4-5-2 Grace And Guilt
And yet. It’s not that there’s a catch to grace. But it’s wonder
has to be underpinned by something to give it reality and credibility,
to the extent it’s something deeply felt, rather than merely an
abstract idea. Throughout God’s revelation there are commands, there’s
a concept of obedience and disobedience, of acceptance and rejection
by a holy Father. All these things inevitably give rise to guilt
in its true form. To speak solely of grace just as grace whilst
ignoring these obvious things robs grace of its’ power and meaning.
The assurance of Romans 8 is built upon the conviction of sin in
Romans 7. 2 Cor. 12:10 states that it is in our very weakness,
the weakness of the man made to realize the weight of his own mediocrity
and failure to achieve as described above, that the power of
God breaks forth.
God Works Through Sin
Here we have the answer to those who cannot forgive themselves
for past sins. God works out His plan of salvation actually through
man’s disobedience rather than his obedience. As Paul puts it again,
we are concluded in unbelief, that God may have mercy (Rom. 11:32).
It was and is the spirit of Joseph, when he comforted his brothers:
“Now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold
me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5).
And again, speaking about the sin of Israel in rejecting Christ:
“Their trespass means riches for the [Gentile] world” (Rom. 11:12).
Or yet again, think of how Abraham’s lie about Sarah and unfaithfulness
to his marriage covenant with her became a source of God’s blessing
and the curing of Abimelech’s wife from infertility (Gen.
20:17- I read her infertility as a state that existed prior to the
incident with Abraham). The righteousness of God becomes available
to us exactly because we have sinned and come short of the glory
of God (Rom. 3:23,24). If we lie, then through our lie the truth
and glory of God is revealed (Rom. 3:7). The light comes into the
world- the light of hope of salvation, forgiveness, of God in Christ-
but this light reveals to us our verdict of ‘guilty’
David was aware that God didn't really want sacrifice, or else
he would so eagerly have offered it (Ps. 51:16,17). Instead, David
perceived that what God wanted in essence was a broken and contrite
spirit. The Bathsheba incident was programmatic for David's understanding
of God, and his prayers and psalms subsequently can be expected
to have constant allusion back to it. We meet the same idea of God
not ultimately wanting sacrifice in Ps. 40:6-9: "Sacrifice
and offering thou didst not desire [but instead] mine ears hast
thou opened [Heb. 'digged'- a reference to a servant being permanently
committed as a slave to his master]: burnt offering and sin offering
hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come... to do thy will...
thy law is within my heart". In Ps. 51:17, David had reasoned
that instead of sacrifice, God wanted a heart that was broken and
contrite. Here he reflects that instead of sacrifice, God wants
a heart that has the law of God within it. This ultimately is the
effect of God's law being in our heart- it creates a broken and
contrite heart. But how? In the experience of most of us, the law
does this through convicting us of our inability to keep the it.
And so we see how guilt and grace work so seamlessly together. David's
broken heart was a heart which knew he had sinned, sinned irreversibly,
and condemned himself. But this, he perceived, was the result of
God's law being within his heart. But the words of Ps. 40:6-9 are
applied in the New Testament to the Lord's death upon the cross.
What's the connection, and what's the lesson? In essence, through
David's experience of sin, and the work of God's law upon his heart,
he came through that sin to have the very mind of the Lord Jesus
as He hung upon the cross, matchless and spotless in His perfection,
as the Lamb for sinners slain. Again and again we see the lesson
taught- that God works through human sin, in this case, in order
to bring us to know the very mind of Christ in His finest hour of
glory and spiritual conquest. We must not only let God's word work
its way in us; but we need to recognize when dealing with other
sinners that God likewise is working with them. He doesn't shrug
and walk away from sin; He earnestly seeks to use our experience
of it to bring us closer unto Himself.
This was the whole reason for the Law of Moses. It was “so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). Paul is quoting here from Ps. 63:11: “the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped”. He’s reasoning that because we’re all sinners, we’re all liars- for untruth is the essence of sin. We are not being true to ourselves, to God, to His word, to our brethren… we profess covenant relationship with God, to be His people, and yet we fail to keep the terms of that covenant. And the Law of Moses convicted all God’s people of this, and in this way led them to the need for Christ. Yet Is. 52:15 prophesied that the crucified Jesus would result in men shutting their mouths. The righteousness and perfection displayed there in one Man, the very human Lord Jesus, has the same effect upon us as the Law of Moses- we shut our mouths, convicted of sin.
On one level, the Mosaic Law was a set of such intricate regulations
that was almost impossible to keep. And yet it led men to Christ
as a gentle slave leading the children to the teacher. I don’t think
that the Law of Moses led people to Christ in the sense that they
cracked the various types and worked it all out. There’s not one
example that I can think of where an Old Testament character did
this. Indeed it could appear from Gal. 3:23 and other New Testament
passages that until Christ actually came, the Old Testament believers
were “shut up unto the faith which should afterward be revealed”.
Therefore the types etc. of the Law of Moses couldn’t have
been perceived by them in the same way as we understand them. Hence
the Lord’s comment that many righteous men had longed to understand
the things of Jesus which the disciples saw and heard in reality.
“In other ages” those things of Christ were not made
known to men as they were revealed in the New Testament by the preaching
of the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 3:5). The Old Testament
prophets even seemed to understand that the things they saw and
wrote were not so much for themselves as for us (1 Pet. 1:12). Or
reflect on the implications of Gal. 3:23: “Before faith came,
we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith [in Jesus] which
should afterwards be revealed”. The Law was a shadow created
as it were by the concrete reality of Christ. We can look back and
see it all now, but I don’t think the types predicted anything to
the people of the time. So how then did the Law lead people to Christ?
Was it not that they were convicted of guilt, and cried out for
a Saviour? “The law entered , that the offence might abound. But
where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: that… grace might
reign… unto eternal life by Jesus” (Rom. 5:20,21). This was the
purpose of the Law. And thus Paul quotes David’s rejoicing in the
righteousness imputed to him when he had sinned and had no works
left to do- and changes the pronoun from “he” to “they” (Rom. 4:6-8).
David’s personal experience became typical of that of each of us.
It was through the experience of that wretched and hopeless
position that David and all believers come to know the true ‘blessedness’
of imputed righteousness and sin forgiven by grace. Perhaps Gal.
3:22 sums up what we have been saying: “The Scripture [in
the context, this refers to the Mosaic Law] hath concluded all under
sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to
them that believe”. And Paul goes on to say in this very context
that the law brings us unto Christ (Gal. 3:24). It brings us- not
those who lived under the law. How does it do that? By convicting
us of sin, ‘concluding’ us as being under the control
When Paul laments that he cannot find “how to perform that which
is good”, he is speaking about the Law of Moses. For the context
of Romans 7 repeatedly defines the Mosaic Law as that which is “holy,
just and good…the law is [the] good [thing]”, the law of God in
which Paul delighted (Rom. 7:12,16,22). The “no good thing” which
dwelt within Paul was therefore a description of his inability to
keep the Mosaic Law, rather than any reference to human nature-
for the “good thing” has just been defined as the Mosaic Law (Rom.
7:18). But all this was to create the lead in to the realization
that now in Christ, there is now no condemnation. The suffering
and groaning of which Paul speaks in Rom. 8:17, 22-26 is in my view
a reference to the ‘groaning’ he has just been making about his
inability to keep the Mosaic Law. Our helplessness to be obedient,
our frustration with ourselves, is a groaning against sin which
is actually a groaning in harmony with that of the Spirit of the
Lord Jesus, who makes intercession for us with the same groanings
right now (Rom. 8:26). Indeed, those groanings are those spoken
of in Heb. 5:7 as the groanings of strong crying and tears which
the Lord made in His final passion. In this sense, the Spirit, the
Lord the Spirit, bears witness with our spirit / mind, that we are
the children of God (Rom. 8:16). This clinches all I am trying to
say. Our inability to keep the Law of God leads to a groaning against
sin and because of sin, which puts us into a unity with the Lord
Jesus as our Heavenly intercessor in the court of Heaven. Because
of this, we are declared justified, there are no credible accusers,
and the passionate intercessor / advocate turns out to be the judge
Himself. Thus through our frustration at our own failure, we are
led not only to Christ but to the certainty of an assured salvation.
But that wondrous realization of grace which is expressed so finely
in Romans 8 would just be impossible were it not for the conviction
of sin which there is through our experience of our inability to
keep the Law of God. Our failure and groaning because of it becomes
in the end the very witness that we are the children of God (Rom.
8:16). God thereby makes sin His servant, in that the experience
of it glorifies Him. How God works through sin is revealed in the
way that although God always provided food for Israel in the wilderness,
He ‘suffered them to hunger’ for 40 years, in order
to try to teach them that man lives not by bread alone, but by God’s
word (Dt. 8:2,3). The Jews in the wilderness despised the food God
gave them as worthless (Num. 21:3); they went hungry not literally,
but in the sense that they despised the manna of God’s provision.
And He allowed them to have that hunger, in order that He might
[try to] teach them about the value of His word. He didn’t
simply punish them for their ingratitude. He sought to work through
it in order to teach them something. Even the process of rejection
results in the victims coming to ‘know the Lord’.
I have argued elsewhere that the book of Job was written by Moses as a preface to his Law. Job was driven by his own confused guilt over his illness to realize his sinfulness, and to desperately wish for the ‘daysman betwixt’ God and man, lamenting that there was no such mediator. It was through the torment of guilt which God allowed to come upon him that he came to triumph that he knows that his redeemer lived, or ‘will live’, and would resurrect him at the last day. Think too about the Mosaic legislation about lepers and menstruating women. Were those people really morally unclean before God because of bodily situations over which they had no control? Or was this not a legislation which had the intent of convicting all people of their guilty state before God, and in the end, their need for salvation by grace alone? For the leper had to offer a guilt offering for being cleansed (Lev. 14). Was it not that the legislation was to convict of guilt regarding the human condition, rather than stating that some individual was more guilty than the one next to him simply because of a condition over which he had totally no control? Likewise, how could offering a sacrifice or paying a penalty in cash or goods really take away sin? Was the whole exercise not to convict us of guilt in order to prepare us for the way of escape through grace? A price must be paid for sin and for our guilt; we have to come to personally realize that. But that great price has been paid by the Lord, it’s not for us to pay the price, but to respond in faith to the fact it has been paid. In passing, this approach to the Law would explain why at times forgiveness and reconciliation was possible during the Mosaic period by means other than the Mosaic legislation, or when it was imperfectly applied.
The Lord’s manifesto as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount was structured and set up by Him in some ways as a ‘new law’ as opposed to the old law of Moses. And yet His law likewise proves impossible to keep. We cannot be perfect as our Father is. To a man and to a woman, we would admit that we cannot fully forgive our enemies from our hearts. And so, according to the Lord’s law, we each stand unforgiven. We are to sell all that we have and give to the poor, or risk forfeiting the Kingdom because of our love of this world’s goods (Mk. 10:17-22). An angry thought is murder, a passing lustful look becomes adultery- all mortal sins, which catch each of us within their net. Why was this? Surely yet again, the Lord wished to convict us of our guilt before Him, our inabilities, our desperation… so that we could come to appreciate the wonder of His character and His saving grace. For He was the one and only emodiment of His own teaching, to the point that the person who fulfilled all His teaching was in fact He Himself- and no other man. In knowing Him, we thus know our own desperation, and yet we likewise know- because we know Him- the certainty of our salvation by grace. Further, it becomes apparent that the Lord accepted with open arms those who were so very far from the ideals He laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. He convicted them of their guilt in such a way that with joy and peace they ran to His grace.
God’s dialogue with Cain was the Divine attempt at the same process. The questions ‘Where is Abel your brother… what have you done?’ were clearly intended to induce guilt in Cain, but the purpose was to lead him to the grace of salvation found in the sacrificial lamb provided by God, then crouching at his door as a sin offering. And yet, tragically, Cain would not allow himself to enter the grace-guilt-grace process. Like so many, he turned away in bitter rebellion and self-justification. And thus he came to prefigure the rejected, whose punishment will be to simply exist for a time with the pain of their own undealt with guilt. And if we chose to live like that in this life, we are living out our own condemnation.
Israel’s prophets likewise sought to awaken guilt in those of God’s people who were repressing it. This is different to mere moralising. They were appealing for an awakening of true conscience and guilt. Isaiah exemplified his message in his own life. He was convicted of his sin, saying “Woe is me”, in order to prepare him for the great truth that “your guilt is taken away” (Is. 6:1-7).
These thoughts explain to me why believers like David, Paul, you and me, can be both joyous and depressed, tormented by guilt and yet confident of the grace of God… all as part of the same wondrous process which God is working out. Perhaps we could say that, according to Romans 8, it is not guilt that is removed but condemnation. The guilt remains. But there is no condemnation for it. We will be saved. We will be in God’s Kingdom.
Guilt And Truth
Firstly, some words about guilt. Guilt is part of the downward spiral in spiritual life. Unconfessed sin carries a double burden- the guilt over the failure itself, and the guilt of its concealment. Secrecy and guilt are related. The sense that God’s gifts can be received only by our works and achievments lead towards exaggeration. And again, untruthfulness and guilt become related.
‘Living the truth’ involves an openness with not only God but ourselves and
others too. This is the power of doctrinal truth- it ought to lead to
a truth-full attitude to life. The openly lived life, with no secret sin,
and open confession of past sins, leads to a life not dominated by guilt.
Indeed, there’s something contagious about confession. My dream is for
our community to become one that is free of the fear of human judgment,
ever growing in this contagious openness and confession, free of false
guilt and growing in grace…
I can say that I have seen this wonderfully outworked in my own life. From being a zealous believer who committed the kinds of sins which I know are common to all flesh, but not feeling that bad about them nor the need to confess them before men, I was led by a chain of circumstances to having all my sins, and many other speculations and false allegations, aired literally before the world. I am so grateful for that experience, because it led me to a wonderful sense of ‘truth’, of openness, to freedom from the guilt that is related to knowing we have secret sins, things which others would be shocked if they knew. And I was able to throw myself even further into my Christian service with a joy and focus I never had before. I know, and I can deeply underline that word ‘know’, that there will be no surprises for any of you when I come before the Lord at the last day. The freedom I enjoy with you my readers and hearers is that which you can all enjoy. I have learnt that there is only one judge; as Paul said, it now means very little to me to be judged by man’s judgment. I too can no longer judge others- for again, there is only One judge. If only as a community we would not judge, our mutual openness would lead to far deeper relationships with each other.
This isn’t to say that one has no secrets at all. Having ‘secrets’ is part of a child’s growth to individuality- a secret drawer, a secret we only reveal to those whom we chose to be our special friends. And yet the Gospel is described as the ultimate ‘secret’; our personalities before God are the ‘hidden man’ which we know we have and yet are likewise aware that others can’t enter into.
Thus there’s nothing wrong with
a Christian experiencing both joy and sorrow at the same time. The
Lord’s description of His ‘joy’ at the time of His being the ultimate
‘man of sorrows’ is an obvious example. But consider too Paul’s
language to the Philippians. On one hand he speaks insistently of
his joy: “I pray always with joy… Christ is being preached, and
I am glad… I will also continue to be happy… I am glad, and I share
my joy… it made me very happy (Phil. 1:4,18; 2:17; 4:10). And yet
on the other hand, he speaks of his sorrows at that very same time:
“…that I may receive news about you that will cheer me up… keep
me from having one sorrow after another” (Phil. 2:19,27).
Pierre Janet and the ‘psychoanalytical
school’ explain how guilt transfers itself when it is left undealt
with. These psychologists observed the cases of people with moral
ideals, who then go through strong tendencies and actual behaviours
[i.e., sin] which oppose those moral ideals. They noticed that the
memory of those guilty feelings and acts “is driven out of the field
of consciousness. Later these repressed tendencies and memories
reappear, disguised in the form of mental pictures, dreams, bungled
actions, or else as neurotic symptoms, paralyses, functional disorders,
obsessions, and so on”(1). Now these shrinks are only
figuring what the Bible itself tells us plainly- that sin, the ‘devil’,
is a deceiver. We conveniently forget our sins. But- the
guilt resurfaces in other forms. It’s my own extensive observation
that obsessions and other neuroses are particularly common amongst
legalistic believers who are burdened by both real and false guilt.
Both the real and even the false guilt are only dealt with [from
the sufferer's perspective] by God’s forgiveness through Christ,
which involves confession of the sin. If it isn’t, that guilt [whether
true or false guilt] only resurfaces in some other form in our lives
and personalities, and will come to the surface again at the day
of judgment. Now is the time to deal with it. In fact, right
now is the only time to truly deal with it through
Christ… today is the day of salvation.
Summarized in Paul Tournier, The Healing Of Persons
(New York: Harper & Row, 1967) p. 54.