In the Bible, forgiveness consistently means “to loose” or “to remove” a barrier to relationship. But different kinds of barriers and relationships may be in view.
1 God’s legal forgiveness. This is God’s once-for-all removal of all legal barriers to heaven. With the granting of this forgiveness, God acts as Judge to declare our sins paid in full. From this moment on, Christ is our Advocate. Along with His Father, He gives us legal immunity from any accusation that could separate us from the love of God (see romans 8:28–39). We need to remember, however, that though universally available, this forgiveness is not universally applied. It is given only to those who personalize God’s mercy. Forgiveness is not effective until it is accepted.
2 God’s family forgiveness. This forgiveness occurs after we have been legally pardoned and born into the family of heaven. By His mercy, God removes the relational barriers to our closeness with Him. In this forgiveness, He acts not as a Judge but as our heavenly Father.
In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, Paul gave instructions on how believers in Christ should approach the Lord’s Supper. He told his readers to be particularly reflective regarding their walk with God, and warns that some Christians were sick or had even died because of their disobedience. “If we were more discerning with regard to ourselves,” he wrote, “we would not come under such judgment” (1 corinthians 11:31).
When we disobey God and do not correct ourselves, He gets our attention with painful circumstances precisely because we are His children (see hebrews 12:4–11). The discomfort of this discipline comes from a Father who loves to forget our sins when we honestly confess them and agree to place ourselves back under the control of His Spirit.
This kind of forgiveness is similar to what healthy families experience. If a son takes the family car without permission and then lies about it, his parents aren’t doing him a favor by acting as if it didn’t happen. Before driving privileges can be restored, the son must own up to his wrong and be forgiven. His status within the family is never in jeopardy (legal forgiveness), but the basis for trust has been damaged and family forgiveness is needed. This is the forgiveness in view in John’s statement to fellow members of the family of God: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 john 1:9).
3 People-to-people forgiveness. Our forgiveness of one another is to be patterned after the way God forgives us. From His example, we learn that while our love for others needs to be unconditional, there is a place for conditional forgiveness. Whether we can consider an offense a dead issue will be determined by whether the offending party is willing to own up to the wrong. Christlike love may make it necessary to withhold forgiveness until the one who has done the harm admits responsibility for it.