The Words Behind Forgiveness

How many times have you said one thing and come to find out the person you were addressing heard something completely different? Good communication is difficult enough just trying to talk to your neighbor or your spouse, let alone everyone else we have to talk to during the day. Many problems in our relationships arise from simply not taking the time to really listen to the meaning of what is being said. If there is one thing that gets us into trouble with others again and again it is taking our communication skills for granted! Words are very powerful things. They form and give expression to our thoughts, feelings and desires. For that very reason understanding what words mean and how they are used is crucial to good communication.

One of the toughest jobs there is anywhere is language translation. Trying to carry one thought expressed with one set of words to another language with a whole new set of words, along with new rules, connotations and idiosyncrasies, is often a long and often painful process. Sometimes it is not very easy to carry over the meaning of one word in a given language to a single word in another language.

Things get even more challenging when several words in one language are translated best by only one word in another language. This is the case we have with the idea of forgiveness. There are six words that are translated into some form of the one English word forgiveness in the Bible. Three are Hebrew and three are Greek. Understanding the meanings of these words helps us see some ideas about forgiveness that are not really implied in our English word.

Kaphar in Hebrew means to cover. This word, in these contexts, conveys the meaning of covering up sin, hiding it, washing it away. It carries with it the idea of appeasing anger, restoring a broken relationship and ransom.[i]

Nasa is the Hebrew word meaning to bear, take away, or to lift up.[ii] Nasa means to carry or take up in order to carry away guilt for the purpose of forgiveness.

Sallach means to send away, or let go. [iii] It is used to mean pardon as well as forgiveness. This word is exclusively used of God’s forgiveness of His people. It is never used in contexts of person-to-person forgiveness.

Apoluo is the Greek verb meaning to free, or to loose[iv] This word in its context is understood to mean to set free or pardon a prisoner.

Charisomai—literally translated means gracious forgiveness. It means to freely and graciously give as a favor.[v] This giving is understood in terms of remitting, and pardoning guilt for sin.

Aphami—is the Greek word for sending away, and let go.[vi] This word carries with it the idea of remission and pardon of guilt.

These words taken together give a rich understanding to the concept behind the English word forgiveness. When we forgive we are setting someone free from the guilt of his or her actions. Forgiveness is a gracious act, a favor or a gift. It is something that cannot be earned or demanded from the guilty. Forgiveness means to let go of our claim for divine justice. Forgiveness is a burying of debt in such a way as to make relationships whole again. It is a washing away, a lifting away of moral guilt. When we talk about what forgiveness means to the Christian, this is the basic idea of what that means.

[i] It is used only 3 times in the Old Testament with the meaning of forgiveness ( Ps. 78:38, Jer. 18:23, and Dt. 21:8).

[ii] It is used to mean forgiveness 15 times throughout the Old Testament.

[iii] This is the primary word used for forgiveness in the Old Testament being used 25 times, more than the other two words combined.

[iv] It is used once in Luke 6:37. Secondary definitions for this word include the ideas of letting go, dismissing and divorcing.

[v] It is used a total of twelve times in Luke and throughout Paul’s letters. Further uses of the word include the idea of being very gracious to one another.

[vi] It is the most often used word in the New Testament for forgiveness being used fifteen times as noun, and forty times as a verb. In other places it has the meaning of leaving, giving up, abandoning and tolerating.


  1. I consistently find English to be behind other languages in terms of nuance. It’s very frustrating especially when trying to understand the Bible!

    Along those lines, Genesis 3:15 contains God’s prophecy regarding the serpent’s seed and Eve’s. Is the noun use in each case exactly the same or somewhat different?

    The Flood – Genesis 6:12 says that “all flesh” had corrupted his way upon the earth.” Does the Hebrew indicate just humans are truly all flesh, all animals?

    I was in charge of a translation project for my employer a long time ago. One thing I learned was that translation isn’t so much about simply translating the words, but rather the culture. Language reflects/determines how a society views the world.

    Come to think of it, regarding language you might enjoy a couple entries I made a few months ago: and

    Liked by 1 person

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