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Lent Midweek 5 Slide

Lent Midweek 5
Romans 7:14-25a
March 20, 2024

Over the past several Wednesdays we have talked about forgiveness…” Unforgiveness,” and how instead of living in unforgiveness, God’s forgiveness transforms us. But to understand this idea of “self-forgiveness,” if it’s even a thing at all, I think we should define, fundamentally, what forgiveness is.

Let me start by what it isn’t:

Forgiveness isn’t psychological. It may affect us psychologically, but it isn’t psychological. Forgiveness isn’t emotional. It may affect us emotionally, but it isn’t emotional. Forgiveness isn’t reasonable. It may affect us rationally, intellectually, but it isn’t reasonable. Forgiveness isn’t biological. It may affect us biologically, but it isn’t biological.

To be totally clear with you: forgiveness doesn’t start or end with anything in you or in me. Forgiveness is an external change on behalf of you or me. Someone or something changes its disposition toward you or toward me, its attitude, and whatever you or I did to break the relationship or bond between us is forgiven, no just payment, no punishment is required of you or me by the one sinned against because that one person or entity chose to intentionally not hold it against you or me.

So, by definition, an individual cannot forgive himself of his own sin because it is not against himself that he sinned. We sin only against He who says whatever thought, word, or deed committed is sinful – that is to say, we sin against God Himself. And since we sin only against God Himself, it is only God Himself who can forgive because our sin is against Him and to Him alone do we owe a debt or do we deserve a just punishment for our sin.

Where, then does all this talk about “forgiving yourself” come from? Well, it’s psychological babble, really, for coping. To “forgive yourself” means to accept the fact that you made a mistake and to move on and not let that mistake destroy you, that you can’t stop your life because you did damage to yourself or to someone else.

But the problem is that psycho babble self-forgiveness is sorely lacking in anything substantiative because it lacks true, external forgiveness that comes only from the cross of Christ. In fact, to say, “I forgive myself” means nothing in heaven, nothing at all, because forgiveness is God’s work for the sinner, and not the sinner’s work for him or herself. “Self-forgiveness” turns forgiveness into a human work or strength of will and ultimately turns sin into nothing more than human weakness or inconsequential missteps that, if you just get over it, things will be fine. It turns sin into a human construct, an agreement among a community regarding what sin is and isn’t and it really takes God and the true Gospel of forgiveness out of the conversation.

Forgive yourself, and then you can keep on living like you do because you’re only answerable to yourself. Forgive yourself, because you don’t owe anyone anything. Forgive yourself, because what you said or did isn’t judged by anyone but you. Self-forgiveness is really this staunch American individualism and postmodernism brought into the conversation of God’s grace – and it doesn’t belong there.

This is not godly, Christian language. This is the language of unbelievers, of people who have no hope and do not understand that forgiveness is always external, it is always something given from another, it is something God declares on our behalf and for our benefit, not something we declare for ourselves absent of God. And here is what this means for Christians:

When we think that we have to “forgive ourselves” it is always because we do not believe that God’s forgiveness is enough. When we think we have to “forgive ourselves,” it is always because we spurn the blood of Jesus and do not consider it sufficient for true, eternal forgiveness.

Now, understand that it’s fine to say we have to “deal with what we said or did,” that we have to grapple with the earthy consequences, that we have to maybe change our lives, attitudes or actions so that we don’t fall back into that sinful way, that we don’t let sin rule us to be come enslaved again to sin. But forgiveness…forgiveness is God’s domain, God’s work, God’s heart turning from well-deserved wrath against us to one of peace and mercy toward us because of the death of His only Son. Forgiveness is objective, it’s real, it’s absolute because it is God the Creator of all things doing the forgiving, and not each of us doing it somehow in ourselves.

When we condemn ourselves and say that we can’t forgive ourselves, what we’re REALLY saying is that we do not believe or trust in God’s forgiveness, the atoning work of Christ. The unbelieving world, they don’t have God’s forgiveness – that is to say that they don’t believe they do – so for them all they can do is talk about self-forgiveness because it’s the only forgiveness they know and it’s really no substitute for true forgiveness. But we who are the children of God, we have true, lasting, life-changing forgiveness because He who forgives us our sins is the only One that matters.

See, I can forgive you when you sin against me, but I can’t save you from sin, death, and the devil. You can forgive your neighbor when your neighbor sins against you, but your blood isn’t innocently shed such that it covers your neighbor’s sins.

My blood most certainly cannot cover my own sins, and your blood most certainly cannot cover your own sins. It is the precious and innocent blood of Christ Jesus our Lord that covers all our sins, that forgives, that makes us right and at peace with God and men and no “self-forgiveness” can achieve what God, in Christ has already achieved on our behalf.

So, what does this all mean? Well, if you find that you’re in some rut where you’re using the language of the psychologist and saying, “I can’t forgive myself,” repent and believe the Gospel. Stop looking for reconciliation or redemption in yourself, in your emotions, in your actions, in your attitudes because you’re not going to find it. Instead, look to Jesus who died for you and has won for you a forgiveness that is true and eternal, that will never stop being forgiveness simply because you struggle to believe it or because you don’t feel it, or because you don’t will it.

You cannot justify yourself. You cannot justify yourself by making sin to be less sinful or saying, “Everyone else is doing it, society is okay with it, the government allows it, so it must not be sinful,” and you cannot justify yourself by self-forgiveness. Instead, look to the justifying work of Christ on the cross.

Jesus didn’t come to make sin less sinful or to give you freedom to sin all the more without consequence. Jesus came to take your sin unto Himself and die so that you are no longer judged a sinner and excluded from the kingdom, but are now a saint and heir of eternity.

Unforgiveness is a prison, a deep, dark, and unbreakable cage which every man, woman, and child is born into. Not one of us has the means, the tools, the keys to get ourselves out and in fact, we would not even know there is an “out” unless the light of Christ shines in and reveals the truth. The only way out of this prison of unforgiveness is at the cross. It’s not by self-help or psycho-babble “self-forgiveness,” or by changing the definition of sin so that the darkness becomes our friend. But it is only by God who comes to us by His Word and Sacraments, shining the light of the Gospel into our hearts, showing us the depth and darkness of our sins and shortcomings, killing the darkness by water and the Spirit, and speaking into that darkness the Gospel of forgiveness.

His Word is the ONLY way out of unforgiveness’ prison. His Gospel is the key, and not just the key, but a force so strong that it rips the chains of death and hell, and crushes Satan’s tight grip forever and utterly destroys the prison bars.

So repent; acknowledge that the darkness of your sin and transgression is truly dark and evil and full of depravities and unholiness, and then believe that in Christ Jesus your Lord, it is ALL forgiven and His light now shines in you and the darkness that once lived there is dead, washed away. Because this is the Christian life, a life of daily dying and rising, repentance and faith, confession and absolution. Amen.