS ALSO [OUTOS KAI] my heavenly Father WILL DO TO YOU [POIESEI HUMIN] unless you forgive [APHETE] your brother [ADELPHIO]…from your HEARTS [KARDION].”
In this parable, it is the king or lord who demands from his slaves repayment of their debts to him. In a compassionate response to one extremely indebted slave’s penitence and promise to pay the lord his impossibly large debt, the lord releases the slave and forgives the loan. However, the slave’s unwillingness afterward to extend forgiveness LIKEWISE to another slave (who owes the first slave much less than he himself was forgiven–AND WHO LIKEWISE IS PENITENT) causes the lord to hand the unmerciful slave over to “tormentors” until he pays all he owes.
Jesus explicitly states here that this parable describes the attitude of “my heavenly Father” regarding forgiveness (as a metaphor for canceling debts). So far, this is the Gospels’ clearest teaching on the relationship between forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD and forgiveness OF SOMEONE ELSE.
To summarize so far, we see that
1) John the Baptist preached “a baptism of repentance for the remission of errors”;
2) there are two types of forgiveness–one GIVEN BY GOD, and one OF SOMEONE ELSE;
3) John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles apparently “brokered”forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD for others;
4) Jesus said in two Synoptic Gospels that IF you forgive SOMEONE ELSE, THEN you will be forgiven BY GOD;
5) Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus said that if “your brother sins against you,” you should forgive him at least “seven times”;
6) Luke has Jesus saying FIRST to “rebuke them; and THEN if they repent, forgive them”; and
7) Matthew has Jesus recounting a parable that explains and models repentance-and-forgiveness.
Taking note of what we’ve seen so far, what do Paul and the other New Testament writers have to say on this subject? Not much…but still something relevant to our discussion.
Paul’s Letters: Ephesians and Colossians
There are two passages in Paul’s letters that directly address our question. Notably, the Greek verb translated as “forgive” in these verses is NOT the same verb used elsewhere in this study:
Be kind and compassionate [EUSPLAGCHNOI, “TENDER-HEARTED”] to one another, forgiving [CHARIZOMENOI] each other, just as in Christ God forgave[ECHARISATO] you. BE YE THEREFORE IMITATORS OF GOD [GINESTHE OUN MIMETAI TOU THEOU]… (Ephesians 4:32-5:1)
Therefore, as God’s chosen [EKLEKTOU, “ELECT”]…Bear with each other and forgive [CHARIZOMENOI] one another if any of you has a grievance[MOMPHEN, “COMPLAINT”] against someone…EVEN AS ALSO [KATHOS KAI] the Lord [KURIOS] forgave [ECHARISATO] you, SO ALSO YE [OUTOS KAI HUMEIS]. (Colossians 3:12-13)
There we have it. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” How much plainer and more direct can you get, and what more “Christian” idea of forgiveness could there be? Along with John’s and Jesus’ teachings regarding forgiveness, this teaching of Paul seems to resolve, settle, and answer the question.
What was the question? It was, “What does the New Testament teach on the subject of forgiving other people, and does this confirm or contradict Stephan Molyneux’s statement?”
And now we’ve arrived at a new and unexpected question: “What does it mean to forgive ‘as the Lord forgave you’?”
John the Baptist in Matthew
Let’s return to John the Baptist. He shows up in Matthew as well as in the other Synoptics, but he doesn’t use the word “forgive” in Matthew. Instead, Matthew’s account says:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent [METANOEITE], for the kingdom [BASILEIA] of heaven has come near…I baptize you with water for repentance [METANOIAN]” (Matthew 3:1-2,11).
Both Mark and Luke also have John proclaiming repentance:
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)
The New Testament writers included repentance here for a reason: as a foreshadowing of Jesus of Nazareth, whose initial message was identical to that of John:
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent [METANOEITE], for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent [METANOEITE] and believe [PISTEUETE] the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
We see, then, that John the Baptist
1) preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”;
2) preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”;
3) foreshadowed Jesus, who preached the same message of repentance.
Confession and Forgiveness
Recall that John’s baptism was “of repentance” and “for the forgiveness of sins.” But people didn’t merely repent when they came to John the Baptist:
Confessing [EXOMOLOGOUMENOI] their sins [HAMARTIAS], they were baptizedby him in the Jordan River. (Mark 1:5b; Matthew 3:6)
But why “confess” their sins?
John of Patmos, writing many years after the days of John the Baptist and Jesus, offers an insight into this teaching. This is the only reference to “forgiveness” (in all its forms) in the non-Pauline letters that directly addresses the present question:
If we claim to be without sin [HAMARTIAN], we deceive [PLANOMEN] ourselves and the truth [ALETHEIA] is not in us. If we confess [OMOLOGOMEN] our sins[HAMARTIAS], he is faithful [PISTUS] and just and will forgive [APHE] us our sins[HAMARTIAS] and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Confession of one’s errors, then, is part of repentance–throughout the New Testament. That is, “an admittance of wrong and a genuine seeking of restitution” (to quote Molyneux again) are prerequisites for forgiveness GIVEN BY GOD in the teachings of the New Testament.
Jesus taught his followers to have “mercy on your fellow servant just as [the Lord] had mercy on you”. Paul taught his followers to “be imitators of God” and “forgive one another …even as also the Lord forgave you.”
We see now that forgiving SOMEONE ELSE in compassionate response to their confession and repentance IS forgiving “as the Lord forgave you.” Therefore, Stefan Molyneux’s statement on forgiveness is in harmony with the teachings of Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul of Tarsus, and John of Patmos.
Stefan’s words here are modern-day reminders of the New Testament’s ancient teachings about forgiving people who have erred against us…after they repent of their errors and confess them to us.
Appendix: A Few Technical Notes…
According to the online concordance that I use, the word “forgive” (to include “forgave,” “forgiven,” “forgiveness,” and “forgives”) appears 66 timesin the New Testament (NIV), as follows:
Matthew (12 times)
Mark (10 times)
Luke (19 times)
John (1 time)
Acts (6 times)
Romans (1 time)
2 Corinthians (4 times)
Ephesians (2 times)
Colossians (4 times)
Hebrews (3 times)
James (1 time)
1 John (3 times)
In keeping with my personal Bible study guidelines, this discussion omits the Old Testament, the Book of Acts, certain Pauline pseudepigrepha (2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Hebrews–but NOT Colossians, Ephesians, or Titus), and passages that only appear once in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), except where noted.
I also have a custom of rendering the Koine Greek word “HAMARTIA” generally as “error” in English because 1) the literal meaning of its verb form “HAMARTANO” is “to miss the mark” (with the classic example of “missing” the bull’s-eye in archery being frequently given) and 2) I know through personal experience that “error” is the greatest cause of harm (perhaps the Greek word translated below as “offence”) among human beings.
(Interestingly, the English word “error” in all its forms (such as “to err”) occurs only EIGHT times in the New International Version (NIV) of the New Testament–and 17 times in the King James Version (KJV). It comes from a different Greek word that also means “deceit” as a noun and “to deceive” as a verb. See 1 John 1:8, referenced herein.)
Text quoted in this essay is from the NIV, as copied from the online concordance at BibleGateway.com. I used this version here because its textual sources (being chosen from among many divergent Greek manuscripts) are superior to the Textus Receptus, the manuscript used to translate the King James Version (KJV) more than 400 years ago; however, the NIV‘s English translation (being less literal or word-for-word, as in the KJV) sometimes loses grasp of the original meaning, in my view. I believe that the value of my approach will become apparent to attentive readers.
Accordingly, in this study I provide, within the copied NIV text, an English transliteration [IN ALL CAPS] after certain key English words and phrases. Where I believe the NIV translation differs meaningfully from the corresponding manuscript’s literal translation (according to my Interlinear KJV: Parallel New Testament in Greek and English), I note both the Greek transliteration AND its literal English translation together [IN ALL CAPS, “IN BRACKETS WITH QUOTES”] following the NIV‘s translation.
In certain instances, the wording of the NIV was so divergent from the Greek that I simply removed the NIV‘s wording and replaced it with its literal English translation IN ALL CAPS, followed by the Greek transliteration [IN BRACKETS]. In other cases, as in general, I use “…” to indicate the removal of text from the quote when it isn’t present in the Greek at all, or where its inclusion (or word order) would reduce the reader’s ability to follow the text, or for the sake of brevity.
All bold type is my own addition, in order to emphasize certain points and/or focus on the subject of study.