Does God Harbor Unforgiveness?

The return of the prodigal son

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

[Reposted from February 2012, with minor edits]

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

What does God’s forgiveness look like?  We tend to think of God’s forgiveness much as we think of our own forgiveness…which leads to misconceptions of God’s nature.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines forgive as “stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw or mistake.”

This is a good definition of forgive as we generally understand and use the term in everyday language.  But what happens when we try to apply the same definition to God’s forgiveness?

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins…

So, what about prior to our confession?  If forgiveness is to stop feeling angry or resentful, does that mean prior to our confession God’s position toward us is one of anger and resentment?

Sermons on the topic of unconfessed sin often lead us to believe God is angry and resentful toward us so long as we have any unconfessed sin in our lives.  Thinking of God’s forgiveness in these terms leads toward a perception of God as a harsh taskmaster looking for any excuse to punish us.  Yet the overwhelming evidence of scripture indicates God’s position toward us is one of incredible love and grace.

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:8-10)

The Apostle Paul describes God as looking for opportunity to demonstrate His love toward us, even when we are breaking His laws and allied with His enemy.  God is not looking for an excuse to punish us.  Yes, God’s wrath will judge the kingdom of darkness.  However, God’s position toward us is one of working to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness before it is destroyed…much as Lot and his family were rescued before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So, if God is not harboring unforgiveness toward us, awaiting our confession of sin, then what does God’s forgiveness look like?

In every instance of the word forgiveness in the King James Version of the New Testament, the Greek word translated as forgiveness is aphesis.  The primary definition of aphesis as provided by Blue Letter Bible’s Greek lexicon is “release from bondage or imprisonment.”  This use of the word aphesis is seen twice in Luke 4:18-19, where Jesus read Isaiah’s description of the coming Messiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
(emphasis added)

Release and set free are both translations of the Greek word aphesis, the same word that is elsewhere translated as forgiveness, when used in reference to sin.  Bear in mind, Jesus declared that He is the fulfillment of this passage in Isaiah.  He came for the purpose of setting captives free.

What captives did Jesus come to free?  He came to free mankind from the kingdom of darkness!  He came to redeem us from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness and to deliver us from our addiction to sin.

Jesus came to give us aphesis (deliverance) from sin.  When the Bible speaks of God forgiving our sins it means He will deliver us from sin.  God is not harboring anger and resentment toward us until we confess our sins.  Rather, He is actively working on our behalf to draw us close to Himself so we can be delivered from our addiction to sin.

Knowing this, when we become aware of sin in our lives we should run to Him for help rather than avoiding Him in guilt and fear.  He has made himself available to us as our healer rather than our punisher.

As the author of Hebrews said, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Do you, like me, sometimes avoid God’s presence when you should be running to Him for healing?

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Graceful, Wellspring ]