In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses… -Ephesians 1:7
Lately I have been asked more than once about the necessity of forgiving ourselves. This seems to be a common theme in many self-proclaimed Christian books that are on the market – learning to forgive ourselves. The question is: Does God wait to forgive us until we have forgiven ourselves?
Where would you be without forgiveness? What type of relationship would you have with your family, your spouse, your parents, your siblings, etc. if it were not for forgiveness? What type of relationship would be possible with God if it were not for his offer of forgiveness? One of the great treasures of our faith as Christians is the biblical teaching that, when we seek forgiveness, we seek it first and foremost from God, who is willing to forgive every debt/transgression, even if our human counterparts will not extend that grace. Sin is always first against God (Ps. 51:4), and therefore forgiveness is always needed from God first. Thankfully, he always offers it to those who know him (repentance is the means by which we approach him). That's good news!
A problem creeps in, however, when we fall into the unbiblical trap that says we also need to forgive ourselves, as if God will not forgive until we have also managed to find inner peace and let ourselves "off the hook." This clearly adds a human element to the gospel. If we are going to be saved, it will be all of God's doing and none of ours (Eph. 2:1-9). When God forgives and offers peace to us, that peace is real. It may take us some time to wrap our heads around it, but it is not contingent upon our own psychological mindset that says, "I have forgiven myself." When God pays the price and says all is forgiven, we can rely on that, not on some additional add-on that we throw in to make ourselves feel better. It's like having someone you love pay off your home mortgage for you and then deciding to write a check of your own to the bank to seal the deal. It makes no sense to pay for something that has already been purchased. Jesus accomplished it all on the cross; you cannot sweeten the deal for God.
What about forgiving others, is that necessary? Yes, it is. However, not as a prerequisite to the gospel hope we have; it is part of the demonstration of repentance and obedience to God that we are proclaiming. In other words, when Jesus tells us that God will forgive us if we forgive others, but not if we refuse to forgive others (Matt. 11:14-15), we understand that to refer not to our initial justification by God (being saved and declared right with God), but in terms of our own relationship with God subsequent to our justification. Our justification is a gift from God, not based on any action of our own (biblically, even repentance itself cannot be demonstrated prior to the gifts of grace and faith). Our offer of forgiveness to others is part of our sanctification (becoming more like Christ). We cannot hope to have a good relationship with our Father in heaven if we refuse to offer to others the forgiveness that we ourselves have been freely given. When true Christians refuse to grant forgiveness, they inevitably find themselves under conviction by the Holy Spirit, and they eventually make a change, even if it takes some time and prayer to reach that point. Some call it a guilty conscience, the Bible calls it the work of God in sanctification. With that being said, if a “Christian” refuses finally and completely to offer forgiveness to others, then that person is not a true Christian (Matt. 6:14; 18:34-35; Mark 11:25).
All of us, myself included, have issues in our faith where we have a tendency to put the cart before the horse. God is the great initiator in our faith. Yes, true believers truly seek God. True believers are justified in Christ, and true believers truly repent of their sins. The Bible assures us that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That is a promise we can bank on. By all means, forgive yourselves, you will feel better for it. Without doubt, offer grace and forgiveness to others - this is your duty as Christ-followers. But never forget this: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). You did not earn it; God provided it for you in his Son Jesus Christ. Now that you have it, give it away freely - to yourself and others.
Grace and peace,