Last Sunday night my mood turned ugly. I was talking with a friend and he said something that lit a fire in me. I ranted and raved; I said harsh things about someone not present, and the best efforts to silence me merely aggravated me.
I went to bed angry, and I woke up remorseful.
Why had I said those things? I was embarrassed, contrite, and a bit ashamed of myself. I was in a mood to repent. Then I read My Utmost for His Highest,
We trample the blood of the Son of God underfoot if we think we are forgiven because we are sorry for our sins. The only reason for the forgiveness of our sins by God is the death of Jesus Christ.
Chambers’ words aggravated me more. (Maybe my anger hadn’t dissipated completely.) Here I was genuinely sorry for my sin—in the mood to repent—and Chambers said my sorrow plays no part in my forgiveness. Not one tiny morsel.
How important is sorrow in our forgiveness?
A little background
My friend pulled my ugliness-trigger when he made rosy comments about a mutual acquaintance. But many years ago, that mutual acquaintance made decisions that cost me (and others) time, energy, and relationships. The unrestrained, glowing acclaim of this person dredged up echoes of bad memories; the praise of him made my efforts feel marginalized.
I think—and this is no excuse—that my critical comments of the third person partly arose out of a desire for realism: “Come on, let’s be honest, his choices resulted in enormous pain for many people.” But my comments also arose from a wish for a little self-praise: “What a great guy I am for all my clean-up efforts.”
Looking back on what I just wrote, it feels like I’m still making excuses. Alas.
And that’s the point
I railed about that man’s mistakes mostly in an effort to feel better about myself.
Then, the next morning, much of my contrition was simply another attempt to feel better. I didn’t want my friend (and a couple witnesses) to think that I’m as callous as I appeared. I was sorry that they had seen my shallowness.
I also wanted God to see my remorse. I wanted God to have a higher opinion of me, as in, “I’m the kind of guy who really feels bad—with true penitence—at my failings.”
When I read Oswald Chambers the next morning, I felt God was stripping away that last vestige of self-esteem: my contrition. I couldn’t come to God even on the grounds of my deep sorrow. (Not to mention that my sorrow was so self-affirming.)
So what do I have left?
I don’t mean to say that remorse has no place in repentance. Of course we should regret harmful behavior. But I do mean to say that we can’t lean on our sorrow for forgiveness.
Chambers went on to say,
No matter who or what we are, God restores us to right standing with Himself only by means of the death of Jesus Christ. God does this, not because Jesus pleads with Him to do so but because He died. [Forgiveness] cannot be earned, just accepted.
We don’t earn forgiveness by great deeds; neither do we earn forgiveness by great feelings. We can only accept it. And that is hugely humbling, isn’t it? It certainly is for me. When King David repented for adultery and murder, he prayed,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions (Psalm 51:1).
He asks God to forgive him according to (and in the measure of) God’s mercy. He doesn’t request forgiveness on the basis of his sorrow or plans to live better.
Our only hope is God’s justice
The New Testament adds a strange wrinkle to the forgiveness tapestry. I used to picture Jesus before the father arguing for my forgiveness; like a defense attorney with a weak case he pleads, “I know Sam blew it again, but he really feels sad. Just give him one more chance.”
Then the Apostle John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Notice John’s use of the word, “just.” He leaves in the dust David’s appeal to “mercy.” John appeals to God’s justice.
In essence John says that Jesus is the greatest defense attorney of all time; he is making his defense with an airtight argument. Jesus says to the father,
“You are a just judge. You would never require two payments for the same crime. I have completely paid for Sam. You must forgive him. It’s a matter of justice.”
Jesus argues that anything short of complete forgiveness is unjust. He doesn’t plead on the basis of my sorrow, promises to do better, or even mercy. Just the cross. I contribute nothing.
I cannot earn forgiveness through efforts or feelings. I can only accept it as a gift.
As I considered Jesus’ argument for justice, I grew even more remorseful. When I criticized that acquaintance, I was acting like a prosecutor, unjust judge and jury. I was asking for double jeopardy, a second trial for a crime already punished.
Remorse, I realize, plays a great part in repentance. But it contributes nothing to my forgiveness. I am deeply sorry for my ugly criticism; but I am forgiven by the cross alone.