If you have ever heard someone cry, “I just can’t forgive myself!” or if you have heard that in your own soul and thought it to be proper, it would be wise to test that concept with Scripture. The biblical doctrine of forgiveness is assaulted by more than a few false doctrines, and the doctrine of self-forgiveness is one of them.1 Added to the biblical doctrine of vertical forgiveness that God grants men, and the biblical doctrine of horizontal forgiveness that men grant to other men, is the unbiblical doctrine of a ‘reflexive’ forgiveness that a man grants to himself. When God’s forgiveness does not relieve his conscience and the testimony of his brother’s forgiveness does not give him peace, he turns to himself to be forgiven.2 Thus, the expression, not uncommon even among orthodox Christians, “I just can’t forgive myself.”
But is this so wrong? Some sins have such unimaginable consequences that they may tempt a man to imagine that he needs something more than God’s forgiveness to give him peace.
At work a Christian married man is attracted to a married woman not his wife, she’s attracted to him, and they fall into the sin of adultery. Though his marriage survives, hers does not. Her husband divorces her and her children are so angry they scatter because of mom’s sin. With a foolish and selfish act, the Christian man destroyed a home and family. Soon, he is truly sorry with godly sorrow, believes that God forgives him and his wife forgives him, but he cannot, he thinks, forgive himself. He lives the rest of his life with a heavy burden: he destroyed a family.
A mom’s back pain tempts her to take one more pain pill than the doctor prescribed. As the day progresses, she succumbs to the temptation to have a small drink before she picks up her daughters from piano lessons. On the way home she misses a stop sign, plows into a truck, and as a result one of her daughters dies and the other is forever crippled. She is sorry, believes God forgives her, finds forgiveness from her husband and surviving daughter, but cannot, she thinks, forgive herself. Knowing what she did, how can she live?
One can imagine many other nightmares, as many real as hypothetical, that tell of damage that cannot be repaired, wounds that cannot be healed, hurt that will never abate, debt that cannot be paid. And you were the cause of it all. God may forgive, but can you ever live with yourself again?
These are the questions of Christianity. The doctrine of forgiveness could not get more practical than right here and getting the doctrine correct could not be more important than right here.
The origin of the teaching of self-forgiveness would be an interesting study, but what helped popularize it in modern Christianity is Lewis B. Smedes’ Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve.3 First published in 1984, it was reprinted twelve years later and sold over 500,000 copies. Smedes was nurtured and trained in the Reformed tradition. From 1957 to 1970 he taught at Calvin College and then for 25 years at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, instructing two generations of young people and future preachers in the doctrine of self-forgiveness.
It is difficult to know what most mean by “forgiving yourself” because most merely use the expression without defining it; but we can learn from Smedes. For him, forgiving yourself is not reminding yourself to listen to God’s declaration of your righteousness in Christ (which would be commendable but is not called “forgiving yourself”) but is “your decision to live as though your sins of yesterday are irrelevant.” To forgive yourself is not to listen to the gracious judgment of a merciful God, but to “ignore the indictment you level at yourself.” Forgiving yourself is to “rewrite the script of your life” as though your sin did not happen. When a man forgives himself, he experiences a “release by discovering that his terrible past is irrelevant to who he is now and is going to be in the future. He is free from his own judgment.” Smedes is confident that “even the worst of us can find the power to set ourselves free.” He judges that forgiving yourself is “almost the ultimate miracle of healing.” Because self-forgiveness is man’s work, man performs this ultimate of miracles.
The error of this false doctrine, first, is apparent if one who bases his faith and life on the Bible’s teachings simply reads his Bible, because self-forgiveness cannot be found there. Not a word of it. Not in one verse. It cannot even be “deduced from Scripture” by “good and necessary consequence.”4 That Scripture says not a word about forgiving ourselves ought to be enough to reject the idea. In Smedes’ book Scripture is conspicuous by its absence.
Scripture’s teaching is not that I justify myself, but that God’s righteous servant will justify me (Is. 53:11). Scripture does not teach that my sense of guilt is removed by my forgetting my past but by God casting my sin “into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). I do not find in the Bible that my decision about my past gives me peace, but that faith in Christ does (Rom. 3:28, 30; 5:1). Even children know that the horror of their past is not erased when they consider it irrelevant, but when God says that He “remembers it no more” (Jer. 31:34). The approval I need does not come from myself but from God, when I cry out “send thy approval from on high, my righteousness make clear!” (Psalter 31; Ps. 17).
Second, the error of self-forgiveness is in Smedes’ definitions. No one can “re-write the script of his life” any more than he can deny where he was born and raised. Asking someone to “make a decision to live as though your sins of yesterday are irrelevant” is like asking a woman to decide to live as though her being a white female is irrelevant. Who can convince anyone, much less himself, that “his terrible past is irrelevant to who he is now and is going to be in the future”? The error of it is in the reading of it.
Third, most seriously, the error of self-forgiveness is that is robs God of His glory. God has not asked you to remove your guilt or make a decision to free yourself from your past. Forgiving us is His business, not ours. He has provided His Son to remove our guilt, cover us in His blood, declare to us that He does not see any sin in us but only the perfect righteousness and holiness of Christ. May you decide that this is not enough to ease your guilty conscience? May you conclude that you need your own declaration of innocence? Is God’s forgiveness good, but just not enough? The blasphemy of self-salvation could not appear more clearly than in the false doctrine of self-forgiveness. Man will take the honor from God and give it to himself, reduce God’s forgiveness to a secondary place and elevate his to prominence. It is awful to imagine someone saying that he cannot live without forgiving himself, and he just cannot forgive himself. But it is worse that someone would dare take to himself what belongs only to God.
So now where? It is relatively easy to say that selfforgiveness is wrong. It is far harder to minister to the heavy grief of one who has destroyed someone else’s life. The doctrine of self-forgiveness was not shaken out of some theologian’s sleeve as he was sitting in his ivory tower with a determination to develop false doctrine. It came as the result of the great struggle in the heart of great sinners how to live with a good conscience before God and with peace in the world. Smedes and others got it wrong. But what must be said to a troubled soul that just cannot find relief?
First, and of primary importance, by faith lay hold of the full sufficiency of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. We must say to such a repentant sinner: Look carefully and see clearly what the Lord Jesus Christ endured when He came to make perfect satisfaction for all your sins. The power to go on in life is by embracing what Jesus has done and will continue to do for you. Look to Jesus, not to yourself. You are not to reassess your past as irrelevant, but to assess Jesus Christ and your relationship to Him. Drink fully the truth that He spent His life bearing the burden of your guilt and your shame… not the guilt and shame of little offenses, but the guilt and shame of murderers of fathers and mothers, of prostitutes and sodomites and kidnappers (I Tim. 1:9, 10), and every other sinner imaginable. Live under the shadow of His cross where He hung, full of our shame and disgrace. Embrace the cover of His righteousness that He provided as the fullness of your salvation. Bask in the light of His countenance as He looks you in the eye with the love that brought Him to the cross, for you. We need Christ. He will suffice for all our guilt. Do not turn to self-forgiveness. Remember our song: “My cry for help is turned to praise, for He has set me free.” In other words, burdens are lifted at Calvary. Oh, the glorious thought: “…my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.” No more! No more bearing the sin! No more!
Second, grasp the full depth of the awful sin. Here we go back a step. It may well be that a person embraces Christ fully, genuinely, and is still troubled. Even then, he must not turn to self-forgiveness. There may be another reality to consider. It is possible that his repentance is genuine insofar as it goes, but that it goes only so far. It does not go as wide and deep as it needs because he does not grasp the breadth or depth of the sin. Sorrow for sin, although it is real, is not sufficient because we have not thought through either the extent of the damage that was done, or the sinful patterns that allowed us to fall into the sin. Thus, we have not yet heard the fullness of forgiveness from our gracious God. We removed only part of the sliver embedded in our flesh.
The man whose adultery wrecked another family committed not only the act of adultery, but many other sins. Confession for him might include confession of a multitude of sins: sinful diminishing of love for his own wife, lack of love for the other woman’s husband and family, perhaps carelessness with drink, or neglect of prayer and devotions. The woman who killed one daughter and maimed the other can confess the sin of an extra pill and a foolish drink before driving, but there may be many other things that led to the extra pills and a drink in the middle of the day. Or she may not realize the depth of the hurt she caused her husband. When the realization of sin grows, when our sorrow for it goes deeper and hatred of it more passionate, the mountain of God’s grace will become larger in our eyes, and more precious. What may seem counter-intuitive in this situation— looking further at our sin—may be what the burdened sinner needs in order that he may see Christ more clearly.
Third, it is always good to live in deep humility. Which is not to say in guilt. There is a difference between retaining guilt and retaining humility. A humble sense of our abiding sinfulness is healthy. Constant awareness of how damaging sin is can be sanctifying. We never want to get near such sin again. We realize that, if we were left to ourselves, we would return like a dog to the vomit. A walk in humility is of great value.
Fourth, continued consciousness of sin’s permanent damage leads us to long for Christ. The sense that what is broken can never be repaired on this side of eternity will lead us to look more intensely for the Lord’s appearing. He will make all things new. He will make the darkness light. “Come, Lord Jesus.”
1 In the last two editorials (Nov. 1 and Dec. 1) we explained the “sin of forgiving” those who were not sorry for their sin. Forgiving oneself is another “sin of forgiveness.”
2 Creative wickedness has no bounds. When it has its way, yet another false doctrine is added: Man must forgive God for the evils of which He is allegedly guilty.
3 San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1984. My quotations come from chapter 8.
4 Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, section 6, says, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.”