The Guilt You Can't Wish AwayErwin W. Lutzer | March 9, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Guilt is the most universal of all emotions and society has no answer for it. Through the story of Joshua, the high priest in Zechariah 3, we can learn how to combat the devil as he stands accusing us before God.
Only God has the answer and the ability to remove guilt from us—through Jesus Christ. We must learn to distinguish between the arrows Satan is slinging at us and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
“Well, tell me man to man, is there a way out, or isn’t there? If there is, I want to know about it. If not, I’m going to blow my brains out.” Those are the words of a man – a bisexual – who had just given his wife AIDS. She wasn’t about to forgive him because of his lies and his deceptions and his dishonesty. And now he wondered what the future held. Is there a way out or is there not?
As you know, this is a series of messages titled After You’ve Blown It – Reconnecting with God and Others. Today we’re speaking about reconnecting with God, and we will do that for a few more messages in this series, and then we’ll talk about the reconnection with other people. How do you live when others might not forgive you? How do you untangle messes for which you are responsible?
But today we speak about the topic of guilt and our relationship with God, because guilt is the most universal of all human emotions, feelings and experiences. Guilt tells me that I have done something wrong. There is an “ought” to which I have not responded, and I’ve not lived up to the “ought” that I know I really should do. There is such a thing as false guilt. Sometimes children who are abused feel guilty simply because they were born. They feel guilty because their parents heaped guilt upon them. But there is also something that we can call real guilt. It is objective guilt. It is us in the presence of God, the consciousness that we are out of sorts with the Almighty. And within our consciences there is something within us that tells us we must pay. “Pay up,” our conscience tells us.
Now, society has no answer to the problem of guilt – none whatever. Society basically says that if we lower the standards and simply say that everyone does it, why then indeed we’ll be able to alleviate people of guilt. Maybe they can unlearn the feeling. But still even after all of that, there is something within us that says, “You still owe. You must pay more.”
Or society tells us that if we blame other people… It’s society’s fault. It’s the society that created an atmosphere in which I have to lie, I have to cheat, I have to steal, and I’m immoral because this is what society dictates. And yet at the end of the day all of us know that despite those rationalizations there is still that voice within us that says, “You’ve still not paid enough. Pay more.” And so what do we do? We try to rationalize the voice away. We say to ourselves, “If I can find somebody who is worse than I am (and generally that’s not too difficult to do), someone who’s a greater sinner, why then indeed I will feel better because I’m not so bad after all.” But it does not silence the voice.
And then there are those who think that they can even the score by being good. I have a friend who said that when he came home from school and mowed the lawn without being told, his mother used to say, “Well, what have you been up to now?” She simply assumed that the boy was trying to cover for something. There are young people who have gone into drugs and immorality, and then they have gone into social work and they have said, “Look, I’m devoting my life to the poor. I’m working in social work.” And what they don’t realize is that they are trying to even the score. They are trying to say, “Okay, I’ve done this over here, but here’s something I can do to prove I’m really not all that bad, am I?” But down deep inside the voice still says, “Pay more. Pay more.”
And so what happens in today’s world especially, as people choose a method of payment that only increases the intensity of the voice, they go into drugs and alcohol. A chaplain said to a young man in a hospital, a brilliant young man, “Why are you killing yourself with heroine?” and he said, “Chaplain, you ought to know the answer to that question. I should not have to tell you why.” He said, “I feel so badly about things that I have done, and I don’t have enough guts to blow my brains out, so I am dying slowly by using heroine. I’m dying on the installment plan.”
So people choose a way to silence the voice, to make the payment that only increases the intensity of the voice, and increases the intensity and the need for a payment. And so people pay up, but they pay with their lives and their hearts. In a book on guilt, William Justice wrote, “For every failure to live up to some ought, there is the tendency to punish oneself in such a manner so as to produce another failure. And every failure produces the response, ‘I ought not to have failed.’ Having failed, I punish myself in such a manner as to produce a further sense of failure. My cycle is complete, only to begin again. I have failed to live up to some ought for which I feel guilty. Convicted of guilt, I feel the need to pay. To pay I choose a method that will leave me with a sense of having failed. On and on the cycle rolls downward. It may be compared to a snowball rolling down a hill, adding to its momentum with each revolution.” He calls it the cycle of the damned. What else is hell but an awakened conscience with no ability to pay forever?
I’ve known people who have married badly, married unwisely, married against all reason, and have not taken into account admonitions. And they have married that way because there was something within them that says, “I don’t deserve to be happy so I’m going to marry somebody who is going to make me as miserable as I deserve to be.” And so they are working out their guilt because of that little voice that says, “You’re a wretch. You are dirty, and you have to pay for your dirt.” Guilt is a God-sized problem, but thankfully it has a God-sized solution.
In the Old Testament there is a remarkable story. It’s found in the book of Zechariah. Zechariah is one of the prophets that comes close to the Old Testament ending. If you take your Bible and find the division between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and then you just go back apiece, you’ll find the prophet, Zechariah. And in this passage of Scripture he has a vision in which there are three participants, and thankfully, the vision helps us understand the nature of guilt. And it has within it the potential to teach us how to be free of the guilt that continues to say, “Pay up. Your debt can be paid up.”
You’ll notice that there are three participants, as I mentioned, and the first one is Joshua. Now this Joshua is to be distinguished from the Joshua who was alive during the time of Moses. This is an entirely different time period.
Zechariah 3:1-3: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?’ Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. The first participant is Joshua, the high priest. If you were to compare men upon men I’m sure that he would be one of the more righteous men of his era and of his community. When it says that he was standing before the Lord, really the Hebrew text means that he was doing his priestly duties in the presence of the Lord. And yet I want you to notice that he is dressed in filthy garments. The Hebrew text here is very explicit. It refers to excrement. It means that Joshua is exceedingly dirty and filthy. That’s a good word – filthy – and he’s standing before the Lord.
Sin in the Bible is often represented as a disease. Oftentimes it is also represented as uncleanness. So here he stands in the presence of the Lord. What do you think he would like to do in the presence of the Lord? Well, of course, what he would really want to do is to flee, to get out of there, to get away from the presence of the Lord God. All of his desires would have wanted that as he stood there, burning with shame.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes we are so conscious of the way in which we dress. One time I was invited to an event. My wife and I were invited, and I really dressed down. I thought it was going to be casual, and everyone there was formal, and all evening I kind of felt that everybody was looking at me. I felt very self-conscious. Imagine walking into an environment like that dressed with filthy garments. Imagine, because what we really have here is Joshua’s heart exposed visually. How would you like it if everyone who came to church this morning was dressed in garments, and on those garments were written for all to see every thought that you have had about other people this week – totally exposed? I think our attendance would be down on that particular Sunday. It would be difficult to find anyone - maybe no one even here on the platform or behind the pulpit. And this is Joshua now standing there, and it’s all visible. And I know it’s a graphic picture – filthy garments – but there are some of you listening to this who, if you were honest and you looked into my eye, and you and I were having a cup of tea together, you would say, “Pastor Lutzer, I feel dirty. That’s the way I feel.” That’s Joshua.
There’s a second person in this vision that Zechariah has, and the second person is the Lord – the angel of the Lord, “the” angel of the Lord – not an angel of the Lord, but “the” angel of the Lord. And who is this angel of the Lord? Well, scholars for centuries have correctly noted that this indeed must be a reference to Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ before his incarnation. It’s called the pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus. Why? It’s because the angel of the Lord clearly is the Lord. It says in verse 2, “The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan.’” So He is the Lord. He is the Lord, and yet He distinguishes Himself also from the Lord, and this would be a reference to the Trinity. Jesus Christ now is here, and Jesus is the holy one.
I know that when Jesus was on earth, if we had met Him we might not have known anything very specific because He perhaps looked very ordinary, but beneath that ordinariness was, of course, the beauty and the holiness of God as was seen on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here you have the angel, and the angel is not veiled in flesh. The angel represents the holiness of God, which only accentuates Joshua’s sin. He is standing in the presence of a holy God, and it is a holy God before whom we are judged and evaluated and adjudicated. It’s not among ourselves.
Many people are like that little boy who said, “I’m eight feet tall. Oh yes, I’m eight feet tall.” It turns out he was eight feet tall according to the ruler that he himself had made. We judge ourselves by ourselves. The standard is the holiness of God. But I want you to notice that Jesus was not only holy. Notice what Jesus does.
And I’m picking it up now in verse 4: “And the angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ And to him he said, ‘Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.’” Isn’t that beautiful? The angel is speaking to the other angels that are there, and they are saying, “Take Joshua’s garments away.” And you know that would have been sufficient if he had just gotten rid of his dirty garments, but God does more than that. God actually says, “I’m going to give you something in exchange.”
I want you to know today that a Christian is not a sinner minus his sins. That’s only half the story. A Christian is a sinner clothed in the righteousness of Christ, standing in rich garments, it says here. The idea actually is festal robes, beautiful garments, holy garments, acceptable garments to the angel of the Lord, garments that are completely acceptable to God.
The Jesus who would die on the cross centuries later would purchase for Joshua these garments. You say, “Well, how could this already be in Old Testament times?” Well, the Old Testament saints were saved on credit. You know what it’s like to buy something on credit. Some of you who know something about what it’s like to buy an item of furniture on credit wish you never heard of the practice. But that’s the way it was because Jesus was looking through the corridors of time, and knowing that He would die, He says, “I’m redeeming people already based on the payment that I will make, and so Joshua, come here. I clothe you in pure garments so that you can stand before me without embarrassment, without any sense of humiliation, and without wanting to run away. The garments that I have given you are not just your old garments made clean, but brand new ones.” And now the issue wasn’t really how dirty Joshua’s garments are, because I’m sure that there were people in his day whose garments would have been dirtier than his. But that was really not the issue. The issue is the beauty and the wonder and the completeness of the garments that he received as a gift from the angel of the Lord, from Jesus Himself.
Now there’s a third participant in this vision and that, of course, is Satan, the adversary. Let me reread verse 1: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.” Follow carefully. What is supposed to be portrayed as reconciliation between a sinner and God, Satan now interjects something else, and he tries to divide God and the sinner through his accusations, and so he’s standing there at His right hand to accuse.
We have to pause here. Let’s not hurry over this. Who is it that’s making the accusations? Are the accusations being made by someone who himself is very pure and therefore has a right to talk? Not quite! We’re talking about someone who is the embodiment of evil, someone who loves evil. If Joshua is filthy, Satan is filthier still. If Joshua is unclean, Satan is more unclean. He is the essence of uncleanness. There is no righteousness in him at all, and he’s the one who is making the accusations. It’s not just that he’s unclean, but also he’s the one who instigates sin. He’s the one who leads us into temptation, and after we have been led into temptation and we have sinned, he’s the one there to accuse us and to tell us what big sinners we are and why we should run from God rather than toward Him. He’s there doing that. He’s like a firebug that is also a firefighter, so he’s constantly being sent to his own fires that he begins. And when he’s there, he’s there to accuse. “Look at that, you sinner.”
What is he saying? Well, from other passages in the Bible we can put it together. So far as to us he is speaking, he speaks through feelings and not just words. Remember that. He speaks through feelings and not just words, and he says this to us: “So you’re a believer. Look at what you’ve done. Don’t you see how filthy you really are? If you really understood the full import of how filthy you were, you would know that there’s no way for God to really forgive you. And you say that you have garments of righteousness, but just look at your heart. Do you remember what you did in the past? And if you don’t remember I’ll help you to remember because you have to be locked into your sin. Don’t you ever think your conscience can be free. When your conscience tells you to pay up there is no way for you to do it. Run from God because He’s mad at you.” That’s what he’s saying to us.
To God he has a different story. To God he comes and says, “Now wait a moment. Look at this sinner. If You allow him into heaven, if you allow him to have fellowship with You, You are going to disgrace Your name. Your name is going to be disgraced because, You know, You say that You are holy. You say that Your courts are holy, and here You would have fellowship with people who are going to defile Your courts. What kind of a God is that to associate with sinners, and to have friends among those who have sinned just as greatly as I have?” the devil says.
Well, praise God, the Bible says in verse 2: “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” Joshua is a brand plucked from the burning, but so are all of us. “And you be quiet because My reputation is not going to be impugned, and the reason it’s not going to be impugned is because I am giving these filthy people garments of righteousness by which they can approach Me with complete holiness and have an entry point into My presence, because I have clothed them with that which I accept, namely garments that have been woven by My precious Son. Be quiet, Devil.”
What I’d like to do now is to give you four life transforming lessons. If we could learn these lessons, we could walk out of here free. And if not now, at least we could seek God this afternoon and be free by tonight. That’s how important these are.
Are you ready for the lessons? I am.
Number one, we must distinguish between the conviction of the Spirit and the accusations of the devil. We have to learn how to do that, because if you don’t… What if Joshua had stood there and what if the angel had not been there to rebuke him, and Joshua would have taken all the things that the devil said to him as being true and honest and completely right? And there he is, being lacerated by the evil one, and he’d have had to endure all that and slink away in shame and in disgrace, because, you see, there is a part of what the devil says that is right. We are sinners. We are filthy sinners, if I might use the word and not offend your sensibilities, though appeal to your honesty.
We are sinners so that part is right, but what the devil leaves out is the wonder of God’s grace. The issue is not whether or not we are as bad as the devil says we are. The issue is whether or not God is going to treat us as though we are that bad or that God will treat us as the result of what Jesus did as having a righteous standing before Him. That’s really the issue.
Now here’s what happens. Here’s a Christian who commits a sin, and then he confesses it, and he feels guilty later. And he says, “You know what? I don’t think I was sincere. If I were really sincere I wouldn’t have these memories and these feelings.” So the devil is capitalizing on that. And so the Christian says to himself, “This time I’m going to really confess my sin. I mean this time I am serious.” And so he confesses the same sin. Moments later he still feels guilty, and maybe a day later. And he says, “Well I wasn’t really sincere. The next time I’m really, really, really, really going to mean it.” So he goes through the same ritual. And after he really, really, really, really, really means it, the next day he begins to have memories and feelings, and he says to himself, “Well, you know, God has abandoned me,” and he doesn’t know he’s been listening to the devil and not the Holy Spirit.
See, the Holy Spirit of God points out sin in our life that we might confess it. When we receive Christ as Savior, we receive the righteous garments that we’ve been talking about and legally we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. But you and I know that as we go through this life we still get dirty, and we still have to confess our sins. But the Bible says that if we confess them He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from each individual unrighteousness. But the devil says that doesn’t apply to you, thank you. And so as the Spirit convicts us and we have repented and confessed, it is then taken up by the devil who points out forgiven sin and begins to harass us over things that God has already put away. And if you don’t know the difference, you can be in that quagmire of guilt. We sometimes call it a bad self-image, that low grade sense of self hatred and disdain. And you’ll never get out of it because you are listening to the wrong voice.
What we need to be able to do is to say, “Be gone, Devil. I rebuke you in the name of Jesus. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifies. Who is He that condemns? It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again that is even now on the right hand of the throne of God who also makes intercession for us.”
And my dear friend, please don’t attack the devil this way: “Devil, I’m not as bad as you’re saying I am. In fact, I can think of church members who are a lot worse than I am. I’m not that bad.” Don’t ever do that. Number one, you probably are that bad. That would be one good reason why that doesn’t work. But the second reason is he has you for lunch. He has you for lunch, and he’ll take you for dinner and breakfast the next day.
We defeat the devil by saying, “Okay, I am that bad, but there’s my righteousness. There’re my garments. Jesus is my garment.” (applause) Amen. Like Martin Luther says… If I may quote Luther who was rather earthy in what he said: “Oh Jesus, I am Thy dung, but Thou art my righteousness.” I am as bad as Satan may say I am, but today Jesus represents me before the Father. The garments have been placed upon me and I point to those garments and I stand not on the basis of what I’ve done and what I’ve not done. I stand on the basis of what Jesus did for me. I rebuke you, Satan.” And then you can be free.
Let me give you a second lesson. Guilt should drive us toward God, not away from Him. Listen to what Spurgeon, the great nineteenth century preacher, said on this passage. He said, “Stand where you are, for remember you are standing in the only place where pollution can be washed away. You are standing before the angel of the covenant. It is before Christ that sin is to be confessed. Confess it anywhere else, your sorrow is not repentance but remorse. What is remorse? Remorse is repentance made out of the sight of Jesus. True repentance is sorrow for sin in the presence of Christ. Foul and filthy as you are, there is but one voice that can speak you clean. Do not go away from that voice. There is but one hand which can touch you and make you pure. Stand where that hand is. Stand close there. Filthy as your garments are, shun not the face of your best, your only friend, but breathe out this prayer: ‘Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou can make me clean. Purge me, oh purge me now, for Thy love’s sake.’ Run to Christ – not away from Him. He’s the only One who can purge you. Go to your best friend – guilt. Drive us to Christ, not away from Him.”
The third lesson: If we cannot forgive ourselves, we are participating in Satan’s lies. You must forgive yourself. If God has forgiven you, whose standards are so much higher, then you must forgive yourself, and you must give those consequences to God. There was a father who had to take his son to school because his boy missed the bus, and the father was very angry. And so as he zoomed down the highway in the truck when he switched lanes he swerved, and the door of the truck flew open and his boy flew out and was hit by an oncoming vehicle and was killed. For the rest of the day the father cursed himself. He cursed himself as he looked into the mirror. He cursed himself as he paced the floor. And before the next morning came he had shot himself with a 45 caliber rifle because, you see, his conscience said, “Pay up! Look at what you’ve done.” And so his executioner came and demanded the ultimate penalty, and he paid the penalty that his conscience demanded. But he would not have had to do that.
If standing in the presence of Christ God were to acquit him of his anger and to say, “Yes, I sinned because I was angry, I sinned because I swerved,” but standing there in the presence of Christ if God can speak him clean, he can face life even if others do not forgive him, even if there is no resolution of the difficulty. Yes, of course, to live with regrets is one thing, but to live with raw remorse in the presence of Jesus is not necessary. That’s why Spurgeon said, “Remorse is repentance out of the sight of Jesus. Stand at the angel of the covenant. Stand there where you can be cleansed and forgiven and where your conscience can be purified.”
There’s a final lesson, and that is that God honors all whom He forgives. It isn’t just a matter of forgiveness. It’s honor. Look at what the text says. It says in verse 5: “And I said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.”
The turban is symbolic now of the festal aspect of Joshua’s priestly ministries. And notice what it says in verse 6: “And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Joshua, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts.’” It’s okay, Joshua, for you to walk in my courts where I live and where my presence is as long as you come clothed with the garments that I Myself have provided you.
God says, “Come, and enjoy our fellowship because I have acquitted you.” And if God speaks you clean, there is no one in the universe who can declare you to be guilty. And it is God’s intention that our consciences be purged. The goal of this series is a conscience void of offense before God, and that’s what we’ve been emphasizing in the future messages - before man. But it’s that we might be pure before God, and that demanding conscience might be silenced because everything that it has demanded has been paid for in Jesus. That’s why we sing Jesus Paid It All.
I’m told that in the movie The Shawshank Redemption it’s the story of prison life in the northeast in the 1940s. Apparently the film focuses on the journey of two men’s hearts through the trials and the temptations of incarceration – what it’s like to be in prison. Red, the ring leader and the most seasoned of the prisoners, explains what happens when you live within those walls too long. He says, “At first these walls you hate them. They make you crazy. After a while you get used to them, and you don’t notice them anymore. And then,” he says, “the day comes when you realize you need them.”
Isn’t that the way slavery to sin is? First of all, you hate it. You hate the garments that have been soiled by sin. Then you get used to them and you say, “Well, I’m managing with my guilt. I’m managing. I’m living. I’m going to church and I’m listening to messages.” And then you begin to prefer it and to say, “I don’t want to deal with these issues.” You begin to prefer it and say, “You know, it’s manageable. I prefer it.” And then in the end, oh may it never be, you actually say to yourself, “I need these dirty garments because that’s who I am.” And then you begin to live within those walls, and you need them, and you end up preferring slavery to freedom.
Jesus said, “If the Son shall make you clean and free, you shall be free indeed,” free to walk in the courts of the Lord, free to have fellowship with God, free to live without the nagging voice that says, “Pay up, pay up, pay up!” Oh, it’s been paid!
The terrors of law and of God
with me can have nothing to do.
My Savior’s obedience and blood
hide all of my sins from view.
My name on the palm of his hands
eternity cannot erase.
Forever there it stands,
a mark of indelible grace.
Our Father, today we want to thank You for this marvelous story. We thank You today for the fact that our dirty garments are taken away. We’re clothed in garments that You adore. And we ask You today, Father, for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior. Would you show them the beauty of exchanging their rags and their soiled garments for that which is holy and pure, because it’s a gift given to those who trust Christ? And for those of us who know You, we pray that we might never soil those beautiful garments. May we never desire to. We ask that even when we do, we pray that we may be cleansed because we desire the purity that You have made us to be in Jesus.
Many, Lord, are struggling with guilt and a sense of self-condemnation. Would You bring to them, Father, that precious gift of freedom because they know that they’ve been forgiven in Christ, we ask. Amen.