Scripture Reference: Leviticus 16, Psalms 32:1, Psalms 51:1-7, Psalms 103:12, Isaiah 43:25, Isaiah 53:4, Isaiah 61:10, Micah 7:19, 1 John 1:9
What God Does With Forgiven SinDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | April 16, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
God’s forgiveness is sometimes hard to accept. The ongoing consequences of our sin make it hard to believe that we can be genuinely forgiven and restored to God. We need to understand that the consequences of our sin will usually continue even though God has forgiven us.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer explains just how far God goes to forgive our sin: He covers it, He cleanses us from it, He cancels it—all done through the sacrifice of His own Son.
“Does Bob Green deserve redemption, or should the renowned former columnist for the Chicago Tribune sit on the bench for the rest of his days yoked by a scarlet letter?” That’s the opening line in an article that appeared in USA Today.
Those of you who are from Chicago know that this man who wrote for the Tribune was demoted as a result of womanizing. Today he sits and broods alone, seldom goes out and simply ponders his fate. Does he deserve redemption?
He has two challenges ahead of him. One has to do with his relationship with God, and the second challenge has to do with his relationship with people. Those two challenges are related but they must always also be separated, because remember it is possible for you to have a wonderful fulfilling relationship with God even though you have a relationship with some people that is irreparable. And we’ll be talking about that in a future message in this series.
So the first issue that we always have to deal with is our relationship with God, and then we do all that we possibly can to rectify our relationship with others. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not.
There’s a second issue that needs to be distinguished, and that is that sin needs to be distinguished from guilt. And we need to distinguish it because there are many people who sin. In fact, they commit crimes, and yet they feel no guilt. They have hardened their conscience.
Oh, I think that guilt does have an effect, but it’s a kind of deadness. They are not specifically in tune with the evil that they have done. On the other hand, you find that there are those who feel guilty when they shouldn’t. An abused child may feel guilty. Even though he should not feel guilty, he feels guilty for just having been born.
And then there are those who feel guilty even though their sin has been forgiven. They know that they are forgiven but the guilt returns and the guilt can be debilitating. And as a result of that God comes along, as we shall see in His Word today, to bring deliverance to people just like that.
You see, the problem is that there is something within us that tells us that all sin and guilt must be paid for. And as a result of that we, by nature, want to pay for it in ways that come close to self-torture. We want to self-inflict pain and misery to somehow balance the scales and to even the score.
There was a young man who gambled most of his money away. And in his shame and defeat and anger and disappointment he took a toy gun and pointed it at a policeman, and the policeman shot him dead. And in the front seat of the young man’s car there was a note that said, “Thank you for killing me. I didn’t have the nerve to do it myself.” The executioner was there. The judge pronounced the sentence and the executioner said, “You must die.” There’s something within us that says, “It’s got to be handled. It’s got to be atoned for.”
You’ve heard the terms psychosis and neurosis. There are people who are disconnected from reality, and in that disconnect from reality what really is happening is oftentimes it’s unresolved guilt and shame. There is something within them that tells them that there is some shame and guilt that they must take care of, and they don’t know how to handle it. And they don’t accept God’s verdict. And as a result of that the only way that they live is perhaps to transform themselves into something that they are not, and to pretend that they are very, very righteous – maybe even that they are Jesus Christ, and that they are so holy that they cannot be contaminated with other people. The root cause is often unresolved guilt and shame.
Have you ever wondered why hell is not the same for everyone? It’s not the same for everyone because everyone does not carry the same amount of guilt and shame. Imagine eternity! Eternally guilty! Eternity filled with shame and no possibility of finding an exit! Well, thankfully it does not have to be that way.
Where do we turn to finally resolve this issue of guilt and shame? Where do we turn but to God?
Did I recently quote Nietzsche who died in the year 1900 and paved the way for Hitler, because Nietzsche declared the death of God? But he understood something – that with God dead there was now no answer for our problem with sin and shame. Nietzsche said, regarding God, “We have killed Him, but now who will wipe the blood from our hands? There’s no God left to forgive us.”
I want you to know that the intention of this message today is that we all leave here free of guilt, but before we turn to the text, I need to remind you of two reasons why it is so hard for us to accept what I’m going to be saying. It is so hard, first of all, because the ongoing consequences of our sin make it very difficult for us to believe that we can be genuinely restored to God and forgiven, because the consequences are still there.
A man who has messed up his family can be forgiven, restored, cleansed and made whole, but the mess is still there. Just ask King David. And so as a result of that, it is very difficult for people to really accept God’s forgiveness because they say, “The forgiveness does not change the consequences usually,” and usually that is true. But I’m talking today about your relationship with God. The whole idea of consequences we’ll deal with at a subsequent time.
There’s a second reason why people find it so difficult and that is it’s not just because of the consequences of sin, but again there’s something within us that tells us that we deserve to feel guilty. We feel guilty because we should feel guilty. We feel miserable because we owe it to ourselves to feel miserable. Who are we that we should be free of misery, free of guilt and free of shame? We are unworthy of it. And so we are, but that is the message of grace. We read it in our Scripture reading today: “He has not dealt with us after our sins nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Listen to me carefully and hear me today. You can be free of guilt. You can be free guilt.
For whom is this message directed? Well, first of all, it’s directed toward Christians who keep confessing their same sin and then re-confessing it because they have no assurance that they’ve been forgiven. But it’s also for those who do not know Christ as Savior. I want you to listen carefully because you are going to discover the wonder of God’s forgiveness, and I hope that by the end of the message, you will be saying, “This is the forgiveness that I receive at the hand of the dying, yet resurrected, Lord Jesus.” So that’s the agenda. That’s the introduction. Enough of the chit chat. Let’s get down to business.
What does God do with forgiven sin? Not unforgiven sin, but forgiven sin! Today rather than expound only one passage of Scripture, I’m going to be quoting a number of them. In fact, we’ll have sort of a collage of Scripture. And I kind of like that word collage. It sounds sort of dignified. So that’s where we’re going. Thank you for joining me on the journey.
First of all, we discover that He covers our sin. And there are two passages that we should turn to – both in the Psalms, both written by David, both the expression of a man who had committed great sin, adultery and murder, yet a man who also experienced great forgiveness.
Psalm 32:1: “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” What does God do with forgiven sin? God covers the sin. God takes a tarp and puts it over the oil spill. But actually it’s better than that. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all that God did was to simply take our sin and cover it with a blanket? But I want you to know today that that is only part of the story. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said in chapter 61, verse 10: “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord. My soul will exalt in my God, for He has clothed me with garments of salvation.” Notice this: “He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness.”
God doesn’t just cover our sins with a tarp. God covers those sins with a robe of righteousness - the death of Jesus, the work of Jesus to God! That’s how carefully and completely God covers forgiven sin. First of all, He covers it. That means that He no longer sees it. Do you have better eyes than God? Can you see things that God has preferred not to look at? He covers the sin.
Secondly, I want you to notice that He cleanses it. And now we come to the 51st chapter in the Psalms where David says, “Have mercy upon me, oh God. According to thy lovingkindness, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.” Verse 2: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” And how well does He wash it? Is it not there in verse 7? “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean." Wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow.” God not only covers it; He cleanses it. Now we’re talking about the cleansing of the conscience. Now we’re speaking of the experience of not only being clean, but actually feeling clean because the condemnation has left us. He cleanses us.
The Bible says in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us.” Why does John separate forgiveness and cleansing? Aren’t they both the same - they happen at the same time? Yes, they are part of the same work of God, but John knew (what you and I have experienced) that there are many people who have experienced the forgiveness of God but they have never been cleansed by God. The pollution of their consciences has not been washed away. Like the woman who had an abortion and said to me, “Though I have confessed it many, many times, I still feel foul from the top of my head to the soles of my feet.” She had been forgiven but what she needed was cleansing.
Now we’re talking about the conscience. “Were it the blood of bulls and of goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Do you today as a Christian come to church and live tomorrow – Monday morning – with a purged conscience, or is it always nagging, always feeling unclean. God actually purges the conscience. I love that. Do you know why? It’s because there isn’t a psychiatrist in the world, there isn’t a counselor in the world… You can take a seminar on guilt management, and there’s no way for you to be able to reach down to the crevices of your conscience and cleanse it.
One day many years ago I was sitting in my study, and I received a call. And my secretary said, “There’s a distraught woman on the phone who wants to talk to you.” So I spoke with her. She had been listening to a radio program where it seemed to be that after you received Christ as Savior if you so much as sinned too many times it showed that you were never saved. And so she began to doubt her salvation. She said, “I was converted at the age of 19. I’ve led people to Christ.” And then she said, weeping, “But God knows that I have failed Him so many times.” And she said, “Where can I go to, Pastor Lutzer, except the blood of Christ?” And here’s the line now. Isn’t this sweet? She said, “I cannot take steel wool to my heart and scrub it. I must receive the blood of Christ.”
And you can’t take steel wool to your heart and scrub it either, can you? Can you imagine going to Home Depot and saying, “Give me some steel wool and some Lysol?” Why? “I have a dirty heart and it needs to be cleansed.” The answer is, “Of course, there’s no way for you to do that because there is something that tells us that we cannot get down deep into the psyche. We can’t go to that deep level of consciousness to be forgiven and to be cleansed. But God cleanses us.
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow, and though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” God wants you to be free from that nagging conscience. He wants you to receive cleansing, which sometimes takes time. It’s something that you have to insist on. The devil will oppose you at this point. But David, with all of his sin, experienced the washing and the cleansing of God. Look at how far we’ve come. He covers it but He doesn’t see it. He cleanses it so that He doesn’t regard it. He cancels it. We sing, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin.” You’ll notice that David says, “Blot out my transgressions.” Isaiah 43:25 says: “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, and I remember your sins no more.”
Those of us who have worked with pocket calculators know how often and how important it is to have a delete key. For those of us who use computers (and we’re writing and we make mistakes all the time), the computer is so forgiving. You just hit that delete key. God says, “I delete it so that I do not even remember it.”
Now, I need to tell you, of course, that that doesn’t mean that God has lost some knowledge. When the Bible says that God does not remember our sins, it simply means that He’s not bringing it to the table every time we come to Him. He doesn’t say, “Yeah, oh yeah, you want fellowship? Look at what you did last week.” Now that’s the way we are, but that’s not the way God is. He does not remember our sins.
Now we’re talking just one on one. We’re having a cup of tea in my study, and we’re talking heart to heart, aren’t we? Have you ever had to confess the same sin over and over again? If you don’t say yes to that then the sin that you have to confess right after that is the sin of lying. Okay? But we come to God and we say, “Oh God, how can I face You with the same sin again?” And God says, “What sin are you talking about? I don’t remember it. Why is your memory so much better than mine?” And we keep remembering what God says He is forgetting. He remembers our sins no more, and as a result of that we do not need to remember what God has chosen to forget. Are you plagued with memories that have been forgiven, but they still have a hold on you?
Number four, God carries them away. Listen to the text of Scripture: “You will again have compassion on us,” it says. “You will tread on our sins underfoot and hurl them in the depths of the sea.” God takes our sins and He casts them into the depths of the sea. And when the Psalmist wrote that, he had no idea of how deep the sea was. In those days it was believed that the sea was about as deep as you could wade in, or a little bit beyond that – deep enough to drown certainly. But they didn’t know that the sea was five or six miles deep in certain places. And he says, “You have taken our iniquities and you have cast them into the depths of the sea.” And then after God throws them in the depths of the sea, He puts up a sign next to the sea, and the sign says, “No fishing.”
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. God carries them away. He takes them away. He buries them and says, “I’m actually removing them so that they are no longer an issue,” so that He cancels them and does not remember them. And He carries them that He might not revisit them. You and I revisit them all the time, but He says, “I cast them into the depths of the sea. Be free!”
In fact, in the Old Testament on the Day of Atonement there is a very interesting story in Leviticus 16 of what the children of Israel did every year. And this, of course, was powerful symbolically. What they had to do was to choose two goats, and then the lots were cast, and the one lot that would become the Lord’s goat was sacrificed. The blood of the goat was put on various parts of the altar, and that goat represented the atonement that would be coming through Jesus Christ centuries later. But God knew that in order to illustrate what Jesus actually does for us, you need two goats – one that would die and make the atonement. And then there would be another one that would actually take the sins away. This was called the scapegoat – azazel – the escape goat.
And the Scripture says that Aaron was supposed to confess all of the sins of Israel on the head of this goat. I’d love to know how long that confession took. I can imagine him with his hand on the head of this goat, and he goes on praying and praying and praying. And a little kid tugs at his mother’s dress and says, “Mommy, what is he doing? Why is he taking so long, Mommy?” Well, it depends, of course, upon how many sins he confessed and whether he just did them in just general categories. If we had to do that today can you imagine how we would have to confess moral uncleanness, materialism, self-will, stinginess, a lack of love for God, a fear of man, and we could go on and on and on? But after the sins were confessed, the Bible says that the goat was to be led out of the premises and to be taken in the wilderness.
Later on tradition says that this goat was actually taken and pushed over a cliff to die. Why would they do that to this goat that left the premises? I’ll tell you why. Remember now. That goat was loaded. Alright? That goat has upon him the sins of all of the people, and nobody wanted this goat to show up in his backyard and say, “Hoohoo, here I am.” No, you don’t want that goat. You don’t want that goat in your backyard.
One of the ways in which we can fight the devil today is to say to the devil, “You know the goat is gone. There’s no goat around here.” The devil comes to you and says, “Oh, all of the sin is laid on you.” I’m sorry. The goat is the one bearing the sin, and I don’t see the goat. The goat has left the premises. And so it is.
Now what about Jesus? What does the Bible say about Him? You remember it says in Isaiah 53: “He has carried our griefs and carried our sorrows” because He not only dies to make a sacrifice for sin, but once that sacrifice has been made and it’s been received on behalf of His people, the sins are actually carried away. They are taken and they are done away with – cast into the depths of the sea, no longer held against us. We may hold them against ourselves. We may doubt God’s ability to forgive us, but God says, “From my standpoint, I don’t see them, I don’t regard them.” God says, “I don’t remember them and I do not revisit them. They are gone.”
Let me wind this up by making two important observations. First of all, either God covers our sin or we will work at covering our own sin. There’s something within us that tells us that sin has to be covered, and either we let God do it or else we are going to do it, and we do it by denial, dishonesty. We do it by deceit. We take that dog and we bury him in the yard every evening, and we’re saying, “This time he is dead and buried.” And by morning there he is back in the front yard wagging his tail, saying, “Hoohoo, I’m still here.”
Before David confessed his sin he said, “My sin is ever before me. It’s there all the time. The phone rings and I wonder who knows. Someone comes to me with a problem and I’m saying to myself, ‘I wonder if he knows.’ The sin is there. It is this distraction. It is there all the time. It plagues me.” And so what we do is we say to ourselves, “I’m going to manage it. I’m going to stifle it. I’m going to cover it.” And God says, “He who covers his sin shall not prosper, but he who so confesses and forsakes it shall find mercy.” I personally would much rather have God cover my sin than me attempt to do it.
There’s a second lesson. And that is that repentance is really liberating. How do we hang onto all that stuff? Why do we hang onto our sin? Why do we say to ourselves, even as Christians, “I’m wandering away from God? I am living in carnality, but here’s where I’m going to live and I’m not going to come and receive God’s forgiveness. I’m not going to humble myself and repent.” Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we torture ourselves when God says, “I have a cleansed conscience waiting for you? I have freedom.”
In the Bible sin is often spoken of as a sickness. It’s also spoken of as a huge load. You remember in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress a burden (Paul called it the burden of death – the body of this death strapped across your back and you have to walk), and the Apostle Paul said that this is the burden of sin. And then you come to Christ and the burden is lifted, and the sin is forgiven, and the weight is gone, and the freedom is there, and the joy returns, because the longer we postpone our repentance, the longer we postpone our joy.
God says, “You can be forgiven.” Yes, Bob Green can be redeemed. He can be redeemed as he comes to the cross to receive that forgiveness. He can be redeemed. He can be accepted by God. The guilt can be taken away because God is in the business of forgiving His people.
Centuries ago John Dunn pondered the state of his soul. And he said, “Oh my sinful soul, now thou art summoned.” He was talking about sickness, and he knew that after his sickness death would be there. His soul was being summoned, and he begins to think to himself, “What will it be like on the other side?” He looks within his soul and he sees envy, and selfishness and pride. He sees his sin, and he thinks to himself, “Must I die in such despair?” The answer is no, because he realized that in a mysterious, powerful way, when we come to the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and that blood that we shall honor as we have communion together today, as we come, we receive a pardon and a cleansing, which wipes the slate clean so that we can be in fellowship with the living God, and die with the knowledge that we’re saved and forgiven on the basis of Christ’s merit. That’s why we sing,
He breaks the power of cancelled sin.
He sets the prisoner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean.
His blood availed for me.
Just imagine what God can do with forgiven sin. Would you join me as we pray?
Father, we ask that You shall use these moments, these moments of deliverance. People plagued by the past, people burdened with memories, sins that have been confessed continually relived, dug up one more time! Oh Father, come and set Your people free. Grant us joy and freedom in our relationships because we have been forgiven. We thank You.
Father, even as individually we confess our sins, we pray for ourselves as a congregation, even as Israel as a congregation confessed its sins. Come and cleanse us corporately. Cleanse us, oh Father, we ask that we might be free. In Jesus’ name as ask, Amen.