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Forgiveness is the central experience of faith for Western peoples -- the forgiveness of God to resolve human guilt, the forgiveness of other persons to resolve alienation -- but in other cultural settings the crucial issue varies. Instead of guilt and forgiveness the focus may be on alienation and inclusion, on shame and acceptance.

Forgiveness in Western theology is variously defined as benevolent generosity which sets the offender free again, as obedient acceptance of the wrongdoer not because of the nature of the forgiven but that of the one forgiving; as sacrificial acceptance of the cost of forgiving, of bearing one's own anger at the injury or injustice; as the restoration of love and the reconstruction of relationship between offender and offended. All forgiveness, whether divine or human is clearly by analogous processes (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32) and we are called to replicate the forgiveness of God in Christ in our relationships with those who sin against us. Forgiveness of others and the forgiveness of God are two aspects of the same reality (Matthew 6:12ff; 18:23-35). They are indivisible and interdependent.

Forgiveness, in Anabaptist thought and practice, is "the mutual recognition that repentance is genuine and that right relationships have been restored or are now achieved." Forgiveness is thus seen as a reconciling, not an inner healing, event, as a relational process rather than an individualistic act, as reconstruction, not a private spirituality. By focusing on reconciliation, Anabaptism sees forgiveness in communal context as defined in Matthew 18:25ff. The goal is not personal release from guilt and responsibility but regaining the brother or the sister. In stressing relationship, Anabaptism moves forgiveness from the orientation toward individualism toward solidarity with the forgiven. By seeing repentance as integral to forgiveness rather than consequent (Luke 17:3-4) the negotiation of anger, alienation, and injustice becomes the work of forgiving in action. In stressing reconstruction of human relationships rather than a forgiveness of private spirituality, Anabaptism demands that sustaining the body of Christ and nurturing human community are the essence of a discipleship that works for shalom. This perspective on forgiveness takes ethical integrity and justice as central to forgiveness rather than seeing forgiveness as the grace which transcends ethical failure, offers love instead of desiring justice, gives acceptance instead of working for renewed relationships. The Anabaptist tendency is to stress works more than grace, performance beyond intention, perfectionism rather than tolerance and a free pluralism. The balance of inner and relational forgiveness of acceptant grace and rigorous reconciliation, of individual release and communal integrity is valued in Anabaptism, but the balance is frequently as elusive as it is for American Evangelicalism which tends toward individualism, privatism, and benevolence without repentance in most writing about forgiveness.

In Mennonite churches in Asian, African and Latin American cultures forgiveness takes forms appropriate to the profound cultural values which shape alternate worldviews. Where modern Western assumptions of equality stress mutuality and reciprocity in horizontal forgiveness, traditional cultures tend toward more vertical patterns which see forgiveness as an undeserved gift in unchangeable situations or as earned acceptance in relationships requiring reparations. Repentance is seen as integral, but the processes follow cultural patterns which avoid confrontation and loss of face. In traditional or modern cultures, East or West, Anabaptism has stressed forgiveness as reconciliation whose prerequisite is love and whose work is the restoration of relationships.

See also Salvation


Augsburger, David W. Caring Enough to Forgive. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981.

Klassen, William. The Forgiving Community. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.

Author(s) David W Augsburger
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Augsburger, David W. "Forgiveness." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 6 Dec 2023.

APA style

Augsburger, David W. (1989). Forgiveness. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 December 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 307-308. All rights reserved.

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