God sent Jesus into the world to save us from our sins (Matt 1:21). Often this is what people consider to be the core of the gospel, salvation from sins so we can go to heaven after we die. That isn’t the only reason God sent Jesus into the world. It is A reason God sent Jesus into the world but not the ONLY reason. If you drew a circle that circumscribed everything that is in the Gospel, forgiveness of sins would be inside the circle. However, too often, we have made it the entire circle. There is a big difference.
Think of Jesus for a moment as savior, going back to Matthew 1. Jesus is one who delivers people from that which (or those who) oppresses them. This is Jesus being the prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18:18 who is in conflict with a new Pharaoh to set his people free from the yoke of slavery and oppression. This is both physical and spiritual. It involves our whole person. Go back to Genesis 3 and the curse. The curse affected the whole person because sin affects the whole person. Jesus came to deliver us and the cosmos (world) from the bondage to decay (Romans 8). So Jesus is savior but in a broader sense than saving from sin.
So what does this have to do with forgiveness? Forgiveness is directly related to the idea of Jesus as divine deliverer (savior).
How many times do you think the word “forgiveness” is in the NT? It is used shockingly few times! It is used in the NIV only 15 times, once in the psalms and 14 in the NT. The word “forgive” is used a bit more often, 62 times in the New Testament. Many of these are Jesus’ instructions on forgiving others. This is a bit shocking if we think that the forgiveness of sins is the core message (or only message) of the Gospel. You would think it would have come up more often than it does.
I am convinced that part of our issue today is our affluence. When we hear “savior” we think “from sin” or “deliverance” we think “from sin” or “forgiveness” and we think “from sin.” Maybe we think so exclusively in those terms because few of us feel like we need delivered from much else. We aren’t going around starving. We have such good medical care that we are by and large healthy. But people in less advantaged places hear the gospel in a more holistic way because they know their needs are much broader. It turns out, that view is more biblical than what ours often has been.
Just as the Gospel is bigger than forgiveness, forgiveness has to do with more than just sin. In English we typically use forgiveness for a wrong. In Greek is has a wider range of meaning than that and the base line meaning of the main word for forgiveness (aphesis) is “the act of freeing and liberating from something that confines” or “the act of freeing from an obligation, guilt, or punishment” (BDAG).
Jesus came to save and deliver us. Forgiveness is about setting people free or delivering from that which oppresses us. This works with sin because forgiveness is releasing people from the guilt and penalty of their sins (Luke 24:47, Acts 10:43). But there is another verse that I want to highlight that isn’t so obvious but illustrates the range of meaning of this word and that verse is Luke 4:18. Here is the verse. See if you can spot the word you think was translated from aphesis,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Did you spot it? It is “to set the oppressed free.” That’s the forgiveness word! In context that has very little to nothing to do with forgiveness of sins and everything to do with other types of bondage people face (economically oppressed, prisoners, the blind, etc). If we want a biblical view of forgiveness we need to broaden our view and humbly accept that our need for Jesus includes more items that sin.
In reality Jesus’ healing ministry was a forgiveness ministry. That is hard to catch in English. It was an aphesis ministry – a setting free ministry. Sometimes he set people free from sins (Mark 2:5). Other times he forgave their illness through healing. I don’t mean that in the sense that illness was wrong but that Jesus aphesis’ed their sickness – set them free in a momentary sense of a result of our bondage to decay (human bodily illness). When Jesus healed the woman who had bled 18 years he set her free – free from uncleanliness that had separated her from worship, freed her from social and cultural separation from her peers, and set free her body of the illness that bound her up.
Forgiveness means more than we often associate with it. I believe having a fuller view of this word can help us have a fuller view of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It also encourages us to be in the liberating business because now we have something we can participate in beyond just the sin angle. We don’t see ourselves as being in the forgiveness business (except when we are wronged) because we think that is God’s work. Once we see that any work we do that helps “Set the oppressed free” is Gospel when we bring people wholeness whether it is: socially, spiritually, economically, and relationally.
So go forgive some people!