You Can’t Forgive Yourself

“Forgive yourself.”

–Worldly Wisdom

This phrase is tossed around often, and it masquerades as a Christian virtue. However, as we’ll see, this is not only wrong, but it’s not even something that we have the ability to do.

I think when most of us use this phrase about ourselves or others we don’t actually mean what we’re saying. What we really mean is that in times of reflecting on personal regrets about past sin, we’re are having a difficult time remembering that if we’ve believed in Christ for salvation, then we’re situated before our Heavenly Father in Christ. This means that when he looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Jesus himself. And when we remember that fact we’re able to press forward with confidence toward a life of holiness, not because we have a clean slate, but because we have an alien righteousness.

That’s what I believe we are really intending to say when we throw this phrase around. However, this phrase may bog us down a bit because we realize that in our heart of hearts it doesn’t make sense. We can’t forgive ourselves. It’s impossible. Sin is necessarily carried out first and foremost against God, and then subsequently against others. Forgiveness happens when the wronged party deals with the wrong by absorbing the cost upon themselves so that the relationship can be set right again. We can’t do this for ourselves (have I said that yet?).

Imagine this scenario with me: You’ve slandered a brother in the church. You’re repentant, and you’re seeking forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Your pastor is lovingly walking the both of you through the entire process. When the three of you get together, you admit your wrongdoing, repent, and ask your brother’s forgiveness. It’s at this moment that your pastor interjects and says, “I forgive you.” Your brother, with a puzzled and offended look on his face, (rightly) says, “Wait a minute, that’s not yours to give. You haven’t been slandered, I have.”

Going a little farther, imagine the same scenario, but your pastor isn’t involved, you’re meeting with your brother on your own, you’re still repentant, but you don’t ask for forgiveness because you say, “I’ve already forgiven myself, so let’s just move past it.” Again, your brother rightly thinks, “Umm… you don’t get to declare that for me.”

Finally, and perhaps of utmost importance in this conversation is the fact that if we could forgive ourselves, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to come. The cross would be superfluous and of little meaning (other than maybe sentimental), because we would be able to just forgive ourselves into right relationship with God.

The point I’m bludgeoning to death is this: forgiveness can’t come from within, it has to come from without, and it has to come from the party offended.

As I mentioned earlier, our sins are always ultimately against God. It’s why King David can famously (and correctly) say, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4a). However, the glorious beauty of the matter is that if you’ve repented of your sin (nature) and any particular sin (specifically), trusted in Christ to have paid the penalty for it and believed that he has given you his righteousness instead, then you’ve been forgiven. You don’t need it anywhere else. Certainly, when possible, you should seek the forgiveness of any other person(s) you may have wronged as well, but in Christ, you have the forgiveness of the only one that ultimately matters.

So let’s ditch this language of “forgive yourself.” Though it often doesn’t mean what it’s really saying, words matter. And these words, when picked apart, don’t have a shred of real meaning at all. Instead, let’s encourage one another to see ourselves situated before the Father in the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ, and allow that to assure us of the salvation we have been given by sheer grace.

Photo Credit: @eckfarms