10 Key Bible Verses on Forgiveness

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

Repent and Believe

The Bible offers us specific counsel for what to do when we recognize our sin and a need for rescue—go to God and seek forgiveness. Be encouraged from God's word with these verses and commentary adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

Numbers 14:18

The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

Moses prays here, as he did after the making of the golden calf (Exodus 32), acting, as often in the Pentateuch, as a covenant mediator (cf. Num. 12:3–4). He points out that, were God to fulfill his threat to annihilate Israel, the nations would say that the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land (cf. Ex. 32:12). He reminds God that he promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land (cf. Ex. 32:13), and finally he quotes God’s own description of his character to prove that he ought to forgive (Ex. 34:6–7; Num. 14:18–19).

Psalm 103:10–12

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

The terms sins, iniquities (v. 10), and transgressions (v. 12) are names for what God forgives in Ex. 34:7. Likewise steadfast love (Ps. 103:11) and shows compassion (v. 13; the word is related to merciful in v. 8) reveal that this is an application of Ex. 34:6–7.

Psalm 51:1–2

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin!

The psalm opens with an appeal to God for forgiveness. The terms mercy and steadfast love, as well as transgressions, iniquity, and sin, all evoke God’s proclamation of his own name (Ex. 34:6–7), with its focus on his grace and kindness. The plea for mercy here is a humble one, based entirely on God’s mercy, frankly recognizing that the worshiper does not deserve it. The terms wash (cf. Ex. 19:10) and cleanse (cf. Num. 19:19) come from the ceremonial system, where they refer to rites that allow a person to come safely into God’s presence. Here the psalm focuses on the inner condition that the ceremony points to.

Matthew 6:9–15

Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Forgive us our debts (the fifth petition) does not mean that believers need to ask daily for justification, since believers are justified forever from the moment of initial saving faith (Rom. 5:1, 9; 8:1; 10:10). Rather, this is a prayer for the restoration of personal fellowship with God when fellowship has been hindered by sin (cf. Eph. 4:30). Those who have received such forgiveness are so moved with gratitude toward God that they also eagerly forgive those who are debtors to them.

Acts 2:38-39

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

This does not imply that people can be saved without having faith in Christ as Savior, because the need to believe is implied both in the command to “repent” and also in the command to “be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” The willingness to submit to baptism is an outward expression of inward faith in Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21). The gospel can be summarized in different ways. Sometimes faith alone is named as the one thing necessary for salvation (see John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9; Eph. 2:8–9), other times repentance alone is named (Luke 24:47; Acts 3:19; 5:31; 17:30; 2 Cor. 7:10), and sometimes both are named (Acts 20:21). Genuine faith always involves repentance, and vice versa. Repentance includes a change of mind that ends up trusting God (i.e., having faith). The gift of the Holy Spirit does not mean some specific spiritual “gift” as in 1 Corinthians 12–14 but rather the gift of the Spirit himself, coming to dwell within the believer.

1 John 1:7–10

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 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 we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Christians must confess (their) sins, initially to receive salvation and then to maintain fellowship with God and with one another (v. 3). God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Num. 14:18). Yet John also makes it clear (1 John 3:6, 9) that persistent unrepented sin is not the mark of a Christian—God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Num. 14:18).

Hebrews 9:22

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

This does not imply that people can be saved without having faith in Christ as Savior, because the need to believe is implied both in the command to “repent” and also in the command to “be baptized. . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” The willingness to submit to baptism is an outward expression of inward faith in Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21). The gospel can be summarized in different ways. Sometimes faith alone is named as the one thing necessary for salvation (see John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9; Eph. 2:8–9), other times repentance alone is named (Luke 24:47; Acts 3:19; 5:31; 17:30; 2 Cor. 7:10), and sometimes both are named (Acts 20:21). Genuine faith always involves repentance, and vice versa. Repentance includes a change of mind that ends up trusting God (i.e., having faith).

Psalm 32:1–7

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah

The terms “transgression,” “forgiven,” “sin,” and “iniquity” all echo Ex. 34:6–7, the fundamental expression of God’s kindness and mercy toward those who receive his covenant. No one needs to compel God to show mercy; rather, the faithful confess their sins because they believe he is merciful. Note how several words here appear in a mirror pattern, which binds all five verses together: “forgiven … covered [Ps. 32:1] … cover … forgave [v. 5].” There is a contrast in the kind of covering: when God “covers” sin, he graciously blots it out (cf. 85:2); when man “covers” his sin, he is sinfully hiding it (cf. Prov. 28:13).

These verses support the theme that only the forgiven are truly happy. They recount a time when I kept silent, i.e., when the singer refused to confess his sins in order to have God forgive them. The lost vitality of vv. 3–4 is really a mercy; it is God’s hand … heavy upon his faithful, to help them come to the point of confessing. Having come to that point, the singer acknowledged his sin, and God forgave the iniquity of his sin; this brings the psalm back to v. 1, with the implication that the singer has now learned more fully the blessedness of being forgiven.

Matthew 18:21–22

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Within Judaism, three times was sufficient to show a forgiving spirit (based on Job 33:29, 30; Amos 1:3; 2:6), thus Peter (seven) believes he has shown generosity. But true disciples of Jesus are to forgive without keeping count (seventy-seven times). This may echo and reverse Lamech’s boast of vengeance in Gen. 4:24.

Luke 23:34

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.

Jesus fulfills his own teaching about loving one’s enemies (see Luke 6:35) and highlights the fact that his death was providing the very basis upon which those who crucified him could be forgiven (see Isa. 53:12). Jesus thus provides an example for all believers who would follow him (see Acts 7:60; 1 Pet. 2:21–24). “They know not what they do” does not absolve either the Jews or the Romans of their responsibility in Jesus’ death, but it shows that they did not fully understand the horrible evil that they were doing in crucifying the “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) who was both the true Messiah and the Son of God.

All commentary sections adapted from the ESV Study Bible.


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