Word Study #7: “Forgiveness of sins”: Welcome, or weapon?

John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judaea, announcing, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the ‘sin’ (failures, faults, shortcomings, offences) of the world!”  From that time, Jesus proceeded to welcome all who chose to follow him, as members of his family, citizens of his Kingdom, participants in a community of folks who were in the process of being redeemed, transformed, re-created as members of the Body of Christ!

Ironically, high on the list of topics co-opted by the creators of creed and dogma as weapons or ammunition for laying heavy and unwarranted guilt-trips on those people is the concept of “forgiveness of sins.”  Their signal success at distorting the message of Jesus in this regard (whether deliberately or inadvertently is not mine to judge) is due to a serious misunderstanding of both words.  Each represents an instance of multiple Greek words (and therefore very different ideas) having been lumped together and expressed by one single word in most English translations.

There are three different words which have been rendered “forgive” by most translators:  apoluo (translated “forgive” only twice, out of 69 appearances in the New Testament), which most frequently signifies simple departure from a place, or sending away;  charizomai (translated “forgive”  in 11 of 23 occurrences), more often used of the gracious gifts of God for the needs and service of his people;   and  aphiemi  (47 out of 144 occurrences), for which the most common translation is simply “leave.”  It is interesting to note that none of these includes any implication of “forget”, with which it is so frequently paired in modern rhetoric.

Although the gracious generosity inherent in charizomai  is an important component of a correct understanding of forgiveness, and noted in Eph.4:32 and Col.3:13 as the model for our treatment of one another, I choose here to focus on the more usual term, aphiemi, because it has been so grossly misunderstood.

Etymologically, aphiemi is made up of a prefix, apo, “away from”, and the verb, hiemi, “to send away, to discharge, to set free, to release, to dismiss, to acquit of a charge, to put away or divorce, to get rid of, to leave, to cancel.”  Adding a prefix to such a word tends to strengthen it in the direction of the prefix (“away from”), indicating a sense of removal.  Notice, “ignore” is NOT on that list of definitions.  Nobody is saying, “Oh, that’s ok, it doesn’t matter.”  It DOES matter:  it matters so much that the situation in question needs to be removed — taken away — disposed-of.   (please see posting #6.)   Aphiemi does not describe a clever lawyer getting his client off the hook without penalty for his crimes.  It is the error  that is removed.

But what is that “error” that is being removed?  The misunderstanding is even greater when it comes to the concept of “sin.”  This English word also is used for three different Greek words:  hamartia (175 times), hamartema (only 4 times), and paraptoma (23 times).  To complicate the situation, theology and dogma have added the baggage contained in three more words, none of which are ever translated that way!

Hamartia, by far the most common, very seldom carries the indication of a deliberate offence.    The lexicons include: “to miss a target, to fail of one’s purpose, to be deprived of something needful, to fail or neglect an assigned task, to err or to do wrong, to be mistaken.”  These are primarily the errors of immaturity or ignorance.  This is the word that appears most frequently with aphiemi.  (Interestingly, the second most common is not an offence at all, but debt. )   Hamartia is also the word associated with Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees over his authority to “forgive” (remember, that word means to remove, dismiss, or get rid of) “sins”. (Matthew 9:6, Mk.2:7,10, and Lk.5:21-24.)  Note two things:  (1) Jesus is speaking in the present tense — he HAS authority, and (2) Jesus does not dispute the statement that “only God” can do that.  It is precisely because he is God Incarnate that he has that authority!  Jesus makes  no mention of his death as being associated with his right to forgive.

Stephen (Ac.7:60) prays that his executioners be “forgiven” for their hamartia — acknowledging, as did Jesus on the cross, Peter in Ac.3:17, and Paul on several occasions, that they were acting in ignorance.  Peter’s question regarding forgiving his brother uses hamartia (Mt:18:21), but Jesus’ parable in reply shifts the focus to one of debt.  This incident has often been viewed as parallel to the teaching in Luke 17:3-4, which was initiated by Jesus, but makes no mention of Peter.  The Luke account is dealing with a very different scenario, although it also uses hamartia.  Here, Jesus is referring to “straightening out” a brother who has taken a wrong turn, and the command to forgive is prefaced by a conditional clause indicated by the use of the particle ean with a subjunctive verb.  “IF he repents (see Word Study #6) — changes his direction” — he is to be forgiven.  Acknowledging that this may take several tries does not remove the condition:  it is embedded in the structure of the sentence.  It describes a situation similar to the restoration (II Cor.2:7-10) of the person who was disciplined in I Cor.5.

Paraptoma, on the other hand, carries more of the freight of a deliberate offense.    Alternate translations include “fall (2x), fault(2x), offense(7x), sin(3x), and trespass(9x). ” Lexicons add “a false step, a blunder, defeat, transgression, trespass.”  The references are about evenly divided between offenses against people and against God, but are generally deliberate in both cases.  It appears frequently in Romans 4, 5, and 11 regarding Israel’s refusal of Jesus; and in Ephesians and Colossians regarding the excesses of pagan life before conversion.   In Eph.2:1, Paul refers to both of the words together, making clear that they comprise two different classes of offenses.

Entirely missing from any of these concepts are situations where one has deliberately chosen to do — or to yield to the control  of — what is overtly evil.  Kakia (11 times): “evil, malice, maliciousness, wickedness”; kakos (35 times) “ugly, base, craven, worthless, evil, pernicious, abusive, foul”; and poneros (23 times) : “evil, harm, wicked, wickedness, the Evil One”; occur far less frequently. They have in no case been translated “sin”, and with a single exception, never appear in connection with aphiemi or any of the other forgiveness terms.   The exception is found in Ac.8:22, the interview between Peter and Simon the magician in Samaria who tried to “buy” the ability to confer the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Peter does not sound really confident that “forgiveness” will be extended in this situation.  His analysis is stern;  Simon has showed himself to be quite alien to the spirit of true discipleship.  Please note that this indictment is completely unique to this one situation.  There is no parallel anywhere in the New Testament, unless it be the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Ac.5), where there is not even any suggestion of the possibility of redemption.  An accusation of having deliberately chosen evil is the most serious of charges.  Reducing it to a routine recitation is irresponsible in the extreme.

Loyal disciples of Jesus find themselves at many different levels of maturity, understanding, and conformity to the Lord’s ways.  John, in his first letter, assumes that as we mature, we will continue to discover things that need to be “taken away” from our experience, assuring his readers that the Lord is ready and willing to take care of that if they will cooperate.  However, requiring committed disciples repeatedly to “confess” guilt for offenses that they have neither committed nor even considered, in order to be pronounced “forgiven” by someone in a hierarchical structure (which the Lord Jesus categorically forbade — see Mt.23:1-12), is a gross distortion — even a denial — of his gracious provision for the people he has redeemed for himself and called to populate his Kingdom!

“Behold the Lamb of God who TAKES AWAY the failures, faults, shortcomings,stumblings, and offenses of the world!”  This is part of his program to re-create his people in his own image, and directly connected to the call to “Repent/change direction.”  His authority and power to accomplish this monumental task reside in his very BEING — the King of Kings and Lord of Lords — “because in him, all the fullness of deity has its bodily, permanent residence (Col.2:9)!”

Glory to him forever!

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