Forgiveness vs. Feelings of Forgiveness

I pulled an oldie but goodie off the shelves today.  R.C. Sproul’s Pleasing God is such a gem, but with the slew of popular Reformed books now available on the marked, it’s so easily to overlook this book.  I was happy to see that Hendrikson has republished this book as a three-volumes-in-one book with two other well-known Sproul titles.  Here is a great blurb that is classic R.C.!

Sproul recounts a story of a woman who approached him asking for pastoral counsel.  She explained to him that though she had prayed earnestly for forgiveness, she still felt guilty.  R.C. suggested to her that she pray again for forgiveness, but this time to ask for forgiveness for her arrogance – her arrogance for believing that though God had declared that she was forgiven, she did not trust him, but trusted her assessment of the situation more.

Sproul writes:

Just as there is a crucial difference between guilt and guilt feelings, so there is a similar difference between forgiveness and feelings of forgiveness.  Guilt is objective; guilt feelings are subjective.  Forgiveness is objective; feelings of forgiveness are subjective.

If God declares a person forgiven, that person is truly, objectively, really and fully forgiven.  Forgiveness is now a reality.  If the warm feelings of peace of mind flow out of the reality of forgiveness, that is a sweet and wonderful bonus.  But it is not the final test of forgiveness.

This is a two-edged sword.  A person can manufacture feelings of forgiveness when they are not forgiven.  I’ve heard numerous people tell me that God has given them “peace” about doing things God clearly forbids.  I’ve heard people say that God gave them peace of mind to commit adultery.  Such statements must certainly grieve the Spirit.

God gives forgiveness freely to the repentant.  But He never grants license for sin.  He is not the author of peace to the impenitent.  That peace is a false peace, a lying peace.

Sproul concludes:

When God forgives a person, that person is forgiven whether we feel that forgiveness or not.  The sensuous Christian lives by his feelings.  The spiritual Christian lives by the Word of God.  If God declares that I am forgiven, then it is sheer arrogance for me to refuse to forgive myself.

(Pleasing God, pgs.132-33; underlining mine.)

“Feeling-driven” Christianity has not gone anywhere.  His advice is still spot on.  We are to let God’s word direct our lives, not our “feelings of peace,” all too frequently manufactured by stubborn hearts that love to justify sin.  But on the flip side, we are to let God’s promises comfort us, even when our hearts lie to us and say that there is no way God could forgive us.  He has forgiven us, even when we don’t feel forgiven!