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The Power Of A Clear Conscience

Forgiven Forever

Erwin W. Lutzer | October 26, 2014

Selected highlights from this sermon

Martin Luther was filled with grief because he couldn’t satisfy the demands of God through doing good works. But by studying the Scriptures, he realized that justification was available to him through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. 

For those who have been justified by Christ’s merit, we don’t have to permit our consciences and the enemy to accuse us. No one can bring a change against us once God has forgiven and justified us.

If you are here today and you are of the Catholic faith, I hope that you have a sense of humor. I believe that you do. I’m counting on it. There is a story that when the last pope died he took all of his keys and attempted to open the door of heaven. He tried every key and they didn’t work. In fact, he tried all of his keys a second time. Suddenly a shadowy figure arrived and was there and said to the pope, “What’s going on?” He said, “I’m the pope. I have the keys to the kingdom. I have the keys to paradise, but they’re not working.” The guy said, “Well, you have to understand something. Five hundred years ago a guy by the name of Martin Luther came up here and he changed the locks.” (laughter)

Now, just to clarify a little bit of theology, neither Luther, nor the pope, has the keys to heaven. They are held by Jesus, the Bible says, in Revelation 1:18. (applause) But whether you are here today as a Buddhist, or a Muslim (no matter what religion you belong to), or a Catholic or a Protestant, you are all welcome, and all of us should appreciate the struggle of conscience that Martin Luther experienced.

This happens to be the seventh in a series of messages entitled The Power of a Clear Conscience, and no one struggled with his conscience more than did Luther. In fact, he enrolled in the monastery in Erfurt to see whether or not he could quiet his tormented soul. Luther was afflicted by what is known in German as anfechtungen, that is to say a sense of existential despair, anxiety, guilt, an overwhelming feeling of inferiority, of imperfection, and his conscience haunted him, and he hoped that he’d be able to find peace.

So there in the monastery in Erfurt he took the time to try to take advantage of all of the opportunities that medieval Catholicism gave him back in the years 1507 and 1508. And what he did is he began by the duties that were outlined that should be done - the renunciation of self will, the idea of sleeping on a floor without a blanket (And Rebecca and I have been to these places many times. I’ve had the privilege of leading tours to the sites of the Reformation.), and so he was there on a stone floor without a blanket to mortify the flesh. And he did all that he could regarding these disciplines. Sometimes he fasted so long and so much that some of his fellow monks thought that he would actually die. The problem was that there was never a balance. His account with God was never balanced. The more he did, the more he sensed God demanded, and his conscience continued to torment him.

The sacraments were of some solace to him – especially confession, but he knew that he needed to confess all of his sins. And in order to jog his memory, what he did is he began by quoting the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins, and then the confession started. Sometimes he confessed his sins for up to six hours at a time until his confessor, Staupitz, said, “Luther, why is it that you confess all of these little sins? The next time you come let it be for murder or for immorality or theft, but not all these little peccadilloes, not all these little sins.

But Luther was a better theologian than his contemporaries. He knew that the issue was not whether the sin was big or little, but whether or not it had been confessed, and whether or not it had been forgiven, because Luther knew, as moderns don’t, that even the slightest sin, even the smallest smidgeon of sin, will banish a sinner forever from the presence of God. And then in confession he reached an impasse. Sins, in order to be forgiven, had to be confessed. In order for them to be confessed they had to be remembered. If they were not remembered they could not be confessed, and if they were not confessed, they could not be forgiven. And then he realized his situation was even worse than he thought. Indeed all of his whole nature was corrupt. You see it was as if he was trying to mop up the floor with a faucet running. No matter how often he confessed, tomorrow was a brand new day with new sins, and his conscience would not be silenced, and there was no peace.

Staupitz suggested that Luther go to the little town of Wittenberg, where a university was being established by the lector Frederick, and that he should teach there. And Luther taught philosophy and ethics, and then Staupitz said to him one day, “Why don’t you begin teaching the Bible?” And Luther said, “That will be the death of me.” To some extent it was. He began to lecture in the Psalms, and he came to Psalm 22 - “My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?” – the words of Jesus on the cross.

So Luther said, “Why is it that Jesus Christ Himself experienced anfechtungen (a sense of disquiet, a torment of soul, a separation from God)?” And then he began to realize that it was on our behalf that that happened. And then Luther came to Romans 1, because he was lecturing on the book or Romans where it says that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, and as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

Oh, Luther hated the righteousness of God. “Love God?” Luther said, “I hate Him because, you see, it is because God is so righteous. That’s our problem. If God were less righteous, and maybe he’d be able to bend His righteousness to accommodate us, then all of my works and all of my confessions would be sufficient. But God is impeccably holy and righteous.”

But Luther began to understand that the text says that the just live by faith, and he began to see that righteousness is an attribute of God, but righteousness also is a gift that God gives to sinners. He came to Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness.” Luther said, “Day and night I ponder the connection between the just shall live by faith, and the righteousness of God.” And then he said, “When I began to realize that His very own righteousness is a gift that God gives to sinners as a gift by faith, it was as if I was walking through the gates of Paradise. And now it didn’t matter how high God’s standards were. As long as Jesus kept them for me and paid my debt, I can be free.”

I’m sure that Luther also lectured on 2 Corinthians 5:21. “For He that is God made Him that is Christ to be sin on our behalf that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” Follow carefully. That verse teaches that Jesus got what He didn’t deserve, namely our sin, and we get what we don’t deserve. We get His righteousness. It’s the great exchange. And by the way, no wonder when Jesus was made sin the hymn writer described it this way:.

Well might the sun in darkness hide
and shut its glories in
When Christ, the great redeemer died,
for man, the creature’s sin.

With that introduction I want you to turn to Romans 8. Romans 8 is one of the greatest chapters in the entire Bible. If the Bible were a ring, it would have many different stones, and the middle stone, the point of the diamond if you please, would be the book of Romans, and then, of course, Romans 8.

Romans 8 begins with, “There is therefore now no condemnation.” It begins with condemnation. Romans 8 then ends with no separation. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God – death, persecution, dying a martyr. Nothing separates us from God’s love. But in between there I want you to notice verse 31 of Romans 8. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” And that’s a good question for you. If God is for us, who is bigger than God who could possibly could be against us? “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

I’m sorry I have to skip that marvelous verse with all of its meaning, but now we are in verses 33 and 34. “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

So, let’s begin and answer the question:. “Who can bring a charge against God’s elect?” Well, your wife probably is able to bring a charge against you. Perhaps for some of you, the police are able to bring a charge against you. It could well be indeed that our conscience (and that was Luther’s challenge) can bring a charge against us, as we are reminded of our sins and as we wallow in the guilt that you and I experience because of those sins. Certainly the conscience can condemn us and bring a charge against us. Certainly Satan can. As a matter of fact, the Bible says that he accuses the saints day and night – during the day and during the night, a full-time job. And he accuses not with just words. He actually accuses with feelings, so we feel condemned, we feel inferior, and it could even lead to that terrible thing called self-hatred because of who we are. All of that is possible as we accept the charges that are leveled against us.

Who is he that charges against us? The charges come from any number of different sources. But then it is God who justifies. It is God who has a different verdict. And what does God mean when He says that He justifies? Does it just mean that God forgives us? Oh yes, God forgives us, but it’s much more than that. You see if God only forgave us that would only take care of past sins. We’re talking now about a work of God whereby God in heaven legally declares you to be as righteous as He Himself is. Luther understood that nobody gets to heaven unless he’s as perfect as God.

This might be an appropriate time for wives to turn to their husbands and say, “Husband, you’re in trouble,” but nobody can get to heaven unless he is as perfect as God, and justification means that God declares us to be absolutely perfect. It is a legal term where God says, “In my sight, I pronounce you perfect, forgiven, and, as we shall see in a moment, forever.

Now, you know that old illustration that has been used many times, and I think I’d like to use it again. Let’s suppose that you were speeding (and teenagers listen up here, because this might apply more to you than to some of us older ones) and that you couldn’t pay the fine. Let us also suppose that the judge was very kindhearted, and you stood before him, and he said, “Give me $200,” and you don’t have any money. And what happens is the judge leaves the bench, takes off his robe, stands in ordinary clothes with the defendant, standing beside the teenager, whips out his wallet, lays $200 there on the bench, goes back, puts on his robe, picks up the $200 and says to the young person, “You are acquitted. Your debt has been paid, and it is paid in full. So far as the law is concerned you are under no condemnation because I paid the debt for you.”

Justification by faith means that. It means that Jesus Christ is the one who pays our debt. Some people say, “Well, justification is just as if I’d never sinned.” Yes, it’s that, but it’s much better than that. It’s not only as if I’d never sinned, but it is as if I had lived a life of perfect and complete obedience before God, because Jesus Christ’s merit – his death and his life – becomes my death and my life so to speak, and we are saved entirely on the basis of His gift to us, the gift of righteousness.

Now what I’d like to do in the next few moments is to unpack this idea of justification because if you ever grasp what I’m going to tell you today, it could be something that you think about and you accept virtually every day of your life. Very seldom does a day go by in my own life without affirming what I am going to be explaining to you today. Of course, I don’t take a lot of time to do it because I know where this goes, but what a release! What a deliverance from guilt and a troubled conscience.

I’m going to give this to you either in words or a short phrase – five of them. We’re going to unpack it and see what it really means.

The first phrase that I want to give you is free gift – the phrase free gift. Obviously the righteousness of God, which is credited to us, has to be given to us by God as a free gift. We cannot earn it. We cannot add to it. It’s just like you can add a billion bananas and never get an orange, so human righteousness can never attain to the righteousness of God. If we’re going to get the gift of righteousness, it has to be given to us by God, and our works can contribute absolutely nothing to it.

Do you realize what I am saying? That means that God does not find it harder to forgive and to accept a great sinner than a lesser one. Years ago I told you this story but I tell it again. This is a message, by the way, that everybody should listen to at least once or twice a year.

Somebody in prison wrote to me and said he listens to our broadcast and says that he had sexually assaulted four women and destroyed their lives. So his question to me is, “Can I be forgiven?” Well, of course, because of what he did we’d like to say, “No, just go to hell where you belong.” But then we remember that that’s also where we belong. So I wrote to him and I said, “I want you to visualize two trails. One trail is very finely traveled. It is so neat. The trail has little flowers along it. This other one is just a mess. I mean there are deep ruts. There are places where obviously the person turned around. It is ugly, but let’s suppose that you have 18 inches of snow that comes. You can’t tell this trail from that trail because both of them have been covered by the snow.

“‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” And I told him, “Yes, the righteousness of Christ can cover your sins just like it covers mine.” That is the good news of the Gospel because it is given freely to those who believe, as we shall see in a moment. It is a free gift, and all of Luther’s attempts to please God, and his attempts to do all that he was doing, only ended up with a ledger that was not in his favor, and he knew that he was headed to judgment. But Jesus gives us the righteousness of God.

A second word or phrase is complete. It is complete. Now I’m going to explain something to you that could be a means of deliverance for many of you. That’s how deeply I feel about this message, and that is this:. When you receive Jesus as your Savior, your sins are legally forgiven – past, present and future. It has to be that way, and that’s exactly what the Bible teaches. How many of your sins were future when Jesus Christ died? Well, all of them because you and I certainly were not on the scene two thousand years ago when Jesus died, so Jesus, anticipating sins, anticipating the sins that would be committed among those whom He would save, took all those upon Him in one offering. The Bible says in Hebrews 10, “For by one offering He perfected forever those who are sanctified.”

But now I do want you to turn to another passage just so that you make sure that I am biblical here and I’m not making this up. This is Colossians 2, and I’m going to begin right here in verse 13. It says that God made us alive together with Christ, having forgiven all of our trespasses by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.

You see, in those days, the sins that a person committed were always placed above the cross. Now Pilate had written, “Jesus, the King of the Jews.” That was His sin. All of your sins, figuratively speaking, were nailed to the cross because there was this long list. And God says, “I’m going to take care of the sins that Erwin Lutzer, who has not yet been born, will someday commit, and I’m going to take care of all of them.” And it’s a pretty good, long list. It’s not as long as Pastor Bertsche’s. (laughter) His goes on to the next column. And there are some of you who are listening whose lists are longer than the both of us put together. Right? And God says, “That’s what Jesus is guilty of.”

That’s why Luther, when he was finally able to see the Gospel, said, “My sins do not belong to me. My sins belong to Jesus. He’s the one who was guilty of all my sin, whom God made sin for us that I am made the righteousness of God in Him.” And so what we see is the fact that it takes care of all sin.

Now, I have to ask you a question:. Was Luther converted there back in the monastery in Erfurt when he spent hours confessing his sins? Of course not! There are millions of people who are going to be going to confession today who do not understand the Gospel, and who have never received the gift of eternal life. You see, if salvation was just taking care of the sins of the past, even if you remember them all and you confess them all, as I mentioned earlier, tomorrow is another day, and there’s no assurance that you really are right with God because that will depend on how many sins you commit tomorrow, and how many you have to confess.

You see, when Luther began to understand the Gospel and he began to understand that Jesus died on our behalf, and that the marriage of Jesus is ours, then he was free from the endless treadmill of good works and sacraments which could never bring peace to his soul. So when you receive Christ as Savior, you now understand that the decision that you are making affects your whole eternity, not just past sins. Twenty-four hours a day God demands perfection if we are to walk in His presence. Twenty-four hours a day Jesus Christ supplies what God demands, and so He always is meeting our requirements.

Well, do we as Christians still confess our sins? Yes! Having received the good news of the Gospel, having all of our sins taken care of legally from now until all the way to heaven’s door and beyond, yes we do. It’s a discipline that God puts us through so that we might be able to walk in fellowship. You can take the message I preached last week and you can insert it right here as you learn to walk in the light. But we don’t walk in the light through confession in order to be converted, in order to be saved. That happened when we received Christ as our Savior. That is secure. Our position before God has not been altered as a result of our struggles and sins. So the second word that I have for you today is the word complete.

The next word – number three – is guarantee. Think this through. When you receive the righteousness of Jesus Christ and you receive Him as your Savior, that means that from now through all of eternity your end result is guaranteed. After all, the Bible does say, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril or sword? No.” Jesus talked about when you are one of Hhis sheep and He said, “My sheep hear My voice and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give unto them eternal life, and no one shall pluck them out of My hands. My Father, who gave them to Me, is greater than all, and no man can pluck them out of My Father’s hands.”

I’ve been at Moody Church now for 35 years, and I’ve always wanted to preach a message entitled Hands in Harmony, where you have the hand of the Son, and the hand of the Father together. Maybe someday I’ll do that, but notice this: . One of the first doctrines that Luther gave up, once he understood that the righteousness of God is credited to us, is the doctrine of purgatory because, you see, purgatory was based on the idea that nobody really dies righteous enough to go to heaven. Oh, there are a few people, and we call them saints, and they go directly to heaven, but the common person is not righteous enough to go into heaven, so what he has to do is he has to go to purgatory where he will be purged. And nobody knows how long it is. And then after he has been purged, God will say, “Well, now that you’ve paid for all of your sins that weren’t taken care of you are ready to enter heaven.”

I’ve talked to people who have said, “As long as I can get to purgatory I know that I’ll eventually make it into heaven, but I don’t want to die with a mortal sin.” Well the simple fact is if the righteousness of God is credited to you when you believe in Jesus as it is, then you arrive in heaven on the basis of Jesus Christ’s merit, and you are welcomed into heaven as if you are Jesus, because you are there based on His merit. That’s why the Bible says that Jesus said, “If you believe on Me you will never see death.” Oh, you’ll see it for a second maybe, but you go from this life to the next without a hassle at the border.

Many of you may know that for most of my life I was a Canadian citizen. Now, thank God, I am an American along with all the rest of you. But when I was a Canadian citizen, and I kind of still am (it’s a little fuzzy), Canada couldn’t keep me out. I had a passport so I go there. “Oh, you’re a Canadian citizen. You are coming home.” “Yes, I’m coming home.”

You know that the Bible says that in Jesus we are in heaven already. It says in Ephesians 2 that we are raised with Jesus Christ. We are seated with Him already in heavenly places. It is a done deal, and we can have the assurance that when we die, there will be no hassle at the border because Jesus died for sinners. (applause)

You know, my mother died a number of years ago. She died at the age of 103. As many of you know my father died at the age of 106. I always called my mother every Saturday night, and she thought that maybe God misplaced her address. But one day, just to tease her because I knew her so well and how she loved Jesus and had been gloriously converted, I said, “Mom, are you sure that when you die you are going to go to heaven?” And she said, “I am as sure as if I am already were there.” It was not because she was a righteous woman, though she was, but it wasn’t her works that did it. It is totally and completely the merit of Jesus. And if you come to heaven and God says, “Why should I let you into heaven?” and you say, “Well, I tried to live a good life to balance the scales,” God will turn away from you and you’ll be lost forever. Nobody gets to heaven because they’ve been able to balance the scales. No merit of my own but thanks be to God the merit completely of Jesus!

There’s another phrase I want to give you and that is personal assurance. You see, what happens is this, and I noticed that Pastor Colin Smith referred to this in a message recently that I heard over the radio. He said that even after you are acquitted by God you can still have guilt feelings. Let’s go back to that illustration I gave you earlier, you know the one where the kid has violated the law, and the judge pays for him. When he leaves the courtroom he could still feel guilty. You know the boy could say, “I was actually guilty of going beyond the speed limit.” If you commit a crime and God declares you innocent, of course, there’s a difference between God doing it and human beings doing it because we have to have consequences and the judicial system. But if that happens in your life and your experience, you may say, “Well, God has forgiven me but I still feel guilty because I did do a very evil thing.” What you need to do now is to educate your conscience because your conscience now is lying to you. Your conscience is telling you that you are guilty of something that God has acquitted you for. So before others you may have to live out the consequences of your guilt and your sin, but before God, the slate is entirely clear, but you and I may still suffer consequences and guilt feelings. And guilt feelings lie. All you have to do is to retrain your conscience at this point. You can’t go by feelings. They scream lies at us.

One illustration, and I could give many of a similar nature, is I was supposed to be speaking in a church in Michigan. And for some reason I was very angry and discombobulated. I don’t know if that word is still used, but you can kind of figure out what the meaning is. And I was parking the car, and in 10 or 15 minutes I had to speak at this conference. And I felt guilty. I felt like a failure. I felt all kinds of weight of sin, and I began to think about what I was going to do. Could I stand and preach and talk about all the beauties of the Gospel, going into the pulpit like that? So in the car (and I was alone and I suggest you do this alone) I spoke out loud to the devil and I said, “Be gone, Satan, for it is written, ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is He that condemns? It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again and is even now on the right hand of the throne of God who makes intercession for us.’” And I’ll tell you, within a matter of minutes my conscience was brought in line with the truth of Scripture, and I was able to go there and to preach a message something like this one. And a missionary who was present said, “If I had heard this message 20 years ago I would have been delivered from all of the guilt and all of the struggles that I’ve had on the mission field for the last 20 years.”

You see, there are times when what we need to do is to educate our conscience in accordance with the Word of God. Now you don’t stifle your conscience. You don’t go into drugs and alcohol to stifle the conscience, but what you say is, “Conscience, you form an important function in my life, but right now you are lying to me.” There is now therefore no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus. You folks who are listening to this message, may I urge you to believe this to the very center of your being that you stand righteous before God because of the work of Jesus Christ? And you stand on that! (applause)

Now, you say, “Well, I have issues though with other people. I have wronged other people.” And I’m going to be preaching a message about that still in this series, so please stay tuned.

Finally, I want to zero in on the word elect. “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” So who are the elect? They are the ones who God marked out from before the foundation of the world, that He would overcome their darkness, overcome their unbelief, and savingly believe on Jesus. Well, you say, “I don’t like that at all.” I mean you motor boaters! “Yeah, but, but, but, but!” Well, let me tell you something. Don’t complain too much because you can find out whether or not you are a member of the elect. Is that fair enough? What you need to do, if God has worked in your heart, is to believe on Jesus, stop trusting your goodness, trust wholly in the work of Christ, transfer your trust to Jesus alone, and then you will know that you are the elect. That’s the only way you can know. It’s by coming to Christ in humble repentance and receiving by faith the gift of eternal life. And then you can know, and you will know it by the work of the Spirit, by the assurance of the Word of God. And if you struggle with assurance, that can be very normal. All of us do from time to time, and that’s why here at the Moody Church we have prayer partners after the service. We want to help you in those areas, but the fact is that you and I must be aware of the fact that when we come to Christ, He will receive us. He will not cast anybody out who comes, so if the Spirit is working in your heart, you come, and you’ll be a member of the elect. Then you’ll know that you are a member of the elect.

Maybe I could illustrate justification this way. I have a book up here. It’s actually a hymnal. And I’m thinking of a man that I interviewed years ago who eventually died of AIDS, and I think of him because his life was a mess but he came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. I’ll use him as an example, though I could use myself. I could use anyone as an example. But this is the illustration I gave him. I said, “Now, Roger, let’s think of two books. This is your book. It says The Life and Times of Roger. Well, you open it up and it’s pretty ugly. There is all kind of sin and all kind of betrayal. Over here though is another book called The Life and Times of Jesus Christ. You open it up and there’s nothing but beauty, perfection, meeting God’s standards in everything, pain for penalty. Wow! It’s a beautiful book!

In salvation what God in effect says is, “I’m going to tear out all of the insides of your book. I’m going to take the insides of My book and I’m going to shove it in between your covers.” Oh! The Life and Times of Roger! Nothing but beauty, nothing but holiness! The book is so beautiful that even God adores it. That is the Gospel.

I love this poem.

The terrors of God and of hell
For 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.

Has God talked to you today, those of you who have never received Christ? You don’t have the assurance of eternal life because you’ve been basing it on works. You’ve been basing it on your confession, and you have never personally said, “Jesus, this moment I believe on You.”

Father, I’m asking You in the name of Jesus right now to work throughout this audience here at The Moody Church. For those who are watching on the Internet or listening by radio, in all of the different means by which this message will be listened to, we pray that Your Holy Spirit will show people the beauty and the completeness of the Gospel. May they believe on You right now. And thank You for Your amazing love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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