Forgiving Myself?

Forgiving Myself?

“Forgiving myself” is common practice among Christians today, almost taken for granted as right, necessary, and biblical. The idea runs roughly like this: when I sin, I must confess my wrongdoing to God, accept his pardon, and then forgive myself. Poignantly reflecting the heavily psychologized world in which the Church walks, to witness how vigorously this historically-recent practice is advocated (and defended) bears testimony to just how much water the Old Ship of Zion is taking on. 

Christians confess the sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine and practice (2 Pet 1:3; 2 Tim 3:16-17) – that is, the Bible contains all that is necessary for me to know who God is, what he requires of me, and how to do it. But forgiving myself draws from culture, not Canon; since Scripture is silent about this construct, it “goes beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). The Bible tells us “a broken heart and a contrite spirit he will not despise” (Ps 51:17). “Return to me and I will return to you” (Ps 34:8). “…the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin…if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:7,9). Scripture highlights the all-sufficiency of God’s pardon by Christ’s work, calling me to rest in it – and nowhere else. My sin and guilt must be laid at the foot of the Cross alone.

The danger is subtle, but strikingly real. Consider what I’m telling myself in practicing self-forgiveness: I softly say that God’s absolution in Christ is insufficient for peace with him, that having my heart sprinkled to cleanse a guilty conscience (Heb 10:22) isn’t enough. I confess in it that his poured-out wrath on his only Son might pass muster for heaven’s judgment, but not for mine. To “forgive myself” is fundamentally an argument that the suffering and death of Jesus served for “peace with God” (Rom 5:1) – just not for peace within me. Jesus said “it is finished,” yet since I must forgive myself, his grace truly isn’t sufficient for me (2 Cor 12:9). Instead, I supplement the grace of the Cross, completing his pardon by adding my work to it. 

Precisely here is the quiet shift from well-intentioned error to genuine heresy. To forgive myself is to substitute God’s standard with mine, to append my judgment and assessment of Christ’s work to Scripture’s, to exchange the Father’s mercy and approval for what I think is best. It’s a gentle replacement which “makes the Cross of none effect” (1 Cor 1:17; Mk 7:13), ultimately relying on “what is right in my own eyes” (Jdg 21:25), on my terms. It makes my sin out to be so great the Jesus couldn’t handle it, or so insignificant that Jesus couldn’t be bothered with it; but either way, I deify myself. In the name of faith in Christ, I put faith in me. At its core, forgiving myself is self-pardon, self-absolution, self-salvation. 

I must learn rather to “set my heart at rest in his presence” (1 Jn 3:19-24) when conscience condemns me, by full confession and repentance before the only One who can forgive sins (Mk 2:5-11). I must “still and quiet my soul” by the mercy and merits of Jesus alone (Ps 131:2), for he “is faithful and just to forgive.” By the Spirit’s gracious help, I must learn to look solely to Christ, stricken for sinners like me, to know peace with God (Isa 53:4-6).

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