Two different kinds of forgiveness are found in the Scriptures, and if we are going to be careful students of the Word, we must learn to distinguish them. We will call them judicial and parental forgiveness (though these names are not used in the Bible).
To put it very simply, judicial forgiveness is the forgiveness of a judge and parental forgiveness is the forgiveness of a father. The first term is taken from the courtroom and the second from the home.
First let us go to the courtroom. God is the Judge and sinful man is the person on trial. Man is guilty of sinning, and the penalty is eternal death. But the Lord Jesus appears and announces, "I will pay the penalty which man's sins deserved; I will die as a Substitute for him!" This is what the Savior did on the Cross of Calvary. Now the Judge announces to sinful man, "If you will surrender to my Son as your Lord and Savior, I will forgive you." As soon as the man puts his faith in the Savior, he receives judicial forgiveness of all his sins. He will never have to pay the punishment for them in hell, because Christ has paid it all. The forgiven sinner now enters into a new relationship: God is no longer his Judge; now He is his Father.
So now we move into the home for an illustration of parental forgiveness. God is the Father and the believer is the child. In an unguarded moment, the child commits an act of sin. Then what happens? Does God sentence the child to die for the sin? Of course not, because God is no longer the Judge, but the Father! What does happen? Well, fellowship in the family is broken. The happy family spirit is gone. The child has not lost his salvation, but he has lost the joy of his salvation. Soon he may experience the discipline of his Father, designed to bring him back into fellowship. As soon as the child confesses his sin, he receives parental forgiveness.
Judicial forgiveness takes place once-for-all at the time of conversion; parental forgiveness takes place every time a believer confesses and forsakes his sin. This is what Jesus taught in John 13:8-10: we need the bath of regeneration only once to deliver us from the penalty of sins, but we need many cleansings throughout our Christian lives to give us parental forgiveness.
The difference between the two types of forgiveness may be summarized graphically as follows:
From now on, when we come to verses that speak about the once-for-all forgiveness that is granted to us as sinners through the work of Christ, we will know that the subject is judicial forgiveness. The following illustrate this: In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. (Eph. 1:7).
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:32 RSV).
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all your trespasses Col. 2:13).
However, there are other passages of Scripture that deal with parental forgiveness:
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:14, 15).
Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37). And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any, that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses (Mark 11:25).
Notice that in two of these verses God is specifically mentioned as Father; it is the Father's forgiveness that is involved. Notice also that our being forgiven depends on our willingness to forgive others. That is not true of judicial forgiveness; willingness to forgive others is not a condition of salvation. But it is true of parental forgiveness; our Father will not forgive us if we don't forgive one another.
In Matthew 18:23-25 Jesus told the story of a slave who had been forgiven 10,000 talents by the king. But that same slave wouldn't forgive one of his fellow-slaves 100 pence. The king was therefore angry with him and delivered him to the jailers till he paid all his debt. Jesus concluded the parable by saying "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses." Here again it is a matter of the Father's forgiveness. It is sin to have an unforgiving spirit, and God cannot forgive us parentally until we confess that sin and forsake it. One of the thrills of Bible study is to see these basic distinctions and to be able to apply them in our daily reading. From now on when you come to the subject of forgiveness in the Word you should be able to say, "Oh, yes, that refers to judicial forgiveness, or else "that must refer to the Father's forgiveness of His child."