Should Christians forgive themselves? I’m not addressing anything new here. If you’re not aware of the disagreement, let me give you a brief synopsis. It centers around the questions, “Can I forgive myself? Is self-forgiveness possible?”
On one hand, there are those who say that Christians are fooling themselves when they seek to “forgive themselves.” Self-forgiveness is not biblical. If we have sinned and repented, God has already forgiven us. We can’t forgive ourselves any further. Here’s how John MacArthur puts it:
“The person who complains about not being self-forgiving is often simply looking for flattering or consoling words from others as a way of salving the hurt that guilt has caused to their pride.” (Another helpful article here on this side of the argument.)
On the other side are those who say that self-forgiveness is necessary. Christians may have the knowledge that forgiveness has been applied, but they still wallow in guilt. However, their continued self-doubt has trouble accepting it. Here’s what blogger Michelle Van Loon writes:
“On the other side of the equation, I think . . . we need to receive Christ’s forgiveness first and foremost in order to be empowered to extend forgiveness to others – and ourselves.”
I believe in a form of self-forgiveness, but I am careful to define the terms. I think both arguments have tremendous merit and I think both are saying many of the same things. The first group, I believe, is trying to keep Christians from justifying sin – which is important. The second group wants to make sure that Christians understand that some people have trouble accepting God’s forgiveness.
Alright, so let me break this down with a very personal example. I fell from ministry. I committed adultery. My own personal repentance before God took a long time. It took a while before I was humbled before Him and knew that my heart was right and I had begun to walk a path of brokenness and obedience again.
The sin of adultery is a heavy one. I did it, it was my fault. The consequences are mine to bear for the rest of my life. I knew theologically and in my mind that I was forgiven. There was no doubt that I stood clean before God and that the sin of adultery had been cast as far as the east was from the west. Scripture promised it and it had been appropriated to my heart and life.
But for a long time, I struggled to accept God’s forgiveness. Why? Several reasons. First, my shame. I was still ashamed of what I had done. I carried it around with me like an albatross or a scarlet letter. Even though I knew the truth of forgiveness, I had not assented to it yet.
Secondly, maybe I doubted that God could really forgive me. Maybe it wasn’t doubt. Maybe it was wonder at His grace. Why would He forgive me? There were plenty of people who still hated what I did. I hated what I did. I still asked daily for His forgiveness even though I knew that sin had already been forgiven.
Thirdly, I think I didn’t truly understand grace. I felt like I had to do something to gain God’s favor. On one hand, I was trying everything to get back the favor of people I had hurt. So it only seemed natural that I had to make God like me again. But that wasn’t the case. He had forgiven me. He loved me because of the sacrifice and work of Christ. But I hadn’t accepted that yet.
But one day it finally hit me. Call it whatever you like. I forgave myself. It was a moment where I said to myself, “God has forgiven me. Why am I continually bringing up this sin to Him if He’s forgiven it? I’m the only one who is holding on to it. I need to let it go.” In that moment, I forgave myself. Maybe that’s not the best word. If you want a theological term, I recognized the appropriation of God’s forgiveness and grace to my life.
Whatever happened, it was all God. My self-realization did nothing to save me. My “self-forgiveness” didn’t make more sin go away. Christ had already done the work. But thanks to the Holy Spirit, my eyes were opened to His continuing grace in my life.
So, self-forgiveness? I can live with the term if it’s used in the right way. MacArthur has the right approach. The other blogger is right too. No, we can’t excuse away our sins by ourselves. But if we don’t understand the grace that has been applied, we can be hindered from understanding the amazing love we have been shown.
Other helpful articles:
“Christians Must Forgive Themselves” by Mike Ruffin
“Can Christians ‘Forgive Themselves’?” by Michelle Van Loon
“Forgiving Ourselves” by Charles Stanley
Ray Carroll is the author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World,” which answers many of the questions I get asked on a weekly basis.
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