The Dangerous Doctrine of Forgiving Yourself

The Dangerous Doctrine of Forgiving Yourself

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Forgiving yourself is an odd teaching that has crept into Christians’ understanding of sanctification. It’s part of the culture’s futile way of thinking, hoping to get rid of their sins. They must try because they sense the same shame we do, but because they reject God and His Word, they create policies and pathways to alleviate their soul noise, always leading down dead-end streets and box canyons. Without God, they blindly grope for the walls, making self-forgiveness a culturally common sense way of feeling psychologically better. “You just need to forgive yourself” is the usual way people apply this secular doctrine within their communities.

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Who Is Sufficient?

Typically a person who believes he needs to forgive himself has sinned in some way—hence the need for forgiveness. All sin requires transactional forgiveness to be free from it (Romans 10:13; 1 John 1:7-10). The need for forgiveness is a straightforward Christian doctrine: “I sin; I need forgiveness.” The problem arises when the person seeking forgiveness is not seeking forgiveness from God or God alone. He is looking for something more besides God’s forgiveness; he wants to be self-forgiving. Though he may know God will forgive him of his sins, he also believes self-forgiveness is required. “Yes, God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself for what I did” is a common response. Though this should be a self-evident heresy that distorts the gospel by adding to the forgiveness we receive from God alone, through Christ alone, based on the Bible alone, it is not clear to many Christians.

  • Christ Forgiving + Self-Forgiving = Heresy.
  • Christ Forgiving + My Acceptance = Gospel

These self-forgiving people are unknowingly adding to the gospel (Galatians 1:8-9). It is like placing the lamb’s blood above the doorpost and their blood, too—a dangerous teaching (Exodus 12:7). The reason the perfect Lamb of God came to earth was to save us from our sins because we could not (John 1:29). An unclean thing cannot make an unclean thing clean, making Christ’s redemption a central plank in the gospel platform. Sin separates people from Christ, and if they are going to experience cleansing, God in the flesh must wash us whiter than snow by His blood (Ephesians 2:1-9). Jesus came and became a man, lived perfectly, died on the cross, and rose from the grave to conquer our sin and provide a means to free sinner man from it.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace (Ephesians 1:7).

If sinner-man could forgive himself, he would not need a perfect sacrifice. If an imperfect sacrifice would do, who needs Christ? How convenient: “I can sin, forgive myself of my sin, and be free from my sin. I can live in a hermetically sealed, self-made redemptive world.” The Bible teaches that only Christ can forgive us of our sins because we cannot forgive ourselves for our sins against an infinite, holy, almighty, and sovereign Lord. There is no biblical basis or need for this. The person who is struggling with self-forgiveness has committed some sin. They have transgressed God’s moral law and feel bad about their actions.

Lingering Conviction

This feeling is called conviction. It comes from the Spirit of God, a good thing to sense. Whenever we sin, there should be an appropriate and accompanying conviction. To feel bad about wrongs committed is kindness from the Lord. Imagine being able to sin but not know, discern, or sense it. It would be like slicing your hand open and not feeling the pain. Pain in such an instance is mercy from the Lord. Spiritual conviction is similar to physical discomfort. It allows us to respond to God, receive His forgiveness, and move on in the freedom that the power of the gospel offers (Galatians 5:1).

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).

Some Christians sometimes have difficulty receiving and resting in God’s restorative forgiveness. They may even ask God to forgive them multiple times, but the lingering, residual feeling of conviction remains. This feeling is a false sense of guilt that is not resting in the gospel’s transformative power. Their lack of gospel trust disables them from fully appropriating the undeserved favor He provides. These unbelieving Christians (Mark 9:24) continue to struggle with ongoing issues like guilt, remorse, shame, and embarrassment. Their self-imposed guilt may even drive them to isolate themselves from others by hiding the complete truth about what is happening. Like their predecessor Adam, they cover 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).

Hiding unresolved guilt issues complicates the original sin as they pursue transgressive escapes to find relief from the guilt. Rather than running to God, they entangle themselves in a godless orbit of temptations that pushes them into a spiral of self-perpetuating dysfunction. The gospel’s full power becomes marginalized in their lives because their view of themselves, God, and His gospel is limited and smallish. This worldview is the appeal of the self-esteem movement, a person who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about themselves rather than God (Philippians 2:3-5).

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Self-Esteem Gospel

  • Self-esteem teaches us to think highly of ourselves. Christianity teaches us to think highly of others.
  • Self-esteem teaches us to be all we can be. Christianity teaches us to make others great.
  • Self-esteem teaches us to be independent. Christianity teaches us to be interdependent.
  • Self-esteem teaches us to be competitive. Christianity teaches us to elevate others.
  • Self-esteem teaches us not to be self-critical. Christianity teaches us to own our depravity.

The self-esteem movement is counter-productive to the Christian way of thinking. It leads to more and more introspection and individualism, which has an incarcerating effect on the mind. Can anyone think more about themselves and feel better about themselves because of their introspective reflections? The gospel frees us from ourselves while motivating us to focus more on God and others. The self-forgiver is intuitively self-focused. All he can think about is what he did, how bad he feels about what he did, and how God would never forgive such an awful person. Self-esteem makes man and his problems big and God and His power small.

Looking at Me

The Bible category for self-esteem is self-righteousness. Let me illustrate: Imagine a person being two people. Let’s say the person is me. In this illustration, I am person A, and I am person B. I am representing both people. Now, let’s say person A commits adultery, and person B, also me, 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 that.” In addition to being shocked, I am embarrassed, angry, frustrated, confused, and ashamed of what I did. My self-esteem gospel tells me to think highly of myself (person B), but my reality tells me I have a problem (person A). I’m in a tailspin. Why?

  • Self-esteem says, “I am somebody. I am great. I can do all things through me who strengthens me.”
  • The Bible says, “I am a sinner, totally depraved, and capable of many other things that are worse than adultery.”

Only a person with a high view of himself would be shocked at what he did: “It is so bad that I can’t get over it.” No Christian should be surprised when he sins. Though we are saints, we also choose to sin on occasion. We are fallen people living in a fallen world, and at times we are tempted to yield to the temptation to sin—a sad fact of life. If we regularly imbibe the counter-productive self-esteem model, we will constantly be shrinking into someone who finds it hard to accept our sinfulness. While we continually caress ourselves upward by maintaining our high thoughts about ourselves, our sin will also confront us, colliding in our minds like a roller coaster of evil and conflicted thoughts (James 1:5-8).

The self-esteem model teaches a person to ignore weaknesses and wrongs. Thus, when the certainty of our Adamic tendencies comes to roost, we will be surprised, shocked, disbelieving, and discouraged. The Christian’s counter to this worldview is to regularly soak in the Scripture’s view that we are saints who sin. This view will prepare us to face the reality of who we are before God and others. Though we will experience guilt and conviction after we sin, our actions will not throw us into a ditch. We can fast-track to the only one who can fully and freely forgive us. The Bible does not have a high view of humans. The Bible has a dismal and dark view of who we are and what we can do. Whenever the Bible talks about our propensities outside of the grace of God, its view of man is low—even pronouncing eternal torment on those who reject God. (See Romans 3:10-12; Revelation 20:15)

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Price of Forgiveness

Self-esteem—biblically defined as self-righteousness—can only lead to one conclusion: We must go outside the Bible’s boundaries for a solution. Thus, the self-esteemer can never be free. He will live with the ongoing residual effect of guilt and shame because of his unwillingness to embrace a sober assessment of who he is—a born-again sinner. The battles of guilt and shame that reject the gospel’s cure will always motivate other measures like 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.” If you have difficulty embracing your sins or accepting the poor view of yourself that your sins affirm, you will have difficulty obtaining a gospel cleanse. Christ came for sinners, not people who can’t believe they did such a thing or won’t own the truth about their sinful actions (Luke 5:32). All sin is against God, and only God can forgive sin. Let me illustrate by giving you a truth and an analogy.

  • Truth: The person we sin against—the Lord—is the one who determines the price to pay to cover the offense.
  • Analogy: If you cause a car accident, you do not determine what you will pay to make amends for your mistake. The insurance company assesses the damages and lets you know the cost.

This analogy is proximate to how forgiveness works with God. He always determines what it will take to cover the offense—not you, the offender. The Lord made that decision a long time ago when He sent His one and only Son to die on the cross for our sins (John 1:29, 3:7, 3:16). You or I do not tell God that we need an additional sacrifice for the sins we commit. Imagine a friend paying for your meal at a restaurant. Though you appreciate it, you decide to also pay for the meal—in addition to his payment. You do not need to pay for something that someone has already paid, and you do not need to forgive yourself after God has forgiven you. The real question is, “Can you rest in His forgiveness?”

Call to Action

The gospel came to take care of your sin problems because you could not. Your job should be simple: apply the gospel to your life. You must ask, receive, and apply God’s forgiveness. Then rest in His gospel goodness. If you are like me, a person who can become overly shocked by personal sin, maybe you need to repent of self-righteousness. Sometimes I forget how Jesus is enough for all my sin. How about you?

  1. Are you able to rest in God’s forgiveness? What does that mean, practically speaking? How is the gospel lowering your soul noise? What does the peace of God mean to you?
  2. Why do you sense the need to forgive yourself when an infinite God gave you an infinite gift to pay for your infinite offense against Him? What can you add to infinity? Talk about why it’s wrong to remove all your guilt by something more than Christ’s sacrifice.
  3. What is going on in your thinking that hinders you from trusting and resting in the Lord? What compels you to add to the gospel? Why isn’t God’s forgiveness enough?
  4. Does a person mean something else when he says that he needs to forgive himself? What is he attempting to describe? If you sense guilt in your soul that continues, what is the solution, which we know is not self-forgiveness?

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