“Forgiveness is prior to repentance.” -TF Torrance
This quote by the late renowned theologian and scholar often creates quite a stir among Christians. Many studied and non studied Christians agree with him. But many with just as many credentials do not. It’s a debate that has long been contested by many who insist “the Bible clearly says” that there is no forgiveness without repentance or belief or confession or first forgiving others. But others insist that forgiveness for all time happened at the cross. Still others believe God has always forgiven freely. I’m of the mind that the cross didn’t activate God’s forgiveness but displayed it. Why then would such a studied scholar come to this conclusion and others not? Why are there so many different views on when forgiveness happens and why it happens and who is forgiven?
Forgiveness in the New testament is more nuanced than a plain reading of the text suggest. There are 4 words in the Greek used for it. The verb “aphiemi” and the noun counterpart “aphesis”, “apoulo” and “charizomai”.
The “A” words
We will talk about the first 3 that just so happen to start with the letter “A”. Hence the quirky title of this section. Aphiemi, aphesis and apoulo.
So these words basically can be lumped to all mean the same basic thing. They are interchangeable really. Their meaning is a release from bondage or the removal of a debt or a pardon. To me, its best translated as “liberation” as it always seems to denote freedom from something holding a person or group captive. These “A” words always have a stipulation to achieve them. Such as repentance, confession and forgiving others. This is because to be liberated always requires an action.
But what we are liberated from is not an angry God that wants to punish us or an eternal conscious torment chamber when we die. It’s from the effects of sin. As Author Paul Young stated in his book “The Shack”, sin has its own punishment. In NT Wright’s book “The day the revolution began”, he describes sin as idolatry which causes one or a group of people to be “exiled” and so, he says, the ‘forgiveness of sins’ that is described in scripture is an escape from exile. Liberation!
So to repent of sin and be forgiven is to change our mind or turn from the sin causing us harm and we will be liberated from its consequences. Same thing with confession and forgiving others. We are freed from that which holds us captive.
Below are some verses reworded using this thought process.
“But if you refuse to release others of their offense, your Father will not be able to liberate you from yours.”
– Matthew 6:15
“And Peter said to them, “Change your minds and follow the way of Jesus so you will have liberation from your sins, and you will activate the gift of the Holy Spirit.” -Acts 2:38
If we admit we screwed up, he is faithful and just to liberate us from our sins and that will cleanse our consciousness. – 1 John 1:9
The other word found in the NT translated as forgiveness is Charizomai. Sounds like the name of a Pokémon to me. This word has a root word that we all know and is probably the most used word in the christian language. Charis. If that’s greek to you, and it is, it means grace.
It simply means to freely give someone what they do not deserve or at least didn’t earn. It’s unmerrited favor that cancels all debt. It is the removal of guilt so it’s liberation like aphesis but there is nothing one has to do to receive it. In this sense the natural consequences of sin might still be there but Charizomai of God is given regardless. I believe this is the forgiveness that God has been giving, no strings attached, since humans have walked this earth. God has always Charizomai (Forgiven) the sin of man since the beginning. There are no conditions to this kind of forgiveness and has already been given to everybody for all time.
“When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He Charizomai (forgave with no strings attached for all time) us all of all our trespasses” – Colossians 2:13
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, Charizomai (forgive with no strings attached) one another, as God in Christ Charizomai (forgave with no strings attached for all time) you.” – Ephesians 4:32
The wrap up
It’s true that in order to be liberated(aphesis) of and from sin, we must repent (change our minds, turn from sin), confess or forgive others. But even if we do not aphiemi, aphesis or apoulo, God still forgives (Charizomai) us of all our sin and all we have to do for that is nothing because that is just what God does. But without aphiemi, aphesis and apoulo, we may still suffer the consequences of sin and remain under it’s bondage.
So I believe TF Torrance was right in his assessment that forgiveness comes before repentance. We see throughout the life of Jesus, “the visible image of the invisible God”, that is just how God rolls. I would say that it is through grace and God’s Charizomai that we even have the ability to aphiemi, aphesis and apoulo in the first place. That’s where I’m at anyways.