Avoid the Christ-Diminishing Error of Self-Forgiveness

My longing for a theological study that synthesizes the dual role of Christ as both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God is satisfied in a new, immensely readable and thoroughly biblical book from Owen Strachan, Warrior Savior: A Theology of the Work of Christ. This book consistently exalts Jesus Christ and his sin-atoning work on our behalf.

In chapter eight, The Great High Priest, the author applies the completeness of the sacrifice of Christ to the popular error of self-forgiveness. Today’s mantras include, “Forgive yourself”, or “I know God forgives me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” Is this kind of thinking biblical; does it not sync with Scripture? Or does it subtly diminish Christ and rob Him of glory? Strachan explains:

The cross is an atoning cross. It is not merely an exemplary cross; it does not occur to break the cycle of violence among mankind through the ultimate Scapegoat; it is not simply a call to lay down one’s life for God as Christ did. As Christ himself said in the upper room, his death is a priestly death, the Lamb’s blood pleasing God and forgiving man. There is no other acceptable way of cleansing. This is it. All forgiveness comes through the blood of Jesus. Not a drop of forgiveness of sin exists outside the atoning work of the Son. God has told us where forgiveness flows, and it is in just one place: the cross of his Son.

We need to consider this afresh in the age when we are told that our greatest need is to “forgive yourself.” On Oprah Daily, for example, we are told to apologize to ourselves by writing a letter: “Include how you offered remorse to others and how you plan to make amends. Ask yourself what you’ll do differently next time, and then, if you like, read what you’ve written out loud.” The person sitting in moral authority over us is, well, us: “Be comfortable saying you disappointed yourself, but find strength in knowing this one error doesn’t define you. Most importantly, remember to be kind.”

It is surely a bad idea to wallow in guilt. But we must take care here: the forgiveness we need is not from us. It is objective forgiveness we need, the very forgiveness of almighty God. We do not sit in judgment over ourselves; God judges our sin, and God is angered by our sin. But the good news is that God acts in the death of his Son to forgive us. He does so because he is a God of infinite love, and his love is expressed in his infinite mercy (not giving us what we deserve) and his infinite grace (giving us what we do not deserve). It is not self-forgiveness that we most need; it is divine forgiveness that we must have.

Even if it were called for, our forgiveness could be only a limited forgiveness. But this is not true of divine forgiveness. God has located all forgiveness in one particular instrument: the cross. Expanding the point, we could say that the universal is in the particular. Forgiveness is not amorphous and vague and indistinct; just as our sins are actual transgressions committed in history, so the cross is the means of forgiveness accomplished in history. Forgiveness, then, is definite and firm and objective. It is from God, and it cannot be overruled or obscured by man. Forgiveness is particular, but it is not limited in power, such that only some of our sins can be overcome. No, all our sins meet their end in the death of Christ.

[Excerpted from Warrior Savior: A Theology of the Work of Christ by Owen Strachan, pp. 161-162.]

Other resources on self-forgiveness.

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