Forgiveness in the Bible—New Testament

Forgiveness in the Bible—New Testament

For discussion of various Old Testament terms related to forgiveness, please see Forgiveness in the Bible—Old Testament.

As is true of the Hebrew Bible, no single New Testament term conveys the concept of forgiveness. For the most part, however, New Testament writers employed one of two words to denote what we generally consider to be forgiveness.

Texts on forgiveness

The two Greek words that account for the vast majority of New Testament statements that appear to be legitimately translated as forgive/forgiveness or something like that concept are ἀφίημι/aphiemi and χαρίζομαι/charizomai.

To get the best handle on what a New Testament writer had in mind when he used a certain word, we need to study the Greek Old Testament. The Septuagint (abbreviated as LXX), which was the most widespread Greek translation of the Old Testament, was by and large the Bible of the early church, not the Hebrew Old Testament! Time and again, if you check the source of a quote from the Old Testament in a document from the New Testament, it’s clear that the person was quoting directly from the Greek Old Testament, not mentally translating on the fly from the Hebrew text as he was writing his Greek document. Therefore it is necessary to check out how these two Greek words for forgive are used in the Old Testament in order to understand what New Testament writers had in mind when they used the words.


The underlying meanings of ἀφίημι/aphiemi involve something like let go, leave, abandon, leave behind, let, permit.  It appears 49 times in the Greek Old Testament in its more generic sense, and 28 times in contexts that rather clearly require a translation on the order of forgive or pardon.

Here are some examples of  ἀφίημι/aphiemi in the more prosaic sense within the LXX:

NRS Genesis 42:33  Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 

 NRS Exodus 9:21  Those who did not regard the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the open field.

 NRS Exodus 22:5  When someone causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets livestock loose to graze in someone else’s field, restitution shall be made from the best in the owner’s field or vineyard.

 NRS Judges 16:26  Samson said to the attendant who held him by the hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.”

 NRS 2 Samuel 15:16  So the king left, followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind to look after the house.

 NRS Ecclesiastes 10:4  If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your post, for calmness will undo great offenses.

Here are examples of ἀφίημι/aphiemi in sentences where it clearly means something like forgive:

NRS Genesis 18:26  And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

 NRS Exodus 32:32  But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.

 NRS Psalm 32:1  Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Note that in each of these statements, the Greek ἀφίημι/aphiemi is translating the Hebrew נָשָׂא/nasa’, whose underlying meaning is to carry or to bear.


Here are some other examples of  ἀφίημι/aphiemi being used to denote forgive, and in each of these verses the Greek word is translating the Hebrew סָלַח/salaḥ, which always means something on the order of forgive. (For more on the meaning of נָשָׂא/nasa’ and  סָלַח/salaḥ, see Forgiveness in the Bible—Old Testament.)

 NRS Numbers 15:26  All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error.

 NRS Isaiah 55:7  Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

RSV Leviticus 5:13  Thus the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed in any one of these things, and he shall be forgiven. . .  (Many similar passages regarding sacrifices use essentially the same vocabulary.)

There are many passages, which I won’t take time to discuss, where ἀφίημι/aphiemi translates miscellaneous other Hebrew verbs.

It’s easy to see how in certain contexts this word came to mean something like forgive. The basic meaning of release, or let go, etc., could even be substituted, albeit rather awkwardly, for New Testament passages that use the verb in the sense of forgiveness. I want to do that now as a mental exercise, using passages with which you are familiar:

NRS Matthew 6:12  And release us from our debts, as we also have released our debtors.

 NRS Matthew 9:2  And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are left behind.”

 NRS Matthew 18:27  And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and let go of his debt.

 NRS Acts 2:38  Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be left behind; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

 NRS Ephesians 1:7  In him we have redemption through his blood, the release of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace

The English is clumsy, but I think these statements can help us do an end run around entrenched but partially misleading ideas about the judicial nature of forgiveness.


Another Greek term often translated as forgive or something similar: χαρίζομαι/charizomai.

This word is used 18 times in the New Testament. Seven of these imply forgiveness or something like it—all in the writings of Paul with the exception of a single instance in Luke 7, in Jesus’ parable about a creditor who forgives the debts of two different debtors. Eleven New Testament passages seem to have a different meaning. It’s used only once in the Greek Old Testament, in the book of Esther, and 11 times in the apocrypha, but never with the sense forgive.

The underlying meaning of χαρίζομαι/charizomai is to give freely, to grant a favor, to be gracious to. Hence

NRS 2 Corinthians 2:10  Anyone whom you forgive, I also [forgive]. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.

 RSV Colossians 2:13  And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.

 RSV Colossians 3:13  . . . forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also [must forgive].

The word is used in rather consistent ways in the New Testament when it isn’t implying forgive. The suggestion is always related to giving or handing over. As you probably guessed, this is the root from which we take the word charismatic.

NRS Luke 7:21  Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 

 NRS Acts 3:14  But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given [in sense of handed over or released] to you.

NRS Acts 25:16  I told them that it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met the accusers face to face and had been given an opportunity to make a defense against the charge.

 NRS Philippians 2:9  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. . .

For a discussion and summary of forgiveness, taking into account the full sweep of the biblical witness, please see Forgiveness in the Bible—Putting It All Together Theologically.