Brandon's Notepad

June 23, 2011

The Language of Forgiveness

Home > My Research > Christianity > Theology > Basic Concepts > Forgiveness

It seems that the word “forgiveness” can mean different things depending on the context and to whom you are speaking. For example, to a Catholic being forgiven does not eliminate the temporal punishment of sin even if the sinner were to die, whereas a Protestant will count death as punishment enough or perhaps believe that punishment is not necessary at all. The word itself may be too generic, insufficient to carry with it the baggage of various religious ideologies. Here I explore the meaning of the word “forgiveness” and other words often used interchangably or in conjunction with it.


First and foremost, let us examine the word forgiveness (or forgive) for indications that punishment must necessarily be waived.

Using the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED), the word “forgive” means to give, grant or allow (-give) completely (for-). The suffix -ness indicates either an action or a quality or state. The OED entry for foregiveness defines it as “pardon, forgiveness, indulgence”. In this basic understanding of the word, there is no implication of ‘righting the wrong’ either willfully (expiation) or by rule (restitution) or force (punishment), but simply a complete giving, as in the forgiveness of a debt. Indeed, according to the OED, the use of “forgive” to mean “to give up desire or power to punish” is a modern usage.

It is interesting that Merriam-Webster reverses the order of these two meanings of forgive, first defining it as:

1 a : to give up resentment of or claim to requital for
b : to grant relief from payment of

And then as:

2 : to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)

It would seem, perhaps, that the necessary inclusion of (freedom from) punishment connoted by forgiveness has supplanted the more basic meaning, at least in American English.

The Oxford Dictionary lists the two definitions of forgive in the other order:

  • stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for (an offense, flaw, or mistake)
  • cancel (a debt)

According to the Wikipedia, forgiveness “is typically defined as the process of concluding resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. […] In some contexts, forgiveness may be granted without any expectation of restorative justice, and without any response on the part of the offender.” So, this author recognizes that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily preclude the realization of negative consequences by the forgiven, and by the words “In some contexts”, even indicates that this may be the norm.

Pardon & Indulgence

Both of these terms were mentioned in the references examined above, so they are worthy of consideration as well.

More to come…

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