A question came to me recently: “Ralph, I often hear people say, ‘I can’t seem to forgive myself.’ What do you think of that?”
Frankly, I don’t like that wording. To me, and in my experience with others, it keeps the complete forgiveness of Jesus—an accomplished event and fact—as “incomplete” or even “insufficient” for a Christian. In other words, I don’t enjoy what Jesus did for me until and unless I do something to finish the job. I’m put into a position of separate authority, even a higher authority than Jesus. That will drive me crazy. A possibility of a work not yet done—mine—keeps the enjoyment of a sovereign benefit already given—His—from being enjoyed. It’s similar to what Paul warned the Corinthians about in 2 Corinthians 6:1 — a receiving of God’s grace “in vain.” In other words, grace has been given to me and I have it, but I’m not enjoying the benefits.
What Jesus Did for Us
I’ve heard people instruct listeners to forgive themselves, but instructing people to forgive themselves is like instructing them to “rest in Christ.” Neither actually requires anything of a Christian, but we can sure mess them up if we lead them to think otherwise. Christians ARE forgiven and ARE at rest in Christ. He did it for us. That’s the grace of God for us. We may not feel like we’re forgiven, we may not believe we’re at rest, but if you’re a Christian, you are forgiven and you are at rest. That’s the gospel, and that’s good news. Examine it, turn it over in your mind, and ask the Spirit about it—“Am I really forgiven? Am I really at rest?” But don’t set Christians up in a way the New Covenant does not.
Let’s help people believe the truth about forgiveness and rest so they can enjoy the benefits of what Jesus gave them.
Our Work is Done
Christ’s sacrifice for sin and our forgiveness was perfect and perfectly enduring; there is now no sacrifice for sin needed (see Hebrews 10:1-18).
Christ’s perfect accomplishments and the gift of His perfect righteousness have achieved for us a perfect rest from any works to achieve any perfect-er(!) condition with God. Belief into Christ (salvation) becomes our entrance into His perfect rest (see Hebrews 4).
Each of these points—perfect forgiveness and perfect rest—is essential to our identity and not something we must achieve. Before the cross and resurrection, during the Old Covenant, Jewish believers improved their identity and earned blessing by their obedience. They became righteous, became forgiven, and were given rest by what they did. After the cross and resurrection, because of the New Covenant, Christians are given an identity because of what Christ did. We are the righteous, we are the forgiven, we are at rest apart from our obedience. That’s our identity!
If we do not know the gift of our new and perfect identity, if we’re taught and if we believe we have to achieve an identity, then the grace of God to us in Christ is ours in vain, and behavior-focused legalism is inescapable. And crippling. This is why the gospel is such good news, as well as why it’s such important news!
Living in Forgiveness and Rest
We have been made new and obedient from the heart (Romans 6:17), apart from anything we have done, and that’s where our union with God is most obvious and effective. From the heart! He’s right there. He’s right here. And when we know it and live in faith, our behavior is going to be easily affected because we’re affected. We’re fruitful branches knowing our place in the Vine. We are receivers, and He is producer. Because we are in Christ, forgiven and at rest, we don’t have problems to solve, but new situations for us to know Him and His leading in our heart. That’s new life. You and I need to renew our minds to this truth all the time, but we will never need to renew our hearts. We renew our thinking, and our hearts come forth. I bet you’ve noticed that.
This is why the gospel of identity must precede the gospel of behavior. Get them reversed, get them mixed up (“You have to forgive yourself!” “You have to rest in Christ!”), and it’s no wonder believers struggle tremendously and believe they’re incapable, broken, sinful, unforgiven, powerless, not at rest, have two natures, and have a whole lot of work to do that Jesus did not. That is anti-Christ, and we don’t want anything to do with that.
We are the forgiven. We are at rest in Christ. He is the Benefactor, and we the beneficiaries. He will not ever allow that to reverse! That’s what we believe, and life is found and realized by believing.