Forgiveness as Removing Sin.
Most of the biblical images of forgiveness involve getting rid of *sin in one form or another. Some of the imagery is spatial, as sin is removed (Ps 103:12; Zech 3:9),
- cast into the *depths of the sea (Mic 7:19),
- “swept away. . . like a cloud and. . . like mist” (Is 44:22 RSV),
- cast *behind God’s back (Is 38:17),
- “set aside” (Col 2:14) or “put away” (Heb 9:26).
- In a variation, sin is *covered (Ps 32:1; Rom 4:7),
- so as to be put out of sight, or blotted out (Ps 51:9; Jer 18:23). If we begin with the premise that sin is an inner defilement, forgiveness can be pictured as a process of
- *washing (Ps 51:7; Is 4:4; Acts 22:16),
- *cleansing (Lev 16:30; Num 8:21; Ps 51:2; Is 4:4; Jer 33:8; Ezek 36:33; Zech 13:1; 1 Jn 1:7-9),
- receiving “a clean *heart” (Ps 51:10) or
- being “purified with blood” (Heb 9:22).
- *Color symbolism seizes upon red as the color of sin, and forgiveness is accordingly the purging of the scarlet substance so as to leave behind an object as *white as *snow and *wool (Is 1:18).
- Sin is also viewed as a debt or penalty, with the result that forgiveness becomes a paying or pardoning of the debt (Mt 6:12; Is 40:2)
- and a canceling of “the bond which stood against us with its legal demands” (Col 2:14 RSV).
In a similar vein are various examples of God’s not doing something in regard to sin—
- not counting it (2 Cor 5:19),
- not *remembering it (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12),
- not reckoning it (Rom 4:8).
- Forgiveness is also a matter of God’s hiding his face from someone’s sin (Ps 51:9; see Jer 16:17 for the opposite picture).
A similar cluster of images focuses on freeing from *bondage and healing from disease. If sin is a burden that a person carries,
- forgiveness is Christ’s bearing “our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24),
- or God’s “nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14).
- Forgiveness is also a setting free from bondage (Acts 13:38-39; Rom 6:7, 18; Gal 1:4; Rev 1:5).
A strong connection was made by people in biblical times between human sinfulness and physical ailment. Accordingly, we find passages that view forgiveness as a process that simultaneously rids the body of *disease (Ps 32:1-5; 103:3; Is 53:5; Mt 9:2, 5; Mk 2:5, 9; Lk 5:20, 23; 1 peter 2:24 ( He himself bore our sins[a] in his body on the stake,[b] so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness — by his wounds you were healed.)
Forgiveness as Reconciled Relationship.
The second major motif focuses on the restored relationship between God and the sinner that occurs with forgiveness. The classic picture is the father’s welcome of the returning prodigal (Lk 15:11-32).
- Romans 5:10-11 paints a similar picture of reconciliation accompanied by *joy (cf. 2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:22), while other passages use the image of
- “making *peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20 RSV; cf. Eph 2:15).
- Forgiveness is the reconciliation of people “who once were estranged and hostile in mind” with God (Col 1:21 RSV).
From the Gospels we have pictures of Jesus having
- *table fellowship with tax collectors and *sinners.
The specific attributes of God that are most often pictured with declarations of his forgiveness are *mercy, grace and steadfast love.
In fact, a stock formula that appears verbatim seven times in the Bible is that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ex 34:6; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2; modified in 2 Chron 30:9; Neh 9:31; Ps 111:4; 112:4).
The imagery surrounding God’s forgiveness is characterized by magnitude and lavishness. It is “abounding,” not half hearted. God does not simply remove human sin— he removes it
- “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12), thereby evidencing love as large
- “as the heavens are high above the earth” (Ps 103:11).
In Jesus’ picture of the father who forgives his prodigal son, the father does not simply accept the son— he runs to embrace him and throws an elaborate party (see Banquet). Balancing the imagery of magnitude is that of tenderness: the song of Zechariah speaks of the forgiveness of sins “through the tender mercy of our God” (Lk 1:77-78), and Psalm 103 balances the imagery of vast space with a picture of God pitying people “as a father pities his children” (Ps 103:13).
On the human side of this transaction, forgiveness is pictured as based on a person’s taking the initiative in asking for it. The person who eventually experiences forgiveness begins as a penitent— a person sorry for sin who asks God to forgive. Penitential psalms, like Ps 32 and Ps 51*, picture the range of human feelings and attitudes that make up the penitent. To receive God’s forgiveness, one must ask for it (2 Chron 33:12-13). The psalmist declares that God is “good and forgiving” to all who call on him (Ps 86:5).
The imagery of forgiveness as a process that the penitent undertakes is also evident in the path to forgiveness that Leviticus 6:1-7 outlines and that the OT system of sacrifices pictures in more general terms. An important additional motif is the “before and after” nature of the experience of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a change of status from *guilt to declared innocence (cf. Ex 34:6-7, with its image of God’s clearing the guilty; Ps 32:5; Jer 33:8). There is a psychological dimension to this “before and after” experience, with anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms preceding the act of being forgiven, and relief and joy following it. Psalm 32:1-2 sounds the keynote when it pronounces the forgiven person as “blessed.” The human response to God’s forgiveness is also love of God— a love that Jesus claimed was proportionate to the magnitude of the forgiveness that the penitent has received (Lk 7:36-50).
*see Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy for His forgiveness of all 3 different kinds of sin found being confessed in Psalm 32 and Psalm 51
Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 303). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.