Receiving God’s Forgiveness

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke. The dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.-
-Charles Wesley[1]

Macbeth knew that his wife, famously plagued with a guilty conscience, could be delivered only by some “sweet . . . antidote” that would wipe away the “perilous stuff that weighs upon her heart.” That antidote is the forgiveness of God. You will never be able to fully forgive others for their sins against you unless you first experience God’s forgiveness of your sins against him. Our guilt must be dealt with if we are to deal rightly with others’ guilt.

The Problem of Self- Forgiveness

It is common for counsellors to hear people say, “Yes, I asked for God’s forgiveness. But the problem is . . . I can’t forgive myself.” There is a large industry of self-help books and many kinds of therapy that attempt to help people with self-forgiveness. The vertical dimension— the relationship to God—is left out completely, and guilt is seen as strictly to be dealt with on the internal and horizontal levels.

The main ideas of self-forgiveness therapy include: (a) asking for forgiveness from anyone you’ve wronged, (b) taking responsibility for what you have done wrong, but then (c) learning lessons from the event, (d) being as compassionate to yourself as you would be to others, and finally (e) then moving on with life, accepting yourself.

While individual steps mentioned can be helpful, the overall approach falls short. We struggle to know if what we did really was wrong, and secular approaches have no way to help anyone judge between true guilt and false guilt feelings. Also, many have asked forgiveness of other human beings—they have done all required of them—but still can’t rid themselves of guilt and shame.[2]

How do we respond to someone who says, “I cannot forgive myself”? Modernity has declared that we are our own highest authorities. Gail Sheehy’s bestseller Passages spells this out as a foundational rule of life. You “find yourself” only as you free yourself from all other institutional claims and from all other people’s agendas and approval. Relationships should be tentative and engaged only as long as they support your chosen identity and interests. We alone can validate ourselves or judge whether something is good or bad. No one else has the right to tell us who we are or judge us by their standards.[3]

But what happens then when the self is weighed down in guilt nonetheless? No outside agent has the power to overturn the sanctions that the self inflicts upon itself. Who has the right to tell the modern self, “Your evaluation of yourself is all wrong”? The Bible reveals the core of this problem: “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20).

Here is the essence of what Christianity gives us. Only God is the final judge of who we are and what we have done. If—and only if—he is, then God can overrule our heart’s guilt and self-condemnation. If he says we are forgiven, then we are, and we can tell our hearts to quiet themselves. The secular framework, however, has nothing to give the wounded con science to heal it. It has nothing to say to the self who feels it is unworthy of love and forgiveness. Anyone who has seen the depths of their sin and what they are capable of will never be mollified by the bromide of “Be nice to yourself—you deserve it.”

In his book, Radical Self-Forgiveness, Colin Tipping sees the limits of a wholly secular approach and so incorporates Eastern mysticism. Tipping advises us to look at our life in a framework of reincarnation and karma. We are souls that exist in the present life to experience many things that will educate us for better practice in future lives. In this worldview, all things that happen to us and all things we do to others, even wrongdoing, are lessons we learn in order to grow through many lifetimes into perfection and bliss. To achieve self-forgiveness, we tell ourselves: “While I remain accountable for what I do in the human world, in purely spiritual terms nothing wrong ever happens.”[4]

Tipping deals with sin not by absolving it but by minimizing it. This is deeply unsatisfying because we know intuitively that the evils committed here are indeed evils. Christianity does not minimize the wrongness of sin yet still provides a powerful antidote for guilt.

The “sweet antidote” that Macbeth yearned for does exist. It is divine forgiveness. But to experience divine forgiveness requires making a crucial distinction—between true and false guilt. After doing this, it requires turning to God.

True and False Guilt

There are two kinds of guilty people. Some people should feel guilty for their deeds because some things are objectively evil and the perpetrators are guilty regardless of their beliefs and feelings about the deed. But we recognize another group of people who have inordinate guilt feelings that seem too great in proportion to the deed.

There are true guilt feelings and false guilt feelings, and a person who “cannot forgive themselves” must start by determining whether their guilt is warranted or not.

At this point Christianity is of enormous help. The only way to discern true from false guilt is if you have a standard by which to do so. In one of Jesus’s many critiques of the religious leaders of the day, he says, “You experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46; cf. Mark 7:11–13). Jesus is referring to “the heavy weight of religious duties added to the law which burden the people . . . [and make them] devastated because of their failure to . . . please God.”[5] Jesus here shows that, while people should feel guilty if they violate the law of God—murdering, stealing, committing adultery—they should not feel guilty for failures to keep all the numerous, legalistic, man-made religious rules added to that.

Jesus’s distinction and warning can also apply to those who are part of legalistic religious bodies. They too can be racked with false guilt, because their culture or community or family or their own selves put unrealistic burdens on them. So the first step in helping someone with guilt is to ask if it is truly a violation of the will and Word of God. [6]

Nevertheless, making this distinction is not always simple. There are situations in which true and false guilt are intertwined in complex ways.

Many of us are wracked with guilt because we have said yes to so many people and then we find we don’t have time in the day or the week to do it all. On the one hand, you should keep your promises and be true to your word (Matthew 5:37; Proverbs 11:3, 20:25). But it is not God who has given you more than you can do—it is you yourself who have done that. You must not feel guilty for not being able to do all people request for you to do. You are only duty bound to do what God asks you to do in his Word.

What about the driver whose laughter at a joke on the radio causes a momentary lapse in attention, leading to an accident that seriously injures people? The driver’s guilt will be overwhelming. Yet there was no great moral lapse or violation of a law or rule. “It could have happened to anyone,” say the driver’s friends, rightly, but it doesn’t help him. There is certainly some warrant for regret that he was not driving more carefully and slowly, but his guilt, by using God’s Word as a standard, is disproportionate. A counsellor will have to help him see that if he is emotionally debilitated by this for years, or, worse, he will be only compounding the tragedy. Instead, he should secure God’s forgiveness for his lack of circumspection and then rely on the loving support of others who reinforce God’s acceptance of him.

Another example under this heading is “survivor’s guilt.” Many soldiers who lost comrades in arms in war survived and came home alive. But instead of feeling relief and peace, they find themselves filled with guilt. Why were they spared? This guilt, I think, comes because they know they were not more brave or skilful or virtuous than their deceased friends and yet somehow they feel they ought to have been. Again, the only way to deal with this understandable but persistent guilt is to look to the Word of God. It is God who determines why, in his plan, some people get sick and die in their twenties, or die in battle, and others continue to live on. There should be no guilt in that.

The distinction between true guilt and false guilt feelings is a crucial one to make. Why? Because time will not heal true guilt. There are absolute moral norms embedded in the universe, and your soul, made in the image of God, senses them (Romans 1:18–20, 2:14–16). The only way to deal with true guilt is to take it to the grace and mercy of God. On the other hand moral effort and prayer will not heal false guilt. The only way to deal with false guilt is to take it to the will of God and understand it, in light of his Word.

Taking Your Guilt to God

What, then, do you do with real guilt? There is no better place to look for an answer than Psalm 51, perhaps the most famous prayer of confession in the entire Bible.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1–2)

The occasion for this prayer of David is described in the heading. He had an extramarital affair with Bathsheba, had her husband killed, and then took her as his wife. God exposed David’s sin to the world through the prophet Nathan. Then he began to pray.

What if I told you that, no matter how much you had blown up your life, there was a way to get through it? That way is what the Bible calls repentance, and repentance is a process. What does Psalm 51 teach us about it?

It teaches us that there are three things we must stop doing, two things we must start doing, and finally one thing to receive.

The Counterfeits of Repentance— Blame Shifting

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:3–5)

There is a true repentance that is “unto life” (Acts 11:18, KJV), that brings strength, freedom, and peace, but according to the Bible there is also false repentance, a sorrow or remorse that may masquerade as repentance but “brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10)—brings frustration, continuing guilt, and despair. There are things that look like life giving, guilt removing repentance but are not.

One counterfeit is blame shifting. “I’m sorry, but you know it really wasn’t my fault.” But real repentance takes full responsibility for your sin. One way to shift blame is to justify our sin. The seventeenth century writer Thomas Brooks called it “painting sin with virtue’s colors.”[7] We look at ourselves and say, “I’m not greedy, I’m just thrifty”; “I’m not proud, just assertive”; “I don’t drink too much, I’m just the life of the party”; “I’m not abrasive, I just ‘tell it like it is.’”

Another way is to shift responsibility. “I wouldn’t have had an affair if you had been a better spouse.” “I shouldn’t have said that, but she provoked me. Anyone would have done the same.” “I’ve suffered a lot; I think I deserved this.”

A third form of blame shifting is insisting that the accuser is exaggerating. “Okay, that was wrong, but you are being far too sensitive.” “Sure, I probably shouldn’t have done that—but remember back when you did this other thing? That was terrible. Now stop pointing to me.”

The Bible’s opening scene shows the deadliness of blame shifting— Eve blaming the serpent, Adam blaming Eve and even God (“the woman you gave me”) for what they did. We can only begin to deal with our guilt when blame shifting ends. David prays, “You are right in your verdict, and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4). There isn’t the slightest effort to diminish responsibility. There are no excuses. True repentance looks its own responsibility full in the face and says to God, “In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous . . . while we acted wickedly” (Nehemiah 9:33). There is no note of blaming God for being too harsh. There is no hint of blaming circumstances or anyone else for the sin. Only when there is no longer pretence or evasion can the conscience be cleared.

In light of what he has done, David adds a remarkable insight about his own heart: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Is David merely speaking about the classic doctrine of “original sin”—namely, that all human beings are sinful in their inward nature? Probably, but David’s concern here is not to teach theology. He is being much more personal.

David sees a family resemblance between the common sins of his youth and murder. He sees that they were not two radically different things. In the right circumstances, the capacity for cruelty that comes from self-assertion and self-centeredness in every person’s heart can, if nourished properly, become murder. It comes from the same seed.

In the popular BBC series Broadchurch, the mystery is who in this lovely little seaside town could have murdered a boy. The local detective, Ellie Miller, is dubious that anyone from the town could have done it. This is a tight knit community of good people. “We don’t have these problems,” she says. In response, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy argues with her.

Hardy: “Anybody’s capable of murder, given the right circumstances.”
Miller: “Most people have moral compasses.”
Hardy: “Compasses break.”[8]

The fictional detective inspector is telling us exactly what the Bible says at this point. You must not be in denial about your capacity for evil. You will do some really bad things in your life that will utterly shock you unless you get hold of this particular truth from the Bible. Blame shifting is therefore one of the most dangerous things you can do.

Here is the language of a repentant heart: “Yes, Lord, I have been mistreated, and I’ve had troubles, but I did not react to these conditions as I should have. It is my own sin that is the reason I am miserable today. I take full responsibility!” Repentance begins where blame shifting ends.

The Counterfeits of Repentance— Self- Pity

Another counterfeit is self-pity. “I really made a mess of my life!” But real repentance involves grief over sin itself and the offense and grief it is to God. False repentance is sorrow over the consequences of the sin and the trouble it has caused you. David has just wronged Bathsheba by using his kingly power to have an affair with her, a married woman, and has wronged Uriah, her husband, by having him killed. He also betrayed his people’s trust in him as king by abusing his power. Yet David says to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).

How can he say that?

David’s statement is not primarily a piece of theological teaching—it is literally a cri de coeur. The doubling of a word in Hebrew indicates intensity of emotion—passion, longing, and love. His heart is breaking as he realizes what he has done he has done to the God who anointed him as king, saved him over and over again from the hands of a jealous King Saul, and installed him as the king of Israel.

David certainly is not saying that he did not sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, but rather that his sin against God—the God to whom he owes literally everything—was foundational to it all. David recognized that his sin against God was the cause of his sin against all the others. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, argues that you never harm others (commandments five through ten) without breaking the first commandment—“Have no other gods before me.” So if you lie in order to make money, then you have made money more important than God, a greater love, at that moment. If you lie in order to protect your reputation, you have done the same thing.

David grasps this. This concentration on our sin against God is the opposite of self-pity. Wallowing in self-pity may appear to be repentance, but it is not. When our wrongdoing brings down real world problems on our head, we cry, “I wish I hadn’t done that!” But our sorrow isn’t over how we wronged God or others but over the trouble it has brought to us. We are not truly troubled by the sin, and if the consequences go away, we slide back toward the wrongful behaviour. That proves that the seeming repentance was just self-pity.

Some years ago I was doing pastoral counselling with a married couple. The man continually lapsed into harsh, angry, insulting language to his wife that deeply grieved and hurt her. Over a three-year period he agreed to see me for counselling, but it became clear this happened only when she threatened to leave him. Then he came in and was willing to make changes to his behaviour. But those changes faded away as soon as the threat of separation and divorce receded. In other words, he was not primarily sorry for how he was wronging his wife, how he was dishonouring his God. He was not sorry for the sin but for himself. And self-pity never leads to change. To be sorry for the sin itself takes love. If he had really been loving his wife—and loving his God—he would have hated the sin itself, and it would then have begun to lose its attractive power over him. Self-pity led to superficial changes that never really affected his heart and therefore made no lasting change to his behaviour.

Self-pity looks like repentance, but it is self-absorption, and that is the essence of sin. Only if you see that you haven’t just broken God’s law but you have broken his heart, that you have dishonoured and grieved him, do you begin to change.

Just as real repentance starts where blame shifting ends, it also starts where self-pity ends. The British pastor Richard Sibbes wrote in his classic The Bruised Reed (1630) that self-pity ends only when you stop thinking about the consequences. Repentance is “not a little bowing down our heads . . . but a working our hearts . . . [until] sin is more odious unto us than punishment.”[9]

A near contemporary, Stephen Charnock, who wrote A Discourse of Conviction of Sin, makes a vivid distinction between what he called legalistic repentance—marked by self-pity—and truly “evangelical” or gospel based repentance. Legalistic repentance arises chiefly from a fear of punishment, while true repentance arises from a consideration of God’s goodness and therefore a sense of one’s own ingratitude and lack of love. So false repentance “cries out, ‘I have exasperated a power that is as the roaring of a lion    I have provoked one that is the sovereign Lord of heaven and

earth, whose word can tear up the foundation of the world.” But an evangelically convicted person cries, “I have incensed a goodness that is like the dropping of the dew; I have offended a God that had the deportment of a friend. . . . Oh my . . . hard heart   to run from so sweet a fountain to rake in puddles!”[10]

Here is the language of a repentant heart: “Yes, Lord, I am in sorrow because of the consequences of my sin. But they have only awakened me to the wrongness of what I have done—how it has wronged others and especially you, my Creator, Provider, and Redeemer.” Repentance begins where self-pity ends.

The Counterfeits of Repentance— Self- Flagellation

Finally, there is a kind of false repentance that is excessive. The person is filled with loud and intense self-loathing, cries, and tears. Listeners feel compelled to tell them they aren’t that bad, they aren’t that guilty. And that is the very point of such self-flagellation—it tries to pressure others and even God not to accuse but to excuse and pardon. The inner logic goes something like this: “If I beat myself up enough, surely this will atone for my sin and no one will ask me for anything else.”

The use of self-hating contrition as a way to atone for one’s sin rejects God’s forgiveness as much as its opposite—a proud denial that you have done anything wrong. They are both forms of self righteousness. The eighteenth-century Anglican minister John Newton wrote to a young man who was constantly depressed, with a sense of being sinful and unworthy. Newton was not put off. He wrote that it shows great spiritual pride and self-righteousness to shamelessly excuse oneself or indulge in morbid self-hatred. He wrote:

Your [understanding] of the gospel is sound, but there is a legal[istic] something in your experience which perplexes you. . . . You cannot be too [aware] of the inward and inbred evils you complain of, but you may be—indeed you are—improperly affected by them    You express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer, which is certainly wrong. . . .

Satan sometimes offers to teach us humility, but though I wish to be humble, I desire not to learn in his school. His premises [about our sinfulness] are perhaps true   but he then draws abominable conclusions from them, and would teach us, that therefore we ought to question either the power, or the willingness, or the faithfulness of Christ.

Indeed, though our [self-recriminations] are good so far as they show dislike of sin, yet when we come to examine them closely, there is often so much self-will, self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience mingled with them, that they are little better than the worst evils we complain of.[11]

The reception of God’s forgiveness is simple—repent and ask for mercy! Yet many or perhaps most people never experience this grace because they don’t repent. True repentance begins where whitewashing (“Nothing really happened”) and blame shifting (“It wasn’t really my fault”) and self pity (“I’m sorry because of what it has cost me”) and self-flagellation (“I will feel so terrible no one will be able to criticize me”) end.

Turning to God

If blame shifting, self-pity, and self-flagellation are the counterfeits, what is the true repentance that connects us to God? There are two things to look for. For these we turn to a remarkable but often overlooked verse in the book of Proverbs.

In Proverbs 28:13 (ESV) we read: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”[12] First, we must “confess”—a word that is helpfully contrasted in the proverb with the word conceal. To confess is to make a full, clean admission of what you have done wrong, without qualification or excuse, without minimizing or relativizing. It is to take full responsibility. The Hebrew word ydh, translated here as “confess,” always has the sense of praising and thanking God. So confessing a sin is not merely telling the truth, nor is it an abstract “I deserve punishment of some kind.” Rather, it is admitting that you have been failing to love and honour God, and at this moment you begin to glorify him by admitting how you have wronged him and others.

One man recounts his experience of this. He had lived for years with a defensiveness and inner discomfort that darkened his life.

In my search for inner peace I pursued various religions and studied psychology but never received more than partial answers. . . . The pivotal experience came inexplicably and unexpectedly: I was suddenly aware what an enormous avalanche of wrongs I had [done and] left behind me. Before, this reality had been masked by pride and my wanting to look good in front of others.  I had no excuses for myself—youth, circumstances, or bad peers. I was responsible for what I had done. On one page after another I poured it all out in clear detail. I felt as though an angel of repentance was slashing at my heart with his sword, such was the pain. I wrote dozens of letters to people and organizations I had cheated, stolen from, and lied to. Finally I felt truly free.[13]

However, Proverbs 28:13 moves on and says it is not enough to confess or admit a sin—you must also forsake it. To forsake is to make a full renunciation of the sinful behaviour, both in your heart attitude and in practical action. When John the Baptist led people to the brink of repentance, they asked, “What then shall we do?” He answered, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8, ESV), and by that he meant practical action that reversed their wrong behaviour.

Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:12–14, ESV)

So repentance means not only an admission of wrong but also a heart that finds the sin repugnant and therefore plans to change. Concrete steps are offered: “From now on I’ll never go to . . .” “From now on I will not do . . .” Bridges are burned; accountability structures are put into place.

Of course, many such plans fail or fail in part. Christian growth is a process. But without sincere renunciation and concrete designs for change, true repentance is not at work. False repentance is sentiment only. True repentance offers a change in behaviour.

A man named Leonard offered this account. He was a middle-aged businessman who was highly successful and well off. He wrote: I was, from a human point of view, a good person, keeping the laws and being responsible to the community. I was also religious, attending church faithfully, giving my money to good causes, and even trying to “witness for Christ.”

However, one Sunday he heard a sermon on being “poor in spirit.” It was a biblical call to be a humble person who cared nothing for one’s own status but who served others. He was deeply convicted. The sermon “made me fear that I was not so good as I thought.” He experienced a “new restlessness” and began to examine the ground motives of his life. To his shock, he came to see that he was driven by envy and a desire to prove himself better than others through acquiring wealth. He saw that the love of money was the driving force in his life but he had hidden that powerful drive from himself and others. “Now I was certain I was far from God [I] had a great need for his forgiveness and I wanted Christ to take away this terrible spirit of envy in my mind.”

He turned to Christ intent on changing his behaviour. He determined to be less ruthless in business, more generous to customers, employees, and stakeholders, and more generous with his wealth in general. He was ready to forsake his sin, but he knew he would not be forgiven for only good intentions. “I asked him to forgive me and trusted that His death took away my sins.” This was the turning point in his life. [14]

Finally, there is one thing to receive. After repenting must come rejoicing— rejoicing in the free mercy of God. Repentance without rejoicing leads to despair.

Proverbs 28:13 tells us that repentance entails a third action, namely, the willing reception and acceptance of God’s free mercy. The Hebrew word for obtaining “mercy” (Hebrew rhm) is the word for womb. Old Testament scholars tell us the word came to have its meaning from the feelings of parents toward their newborn infants. “The verb is always used in connection with the emotion of mercy from . . . parents to children.”[15] The love of a mother for the child of her womb is not something “merited” by the child—it comes simply because the heart of the mother powerfully moves her. In other words, the mercy God offers to the repentant person is completely free, undeserved, unstinting, and deeply personal, and this is an important part of repentance that is often missed. Real repentance in volves an acceptance of God’s free mercy.

False repentance, however, demands that forgiveness be earned. And this is why it is common to find people who do the first and second actions of repentance—confessing and forsaking—but insist that they don’t “feel forgiven” or even that they “can’t forgive themselves.” Many despair over their sin because they never believed their standing with God was by sheer mercy to begin with. Though they gave lip service to the idea of

God’s grace, they based their justification on their sanctification—their performance. That is, they believe God loved and accepted them on the basis of their moral performance and their relative freedom from sin and wrongdoing. When a person falls into sin who is still functionally operating on the belief that they are saved by their moral life, their very foundations are shaken.

Such a person wants to “work off” her sin, to atone for the sin, to earn forgiveness. She cannot take it to God and leave it there. She carries the guilt around as a way of paying for the sin herself, hoping that God and others will eventually declare that she has suffered enough and can be forgiven. But instead she should let the greater recognition of her sinfulness lead her to see the magnitude of God’s mercy and to greater amazement at his grace.

In summary, repentance begins when blame shifting, self-pity, and self-righteous despair end. It begins when confession, renunciation, and the acceptance of free grace take place. Then the clouds of guilt and shame can lift—and we can sing:

Sometimes a light surprises the Christian as he sings; It is the Lord who rises, with healing in his wings.[16]

Keeping God’ s Mercy “New”

The default mode of the human heart is to maintain control of one’s life by earning one’s own salvation. The idea of free grace, unmerited, is both insulting and unnatural to the self-absorbed human heart. Jean Valjean is famously overthrown by the bishop’s forgiveness in Les Misérables. He realizes that it robs him of the self-pity and self-righteousness that made him rationalize an angry and selfish life.

So even if we initially accept the fact of God’s forgiveness and acceptance, we need to spend the rest of our lives deepening our understanding of it and refreshing our experience of it.

One way to do this is to look up, study, and meditate regularly on the biblical texts that directly teach about God’s forgiveness.

A second way to grow in your experience of God’s forgiveness is to continually go deeper in the study of the various doctrines that are the basis for it. They include the doctrine of substitution (that Jesus paid the penalty for your sin fully and in your place) and the doctrine of justification (that when we put our faith in Christ, we have his righteousness, his perfect record, legally “imputed” to us).

Perhaps the single most comprehensive biblical theme that encompasses all these blessings is the idea that when we believe in him we are united with him, both legally and vitally, in his life and death (Romans 6:1–4) and his ascension (Ephesians 2:6). What can it mean that we died with him or that we are seated in the heavenly places now with him? As the hymn says, “I scarce can take it in.”[17]

We are so united in Christ in the Father’s eyes that when he sees us, he sees Jesus. Christians are so one with Christ that we are as forgiven as if we had already died for our sins, as if we had already been raised. We are so one with Christ that when the Father sees us, he treats us as if we deserve all the glory and honour that Jesus deserves. Over 160 times in the New Testament, Paul speaks of our being “in Christ” or “in him.” He calls himself “a man in Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:2). It utterly dominated Paul’s self-understanding and it must dominate ours.

One of the many wonderful dimensions of this great truth is found in 1 John 2:1, where the apostle writes that if we sin, we should remember that “we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

Some years ago I read the outline of a chapel sermon delivered by Charles Hodge to the students of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1861. In the sermon Hodge explores the idea of an “advocate” before a court of justice for a person accused of a crime. Imagine the charges are against you, but you have a defence attorney. What is that relationship like? Hodge writes that the relationship of an advocate to a client should be one of great intimacy and power. If your defence attorney is brilliant in court, your case is brilliant. If she is eloquent in court, your case is eloquent. Whatever your attorney does is imputed to you. “The former [the advocate] personates the latter [the client], puts himself in the client’s place. It is while it lasts, the most intimate relation. The client . . . is not heard . . . not regarded. He is lost in his advocate. This is the relation in which Christ as our advocate stands to us. He appears before God for us. We are lost in him. He, not we, is seen, heard and regarded . . . Christ thus assumes our position.”[18]

Is Jesus radiant? Beautiful? Spotless? Is he “the fairest among ten thousand”? Then that’s how you appear to the universe’s bar of justice. You are lost in your advocate.

When I first read this sermon, it struck me in a powerful way. I began to realize that my overwork was a way of seeking to be my own advocate. It was as if I had the most brilliant defence attorney in the world and I kept getting up and saying, “Let me speak. Let me question the witness. Let me make the case to the jury.” But only Jesus Christ has an infallible case. He can say of me, “Father, I have fulfilled every demand of yours on his behalf, in his place. Now accept my friend, my brother, my son, because of what I’ve done.”

When our hearts condemn us, Jesus is infinitely greater than our hearts, and we can feel that greatness the more we know the teaching of the Word about God’s free grace and forgiveness.

In Luke 7 Jesus was eating in the courtyard of the home of Simon the Pharisee when “a woman of the city” approached him. The term was a euphemism for a sex worker. She knelt at Jesus’s feet weeping and anointing them in an act of devotion. Simon recognized her as a “sinner” and was amazed that Jesus accepted her public expressions of love rather than recoiling from her. Jesus responded with a parable of two debtors—one who owed ten times more than the other—who were both forgiven their debts by their lender. “Which of them will love him more?” Jesus asked Simon (Luke 7:40–42). He got the obvious answer—the one who was forgiven more.

Jesus proceeded to point out that Simon himself, who clearly did not see himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness, had given Jesus a fairly stiff and formal greeting, but the woman’s great love and warmth proceeded from the joy of the great forgiveness she experienced. The lesson is not in any way that it’s better to live a life of big, scandalous, notorious sins. As the entire New Testament teaches, Simon was as much in need of forgiveness, if not more, for his pride as the woman was for her immorality. If we turn to Christ for forgiveness, we will know love and joy through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The prophet Micah says God will “tread our sins underfoot” and “hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). The famous Dutch writer Corrie ten Boom would often say that when God throws our sins into the deepest sea, he puts up a sign: “No fishing!” God has dealt with your sins. Don’t go back to them to feel guilty about them all over. Go forward in love.[19]

The Blood of Christ

Let’s return to Psalm 51. David knows he has sinned and “done what is evil in your sight” (verse 4). He knows he is guilty of “bloodguiltiness” (verse 14, ESV). And yet he has confidence that God will forgive him because of his chesedh—“steadfast love”—his unconditional covenantal love. David senses his complete unworthiness, and yet he has confidence that he is still accepted. If you feel only unworthy and not confident, then repentance will not work. You will beat yourself up, hoping God will have mercy. If you have confidence but not a sense of deep unworthiness, you will feel self pity and will not change. David is absolutely humble and sees he is unworthy, and yet is completely confident.[20]

We have no excuses, then, because on this side of the cross and the resurrection we see clearly what David could only know “through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). David prayed, “Cast me not away from thy presence” (Psalm 51:11, KJV), and God did not. But that was because on the cross Jesus was cast away from the divine presence—he got what David deserved. Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) so David didn’t have to.

This is the secret to really changing. It is not enough to say, “God is a loving God and I have broken his heart.” That is too abstract. Jesus was on the cross, looking at all of us, and saw us denying and betraying him, and yet, in the greatest act of love in the history of the world, Jesus Christ stayed. He saw what we are like and he stayed on the cross. When you see Jesus dying for you like that, and you know the reason he died is because of the sins you do every day, you will want nothing to do with your sins.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23–25)

In 1955 Billy Graham was invited to speak at Cambridge University to the students in Great St Mary’s Hall for a week of evening meetings. When it came out to the public that he was going to be doing that, letters appeared in The Times of London very upset that this fundamentalist Baptist American preacher was going to come and speak to Britain’s best and brightest about a primitive kind of religion based on blood and atonement and hell.

Graham admits that this got to him. He smarted under the characterization of being an uneducated provincial. So the first three nights he was there, he quoted intellectuals and scholars and sought to speak in more of an academic mode—but he could sense that his message was falling flat. And so he got down on his knees, prayed, and determined to throw out his prepared notes and simply preach about the blood of Christ and the cross.[21] Dick Lucas, who for many years was rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate Anglican church in London, recalled in a taped sermon what he saw that last night.

I’ll never forget that night. I was in a totally packed chancel, sitting on the floor at Great St Mary’s [Church] with the Regius Professor of Divinity sitting on one side of me and the chaplain of the college (who was a future bishop) on the other side of me. Both of these were good men, but completely against the idea that we needed salvation from sin by the blood of Christ. Dear Billy Graham got up that night and began at Genesis and went right through the whole Bible and talked about every single sacrifice in it. The blood was flowing all over the great hall, everywhere, for three quarters of an hour. Both my neighbours were horribly embarrassed by this crude proclamation of the blood of Christ and also must have been sure that no bright, sophisticated, young British person was going to believe any of this stuff. But at the end of the sermon, to everyone’s shock, four hundred young men and women stayed to commit their lives to Christ. [There were only eight thousand students in the student body then.]

I remembered meeting a young pastor some years later, a Cambridge graduate, at Birmingham Cathedral. Over a cup of tea I said,

“Where did Christian things begin for you?”

“Oh, at Cambridge in fifty five,” he said. “When?”

“Billy Graham.” “What night?”

“It was Wednesday night.” “How did that happen?”

“Well,” he said, “all I remember is that I walked out of Great St Mary’s for the first time in my life thinking ‘Christ really died for me.’ ”[22]

The forgiveness of God finally became real to him, and he was never the same again.

What was unbelievable to the dons was that a man like that, preaching a sermon like that—so simple, about the blood of Christ forgiving sin— could have totally changed the life of a young person like that. But so it did. And it can for you.

This extract from Timothy Keller’s book: “Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?” has been reproduced with the kind permission of Hodder Faith. (HB £18.99) The book, is highly recommended and is available at

[1] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be?” (hymn, 1739). This hymn recounts its author’s conversion.

[2] For a mainstream example of an internal/horizontal‑only approach to self‑forgiveness, see Keir Brady, “7 Tips For Practicing Self‑Forgiveness,” Keir Brady Counseling Services, undated,‑forgiveness.

[3] Gail Sheehy, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976).

[4] Colin Tipping, Radical Self-Forgiveness: The Direct Path to True Self-Acceptance (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011), 133. “I am a spiritual being having a human experience What happens during my life are my lessons. I have come into the life experience with the desire to fully grasp what oneness is be experiencing the opposite of it—separation. I had made agreements with souls prior to my incarnation that they would do things not so much to me, though it will feel that way while I am in a body, but for me. I also enroll others while I’m here to give me opportunities to learn While I remain accountable for what I do in the human world, in purely spiritual terms nothing wrong ever happens.”

[5] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 1118–19.

[6] Throughout church history pastoral caregivers have identified the spiritual problem of the “overscrupulous conscience.” See, for example, Charles Hodge, “Diseased Conscience,” in Princeton Sermons (1879; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 122; William Bridge, “A Lifting Up in the Case of Lack of Assurance,” in A Lift- ing Up of the Downcast (1649; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961), 128–51; Thomas Brooks, “Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices” (1652), in The Works of Thomas Brooks, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 91–117.

[7] Brooks, Works of Thomas Brooks, vol. 1, 16.

[8] Broadchurch, episode 6, directed by James Strong, written by Chris Chibnall, aired April 8, 2013 on BBC.

[9] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (1630; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998), 12.

[10] Stephen Charnock, The Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 4, The Knowledge of God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 199.

[11] John Newton, “Let.11 to Rev.Mr.S,” in Works of John Newton, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 185–86.

[12] All three of these acts of repentance are found in Psalm 51 as well, but for the sake of clarity and brevity we will look at them only through studying Proverbs 28:13.

[13] Johann Christoph Arnold, Why Forgive? (Walden, NY: Plough, 2010), 175–76.

[14] From C. John Miller, “Completely Forgiven,” self‑published pamphlet, 1987, 10.

[15] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 417–18.

[16] William Cowper, “Sometimes a Light Surprises,” Olney Hymns (1779).

[17] Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art” (1949).

[18] Charles Hodge, Princeton Sermons (1879; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 48–49.

[19] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Luke,” in ESV Expository Commentary, vol. 8, ed. I. Duguid, J. M. Hamilton, and J. Sklar (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021),

[20] There has been much discussion over whether God’s dealing with David was just. David had wronged both Uriah and Bathsheba and had broken the laws of God, the covenant that was the basis for his kingship. Should there be no just penalty for his actions? The Bible shows us that there was. Unlike Saul, who did not truly re‑ pent, David did. And so God allowed him to remain king. But the death of David’s son was a direct execution of God’s justice on David for his wrongdoing. Here, then, we see again God as both forgiving and just.

[21] This paragraph summarizes Billy Graham’s account in Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 254–59.

[22] Dick Lucas, “Romans 3:9–31,” sermon, January 6, 1970, St Helen’s Bishopsgate,‑