Because our current sermon series is on the topic of forgiveness, and because I KNOW that this question will come up in our Q & A a week from Sunday, and because it has been asked of me separately, I thought this would be a good place to deal with the question of “forgiving ourselves” in more detail than we can cover then, and still allow for other questions.
What do we do when we need to “forgive ourselves”?
In short, the Bible never mentions the idea of forgiving ourselves at all. The very nature of forgiveness (as we’ve seen) takes at least 2 parties – one who has done the offending, and one who is offended. And the purpose of forgiveness is always reconciliation – to heal the relationship which has suffered a fracture due to the offense. So by the very nature of it, forgiving ourselves simply doesn’t fit the pattern of forgiveness period.
The problem arises most often when people confuse two things, and these get tossed into the “I need to forgive myself” arena. The first is guilt. And the second is remorse.
Guilt, is the reality that I’ve done something wrong, and as a result I am awaiting punishment of some kind. Now in terms of God – this is what Jesus dealt with for us on the cross, He took our guilt. He took our guilt upon Himself, so that we could be pronounced “not guilty” when we stand in God’s court. This is called justification. And this, is a done deal for the believer. We are already “justified” pronounced not just not guilty – but RIGHTEOUS, in God’s eyes: 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV) “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Romans 5:1 (ESV) “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Our sin was put on His account, so that He suffered and died for it, and His righteousness was put on our account so that we might be rewarded for it. This is the amazing reality of the Gospel.
Now, it may be that past sins also have a component to them of an injured party besides God. In that case, it is our responsibility to fix it if we can. Matthew 5:23–24 (ESV) “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Often, though our conscience is clear before God, it nonetheless still bears weight from unfinished business with another person. And Jesus clearly tells us to drop everything – even worship, and do what we can to make it right. Can we always fix it? Will they always forgive us and be reconciled to us? No. But we have done what we could, and we leave the rest with Him. So Paul can say: Romans 12:18 (ESV) “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It is not always possible (from the other person’s end) – but as much as it depends upon us – that we do.
The problem of “lingering” guilt remaining after one has confessed and repented is usually one of (or perhaps a combination of) three things.
a. Unbelief. I simply am not taking God at His word that if I confess my sin He is faithful and just to forgive me of my sin and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). The problem isn’t really guilt in this case at all, but rather unbelief. People say “I don’t feel forgiven”. Forgiven isn’t a feeling, it is a status. I may not feel like a citizen of the United States either – since there is no one felling associated with such a thing. But I DO have that status. And I must believe that my forgiven status is because I am in Christ, not because I feel a certain way. Many a Christian gets caught in this web of trying to divest themselves of guilt over some past sin they’ve confessed a thousand times – when the problem really is – unbelief.
b. Remorse is mistaken for guilt. Do we feel bad over our past sins even if they are forgiven? You bet! Heaven forbid we should EVER feel good about ANY sin, past or present. Such grief over sin is godly, it is Spirit driven. It is one of the marks of our conversion that we sorrow over sin instead of dismissing it. NEVER seek to be freed from remorse over past sins – it is a great deterrent to falling into them again. Remember that pain and use it! On the other hand, there can be a morbid grief over sin driven by the same problem above – unbelief. Unbelief that: “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 (ESV) We must believe He redeems even our failures for His glory and our good. When I fail to believe His redeeming love is sufficient for all of my failures, I will move from conviction or remorse, into despair. Whenever the pain of such memories floods our souls, it is our duty to embrace that pain – while at the very same time breaking out in praise and thanksgiving for His redeeming grace, and that such sin has been met fully in Christ and I am free!
c. Condemnation. This too is a product of unbelief, but with an added ingredient by our enemy, Satan. Here again I must retreat to God’s Word and recall Romans 8:1 (ESV), “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Condemnation is an irreversible sentence. When one is on death row – they are condemned to die. But none of Christ’s can ever be in that state, because we are in Him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus – nothing can condemn us to such a death. Romans 8:31–39 (ESV) “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
No, I do not need to forgive myself. Yes, I may need to deal with an offense I’ve left unaddressed. But I am no longer “guilty” in Christ. I grieve over my past sins, but without guilt or despair. I am not and cannot be condemned – because of the Cross. I do not need to forgive myself – I need to fully receive (BELIEVE) I have HIS forgiveness on the basis of the Cross.