Five Words For Forgiving

Five Words for Forgiving

There are several Old Testament words used to mean ‘forgive’. The primary one is sālach, which is only ever used of God’s forgiving. According to J.P.J. Olivier, the word “entails the nullification of guilt, the release of obligations, and the reduction or total reliquishment of punishment”. From this word Modern Hebrew gets its word for ‘excuse me’, slichāh.

The word sālach is often found in a formula together with the word kāphar, which is often translated ‘atone’, and which atoning action is the prerequisite for God’s forgiveness, just as slaughtering an animal was necessary under the Old Covenant, and the sacrifice of Christ under the New; kappōret is the ‘mercy seat’ and of course we have Yom Kippur which is from the same word.

Another word is nāsāh, which literally means ‘lift, carry, take’ in the sense of ‘take away’. The sense is clear; by forgiving our sins, God takes them away from us.

Moving to the New Testament, we have two words. One is charízomai, which is literally ‘bestow favour’, used in the sense of bestowing ‘kindness, pardon or rescue’, always unconditionally, which is implied in the root of the word, cháris, which means ‘grace’. Thus in the word charízomai, forgiveness is directly linked with grace.

The standard word is aphíēmi, which is ‘send away’, ‘let go’, literally ‘make go away’. From a psychological perspective it can be useful to bear in mind the word’s primary meaning of ‘let go’, as forgiveness is indeed about ‘letting go’. This is the verb used in the Lord’s Prayer; the form in “as we forgive those” in the Prayer is also aorist, which implies a certainty that we shall forgive, and shall keep on forgiving, time after time; it strengthens the necessary link between our forgiving others and God’s forgiving us.

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