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Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation - What's the Difference?

Over the years in ministry I’ve found that people often confuse forgiveness and reconciliation thinking they’re the same thing.  They’re not.  Look with me at what God’s word says about this.

There are a number of passages that talk about reconciliation.  Let’s consider two of them.  First in Colossians 1:21-23, Paul says that we who were once opposed to Jesus have now been reconciled to him by his death and resurrection so we can be made holy. To be made holy means that we are restored to a relationship with the Holy God. From this we understand that those who were once opposed to God can now be reconciled to God by faith in the finished work of Jesus for their sins.

In Matthew 18:15, Jesus is teaching his followers how to deal with broken relationships in the body of Christ. Here are his instructions:

  1. The one who is sinned against (eg. Suzanne) needs to go directly to the person who offended her (eg. John) and explain how she has been offended by him.
  2. If he listens, she has gained her brother. This means that if John hears how he has offended Suzanne, takes responsibility for his sin and asks for forgiveness, she has gained back the relationship that had been lost. In other words, they are now reconciled

From these two passages we learn that reconciliation involves two parties. And that for peace to be restored, a person must take responsibility for his/her sin and ask for forgiveness. If this does not take place, there is no reconciliation.


Forgiveness on the other hand does not require two parties. It only requires the one who was offended to willingly absorb the debt of sin against them. One place we see this is in Romans 5:8. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. This means that even though we accumulated a sin debt against a holy God, Jesus Christ out of love for us came and paid our sin debt by dying on the cross in our place. Forgiveness, then, is the offended party choosing to willingly absorb the sin debt of another (by the power of the Holy Spirit) whether they ask for it or not.

Now here’s how forgiveness and reconciliation work together. As the offending party, even though the work of forgiveness has been accomplished, we can’t experience this work of forgiveness and be reconciled to God until we hear what God says about our sin, admit we are sinners and ask God for forgiveness. When we do that, forgiveness is applied to us and we are reconciled to him.

So when it comes to our relationships, we forgive others who sin against us in the same way we have been forgiven by Jesus. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we choose to absorb the debt against us even before they ask for it. That is forgiveness granted. But forgiveness can only be received and reconciliation can only happen when the offending party admits their wrong and asks for forgiveness. Ideally these work together, but when the offender is either unwilling or unavailable to be reconciled, we still must forgive.

May we forgive as Christ has forgiven us and may we live reconciled to God and others!

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