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Is the saying “to err is human; to forgive, divine” biblical?

to err is human to forgive divine

The saying “to err is human; to forgive, divine” is not found in the Bible, so, in that limited sense, it is not a biblical saying. However, the sentiment may have a biblical basis, depending on the way one applies it. Since it is a “free-floating” proverb with no context, different people might interpret or apply it in different ways.

The modern saying has its origin in the work of English poet Alexander Pope. In his Essay on Criticism, Part II (1711), Pope wrote,
“Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.”

The first phrase of the proverb, “to err is human,” is certainly a biblical concept. Human beings have limited knowledge and are prone to make mistakes. Even a person with the best of intentions can make a mistake and hurt those around him. Well-meant actions can make a bad situation worse. Scripture and human experience attest to the frailty and inability of human beings. Error is a quintessential human characteristic.

The second half of the proverb, “to forgive, divine,” is also a biblical concept. Forgiveness is not a natural human response to an error or injury. When a human being responds to an error with anger, he is responding with normal human tendencies. Galatians 5:18–21 lists the normal characteristics of a person living in the flesh, that is, living a normal human life according to normal human urges, tendencies, and priorities: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”

A number of the sins listed in Galatians 5 are normal responses to an error. For example, someone is cut off in traffic. No malice was involved—one driver simply didn’t see the other car—but enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions result. These are all the opposite of forgiveness. To err is human, and so is responding in anger or trying to even the score. A corollary might be “it is human to err and then to deny, cover up, and blame someone else.”

On the other hand, when someone suffers from another’s mistake, the person who has been influenced by divine priorities will respond differently: Galatians 5:22–23 gives the contrasting responses of one controlled by the Holy Spirit; “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Likewise, James 3:17 speaks of “wisdom from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”

When a person commits an error, he is acting as a normal human being. When the person who was wronged responds with forgiveness, he is acting in line with divine tendencies. He is imitating the God who forgives. So, the saying “to err is human; to forgive, divine” does agree with biblical principles.

So far, we have only considered “innocent” errors, not sins where a person willfully harms another person or intentionally breaks God’s law. Galatians 5:18–21 contains plenty of examples of this kind of behavior in addition to the behaviors already mentioned. These are sinful “errors” in judgment whereby people think they know better than God about what they should do, how they should treat others, and what will make them happy: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, jealousy, envy, drunkenness, orgies. Sins are always errors in judgment and the result of unchecked human tendencies. To make these kinds of sinful errors that hurt others is human. To respond with love and forgiveness is divine.

However, there is another way the proverb can be understood that would not be biblical. There is a popular sentiment that God is simply a celestial father figure or a doting grandpa in the sky. People err (they sin), and it is normal for God to forgive—that’s His “job.” This sentiment about God is expressed in the song “A Father’s Love,” written by Aaron Gayle Barker and made popular by George Strait:

I got sent home from school one day with a shiner on my eye
Fightin’ was against the rules, and it didn’t matter why
When dad got home, I told that story just like I’d rehearsed
Then stood there on those tremblin’ knees and waitin’ for the worst

And he said
Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love
A secret that my daddy said was just between us
He said daddies don’t just love their children every now and then
It’s a love without end, amen

When I became a father in the spring of '81
There was no doubt that stubborn boy was just like my father’s son
And when I thought my patience had been tested to the end
I took my daddy’s secret, and I passed it on to him

Last night, I dreamed I’d died and stood outside those pearly gates
When suddenly I realized there must be some mistake
If they know half the things I’ve done, they’ll never let me in
And then somewhere from the other side, I heard these words again

God does forgive sinners, but He does not do it without justice. God’s love forgives, but His justice demands that the penalty of sin be paid. Romans 3:21–26 explains that it is only because of the death of Christ on behalf of sinners that God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Biblical forgiveness is not based on sentimentality but on the satisfaction of justice. Believers who have been forgiven can also forgive others because they understand how much they have been forgiven. They can forgo taking revenge because they know that God will settle all scores in the end (see Romans 12:14–21).

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This page last updated: September 29, 2022