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Is Self-Forgiveness a Biblical Concept?
During one of our devotionals for the youth leadership team a while ago, the topic of self-forgiveness came up. One of the leaders was adamant that self-forgiveness is not a Biblical concept. I have heard the term self-forgiveness in many contexts, and I had always thought that it aligned with Biblical truths. My thinking was that the Bible talks about forgiving the person who has sinned against you, so if you sin against yourself, then you should also be able to forgive yourself.
My other thought was that after sinning, most people feel a sense of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. There has to be some kind of mechanism for you to deal with that sense of guilt and let go of that self-deprecation for a past action that you can no longer change or take back. I guess I had always thought of this as self-forgiveness. So if self-forgiveness isn’t a Biblical concept, then what replaces self-forgiveness in my thought process?
The youth leader discussion didn’t end with a satisfactory answer to my question. So over the next few days, weeks, and months, this topic would pop back into my mind, and I would process it some more. I came to realize two things:
Self-forgiveness is indeed NOT a Biblical concept.
The Bible DOES have a replacement mechanism for dealing with the guilt of sin.
If you would rather go through the study on your own, you can download the journal sheet here.
If you would like a PowerPoint presentation to lead a group study, you can download the presentation here. If time doesn’t allow for a discussion of the entire study, it can be easily divided into three shorter studies.
Part 1: The Biblical Concept of Forgiveness
I looked up the concept of self-forgiveness online (because the Internet always has the answer, right?). I found multiple articles and lists of verses that claimed the Bible supports the concept of self-forgiveness. But does it really? Interestingly, every single verse I read in these articles supported only two clear teachings about forgiveness:
God is the ultimate forgiver.
Believers are called to forgive each other.
None of these verses had anything to say about forgiving yourself.
Let’s look at each of the Biblical teachings on forgiveness.
God is the Ultimate Forgiver
The Bible states that God is a forgiving God. He has the ultimate authority to forgive sins.
What does the Bible say about God’s forgiveness?
Psalm 86:5: You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call on you.
Psalm 130:3-4: If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
Isaiah 55:7: Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
Key takeaway: God freely forgives anyone who calls on him.
Why do we need God’s forgiveness?
Romans 3:23: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Key takeaway: We need God’s forgiveness because we have sinned, and the penalty for sin is death.
What role does Jesus play in God’s forgiveness?
Ephesians 1:7: In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.
Colossians 2:13-14: When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
Colossians 1:21-22: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
Key takeaway: Jesus paid the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross. Because of this, God forgives our sins so that we can stand pure and righteous before him.
How completely does God forgive our sins?
Hebrews 8:12: [God said] “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Psalm 103:12: As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Isaiah 43:25: [God said] “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”
Key takeaway: God so completely forgives our sins that he no longer remembers them.
I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful to serve a God who has clearly outlined a plan of forgiveness and redemption for all who call on him. How should this forgiveness, then, be reflected in the lives of believers?
Part 2: Believers Are Called to Forgive Each Other
From all the verses I’ve read, it seems clear that forgiveness must always come from outside the self—first from God, and then from others. The Bible frequently talks about forgiving other people. We can and should forgive others when they sin against us—when they do something that hurts us.
Why do we forgive others?
Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Ephesians 4:32: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Key takeaway: We forgive others because God forgave us.
What do we gain from forgiving others?
Matthew 6:14-15: [Jesus said] “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Mark 11:25: [Jesus said] “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Key takeaway: We forgive others so that God will forgive us.
How often should we forgive others?
Luke 17:3-4: [Jesus said] “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Matthew 18:21-22: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Key takeaway: We forgive others as often as necessary.
So if you can forgive others who have sinned against you, why can’t you forgive yourself when you sin against yourself? The Bible clearly states that you can sin against yourself, as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:18: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”
As I was pondering all of this, the thought struck me: If I can forgive myself, then why do I need a Savior? And of course, the Bible is very clear that we need a Savior. Romans 5 tells us that we are powerless to save ourselves.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
God has clearly created a path to forgiveness, and that path does NOT run through me (or you). That path runs through Jesus Christ alone. We do have a responsibility to model God’s forgiveness by forgiving others, but we are not responsible to forgive ourselves. Only God can do that.
Part 3: The Biblical Way to Deal with Guilt Over Sin
So if we can’t forgive ourselves, how do we let go of the guilt and shame of past sin? My rational thinking tells me that there has to be a way that we can move past guilt and shame. If the answer to that is not self-forgiveness, what is the answer? What can we do to deal with the fact that we have sinned against others, against ourselves, and against God? There has to be something, right?
And then it hit me: Confess your sins. Repent. Turn away from sin and turn to God. Accept the fact that God has forgiven you. THAT’s our responsibility when it comes to dealing with our own sin. Not self-forgiveness. Let’s look at the Biblical support for this.
What does it mean to confess?
1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Psalm 32:1-5: Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Key takeaway: Confessing means that we acknowledge our sins before God. If we confess, he will forgive.
What does it mean to repent?
Acts 3:19: Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.
Acts 2:37-38: When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Key takeaway: Repentance means to turn away from sin and turn to God. If we repent, he promises to forgive our sins.
What is the result of confession and repentance?
Romans 8:1-2: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
2 Corinthians 7:10: Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
Key takeaway: If we confess and repent, God promises not only to forgive but to save us and to free us from the condemnation and death that sin brings.
These verses paint a beautiful picture of what happens when we admit our sins and turn away from them in order to pursue God. Not only does God forgive, but he restores us. He takes away the guilt. He takes away the regret and condemnation. He refreshes us. This doesn’t leave the picture of me continually beating myself up about past sins because self-forgiveness isn’t an option. Instead, it leaves a picture of being restored and made whole again through God’s forgiveness. This leaves me in awe of God’s love for me and Christ’s redeeming work on the cross.
What sins in your life do you need to confess?
How will you allow the Holy Spirit to work in your heart and mind to accept God’s forgiveness and free you from guilt and condemnation?
Looking back, can you see how your past sins brought you to a place where you recognized your need for God? How does this relate to 2 Corinthians 7:10?
Use the 6-page journal sheet to go through this lesson on your own. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically.
If you want to teach this lesson to a group, a PowerPoint presentation is available.
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