The Bible teaches us that God is quick to forgive us of our sins. But what does it mean to forgive? How do we ask God for forgiveness, and why is it important?
What does God require from us before granting forgiveness?
Before forgiving us of our sins, God requires our genuine repentance.
The Bible tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It also tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
This is a problem.
Because we’ve all sinned, we’ve all earned the “wages” of sin: eternal death (not an eternity in hell).
This is a problem for us, but it’s also a problem for God, who is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God doesn’t want us to perish, but because of our individual sins, we will perish—and in the process, God will be deprived of the children He created with the potential to join His family (John 1:12).
Isaiah the prophet wrote, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
There’s only one solution to this problem:
What is forgiveness? What does it mean to forgive?
Forgiveness is a simple concept, and without it, Christianity can’t exist. Without forgiveness, we remain “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). But that’s not what God wants for us. He’s aware of our human weaknesses: “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). When we sin, we have the ability to ask God for forgiveness.
Confessing our sins requires more than just admitting that we’ve sinned or feeling sorry for our sins. It requires us to take responsibility for our actions and actively seek to change that aspect of our identity. This is a process known as repentance. The Greek word for “repent,” metanoeó, literally refers to a change of mind and of purpose.
Repentance is a change of heart and change of direction. It involves a determination to stop sinning and not to sin in the future.
After we confess our sins to God and repent of them, the Bible says that God does two things: He forgives them, and He cleanses us from all unrighteousness. When God forgives our sins, He removes them from us forever—they will never again be associated with us. “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness,” He tells us, “and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12).
Once God has forgiven us of a sin, He treats us as if that sin never happened. A psalmist put it this way: “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12).
How to ask God for forgiveness
There is no elaborate “forgiveness prayer” we must pray to receive God’s forgiveness, but the Bible does give us examples of how to ask for it:
- In the model prayer, Jesus taught His disciples to ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
- In the parable of the tax collector, the tax collector, “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13).
- Daniel acknowledged, “O Lord, to us belongs shame of face, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against You. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him” (Daniel 9:8-9).
- King David came to a heavy realization: “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13), later asking God to “hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (Psalm 51:9).
When we sin, we have the ability to come before God in prayer, admit our sins, and ask for His forgiveness. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
The cost of forgiveness of sins
As we noted earlier, sin comes with a price—namely, death (Romans 6:23). Part of the forgiveness process is paying that price. Although God is willing to forgive our sins, He is not willing to waive the penalty for sin.
Under the Old Covenant, God’s people were instructed to offer animal sacrifices to atone for their sins. In the New Testament, we are told that these sacrifices pointed toward the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ:
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins . . .
“For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:22, 24-26, English Standard Version).
When Jesus came to this earth, He died “to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). This one perfect sacrifice of the Son of God, who lived without sin, is enough to pay the penalty of all sins.
Are all sins forgiven?
God will not forgive the sins we refuse to repent of. He will not overlook the sins we continue to commit without shame or remorse. However, He will forgive any sin we genuinely repent of.Although Christ’s sacrifice can pay the penalty of all sins, it does not automatically pay the penalty of all sins. The Bible is clear that we must repent of our sins before we can be forgiven of them.
The apostle John sums up sin, repentance and God’s forgiveness this way: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:9-10). God will forgive our sins when we admit them to Him and seek forgiveness.
The apostle Peter explained the process this way: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Repentance—that is, a genuine desire to change our ways—leads us to baptism. When we are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, we are baptized into His death (Romans 6:3)—and His death pays the penalty of our sins.
But baptism is more than just an event—it’s a commitment. Paul wrote that Christ “died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:15).
Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as payment for our sins opens the door to forgiveness, but it also means committing ourselves to living His way of life.
Does God forgive all sins?
There is no sin God cannot forgive—although there is a sin He will not forgive. This is often referred to as the “unpardonable sin.” If we knowingly and willingly reject God and His way of life—if we refuse to repent of our sins and seek to change our ways—then “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:26).
God will not forgive the sins we refuse to repent of. He will not overlook the sins we continue to commit without shame or remorse.
However, He will forgive any sin we genuinely repent of. Remember: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
All unrighteousness. Not some unrighteousness. All of it. God forgives adultery. He forgives murder. He forgives repeated sins. If we come to Him, repentant and desiring to change, He can and will forgive all our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
King David and Bathsheba
The life of King David shows this principle in action. David committed some terrible sins—most notably during his affair with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah. In a short time frame, David broke many of God’s commandments: he lusted after another man’s wife, he committed adultery with her, he attempted to deceive Uriah about the resulting pregnancy—and when that failed, he effectively signed Uriah’s death warrant, ultimately taking Bathsheba as his own wife.
Covetousness, adultery, lies, murder and theft. David had done some awful things, abusing the royal authority God had entrusted to him. It took a wake-up call from a prophet before David saw the enormity of his sins: “So David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die’” (2 Samuel 12:13).
Psalm 51 gives greater insight into David’s process of repentance. He petitioned God, “Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:1-2, 10-11).
God answered that prayer. Although David still suffered serious fallout from his actions (2 Samuel 12:10-12), he was brought back into a relationship with God. Centuries after David’s death, God still considered him to be “a man after My own heart” (Acts 13:22)—not because of his sins, but because of his desire to leave his sins behind and be more like God.
When we repent, there is no sin God will not forgive.
God expects us to forgive others
Once God forgives us, we must also forgive others for their sins and offenses against us. Christ’s model prayer, often called the Lord’s Prayer, clearly explains what is required of us: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
The word debts used above is the Greek word opheilema. It is defined in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words as “that which is legally due . . . metaphorically, of sin as a debt, because it demands expiation, and thus payment by way of punishment” (1997, p. 269).
When God forgives us, He removes that sin and the penalty of death that would have resulted. So, as God forgives us, we need to forgive others in like manner.
Peter asked Jesus, “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22, emphasis added).
God doesn’t put a limit on how many times He’ll forgive us—and we shouldn’t have a limit on how many times we’ll forgive others.
God’s nature is one of mercy: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy” (Psalm 103:8). He isn’t eagerly hoping for the opportunity to punish us for our sins. He wants to forgive us. When we acknowledge and repent of our sins—when we come before God and seek His forgiveness—He is quick to forgive and offer His abundant mercy to us.
In return, God requires that we show the same forgiving attitude toward our fellow human beings. Matthew 6:14-15 sums up God’s approach to us and our sins: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Forgiveness is a vital part of God’s plan for us. When He forgives us, we can leave our sins behind and become more like Him. And as we become more like Him, we learn to extend that same forgiveness to others. Following a God who is abundant in mercy means we have to learn to be abundant in our mercy too.