Guilt Has Staying Power

hands-in-bloodHere is a long but fascinating essay on how despite the loss of God in our culture we are still guilty and how that guilt leads us to identify with victims and in many cases become victims.  Throughout the author discusses forgiveness as therapy, the idea of war reparations, the loss of the concept of sin, and the rash of fabricated memoirs and what those indicate about our world. My take away is that without the substitutionary atonement of Christ there is no remission of guilt. Without Christ men will try to alleviate their guilt, but without success. Here are a couple of paragraphs to get you started.

In the new therapeutic dispensation, however, forgiveness is all about the forgiver, and his or her power and well-being. We have come a long way from Shakespeare’s Portia, who spoke so memorably in The Merchant of Venice about the unstrained “quality of mercy,” which “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” and blesses both “him that gives and him that takes.” And an even longer way from Christ’s anguished cry from the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”And perhaps even further yet from the most basic sense of forgiveness, the canceling of a monetary debt or the pardoning of a criminal offense, in either case a very conscious suspension of the entirely rightful demands of justice.

We still claim to think well of forgiveness, but it has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight by having been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of personal release it gives us. “Forgiveness,” proclaimed the journalist Gregg Easterbrook writing at Beliefnet, “is good for your health.” Like the similar acts of confession or apology, and other transactions in the moral economy of sin and guilt, forgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards entirely, standards without which such transactions have little or no moral significance. Forgiveness only makes sense in the presence of a robust conception of justice. Without that, it is in real danger of being reduced to something passive and automatic and flimsy—a sanctimonious way of saying that nothing really matters very much at all…

Victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility, but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders. The result is an astonishing reversal, in which the designated victimizer plays the role of the scapegoat, upon whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimized can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this has become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt—at least individually, and in the short run, though at the price of social pathologies in the larger society that will likely prove unsustainable…

For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.

Marriage is Corrupted by Us

Marriage

We might think that marriage has become harder in the last few decades. There is some truth to that statement.  Cultural pressures, easy divorce, failure of good fathers to train sons to be good husbands, failure of good mothers to train daughters to be good wives, bad preaching, etc. have decimated marriage, which for most of Western history provided stability to our communities. But marriage itself is not any more difficult than it used to be. Men have always been sinners and so have women. The temptations have not changed since Genesis 3.  Hearts remain the same. Herman Bavinck writes this in his book The Christian Family. 

There are many unhappy marriages, more than we might suppose or know. There are people by the thousands bound to each other for life [you can tell he wrote a long time ago by that phrase. PJ] and who in their marriages are already living a hell on earth. When the best gets corrupted, it becomes the worst; love that wanes becomes hatred, and affection that dissipates gives way to aversion.

Marriages are bad all around us Bavinck said in 1908. And we would say the same. What is the solution? Bavinck says there are two directions we can go. First,

One can attempt to justify those facts and defend them as normal, and then all blame falls on the institution of marriage, and the person, and the person in such a marriage who commits harlotry and adultery goes free, and for his dissolute passion receives a crown on his head. Then divorce, open marriage, and free love are the solution to the problem. Then science and art, lectern and stage, must cooperate in undermining and overthrowing existing marriages.

This is the option America and most of the American church has chosen. Marriage has been destroyed because marriage is the problem. Being confined to one man and one woman is bondage, not freedom. Easy divorce, fornication, adultery, sodomy, and sexual abuse are for the most part winked at in our culture and often promoted as social goods. How many movies portray cheating on your spouse as necessary and good? We believe marriage and its attendant obligations and duties is the problem. So we burn marriage to the ground. Bavinck goes on to note that there is a second way we can address the difficulties of marriage.

But people can also be convinced that this cure, though recommended in the name of reality and science, of beauty and poetry, is worse than the disease. This conviction finds support in the conscience of every person. In the modern era, as the notion of sin is slipping away, the culpability for every misery is being sought outside the person and located in the institutions, in social circumstances, in the organization of the state.

That last sentence sums up the modern man and his view of sin. The problem is always outside of him. He is never the problem. His black heart is not the dangerous thing in the room. His bloody hands are not what stains the walls. We are innocent. Thus if there are problems in marriage, it can’t be me. It must be marriage itself or my spouse or the government or  my parents or my pastor.  Bavinck continues,

All deliverance is expected then from social and political reform. But conscience speaks a different language within every person who seriously examines himself and ventures to confront this moral reality. Such a conscience lays the blame not on the institution of society and the state, but on the person himself; you are the man! That is how the prophets and apostles spoke; this was the teaching and example of Christ; just like the entire moral law, marriage is wise and holy and good, being of divine origin and rich in blessing for the human race, but human beings have invented many schemes.

Later in the chapter Bavinck writes this,

Modern realists view the risks of marriage as the results and fruits of this institution itself, and for that reason they rebel against it and curse marriage. The Christian sees adversities and crosses in marriage, which overcome us on account of sin, and accepts them as a means to exercise one’s faith. No Christian says that the person is corrupted by marriage, but he confesses that marriage is corrupted by the person; the modern realist blames the circumstances, the institutions, the laws and ordinances, ultimately God himself, while the Christian finds within his own heart the source of all impurity.

The point is simple. Do we believe we are the greatest problem in our marriages or do we believe that something or someone outside of us is the problem?  Do we believe the dirtiest hearts are those of our spouse and children or our own hearts? I often tell my teenage sons that biggest danger in the room is them. That is not scare them into inaction. But to encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and to not blame others. Maybe we should stop waiting for the government or society to save marriage and start saving it ourselves by realizing that the biggest obstacle to a godly marriage is the person in the mirror.

Repentance Comes First

When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound. For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me (Hos 5:13-15).

King David 3

When the Lord rebukes Israel through the prophet Hosea, Israel recognizes that she is sick (Hosea 5:13). She can see that something is wrong. But instead of turning to the Lord who can heal her she turns to Assyria. Israel flees to man and the strength of man to cure her disease. Yet the Lord says that Assyria cannot heal her and cannot make her whole again (Hosea 5:13).

Israel was under political oppression. Their enemies were closing in. But their enemies were not the problem. Their sin was. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, their covenant disobedience, they focused on the symptoms of the problem. They thought the disease would be cured if they just had a bigger army. They thought the answer was in an alliance with other nations. The problem however, was their disobedient heart, not their lack of chariots.

The Lord says in Hosea 5:15 that he wants Israel to acknowledge their offense or their guilt.  The answer for Israel is not more chariots or horses. The answer is not getting in bed with Assyria. The answer is repentance. Here is what Israel refuses to do. They are willing to try to fix things. They are not willing to repent and confess that they are wrong.

We are all this way. God in his mercy disciplines us. He gives us consequences for our sins. It might be a broken relationship, the loss of a job, a child that is in rebellion, a rebuke from a parent or friend, a note in book reminding us that our worship is out of line, etc. But like Israel we are not interested in repentance. We are interested in alleviating the consequences of our sins. We want to remove the embarrassment of our sin, but not the sin itself.  So we try to fix things. We try to cover things up.  Instead of repenting of our sin of selfishness, we try to be more generous. Instead confessing that we have harmed our children with our anger, we try to be kinder. Instead of admitting that our worship is not in accord with the Scriptures, we run another outreach program. We do everything but the one thing necessary, admit we are wrong, confess our sins, repent, and turn to Christ. But the gospel does not begin with you getting your life together. It begins with repentance.

The Sinfulness of Sin is Fuel for Evangelism

There is a deep connection between our doctrine of sin and evangelism. The more serious sin is the more serious a church will take her call to evangelize. If sin is minimized then the importance of evangelism diminishes. If man is born good and social structures cause him to do evil then the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is of little value. If man simply needs more knowledge, more education, then again Christ’s death will not help much. If man’s problem is lack of resources, such as money, food, opportunities, then again Christ cannot help him. But if man’s problem is that he is an enemy of God, separated from Him because his heart is overflowing with selfishness, pride, anger, lust, malice, and bitterness, and therefore God’s wrath rests upon him, then the Cross is the only answer. And evangelism becomes a priority.

Paul Preaching to Lydia

What are the practical effects on evangelism of a low view of sin?

Hell is Ignored
Hell is real. Hell is where men who never turn to Christ spend eternity. Christ rescues men from an eternity where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Isaiah 66:24, Mark 9:47-48). Sin against a holy, perfect, just God puts men there. God’s wrath sits upon them because of their wicked hearts and lives. When we believe this, we want to rescue men and women from this plight. We don’t want them in Hell. Despite some of our over-zealous brothers from the past, Hell is still a good motivation for preaching Jesus Christ.

But if sin is minimized then Hell is as well. Hell only makes sense when God’s holiness and his hatred of sin are fierce and real. If sin is not a big deal then Hell will either be ignored or denied and our zeal for evangelism will weaken.

Men are Left in Bondage to Sin
However, evangelism is not just about delivering men from the ”second death” (Rev. 2:11). When a man turns to Christ he is set free from the power of sin. Sin destroys a man’s life here on earth, not just after he dies. One of the great causes of pain in this life is guilt.  Guilt gnaws at us. We try and try to clean our hands, but we cannot. Christ can make us clean. Men and women are slaves to their lusts and greed. They are slaves to the fads of this world. They are not free to give. They are not free to have deep joy. They are not free to suffer on behalf of others. They are not free from the terrors of death and the pangs of their own conscience. When a man comes to Christ, his sins are forgiven and he is given the Spirit. He is now free from sin’s mastery (Romans 6:22). When sin is properly understood, evangelism becomes a way to tell men of the One who can break their chains and release them.

But if sin is minimized then we leave men as slaves. Their lust, anger, greed, malice, and hatred may be small inconveniences that occasionally cause trouble, but not chains that bind them. We look at them clapped in irons and held captive by sin and say to ourselves, “It is not a big deal. They will be just fine.”

Christ is not Glorified
But the biggest fallout from a failure to take sin seriously is that Christ’s glory is smeared. When sin is seen as a the great enemy of man’s soul then Christ’s atonement and resurrection become the greatest and most powerful event in history. Death, that dreaded enemy of man, has been destroyed. Sin, which ravages our souls and bodies and leads us to ravage others, is forgiven and defeated. Satan our great accuser has been silenced. God’s wrath has been turned away because “his own arm brought salvation” (Isaiah 59:15-17). Those who were exiled from the garden have been brought back in.We have great news for a world living in darkness and the shadow death (Isaiah 9:2). A Child was born who took our stripes and healed us (Isaiah 9:6, 53:4-6). Sin, properly understood, leads a church to evangelize and this in turn brings glory to Christ and His work.

But if sin is not a big deal, if sin is not the great enemy that we have been told it was, then Christ’s work is not that big a deal either. If sin is a slight wound, healed lightly with some ointment and a band-aid then the Cross is overkill and slightly embarrassing. It is like rushing a child to the ER for a splinter. Was that really necessary? After all, we are really good people.  If people aren’t really perishing then why rescue them? If folks are not dead in their trespasses and sins then why preach life to them? And when Christ is not preached and His death and resurrection not proclaimed then he is not glorified.

Understanding the depth, power, and ugliness of sin leads a church to love evangelism. We will delight to tell our communities the good news that there is deliverance from Hell, bondage to sin, death, and Satan. We will love to glorify our great King and Savior by telling others of His work. But if our doctrine of sin is weak then our evangelism will be as well. The deeper our understanding of sin the deeper our love for Jesus and those he came to save.

Questions on Repentance

Yesterday I wrote Eleven Words on Repentance. Here are some questions I asked myself as I wrote the post.

Can I keep repenting for the same sin?
Yes. If Christ told Peter to forgive seven times seventy, then we can assume that God’s mercy is wider (Matthew 18:22).

What if I keep repenting, but do not see change in my life? 
There are several options here. One is that you are changing, but your perception is skewed because you are too close. Find someone who knows you well and will be honest with you. Ask them if they are seeing change. Many times we are hard on ourselves. An outsider can help us see that we are growing. Second, you may not be using the tools God has given you to overcome your sin. Are you just repenting and hoping change strikes you like a bolt from heaven? Or are you reading and memorizing Scripture, attending worship, spending time with godly men, working hard, praying, etc.? God works through means. Finally, it is possible you are not regenerate. One sign of a regenerate heart is not just the desire to repent and change, but the actual power to do so (I John 3:9). The good news is that Christ casts out no one who comes to him (John 6:37). Flee to Christ, trust in Him, and He will give you His Spirit so that you might begin overcoming sin.

How much fruit does true repentance bear? 
The short answer is some.  There is no growth chart to tell us how much fruit we should be bearing. But there should be signs of growth over a long period of time. I encourage people to look at large sections of time in their lives. It is hard to see growth in a week. It shouldn’t be hard to see it in a year. Also remember that God usually works on certain areas of our lives before moving on to other areas. For example, right now he might be working on anger in me. I fight anger. I memorize verses to kill anger. I repent of my anger. But after some years, by the Spirit, I begin to overcome anger. God then usually brings up another sin, such as bitterness. This can give the illusion of not growing.  But what has happened is you have moved from one sin, which you have under control, to another sin you do not.

Does my repentance need to be emotional? 
This is a tricky question. There can be a lot of tears spilled and no repentance. There can be no tears shed and a man be repentant. Repentance should involved the whole man, including his feelings. We should feel our sin. But not all of us express our feelings the same way. We even express our feelings differently at different stages of our lives. So yes it should involve our emotions, but we should not judge our repentance or anyone else’s on outward expression of those emotions.

How do I know I truly repented? 
Did you look to Jesus to take away your sins? Do you trust in Him and his work alone to remove your sins?  Good then you repented. Don’t ask questions like, “Did I really feel repentant?”  “Was I totally sincere?” In certain situations they might be helpful, but often they turn us inward in a way that is not healthy. Looking to Christ and the promises given in the Word are the keys.

Are there any keys to leading a life of fruit bearing repentance?
There are no magic bullets in the Christian life, but there are few things that can help.

First, realize that you are a much worse sinner than you think you are. Without a deep sense of our sinfulness repentance will be in short supply.

Second, realize that you are rightly condemned by God’s law outside of Christ. You cannot in any way earn even a sliver of your salvation. When God declares you “not righteous” he is being entirely just. It is not an unfair judgment.

Third, realize that God’s mercy shown to us in Christ is great. Jesus has saved us to the uttermost. Your sins, as great as they are, are overwhelmed by Christ’s blood. His mercy is free and the fountain does not run dry. This is a great spur for us to keep repenting and fleeing to the cross no matter how often or how grievous our sins.

Fourth, believe that because of Christ’s shed blood you are forgiven. Trust the promises given in God’s Word that tell us He forgives (Micah 7:19-20, Luke 24:47, Ephesians 1:7, and I John 1:8-9). You are really forgiven. It is not a hoax.

Fourth, long for and love God, Jesus, the Spirit, and holiness. These things must be treasures to us, not just people we “must” love or things we “must” do. Our affections must be fixed on God.  Too often we combat sin by talking about how ugly sin is. This can be helpful. But we also need to emphasize how glorious God is. We need to repent not just because we chose sin, but because we rejected the glory of God. When we choose sin we toss aside happiness, blessing, joy and life (Jeremiah 2:12-13).

Fifth, the Word must be a constant presence in your life. Memorize it. Read it. But most of all hear it preached. When we read God’s Word we see it through our own eyes. Preaching however forces us to look at the Word from a different angle. Therefore reading God’s Word is not enough.

Finally, spend more time on your own sins than you do on the sins of others. One of the surest signs someone is not leading a life of fruitful repentance is that they think much of the sins of others and little of their own sins.

Do you have other questions about repentance? Put them in the comments and I will try to reply.

Eleven Words on Repentance

1. Repentance does not save you.  It is not a work of merit. God does not forgive you because you repent. He forgives you because of Christ’s blood. Therefore your repentance does not have to be “perfectly sincere” or “really heartfelt.”

2. Repentance is not feeling bad for your sins. Many men have felt guilty and yet never repented. Often men mistake that feeling of sorrow/guilt for true repentance.

3. Repentance is not fearing the consequences of your sins. Many men do not want the consequences of their sins, but also do not want to repent. Consequences can help us see the need to repent, but in and of themselves, are not enough.

4. Repentance is the act of confessing and turning from our sins because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit through the Word and turning to the mercy of God shown to us in Christ. We must turn from our sin and turn to God. That is why guilt and fearing the consequences are insufficient motivators for repentance. Neither of those automatically drive us to God. If repentance does not end at the blood of Christ, it is not true repentance.

5. We should be repenting of sins in the Bible and using the language the Bible uses. Call it what it is. Lust, gossip, anger, bitterness, malice, slander, laziness, greed, and coveting are all terms in the Scriptures. Do not call your sins mistakes. Do not say lust was just a slip up. Don’t say laziness is just being tired.

6. Repentance should involve confessing specific sins to the Lord. Too often repentance is generic. “Lord, I am a proud man. Please forgive me.” This is not a bad prayer and it is probably a true prayer. But it does go deep enough. “Lord, because I am a proud man I got angry at my son when he beat me at Dominion.” Or “Lord, I am vain, I was jealous when that woman’s dress got complimented and mine did not.” Root your repentance in real events, not in generic descriptions of your sinfulness. It helps see us for who we really are and not who we imagine ourselves to be.

7. Repentance means looking at the why as well as the what. Why did I look at porn? Why did I talk disrespectfully to my husband? Why am I lazy at work? The desires and motivations of hearts matter as much as the action itself. This also means you can repent of things that you never act on. It is possible to be greedy and never steal or to be angry and never hit.  Yet greed and anger are both sins that need to be repented of. It is odd that in a culture where the shape of our desires are so important there is such little emphasis on repenting of sinful desires.

8. Repentance does not remove the consequences of your sins. A man who repents can still be disciplined by the Lord. But this is not punishment for his sin. A man whom God disciplines is not making atonement for his sin through that discipline. Atonement was fully paid at the cross by Jesus. Rather he is being molded by God so that he might reject sin in the future. A repentant man will accept the consequences of his sin.

9. A repentant man knows that forgiveness is not owed. Just because you repent does not mean you deserve God’s grace. God does not owe you anything including forgiveness.

10. A repentant man does not trust in the sincerity of the repentance nor in the desire to do better in the future. When we do this we are making of the foundation of our repentance ourselves. This cannot be. True repentance rests solely on Jesus and his work on the cross. A repentant man knows that even his repentance needs to be covered by Christ’s blood.

11. Repentance will bear fruit. However, this fruit is usually small at the beginning and grows over time. A man who repents of his anger does not automatically get rid of it. But that repentance and desire to turn from sin will bear fruit over time. There are two dangers. One is believing repentance is just about forgiveness and not about change. The other danger is that we believe that if we repent sin automatically goes away. Neither is correct. Repentance is part of our lifelong war against the sin in our hearts.

A Declaration of Insanity

It is odd that a book that is usually the cornerstone of a doctrine of sinless perfection begins with an extended section on the nature of sin, which removes any doubt that we are sinners. I just finished preaching I John 1:5-2:2. Here are some thoughts from this great passage.

God’s character restricts who he fellowships with. God cannot have communion with darkness therefore we must be light (Ephesians 5:8) if we are to be in fellowship with God.

A man cannot be a Christian and live a life dominated by sin.

People can claim to be Christians and yet be lying. They are shown to be liars by their actions (walking in darkness) or by their theology (I am sinless). There is such a thing as a false profession.

When we have fellowship with God by walking in his ways we also have fellowship with other Christians. We cannot claim fellowship with God and live in bitterness and antagonism towards our fellow believers. Yet this does not mean that everyone who claims to be a Christian we must be in fellowship with. See point above.

A claim to be without sin is a declaration of insanity. Any man who believes this about himself is living in a fantasy land.

Few of us will say we are sinless. However, many of us function as if we are not sinners. When we are confronted with our sin our mouths drop open and we say, “Impossible!” So while theologically we may not claim to be sinless, practically we live as if we are.

The truth and God’s Word are equivalent (See also John 17:17). Notice this pattern
I John 1:6 We lie and do not practice the truth
I John 1:8 We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us
I John 1:10 We make him a liar and his word is not in us

Truth is not just a person, Jesus Christ, nor simply a set of beliefs, though it is both of those. Truth is something we practice or do. True grasp of the truth produces actions formed by that truth.

Regular confession of sin is the antidote to an elevated view of our own holiness.

I John 1:9 is not an excuse to keep on sinning. Anyone who uses God’s mercy in forgiving sins as excuse to keep on sinning does not understand God’s mercy. (See also Psalm 130:4).

One goal of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and sending of His Spirit is so we might not sin. Jesus, John, Paul, and Peter all believe we can make substantial progress in holiness in this life. We can never be perfect. We just begin to obey in this life, but it is real Spirit fueled obedience that is conforming us to the image of Christ.

Jesus’ blood is the key to our forgiveness and cleansing. It is easy, much easier than we would like to admit, to forget the cross.

God is faithful to his promises to forgive our sins and make us clean. He has shown this faithfulness in the death of His Son.

Christ is our propitiation, a covering our for sins that turns God’s wrath away from us. Trying to remove God’s wrath from the equation is a compromise.

Jesus Christ is our ever present intercessor. This means we always need intercession. There is never a day when we don’t need Christ pleading before the Father on our behalf.

Our Intercessor is righteous. We can put complete faithfulness in our High Priest. He will never do us wrong.

I John 2:2 does not teach that Christ’s death on the cross was a covering for all the sins of all the men who ever lived. But it does teach that he covered our sins at the cross.