Monday, March 23, 2015

“Forgiving Ourselves”: Just a Matter of Semantics?

Somewhere along the line, most of us have heard the expression, “I don’t think we really disagree, but it’s just a matter of semantics.” In fact, most of us have probably used a phrase much like this. Our point seems to be that we may be saying the same thing, but just using different terminology. Ironically, in making this statement, we are probably not even using the word semantics correctly. But let’s not get too pedantic.

The fact is that sometimes we can “quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (1 Timothy 1:7). However, there are times when a healthy discussion about the terminology we are using may be valuable, or even more than that.

I’m thinking right now about a phrase that I hear just about everywhere I turn. And that would be: “We need to learn to forgive ourselves.” Doing a quick web search, I find I am being encouraged to do this on sites as diverse as, and On the latter, we are told that alcohol and drug addiction are such shame-based diseases so that "Forgiving oneself is one of the more difficult parts of recovery." I find it fascinating, and maybe even instructive, that in our day and time both religious and secular authorities seem to have agreed on a common credo: “We must learn to forgive ourselves.”

Some years ago, I was floating (more likely drifting) along with this idea, but while reading the book of Romans, my heart may not have been “strangely warmed,” as famously in the case of John Wesley, but it was quite convicted that we cannot forgive ourselves. That is something only God can do. And I was equally convinced that the language does matter.

Seven times in Romans 3-6 our forgiveness is referred to as a gift. And what can you do with a gift? You can either reject it or accept it. If someone offers you a financial gift in a time of need you can either reject it out of your pride or you can accept it with gratitude and humility. If you reject it, you are basically saying, “I prefer to handle this myself.”  In the same way, God says to us, “you don’t have to wallow in sin and you don’t have to carry the burden of guilt anymore. I am offering you the gift of my forgiveness.”

You are not being told to forgive yourself. You are being encouraged to accept and put faith in God’s forgiveness, which is far more powerful because it is far more costly and he alone has the authority to give it. “Forgiving yourself” is far closer to salvation by works, while accepting God’s forgiveness is salvation by faith, and we surely know what the Bible has to say about all that.

A famous theologian that I was required to read in graduate courses years ago defined faith as “Accepting your acceptance.” He was on to something. In forgiving us, God is extending to us his acceptance. Now what will we do? Humbly accept it and trust it is real, or try to work out some self-acceptance and self-forgiveness on our own.

It is not surprising that secular people have come up with the idea of “forgive yourself.” That is part of being in charge and being in control of your own life, and they seek to function happily without God. What is as remarkable, as it is disturbing, is that Christians have so readily accepted this really arrogant mantra instead of stressing that the only powerful response is to put faith in God’s forgiveness and rejoice that he gives it (Romans 5:10-11).

“Forgive yourself” puts the focus on man who has already shown his powerlessness.
“Accepting God’s forgiveness” and rejoicing in what he has done, puts the focus on God. 

As Henry V sings, at the end of the movie of the same name, “Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,sed nomini tua da gloriam.” In English: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name be the glory” (Psalm 115:1).

Semantics? Terminology?  Here it makes a difference. A big difference.


  1. Thank you Tom for a great write-up on the false theology of forgiving oneself. This will be a great resource for refuting it.

  2. When I think of forgiving myself, I really am trying to figure out what to do with the shame I feel around the sinful behavior I am seeking forgiveness for.