Dr. Richard L. Strauss
April 13, 1980
Many counselors are convinced that an overwhelming majority of the troubled people who walk into their offices for help are suffering from some degree of guilt. That guilt has in all probability contributed significantly to their problem, whether that problem be spiritual, emotional, or interpersonal. Guilt has a way of dominating our lives and disrupting our relationships. It preys on our minds, fills us with anxiety and fear, makes us defensive, irritable, and judgmental. Sometimes it drives us to punish ourselves in various ways, and may even make us physically sick. It is one of the life's most destructive emotions.
Not all guilt is true guilt. It is often difficult to distinguish feelings of inferiority, failure, shame, or simply a poor self-image from real guilt. They all register on our minds in much the same way and cause us to say things like, "I never do anything right. I make a mess of everything I put my hand to. I can't get along with anybody. I'll never amount to anything. I'm just no good."
Feelings like that usually find their roots in our upbringing, particularly when we tried to please a parent who was never satisfied, who seldom gave encouragement or commendation, but who rather condemned, blamed and accused excessively, and whose acceptance of us was conditioned on our performance. That kind of environment produces false guilt, a feeling of guilt over something that does not violate any principle in God's Word, and for which we may not even know the cause. We feel guilty but we don't know why.
People with false guilt usually view God as a mean old man who will be nice to them if they measure up, but nasty if they don't. They see His standards as impossibly high and the potential for pleasing Him practically hopeless, as they did with the parent they couldn't seem to please. So they have resigned themselves to living in His disfavor. They don't like it, but they don't know any other way. Counseling can often help them to accept themselves, and learn to related positively to God as He wants us to.
But there is also real guilt, and that's what I want to talk about today. Real guilt.
We may feel guilty because we are guilty. We have broken God's laws and we know it. The Bible says that the whole world is guilty before Him (Romans 3:19). We have all fallen short of His standard (Romans 3:23). And because we are guilty, we deserve to be punished (Romans 6:23). An infinitely holy God must express His wrath against sin.
His critics will be quick to accuse: "There, see, God is a rigid, demanding, intolerant, perfectionist judge who refuses to accept us if we fail to meet His expectations."
The critics are right to some degree. God cannot condone sin nor allow it to enter His presence. He must judge it. But what the critics fail to see is that He is also loving, gracious, merciful, and kind, and that those traits motivate Him to forgive. The god which men have created in their own imaginations is harsh and punitive. But the true God who has revealed Himself in His Word, is forgiving and accepting.
When He passed by Moses on the mount and made His glory known, He declared it for all to understand. He is the God "who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:7, NASB). The Psalmist reiterated it plainly:
"For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive" (Psalm 86:5).
God is forgiving by nature. Forgiveness is the essence of His Being. And that is about the best news we guilty human beings could ever hear. God is not set on punishing us. He wants to forgive us and accept us.
I'm afraid forgiveness is a most misunderstood concept. Some people have the notion that to forgive is simply to overlook a wrong. They say "Everybody does things they don't mean in moments of stress. I'll just pretend that I didn't see it, and act like it didn't happen." Nothing could be further from true forgiveness. Real forgiveness is not passive and indifferent, but decisive and dynamic. We learn what it involves by watching our forgiving God in action.
There are five elements to God's forgiveness.
1. Removal of the Sin (Leviticus 16:15-22)
Nowhere do we see a more graphic picture of God's forgiveness than on Israel's day of atonement, the day God dealt with the nation's sins for another year. After the high priest offered a sacrifice for his own sins, he took two goats: one to be sacrificed as a sin offering, the other to be used as a scapegoat.
"He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull's blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been" (Leviticus 16:15-16a).
The word translated "make an atonement" (kaphar) is also translated "forgive" in the Old Testament (see Psalm 78:38). It means basically "to cover." The blood of that goat did not actually cover Israel's sins, but it dramatically signified that God would cover them.
Under that mercy seat—which was the lid to the ark of the covenant—inside the ark, were three symbols of Israel's sin:
- The manna about which they murmured and complained
- The tablets of the law which they broke
- Aaron's rod that budded when they rebelled against their divinely appointed leaders
They were the symbols of sin, but the high priest sprinkled that blood on the mercy seat, all those sins were covered. When God forgives our sins, He covers them, hides them from view.
Micah said He casts them into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). That's pretty well covered! If they are in the depths of the sea, they are covered! What a relief to know that the sins that have haunted us, burdened us, and grieved us are permanently removed from view.
David experienced that relief:
"Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered" (Psalm 32:1).
But that isn't all God does when He removes our sin.
"When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task." (Leviticus 16:20-21).
As Aaron placed his hands on the head of that goat, it was as if he were lifting the sins of the people from them and placing those sins on a substitute. It was a symbolic act. Then he let the goat go into the wilderness, picturing the removal of their sins far away. He lifted them up, then let them go.
It is interesting that of the two major words for forgiveness in the Old Testament, one means literally "to lift up" (nasa), and the other "to let go" (salach). Those words are not found here, but the concepts certainly are. The most common New Testament word for forgiveness (aphiemi) also means "to let go" or "to send away." When God forgives, He lifts our sins from us and sends them far away.
"As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12).
There is no way to determine where east stops and west begins. We do know where north stops and south begins, but David didn't use that analogy. He chose one that describes a distance infinitely beyond where anybody can ever find our sins and use them against us. Why should we feel guilty any longer when God has taken the trouble to remove our sins that far away and cover them thoroughly?
2. Remission of the Debt (Matthew 18:23-27)
When somebody wrongs us, we consider them to be indebted to us. They owe it to us to right the wrong, or they owe us an apology. If we commit a crime and we are apprehended, tried, and convicted, we must pay our debt to society. We understand that principle; it permeates our culture even if you don't understand the Bible.
Sin incurs a debt. When we sin against the God who made us and gave us life, we are indebted to Him. So when He forgives us, He must cancel that debt.
That is beautifully illustrated in Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant. We looked at this parable when we studied God's mercy, but let's look at it again. The man who owed his king 10,000 talents, the equivalent of approximately 10 million dollars in our currency (Matthew 18:23-24). It was inconceivable that a mere servant could ever have accumulated a debt of that magnitude, but Jesus wanted to emphasize just how much we do owe God because of our sin. We usually don't see it that way, but Jesus is emphasizing just how much of a debt we really owe God.
Furthermore, there was no way the servant could possibly repay that debt on his meager salary of a few pennies a day. And that too is part of the point Jesus wanted to make. We cannot ever repay the debt we owe to God. Eternity in the torment of hell will only begin to satisfy the extent of His offended holiness.
Now we don't like that. "Oh, I'm not that bad of a sinner." But whether it's a little sin or a big sin, sin is sin and it incurs a debt. We owe God more than we can ever repay Him.
Like the servant in the story, most of us think we can repay God what we owe Him. We say as he said, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay thee all (Matthew 18:26). We think that, given enough time, we can do enough good works and keep enough of His commandments to compensate Him for the debt of our sin.
How utterly absurd! God knows it can never be done. So in the story, "The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go" (Matthew 18:27). The only hope that poor servant had was the abolishment of the debt. So that's what the master did, and that's what God does. That is forgiveness. The cancelation of the debt.
But how can He do that? God's infinite holiness has been violated and He cannot ignore our crimes. God's justice demands that the debt be paid. Who will pay it? In infinite love and grace, He decides to pay it Himself.
In the story it cost the king 10 million dollars that was rightfully his. That is a facet of forgiveness we often overlook: It always costs somebody something.
If an offense has been committed, somebody has to pay. When justice is served, the one who has committed the offense pays. In forgiveness, the offended party pays. Guilt cannot be transferred to a third party. The Psalmist said, "None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him" (Psalm 49:7). Either the offender or the offended must pay.
Sometimes we say we have forgiven someone who has wronged us, but in the back of our minds we are looking for some way to reclaim from him what we have lost, whether it be our reputation, our money, our pride, or whatever else we're looking for him to pay. That is not forgiveness. When we forgive, we pay for his wrong in full. And since God is forgiving by nature, He is going to pay for our sins in full. That's what Jesus Christ was doing on that cross.
That's what the death of Christ is all about. Jesus was not a third part trying to get God and man together. He was the Offended One, God in flesh who came to earth to pay for man's sin and purchase man's forgiveness.
"God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19, NASB).
When Jesus bowed His head and voluntarily dismissed His Spirit, he cried, "It is finished." That statement is one word in the Greek text, a word used in business transactions of the day, meaning "paid in full." The obligation which our sins incurred was paid in full at Calvary's cross. God took our place and paid the debt as our substitute.
Did you ever have a debt canceled? What a happy experience that is. When I was a student at Dallas Seminary, my wife and I scraped and scrounged to get the money for my tuition together one semester. When I approached the business office, the girl found my record and said, "We don't need your money. Your bill has already been paid." I never have found out who paid it, but I am still grateful to them. As wonderful as that experience was, it is still greater to know that the eternal debt of my sin has been canceled. It's part of God's forgiveness.
3. Repeal of the Penalty (Isaiah 53:5-6)
The debt of a broken law is called a penalty, so if the debt is canceled, obviously the penalty is revoked. While the two are related, it is essential that we understand both aspects of our forgiveness. As we have seen, on the Day of Atonement, one of those goats was killed as a sacrifice for the sins of the people It pictured the punishment of a substitute. The blood of that goat could not in itself pay for Israel's sins.
"It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4).
But blood did have to be shed. The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23) and only death can satisfy the requirement:
"Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrews 9:22).
Blood must be shed. The death of that goat portrayed to the people of Israel that God Himself would rather suffer the penalty for their sin. And again, that is what Jesus Christ is doing on that cross.
Isaiah predicted it:
"But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:5-6).
Peter described how it happened.
"He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24a).
"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18a).
When John the Baptist pointed to Christ at the outset of His public ministry on earth, he called Him "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The words "take away" mean literally "to lift up." Through Christ's death, our sins can be lifted from us and the penalty we deserve can be repealed. The basis for our forgiveness is the blood of Jesus Christ, and nothing could be clearer in the Bible.
"In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:14; see also Ephesians 1:7).
Jesus Himself declared it:
"This is My blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28).
We never need to fear eternal separation from God. The penalty has been assessed and fully satisfied by God's Son. Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3).
"There is therefore, now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).
No punishment. No penalty. No eternal judgment. The case is settled and will never come up for review. There is no possibility of appeal to any higher court. God's children are free from sin's penalty, free from all fear of punishment. He lovingly disciplines us to contributed to our ultimate satisfaction in life. Be we need never fear His retribution.
Some professing Christians will not believe that. They are still afraid that God is ultimately going to punish them. They live like a child who has been promised a spanking after school. It ruins his whole day. He is tense and irritable, he does poorly in his school work, he feels a strain with his friends, he dreads coming home. When he does, there is no communication, no freedom to grow in his relationship with his parents, only apprehension and tension until the ordeal is over. He may decide to run away and not come home at all, and that only compounds his problem. Some folks are running from God because they are afraid He hasn't really rescinded sin's penalty.
Believe it, Christian! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The penalty has been repealed.
4. Release from the Guilt (Isaiah 1:18)
Fear of punishment can be damaging to our spiritual well-being, but our greatest danger in our every-day walk comes from guilt. Guilt is one of the tools God uses to make us see our need, but after we have seen it and trusted Him for forgiveness, the guilt is gone. We never need to struggle with it again.
Isaiah taught us that.
"'Come now, let us settle the matter,' says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool" (Isaiah 1:18).
Guilt is viewed as a red stain. That is most appropriate when the crime is murder, as Shakespeare's Macbeth well knew. Or as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in The Scarlet Letter. Actually it is a fitting description of any sin against God's holiness. It's a blot, a blemish, a taint, a flaw, a stigma, a stain that dirties our lives and contaminates our relationships. God's forgiveness washes that ugly stain as white as snow. There is nothing purer than fresh fallen snow. That is how clean we are when God forgives us. The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7); it washes us pure and blameless. What a relief! David said, "Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him" (Psalm 32:2). Our nagging guilt is gone if it's not counted against us.
We read that, and we really do believe it. But somehow when our minds dwell on our sins, we tend to forget it. We still feel guilty. Do you know why that is? Because Satan works very hard at making us feel guilty, accusing us and condemning us, trying to convince us that God could never forgive the awful things have done. He knows that wallowing in guilt will so discourage us and defeat us, that we will begin to say things like, "I'm no good. I never will get victory over this sin, I'm just too weak. So I might as well go ahead and enjoy it." And our usefulness to God plummets drastically.
Satan also knows that when we fail to forgive ourselves, we will not be able to forgive others for the wrongs they commit against us. We will be harsh, demanding, overbearing, intolerant and punitive in our relationships with our families and with other believers. And he can get some exciting battles started through people like that.
It is to Satan's advantage to hold us in the bondage of guilt. Don't let him do it. God has forgiven you. Accept His forgiveness and then forgive yourself. Enjoy the freedom from guilt which His forgiveness provides.
5. Restoration to Fellowship (Isaiah 44:22)
It is difficult to look people in the eye when we know we have wronged them. We wonder if they know what we've done, or whether they know and are holding it against us. But if we have been assured that they have forgiven us, the barriers are gone and we are free to enjoy open and meaningful communion with them.
Just so, sin builds a barrier that hinders our fellowship with God. Isaiah said to the people of his day:
"Your iniquities have separated between you and your God" (Isaiah 59:2).
Sin destroys fellowship. God likens those sins to a thick cloud that blocks out the rays of the sun (Isaiah 44:22). But just as a cloud is dispelled by the sun or the wind, so God blots out the cloud of our sins when He forgives them.
"I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you" (Isaiah 48:22).
And with the sin removed, the debt canceled, the penalty satisfied, and the guilt gone, we are free to come boldly into His presence and enjoy His fellowship, and get to know Him better. When the blot is gone, our fellowship is restored. God assures us that when He forgives our sins, He remembers them no more (Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17). He will never allow them to come between us again. Why should we?
While sins committed after salvation will certainly have a detrimental effect on our present relationship with God and must be confessed to Him (1 John 1:9), no sin can ever jeopardize our eternal fellowship with Him. We stand forgiven, for all time. Paul says we have been forgiven all our trespasses, and that includes sins past, present and future (Colossians 2:13; see also Psalm 103:3). Believe that, and come joyfully and confidently before God's throne of grace.
Now I must remind you that while our forgiving God has provided for our eternal forgiveness, He still reserves the right to establish the condition on which we may experience His forgiveness. Peter revealed what it is in a sermon preached in the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. He was talking about Jesus when he said:
"All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name" (Acts 10:43).
Forgiveness is offered to all, but it is received by those who will turn from their sins and place their personal trust in Jesus Christ as the only one who can deliver them from the guilt and penalty of sin. To believe means to trust, to depend upon, and put one's weight upon, to rest in.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
If you have never done so before, is there any reason why today, right now, you wouldn't want to believe in Christ as the One who forgives your sins? Why would you want to live in your sin when God offers forgiveness? Isaiah put it in a beautiful way, in a verse that I hope you'll memorize this week.
"Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:7, NKJV).
Abundant pardon is pardon that is multiplied, a pardon that abounds, a pardon that has no limit. It doesn't matter how thick that cloud is that is blotting out your relationship with God, or how heavy that burden of guilt is. God says the death of His Son paid for that sin. There is no limit to His pardon.
Will you believe in Him right now and put your trust in Him for the forgiveness of your sins? Pray to Him right now and say, "God, I know I'm a sinner. I believe Jesus Christ died for my sins and paid the penalty for those sins. Lord Jesus, I'm trusting You now. Come into my heart and save me from sin. Forgive me, as You promised to do."
He's just waiting for you to say that. That's faith. It just transpires in the mind. It doesn't require any physical act at all. It happens in the immaterial part of your being: your heart, your soul.
Father, we pray that many will respond to your invitation to receive forgiveness, and open their hearts to Jesus Christ. Lord, we know you're going to transform their way of living, and there will be growth and increasing holiness. God, we pray that some would enter that life today. It's in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
Isaiah 55:7 NKJV
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