What Does Forgiveness Really Mean?

A couple struggling with the emotions that come from having to forgive each other for past wrongs.

We were taught as children that “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” were the building blocks to solving conflict with a playmate. If we committed a childhood misdemeanor of some sort, those words would allow us to continue our play. Forgiveness came from those three words that took care of little issues.  

But true forgiveness extends beyond words. It means letting go of bitterness and moving forward in freedom—regardless of whether the wrongdoer acknowledges it or apologizes. 

So, that person in your mind? Yes, that one. Maybe you came here wondering how you could possibly forgive and move on with your life. 

Or, perhaps the person you need to forgive is actually you

Whatever the case, understanding God’s forgiveness is the start of the journey. His Word provides us with life-changing steps to receive that gift and then give it to others. 

Let’s see what the Bible tells us about the following insights: 

The true meaning of forgiveness

Hands clasped in prayer overlayed over the cross Jesus died on, reminding us that Jesus gave us ultimate forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the process of recognizing we’ve been hurt but choosing to release ourselves from that pain—as well as the desire to seek revenge or wish ill upon those who hurt us. 

Instead of holding a grudge, we let go of bitterness. It’s like a gift we give ourselves, and also the wrongdoers—even though they may never ask for it or admit they were wrong. Forgiveness reflects both great strength and great love.

This gift of forgiveness originates in the very heart of God. He sent Jesus to bring us “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14, NKJV). 

What does this verse mean? 

It’s talking about how Jesus came to this earth and willingly died for us. 

Here’s why He did it.

In the beginning of earth’s history, God created two perfect human beings (Adam and Eve) who, when given the chance, chose to disobey God. They turned away from Him to gain knowledge (to know both good and evil). 

The consequence? Death. They became mortal (Genesis 2:16–17).

And we’re now living the consequences of their actions in a world of both good and evil and in a constant flow of choices between the two.

But God didn’t want us to be separated from Him forever. He didn’t want one mistake (even a big one) to be the end of His relationship with us. So He designed a plan for us to be forgiven and reconciled to Him, if we so choose. 

He sent His Son Jesus to this earth. 

Jesus, by His death on the cross, took on the wrongs we’ve committed against Him—and others. We deserve the pain and penalty, but He chose to absorb it for us. 

Why do we need forgiveness?

A women sitting on the floor upset, struggling with bitterness from holding a grudge.

We need forgiveness because we have sinned, or missed the mark of God’s loving standard. This sin separates us from Him, and the only way to be reconciled to Him is to know and receive His forgiveness.  

God’s standard is His law of love (Galatians 5:14, Matthew 22:37–40). When we sin or break this law (1 John 3:4), the penalty is ultimately death (Romans 6:23) because sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2), who is the source of life. 

Our relationship with God is broken, and we shy away from God because of our shame. Could He really want us back? 

Think of it this way:

When you were a kid, did you do something you knew you shouldn’t? Maybe you broke something valuable, like your mother’s collectible vase, and then avoided her out of fear she’d be angry at you. Maybe you couldn’t even look her in the eye. 

Because you didn’t yet feel a sense of her forgiveness, your relationship with her was affected. Without realizing it, even as a kid, you put up a wall. 

The same happens in our relationship with God. If we believe He’s angry or disappointed with us, we stay away. Whatever it was that we did or said, that becomes something between us and God. 

We can’t experience a true connection with Him until we have a sense of how far He’s gone to forgive us. 

Forgiveness in the plan of salvation

The penalty of sin is death, as God explained to Adam and Eve before they disobeyed Him (Genesis 2:16–17; Romans 6:23). In order to forgive humans, Jesus would have to take on that penalty.

In doing this, Jesus demonstrated the ultimate act of love (John 15:13). Forgiveness was going to cost Him His very life (Matthew 26:28). But that’s how far God will go just for the chance to reconcile with us.

This was all part of the plan to save humans from evil and bring them back into connection with Him. He loves us so much that there’s nothing He won’t do for us, though always preserving our freedom of choice. 

But until that occurred, God gave the people a model. He set up an example of this process through the animal sacrifices the Israelites did in the Old Testament. 

A person who sinned had to bring an animal—often a lamb or goat—to the building in the Israelite camp known as the sanctuary. That person would place a hand on the innocent creature to symbolize the transferring of sin to it (or to Jesus), confess the sins, and slit its throat. (See Leviticus 4:27–35.) 

Yes, it was an awful ritual. 

Death is always awful. But it shows us what we asked to learn about back in the Garden of Eden—evil. Our choice to know about both good and evil means that we now see it all. Yet God is still willing to save us from it.

Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins

Hebrews 9:22, ESV

For a time, animal sacrifices served that purpose because they symbolized and pointed forward to Jesus’ death—which would pay the penalty of eternal death and provide forgiveness and eternal life (Romans 6:23).

We could compare these sacrifices to a postdated check.  

If you wrote a check to buy an item but didn’t have enough money in your account, the seller might allow you to put a future date on the check. That check is a promise of your payment, although it won’t be cashed until later. 

Likewise, the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were like God’s postdated checks for the penalty of sin. 

Whenever people brought their animal sacrifices to the sanctuary, they came burdened with the guilt of their sins. But after the sacrifice, they could leave with a clear conscience and experience God’s transforming guidance.

How God forgives us

Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking for help from God.

God forgives us by choosing to pay our deserved penalty—death—and taking upon Himself the pain that sin causes. He doesn’t hold that pain against us. 

When Jesus knew His crucifixion was happening soon, He agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was feeling that pain. It weighed on Him so heavily that He sweat drops of blood and felt like He would be crushed by it (Luke 22:44; Matthew 26:38). 

When He took our sins upon Himself (1 Peter 2:24), He cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). He was absorbing the pain of separation that sin causes between humans and God. 

But even then, He murmured the words that reach down and embrace us today:

Father, forgive them

Luke 23:34

That forgiveness is available to each one of us—no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

Curious how the concept of forgiveness is a central theme in the plan of salvation? Start your own online Bible study.  

How do we receive God’s forgiveness?

Man kneeling in prayer outside in the desert.

God freely offers forgiveness to each one of us, but we must receive that gift. Here are steps we can take:

  1. Acknowledge God’s love.
  2. Admit we’ve missed the mark.
  3. Work with God on a strategy for growth. 

 Let’s walk through that process.

1. Acknowledge God’s love

Jesus embracing one of his disciples as they walk together.

This first step means understanding the cost of forgiveness God paid out of His love for us. He took the ultimate pain we deserved so we wouldn’t have to experience it ourselves!

As the Holy Spirit convicts us of His goodness, it melts our hearts and makes us long to be closer to Him. 

Jesus told a parable of an ungrateful son who demanded his inheritance while his father was still living—then wasted it on a reckless lifestyle (Luke 15). He wanted his father’s money, but not his father. He didn’t understand his father’s love.

That son also had an older brother. He stayed at home. He didn’t demand his inheritance. He had done all the right things.

But was his understanding of the father any different? Notice his words: 

Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends

Luke 15:29, CSB

See, he also wanted his father’s money, as well as recognition for “doing what’s right,” but not necessarily his father himself. (Or none of those other things would have mattered.)

In the end, his brother received his father’s grace when he returned, humbled and repentant. 

But he didn’t. Why? Because he didn’t know his father’s love. He was still making things about himself—not about his father and not about his brother. 

That’s why it’s so important to look for and acknowledge God’s love. His love leads us to recognize and admit our sin so we can receive His forgiveness, as well as His help in turning away from it. 

2. Admit we’ve missed the mark

Man looking up in prayer for forgiveness of his sins after confessing.

Once we’ve seen the love of God, we’re ready to admit our sin and understand what leads us to commit it. The word sin in Greek literally means “to miss the mark.” We must recognize that we’ve fallen short of God’s standard of love (Romans 3:23). This part of the process is sometimes called repentance and confession. 

Repentance is the idea that we no longer like our sin, and we even want to do away with the desire to commit it. We want to make a change for the better. 

In fact, part of the dictionary definition of repentance is “to change one’s mind.”((https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repent ))

As we pray and ask God to help us understand why we’ve gotten ourselves caught in sin, the Holy Spirit gives this repentance as a gift to us (Acts 5:31). 

When we acknowledge and confess, we’re choosing not to hide our mistake. This makes it possible for us to ask for God’s forgiveness. 

King David wrote about it this way: 

I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not cover my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin

Psalm 32:5, ESV

3. Work with God on a strategy for growth

Women praying after Bible study, to ask for help to grow in Christ.

When we miss the mark and come to God for forgiveness, He doesn’t want us to stay the same, trapped in a cycle with the same sin. As we cooperate with Him, He transforms our lives by the Holy Spirit.

Philippians 2:12–13 helps us understand this balance between our part and God’s part:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (ESV).

As we walk through the steps of forgiveness, we bring ourselves to God so He can work in us. He helps us see things more clearly and objectively, which stirs within us the desire to do the right thing.

But remember, growth is a process. So don’t be discouraged if you find yourself falling back into a sin you’ve been forgiven for. God never becomes tired of forgiving us (Matthew 18:21–22). 

We can trust that His forgiveness will be there when we need it, and as long as we are willing, the Holy Spirit will complete the work He started in us (Philippians 1:6). Victory is possible! 

Does God forget our sins when He forgives us?

Woman reading the Bible while sitting in a lounge chair at the beach.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that God forgets our behavior, downplays it, or gives us permission to continue it. Forgiveness doesn’t make something wrong right (Isaiah 5:20).

But you may be wondering about that verse in Micah 7:19, which says that God casts “all our sins into the depths of the sea” (ESV). 

This isn’t saying that He forgets our sin. After all, God knows everything about us (Psalm 139).   

But the key is this:

When we’ve been forgiven, God chooses to see us, not our sins. He doesn’t hold our sins against us. 

He sees us as new creations—just like we’d never committed the sins (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Does forgiveness take away consequences?

Woman praying alone, asking for help to make things right.

Forgiveness doesn’t excuse us from the consequences of our actions. But these consequences become part of our growth process.

This point is also important in our relationships with one another. 

Maybe you’ve experienced abuse by someone close to you. It might have been emotional manipulation by a family member, violation of boundaries by a coworker, physical abuse from a spouse, or many other scary situations.

Forgiving an abuser isn’t easy in any sense. 

But we can take some comfort in knowing that forgiving that individual does not equate to forgetting the wrongdoing or pretending it never happened.  

Not at all! The abuse you went through is real. The pain is valid. And the abuser is subject to the consequences of such actions. 

In this situation, it may even be unsafe for you to reconcile with them, and that’s fine. Real forgiveness is an internal process, and God is there to help you. This forgiveness is for your benefit. It frees you from bitterness and allows you to walk through the process of healing. 

Why do we need to ask for forgiveness?

A couple learning the importance of asking for forgiveness of each other.

Though God offers us forgiveness even before we ask for it (Luke 22:34), it doesn’t mean we receive it automatically. When someone offers us a gift, we have to extend our hands to receive it. Similarly, we must accept the forgiveness God offers (2 Chronicles 7:14). 

When we acknowledge God’s love, admit that we’ve missed the mark, and work with Him on a growth plan, He helps us to heal from the root issues that lead us to sin. If we don’t ask for forgiveness, we will miss this transformative process. 

How does forgiveness change us?

Forgiveness changes us by allowing us to release our burdens (particularly guilt and shame), understand God’s love more deeply, and overcome sin.  

It allows us to release burdens

Woman outside looking up as she thinks about what is happening that is burdening her thoughts.

Through the process of forgiveness, we are able to let go of the burdens that affect our daily living and relationships. Those burdens can include shame, guilt, resentment, and vengeful feelings.

Guilt is meant to be a temporary emotion. It indicates to us that we’ve done wrong and need forgiveness. It motivates us to seek help for our struggles. And when we receive God’s forgiveness and power in our lives, we’re released from guilt. 

But shame is a little more tricky. 

Shame is a lie from the devil that tells us we are bad. Even when we have asked for God’s forgiveness, the devil tempts us to believe that we can’t be forgiven. 

As this lie comes back to haunt us, we can claim God’s forgiveness to free us from it. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

And finally, forgiveness releases us from vengeful feelings and helps us grow and move on. 

After we have received God’s forgiveness, we are better able to forgive others. This allows us to let go of bitterness and grudges against the ones who have hurt us (Psalm 37:7–8).

It helps us understand God’s love

Forgiveness removes hindrances in our relationships with God and with others. 

When we fall short, we find ourselves wanting to hide from God—just like Adam and Eve did when they first disobeyed Him (Genesis 3:8–10). But through receiving His forgiveness, we open ourselves to His love. Our relationship with Him heals.

How does this work? 

To confess our sins and ask for forgiveness requires vulnerability. It means unburdening our souls to Him and allowing Him to have our shame and guilt. 

But the good news is, He never takes advantage of our vulnerability. Instead, He embraces us. Then we’re able to experience healing and a deeper connection with Him. 

And when we forgive others, we can begin to reconcile with them too (if safe and appropriate). 

It helps us overcome sin

Experiencing God’s forgiveness empowers us to overcome the sin in our lives. 

God’s Word is full of examples of this life-changing power. 

When religious leaders in the Bible dragged an adulterous woman to Jesus and tried to bring about her condemnation, Jesus did something much different than condemn her.

He forgave her. 

This woman, who fully expected to receive punishment, received God’s grace and compassion instead. 

He told her: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11, ESV).  

Instead of giving her license to continue her lifestyle, Jesus sought to restore her dignity and worth. To stop the shame cycle that often leads back into the same sins. 

And this enabled her to live a new life.

Receive and extend God’s forgiveness

Jesus grasping the hand of someone at His second coming, welcoming them to eternal life after all of their sins are forgiven.

When Jesus cried “It is finished” on the cross (John 19:30), He accomplished complete forgiveness for us. He took the pain we deserved and absorbed it Himself so that we could experience freedom from our burdens, a deeper understanding of God’s love, and the opportunity to be reconciled to Him eternally. 

If you’ve ever felt that you can’t be forgiven, please know that this gift is offered freely to you. He offers it because He loves you more than you can imagine. 

God longs to remove the hindrances that separate us from Him so that He can reconcile us to Himself. All He asks is that you acknowledge your need for that forgiveness and walk through the process with Him. You’ll find that it changes your own heart and brings you into harmony with God’s calling for you. 

Then, as you heal and grow, He helps you take that pattern and extend the same beautiful forgiveness to others. 

Learn more about forgiveness and how you can walk through this liberating process with the people in your life.