The most faithful response to this question is to reject it as an illegitimate question.
The biblical teaching about forgiveness can be summarized in two main ideas:
- God forgives sinners freely, completely, and sacrificially. Ultimately, divine forgiveness is paid for by the cross of Christ.
- Christians must forgive those who wrong us, as God has forgiven us for the sake of Christ.
That’s it. Sermon over. There is not third point. God has forgiven us and we must forgive others. Period.
There are more than 125 direct references to forgiveness in the Bible. But the Bible does not teach that we should forgive ourselves. It does not explain how to forgive ourselves. It does not say anything about forgiving ourselves whatsoever.
God is just, holy, and righteous. We are not. We are sinners who cannot do anything to win the approval of God. We cannot reach up to God. But God has reach down to us through the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our infinitely holy God extends forgiveness to stubbornly rebellious sinners. Yet they are those who claim, “I know God has forgiven me. But I need to learn to forgive myself.”
This is the self-centered psychology of the world, not the teaching of scripture. In fact, it contradicts the message of the Bible. If I need to forgive myself, it suggests that I am the God that I have offended and need to appease. This way of thinking is not just erroneous, it is blasphemous.
To claim that I have been forgiven by God but I cannot forgive myself betrays that I do not understand, believe, or appreciate the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a sinister attempt of the Enemy to get us to depend upon our own righteousness, rather than the grace of God.
Isaiah had a violent encounter with the holiness of God (Isaiah 6), who was seated in sovereign authority. “Woe is me!” Isaiah responded, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
Confronted by sovereign holiness, Isaiah braced himself to die. But God graciously forgave him instead. As he basked in amazing grace, Isaiah did not say, “I know God has forgiven me. Now, I have to learn to forgive myself for my unclean lips!” Rather, Isaiah volunteered to be God’s messenger, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)
When a Christian repents of sin and receives forgiveness by the atoning blood of Christ, it is natural to wish you had never sinned against God in the first place. There should be a godly sorrow over sin. There will be regret and remorse, as you consider those who are hurt by your sin. You may lament the consequences of your transgressions. But none of these things represent an ongoing guilt for which you need to forgive yourself.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” declares Paul. “Stand firm therefore, and do not submit against to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Jesus guarantees our spiritual liberty by declaring, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
You do not need to supplement divine forgiveness with any self-forgiveness. Your forgiveness in Christ is complete. Receive it. Remember it. And rejoice in it. If your testimony is, “God has forgiven me,” that is enough! You do not need to forgive yourself.
1 John 1:9 is the Christian’s blessed assurance…
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.