Sabbatical 2017

Sabbatical 2017
Arc de Triumph

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Should We Forgive Ourselves?

Here's an article on a subject I've been struggling with for a while now. I've felt that the teaching on self-forgiveness has been questionable but have not been able to articulate why this is so as clearly as Rick Thomas does in this blog posting from "Learning, Changing, Growing."  jk

One of the more interesting teachings that has crept into the Christian community is this idea of self-forgiveness.
Forgiving myself is the standard way it is talked about.
I’m not exactly sure how it became such an effective teaching in mainstream Christian consciousness, though I do have a pretty good idea where it came from.
Its roots are in the self-esteem movement as taught by our secular culture.
Only a person who is pursuing a high self-esteem would be tempted to think along the lines of self-forgiveness.

What I mean is this:

Typically a person who believes he needs to forgive himself has sinned in some way–hence the need for forgiveness.
All sin requires forgiveness in order to be free from it. We’re good so far.
However, rather than the self-forgiverseeking forgiveness from God alone, he believes that he needs something more–something in addition to God’s forgiveness. While he may think about and even know that God will forgive him of his sins, he also believes his personal forgiveness of himself is required too.
“Yes, God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself for what I did,” is a typical response.
This is a major heresy because it adds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of this it must be repudiated. Whenever we add anything to the Gospel, it mocks and marginalizes the work of Christ and it must be rebuked.
  • Christ’s forgiveness of myself + my forgiveness of myself = heresy
  • Christ’s forgiveness of myself + my acceptance of His forgiveness = forgiveness
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:8-9 (ESV)
The reason the perfect Lamb of God came to earth was to save us from our sins. This is a major tenet of the Gospel. Man was lost in his sin and if he was going to be redeemed, then God had to come to do it. He did come by becoming a man, living perfectly, dying on the cross, and rising from the grave in order to not only conquer sin, but to provide a means for sinner-man to be freed from sin.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. – Ephesians 1:7 (ESV)
If sinner-man could forgive himself, then he would not need a perfect sacrifice. If an imperfect sacrifice would do, then who needs Christ? I can sin, forgive myself of my sin, and be free from my sin–awesome. It would be a hermetically sealed self-made redemptive world. I sin. I forgive myself. I move on.
Let me repeat: only Christ can forgive us of our sins. We cannot forgive ourselves from the sins we commit against an infinite, holy, almighty, sovereign God.

Lingering residual feeling of conviction

The person who is struggling with self-forgiveness has committed some kind of sin. They have transgressed God’s moral law and are feeling bad about what they have done. This is a good thing. Whenever we sin, there should be accompanying conviction. Conviction from God is His kindness to us.
Imagine being able to sin and not know about it. It would be like slicing your hand open and not feeling the pain. Pain, in this instance, is a good thing–another mercy from the Lord. Conviction is similar. It gives us the opportunity to respond to God, receive His forgiveness and move on in the freedom that the power of the Gospel offers.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:8-9 (ESV)
In some cases, with some Christians, they have a difficult time receiving and resting in God’s forgiveness for what they have done. They may even ask God to forgive them, but the lingering residual feeling of conviction remains. They are not truly believing God’s Word because they are not appropriating the grace He provides for them.
In addition to their initial sin, they will struggle with such on-going issues like guilt, remorse, shame, embarrassment, being mortified, can’t believe they did what they did and so forth.
They may even compound their problems by hiding the real truth about themselves. They can be tempted to go into an isolation mode by doing what Adam and Eve did–they covered themselves with fig leaves.
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. – Genesis 3:7 (ESV)
The shock of their sin tempts them to sin more. Rather than running to God, they run headlong into more sin because of their cover-up. In such cases the person does not want to be found out.

The self-esteem gospel

The full power of the Gospel is being hindered in their lives. Their view of themselves, God, and His Gospel is not clear to them. This is usually because of aberrant teaching that has messed up their thinking, e.g. the self-esteem movement.
The self-esteem movement teaches you to think highly of yourself, while the Bible teaches you to think highly of others. This is one of many points where the world and Christians are heading in two different directions.
  • The world teaches us to be all you can be. Christianity teaches us to make others great.
  • The world teaches us to be independent. Christianity teaches us to be inter-dependent.
  • The world teaches us to be competitive. Christianity teaches us to be other-centereded.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… – Philippians 2:3-5 (ESV)
The self-esteem movement is counter-productive to the Christian man’s thinking. It leads to more and more introspection, which leads to the incarceration of the mind.
Can anyone spend time thinking about themselves and feel better about themselves because of their introspective reflections? The Gospel frees us from ourselves while motivating us to spend more time focusing on God and others.
Gospel-centered thinking and living leads to greater maturity in Christ. This kind of thinking is a distinctly other-centered worldview.

Looking down on yourself

The Bible category for self-esteem is called self-righteousness. Let me illustrate: Imagine a person being two people. Let’s say that that person is me. In this illustration I am person A and I am person B. I am representing both people.
Now, let’s say that person A commits adultery and that person B is in disbelief over what person A did. In other words I am shocked at what I did. “Dear God, I can’t believe I did what I did.”
In addition to being shocked, I am also embarrassed, angry, frustrated, confused, and ashamed over what I did. My self-esteem gospel tells me to think highly of myself, but my reality tells me that I occasionally sin against God and others.
And when I do sin, it throws me into a tailspin. Why? Because my self-esteem says, “I can’t believe I did that.” Only a person with a high view of himself would be shocked at what he did.
No Christian should be surprised or shocked that he sinned. Though you are a saint, you can choose to sin. And guess what? You do! I do! We are fallen people, living in a fallen world, and at times we’re tempted to yield to the temptation to sin. Yes, it’s a sad fact of this life.
If you regularly imbibe on the counter-productive self-esteem model, then you will find sin to be hard to deal with. While you are continually pressing upward through the maintenance of high thoughts about yourself, you will sin. And when you do, your mind will be like a roller coaster of bad thoughts. Such things as surprised, shocked, disbelief and discouragement will be your companions.
But if you regularly imbibe on the Scripture’s view of who you are as a saint who sins, then you will be prepared to deal with the reality of the sin in your life. Though you will experience guilt and conviction–God’s mercy to you, it will not throw you, but point you to the Savior who will forgive you of your sin.
The Bible does not have a high view of humans. In fact, the Bible has an extremely low view of who humans are and what humans can do. Whenever the Bible talks about the propensities of man, outside of the grace of God, it’s view of man is as low as it can go–even pronouncing an eternal sentence in hell.
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. – Romans 3:10-12 (ESV)
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:15 (ESV)

Needing more than Christ

Self-esteem or what the Bible calls self-righteousness is an elevated view of oneself. The person standing in the chair–person B–can’t believe what person A did. In other words, he can’t believe what he did.
The truth is that he did sin as any saint can sin. If he thinks too highly of himself, he will soon go outside biblical bounds. This kind of high-thinking will further tempt him to think that he needs more than Christ’s forgiveness.
Note – once your thinking goes outside biblical bounds, all kinds of unbiblical teaching can influence you. Therefore, the self-righteous person will live with the on-going residuals of guilt and shame because of his unwillingness to embrace a sober assessment of who he really is–a saint who sins.
This on-going battle with guilt and shame will tempt him to think along the lines of self-forgiveness. “I asked Christ to forgive me and I believe He did, but I still struggle with what I did, so I just need to forgive myself.”
You cannot do this. The sin was against God and only God can forgive it. Let me illustrate with a truth and then an analogy. Here’s the truth: The person sinned against is the one who determines the price to be paid to cover the offense.
Here’s the analogy: if you cause a car accident, you’re not the one who determines what you’re going to pay. The insurance company comes out to the scene of the accident and assesses the damage. The company then tells you what the cost will be.
This analogy is proximate to how forgiveness works with God. He was the offended power, therefore He is the one who determines what it will take to cover the offense. And He made that decision when He sent His one and only Son to die on the cross for our sins.
You cannot go to God and tell Him that there needs to be a greater sacrifice for the sin you committed. Do you see how odd this is? There is no need for you to forgive yourself once God has forgiven you. Can you rest in His forgiveness?

Living in the good of the Gospel

I understand what it is like to be wrongly shocked by sin. There have been many times when I have beenoverly surprised by my sin. In such cases, I drifted from the Gospel. The Gospel informs me that I am not only tempted to sin, but I will sin. That is why we have a Gospel, right?
The Gospel came to take care of my sin problem because I could not. The very presence of the Gospel means I have a sin problem. My job is simple: apply the Gospel to my life.
I must ask, receive, and apply God’s forgiveness to my life. Then I must go and sin no more. But if I do sin again, then I must ask, receive, and apply God’s forgiveness to my life again.
If you are like me, a person who can become overly shocked by sin, then maybe you need to repent of self-righteousness. This is what I have to do on occasion. I can so easily drift from the truth that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:15).
Sometimes I can forget this and actually become overly shocked at what I did. When I do become overly shocked at my sin, then I need to not only repent of the sin I committed, but I must repent of my self-righteous attitude that motivates me to think that I’m above sinning.
I am not above sinning. Ask my wife. Ask my children.
Though our world cannot understand what I am saying here, there is a huge freedom when a Christian thinks less about himself and more about Christ. When I am thinking like a Gospel-centered man, but still sin–which I hate with a passion–I’m not overcome and I’m not looking for any other kind of forgiveness, but what Christ offers.
I ask Him to forgive me. I then receive His grace-filled forgiveness, and move on for the glory of God.


  1. The *only* thing I disagree with in his article are the statements, "No Christian should be surprised or shocked at what he did," and, "Only a person with a high view of himself would be shocked at what he did."

    While I certainly agree that self-forgiveness is really no forgiveness at all, feeling remorse so great that one's response is "I can't believe I did that... God, I'm so sorry" does not seem to be heresy nor a sign of great pride. The first time one commits "Sin A," one legitimately *is* shocked. The person had never done such a thing, so they are literally taken aback at the knowledge that they have the capability to do such a thing. I would argue that such a reaction is actually a removal of "innocence" (as in being unaware, not the moral innocence), not having great pride.

    With that said, I agree with everything else. It seems to have stemmed from the self-help movement. Our souls, however, are not something that can be fixed by human hands.

  2. How sad that many Christians dwell on a self-centered focus rather than resting in the arms of God's grace and mercy. It is encouraging to see such an article like this exposing a heresy spawned by the zeitgeist.

    If you would care to review Love, Prayer, and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies, I would be glad to send you the pdf. [see link on my website or url below for the book itself]