The Bible teaches that, because I’m a Christ-follower, when I appear one day in God’s courtroom I’ll be found innocent of committing a single sin. Since I still do bad things and entertain less-than-holy thoughts, having that verdict handed down seems impossible. Yet with God nothing is impossible so, by faith, I must accept my sins were atoned for by the blood of Jesus. And there’s plenty of evidence to verify that fact, starting with the cross itself. There we have indisputable proof of mankind’s undeniable guilt. There sin’s abject ugliness was revealed for all to see. Some opine mankind has made tremendous strides since then due to advances in psychiatry, technology and science in general. So much so they surmise if Christ returned today the world would welcome Him with open arms and minds instead of cruelly killing Him as before. I don’t believe that for a second. His message of there not being another path to redemption in the eyes of the Heavenly Father except through believing exclusively in His deity alone would be enough to make folks want to string Him up all over again. Just like 2,000 years ago, people still can’t stand being told they’re wrong about anything. Pride and selfishness rules their hearts and they’ll lash out against anyone who dares point that out.
The cross also clearly demonstrates God despises sin with a passion and, due to His pristine holiness, will only welcome righteous souls into His kingdom. Through His Holy Word He’s informed us people will experience eternal death unless they’re forgiven their many trespasses against Him. That huge accumulated debt must be paid through sacrifice. Hebrews 9:22 states, “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” One can say that’s unfair all they want but, as the moral judge of the entire universe, God can’t compromise and remain just. Without immutable laws and the strict upholding of them anarchy reigns. We’ve seen it happen repeatedly here on earth. “No justice, no peace.” Yet there are those who oppose imposing harsh penalties on lawbreakers. They argue most criminals aren’t really at fault for their behavior. Lousy parents, a hostile environment, an inefficient government, etc. are to blame. But God says we’ll be held accountable for our own actions and we won’t be able to claim we didn’t know how severe the punishment for sin would be. We need only take one look at the cross to realize how drastically God deals with sin. He didn’t hide its horrible consequence from us. “Indeed, he …did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
A few weeks ago I expressed I could never bring myself to sacrifice either of my children for another person. I still stand by that. It started me thinking, though. When people read John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” do some discount that statement because God was involved? Do some mentally place an asterisk next to that verse because Jesus didn’t stay dead in the tomb all that long? God knew He’d resurrect His Son three days later and so did Christ who, referring to Himself, flat out told the Jewish leaders, “…destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:19). Thus, when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39) the cup he referred to couldn’t have been mere death because He knew full well it would be a temporary condition. If God came to me and said, “Rollie, I have something wonderful in mind but it’ll require you to sacrifice the life of your daughter for a few days only and then I promise I’ll bring her back to the land of the living, good as new” I wouldn’t like it one bit but His assurances that she’d soon live again might lessen my anxiety. Yet if He told me she’d be brutally, mercilessly and inhumanely tortured to death in place of another I wouldn’t allow it. No way. I’d insist it be done to me and for Him to leave her alone. But God did the unthinkable. He didn’t just give his one and only Son for our sake, He watched as we wretched human beings barbarically tortured Him to death. Jesus wasn’t administered a compassionate, relatively painless lethal injection that made His heart stop beating within minutes. No, He was forced to endure unimaginable physical suffering and sheer agony for hours on end until He couldn’t breathe anymore. Oh, God did more than give His Son.
Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” caused some to faint or get sick because, perhaps for the first time, they were confronted with the unflinching hideousness of the crucifixion. But what they were seeing in the movie was just professional makeup, special effects and convincing acting. What Jesus subjected himself to was real. So when we tell an unbeliever Christ died for their sins it may not faze them much. But if we say He was slowly and deliberately tortured to death so they could have eternal life it’s bound to have a bigger impact. You see, Jesus didn’t fear dying. He’s God and He’ll never really die. Furthermore, what He dreaded was not so much the despicable abuse that lay ahead but having the grand total of all the sins every person who lived, lives and will live on this planet piled on His shoulders at once. That was much more excruciating. And unprecedented. What He willingly did for us is something only a loving, gracious God could do. I must never allow myself to take what Jesus did for granted. God did for me what I could never do for someone else – sacrifice one of my own. I must conclude that if the Heavenly Father had to let His only Son be tortured to death to pay for my sins, then sin must be unfathomably abhorrent to Him, indeed.
Yet, instead of resenting us for making the grisly crucifixion necessary, God lavishes us with love! He drenches us in Jesus’ righteousness. We’re clothed, covered, protected and shielded by the “…righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness” (Philippians 3:9). In addition, He’s sent His Holy Spirit to live in us and transform our inner character to match that of His Son. 1 Peter 2:24 declares, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness.” For the life of me, I can’t comprehend how God could possibly love me, a lowly sinner, that much. Through grace God declares me “not guilty” but I can’t fool myself. I observe myself sinning every day. Pitifully I too often compare my sins to the sins of others and think mine are less offensive to God. That’s a fantasy on my part because every one of my “little sins” was another sharp-edged shard on the whip that tore the flesh off my Savior’s ravaged back. It humbles me in shame to think about it.
At Celebrate Recovery meetings we frequently say “God never wastes a hurt.” The cross is the best example of that truism. Because of what happened on Calvary Hill the formation of an authentic, life-affirming brother/sisterhood of human beings is within our grasp. What was once unachievable because of Satan’s interference became a palpable possibility when Jesus defeated him on the cross. All men and women are now invited to freely join the family of adopted sons and daughters of the Living God just by surrendering their life to Christ. Jesus, through His death, made a way for us all to live in harmony. There’s no other road to peace than the one that goes through Him. Understand that, while God as our Creator is our figurative Father, He doesn’t become our spiritual Father until we’re “born again.” Terra firma would be a much better place if all its inhabitants would make Christ the King of their life. Ephesians 2:14-16 says, “For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.” Billy Graham wrote, “Outside the work of the cross we see bitterness, intolerance, hatred, prejudice, lust and greed. Within the powerful working of the cross grow love, new life and new brotherhood. The only human hope for peace lies at the cross of Christ, where all men, no matter their nationality or race, can become a new brotherhood.”
Many will call what Graham refers to a pipe dream. But if all humans were to adopt a Christian mindset it would transform the world. What happened recently in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates it. A hate-filled 21 year old racist walked into the Eternal African Methodist Episcopal church there and opened fire, executing nine people who had come to worship and pray. It was a heinous crime that shook the entire nation. With tensions already running high between whites and blacks it couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. Those who lost family members and loved ones in the tragedy were brought before the cameras and microphones to issue their statements. What everyone expected was for them to curse, condemn and vilify the unapologetic murderer as well as the Caucasian race he belongs to. But what they did was to faithfully imitate Christ, forgiving the perpetrator for his inexcusable act. In doing so they extinguished the lit fuse of the powder keg. They pulled the rug out from those anxious to riot and set the town ablaze out of anger. And the secular media didn’t know how to handle it! They were stupefied. Forgiveness deflates the billows of outrage and retaliatory vengeance. It certainly doesn’t make for a sensational lead story on the evening news broadcast. So they turned their focus to inanimate things like confederate battle flags and statues of civil war generals in order to keep the fires of discord burning. The love of Christ is scandalous. It’s utterly incomprehensible to those who don’t know Him. But His power is the only hope we have of overcoming bias, discrimination and mistrust. They just don’t get it. Even when they see it.
Back to this essay’s main question: “If I’m saved by grace and deemed innocent in the eyes of God why do I still sin and feel so guilty about it? Why can’t I get my act together and behave like my Savior?” I know I’m a born again Christian and, therefore, a “new creation,” so why doesn’t the “old me” go jump in a lake already? Why does he come barging into my consciousness like a stinkin’ drunk unruly cousin, bossing me around like he owns the place? I pray faithfully, read my Bible every day, volunteer at church, give my testimony about how Jesus changed my life whenever asked and try to conduct myself as a God-respecting husband, father, grandpa and friend. Yet despite my lofty intentions to keep the “old me” in quarantine I turn around and suddenly he’s right in my face, laughing at my attempts to keep him sequestered. I feel guilty because I know I often leave my mind’s backdoor ajar on purpose. It’s like there’s a jail in my brain. Before my recommitment to Christ, Satan had me on permanent lockdown. Then Jesus came along and opened the cell door. It can never be shut again. But sometimes I go sit in that dank hole rather than walk freely in His marvelous light. There are times when I feel more comfortable in the darkness. And that disgusts me. It’s as Jesus said in John 3:19, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Considering all I’ve learned about my Lord it’s little wonder I feel guilty.
The problem is I continue to think handing the wheel over to Christ was supposed to cure all that ails me. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that way even though the Scriptures never promote that idea. What the Bible does confirm is that I don’t have to fight my battles alone. God is continually by my side. Graham wrote, “There is always a price to being a person; part of that price is pain and problems, but we have the promise Christ made that He will always be with us.” The remedy is for me to call on His name when I’m being tempted instead of just giving in to the devil. In Psalm 34 David addressed it three times. “This oppressed man cried out and the LORD heard; he saved him from all his troubles” (v.6), “The godly cry out and the LORD hears; he saves them from all their troubles” (v.17) and “The godly face many dangers, but the LORD saves them from each one of them” (v.19). Instead of “crying out” to Jesus for help I try to resist Satan’s lures on my own but I’m not strong enough. No one is. Christ isn’t a way out but a way through life. I don’t need more guilt. I need more resolve.
Guilt accomplishes nothing positive. It’s a debilitating emotion that erodes our attitude towards life, destroys our relationships and hampers our ability to serve God. Guilt makes it hard for us to forgive ourselves. It feeds our self-loathing. In Celebrate Recovery we find it’s often a person’s inability to forgive themselves for the harm they’ve done to others that becomes their biggest hurdle to overcome on the trail to freedom. Many psychiatrists say a large percentage of patients in mental hospitals would be released if they could only come to grips with forgiveness. (On the other side of the coin, too many folks don’t think they need to be forgiven because everything is always someone else’s fault. Always.) But forgiving yourself for past sins is essential to moving forward in faith. Clinging to guilt dishonors God. Since He’s forgiven you via the shed blood of His Own Son, to continue to balk at forgiving yourself is to place your own opinion of you above that of your Heavenly Father. When I do accept His all-encompassing forgiveness I receive relief from the pangs of guilt. I just need to ask for and accept it more often.
At CR we find guilt dissolves when it’s openly aired out in the presence of other believers. 1 John 1:9 states, “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” Some skeptics may scoff and say “Nothing’s that easy” but the truth is that it is! When others are being transparent about their shortcomings and character defects more often than not they help me understand myself and my sinful nature better. That’s why God intends for His children to meet together and share their victories and defeats. When we confess our missteps, our relapses and our mistakes to God and our brothers/sisters in Christ He’ll then make something good come out of those sins being exposed to His light. Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…” I believe that statement to be the rock-solid truth because I’ve seen it happen so many times. Someone summons up the courage to come clean about a particular sin they’ve been committing or indulging in and something they say causes a light bulb to come on in another’s noggin. Suddenly the Holy Spirit reveals to them a hurt, hang-up or habit that’s keeping them from enjoying a closer walk with the Lord and they sense a pressing need to repent of it and work on improving that area of their life. We don’t have to completely savvy how small miracles and spiritual revelations such as that happen. All we need to know is we’ve been exonerated, forgiven and set free. We must accept it on faith or guilt will hound us to the grave. Graham reminded us: “Christ never said, ‘Only understand.’ He said, ‘Only believe.’”