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The Power Of A Clear Conscience

Reconciling Broken Relationships

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 9, 2014

Selected highlights from this sermon

Broken relationships don’t have to be permanent. Reconciliation should be pursued.

In this message, Pastor Lutzer walks us through the steps we can take to achieve reconciliation with those we’ve wronged—and it all starts by admitting the wrongs we’ve committed.

I’m sure you have noticed that sin always divides people. It never unites. Sin separates us from God. It separates us from one another, and it even separates us from ourselves. I feel sorry for some of you who grew up in homes where there were all kinds of injustices. Perhaps there were addictions and unfairness and harsh discipline, and never were these issues resolved. It was not as if, you know, this happened and there was forgiveness requested and granted. You just kind of all shoved it down and pretended that everything was okay when it wasn’t.

Jesus in Matthew 5 said this. Today’s message is going to be on reconciliation of broken relationships, but I want to just simply read a very brief part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said in Matthew 5, and I’m actually going to pick it up here in verse 23 where He said, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Jesus is saying, “Even if you bring a sheep perhaps to be offered, and the priest is about to kill the sheep, or you bring some other offering to the Lord, and lo and behold you remember that you are out of sorts with somebody, leave the gift there (the sacrifice) and go and be reconciled and then come.” Imagine for a moment what Jesus is saying. He is saying that reconciliation precedes worship, and that if you want to worship in God’s temple, or for that matter in God’s Church, what you need to do is to understand that these human relationships may get in the way, and they need to be taken care of as best as you can take care of them, and then you come to church to sing the praises of God.

There’s something else that I need to warn you about in this message and that is this: This is the most difficult message in this series of ten messages, The Power of a Clear Conscience. This happens to be number nine, and what a message it is going to be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some of you are going to have a huge difficult time with this message because the Holy Spirit is going to bring to your mind things that need to be resolved, and this is not easy.

The Apostle Paul said in the book of Acts, chapter 24, verse 16, “I always seek to keep my conscience free of offense before God and before others.” Before God is quite easy. You know you come before God and confess your sin, and God’s not telling anybody, and He knows all about you anyway. But to go to others! Now we’re talking about flesh and blood. Now we’re talking about history. Now we’re talking about self-justification and all of those things. It’s going to be very difficult, so difficult that I think we should pray right here and ask God to grant us the strength and the ability to be obedient to whatever He shows us. Would you do that?

Father, I pray that this message might be as clear as I am able to make it. I pray, Father, that you will give me wisdom to speak it well and clearly. But at the same time, Lord, we know that there are many issues that will be raised, and your people need wisdom in resolving them. Would you grant us, Father, a spirit of obedience and learning, that this might be transforming, and that your people will be set free? We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Well, where do we even begin? I mean, I’m thinking, for example, I began this series by telling you about a man who fathered a child in his college days, and that child is growing up in another city. His wife doesn’t know, and his kids don’t know, and he wants to worship God. There it is. What does he do?

I think, for example, of a true story, though the names are totally fictitious. Fred marries Ann. Ann has an affair that she carries on during the early years of their marriage. She’s convicted. She breaks it off. She tells her lover, whom we shall call Frank, that she is going to tell her husband. Frank is very, very upset because he and Fred are actually friends. So they ask me the question, “What do we do?” First of all, yes, Fred is finding it difficult to forgive though it seems as if their marriage is going to make it. But now the question is, does Fred call Frank? And what is that conversation going to be like? There are many different issues.

I think, for example, of my own counseling experience when I was in the presence of a couple where the wife had to confess to her husband that their third child was not his. Wow! Do you remember the words? Was it Walter Scott who said, “What a tangled web we weave when first we choose to deceive?” Today we are talking about those tangled webs.

Now I know that this message is going to scare up a lot more rabbits than I am able to shoot. By the time I am finished, you are going to have questions and say, “Well, what about this?” and “What about that?” And you are going to have some legitimate questions that maybe I’m not able to answer. Maybe somebody else can help you answer them, and ultimately God has to give the wisdom to answer. But I am going to try to give you principles that apply Scripture to your particular situation. And because of that I’m going to be very direct. I’m going to use illustrations to help us, and at the end I’m going to call for our obedience.

You know, there’s another passage that we won’t take time to turn to because you probably know it well. It’s in Matthew 18 where Jesus says, “If your brother has something against you, go to him. If that is unresolved, bring somebody else with you. Tell it to the church (and there are steps on reconciliation).” And I’m not going to go there exactly today. I’m going to talk about those kinds of principles, but I am interested in their application to life, and life is often messy. Are you ready for the principles?

Number one, sins of the heart should be confessed to God alone. Wouldn’t it be a terrible world if we all said what we thought of one another all the time, and can you imagine the fiasco? You know, I’m just thinking. “You know what I thought about you last Wednesday? Let me just tell you what came to mind.” (chuckles) What a mess! Thank you that the blood of Jesus Christ covers all sin, and there are many sins that need not be confessed if they are sins of the heart.

Now if you have a poisoned attitude toward somebody, you can’t say, “Well, you know, it’s just my thoughts.” You may have to confess that attitude, but there are plenty of things that go on in our minds that need to be left with God. Sometimes it is okay to let sleeping dogs lie.

The second principle is that sin and offense against a person should be confessed to that person. Now because the marriage relationship is the most sensitive relationship that we have on earth, let me talk about that. Here’s a man, for example, who commits adultery. Does he have to confess to his wife? The answer is yes, or she to him. Does the man who fathered a child need to eventually sit down with his wife and say, “There’s something that I need to tell you so that my conscience is free of offense before God?” The answer is yes.

Private addictions that ruptured the marriage relationship should be confessed, whether it’s drugs or pornography or any other kind of addictions, or stealing, as I’ve had in some of my counseling situations.

Now you say, “Well, are there times when you shouldn’t confess?” And the answer is yes. I believe that there are times when you shouldn’t. For example, if the relationship is already so frayed and so tenuous, if the relationship is so weak and it is already falling apart, then perhaps it is best to confess it to someone else – to a pastor or a counselor, because you may not be ready to straighten out that relationship.

Timing therefore is important, or what do you think of the man who just before he dies confesses to his wife, “You know, 15 years ago I had this affair, and now I’m dying and now I need to get it off my chest so that I can have a clear conscience when I enter into eternity?” Well, thank you very, very much. How wonderful of you to have a clear conscience, and you dump this now on your wife who has to process it alone for the rest of her life. That should have been confessed when it happened so that the two of you could process it together because these things take time. The rebuilding of trust, and the whole fabric of the marriage is destroyed, and you can imagine how that affected their marriage. And on and on it goes. But he’s free now supposedly. What about her? I think he’d have been better off to confess that to a pastor or to someone else, and leave it there rather than put that on her, and then die a couple of days later. Timing sometimes is important. The relationship, if it’s fragile, is also important. But nonetheless, when the relationship is strong enough, these hidden things must, at the right time, in the right way, through counseling usually, come out, and they need to be dealt with. And blessed are those relationships that are strong enough to handle it and within time rebuild the trust that has been so cruelly broken.

I understand these things, having been around a little while and seeing couples struggle through these things. It must be done carefully, but I believe God would say that these issues need to be resolved.

What about theft? You are stealing from your employer. We’ve had a number of instances like that too. I’ve gone to a hospital years ago to help a woman who was cheating on her time chart, and I interceded for her. And I remember one woman, God bless her, who was stealing money from their checking account by writing down a fraudulent number into their checkbook. Well, she needed to get to her husband before the bank did. Let’s just put it that way. Okay?

Let us say also that if you go to someone who harmed you, don’t expect too much. If I remember correctly, about 80% of all abusers deny that they abused you, so don’t expect a whole lot. It may be good for you to simply explain to them the hurt that they’ve created, but human nature is very entrenched. It is protective. And if you’ve been listening to these messages, you know how narcissistic people are able to get, and they live in denial.

All right, let’s continue on. The third principle is that the confession should be as broad as the offense. I mean, you know it’s not necessary for everybody to know about this, but the people who have been affected by the hurt need to know about it, so what we need to do is to exercise caution and wisdom here. In the case of unrepentant elders, the Bible doesn’t say that possibly it needs to be confessed before the congregation. The fact is that generally speaking, most issues need to stay in the area in which the offense happened.

Number four, when appropriate others should be present. You remember Jesus said this. He said that if you go and you can’t be reconciled, bring somebody else with you. Well, of course, we follow the words of Jesus, but I also think that Jesus would agree that there are times when right from the beginning someone else should be present during this time of confession. It would have been very unwise for this mother to confess to her husband that the third child they had was not his. Let me just say this, and take it from me. It would have been very unwise for her to approach her husband and do that on her own, but rather in the presence of someone who is able to help process this very destructive fact. That’s the way in which reconciliation often helps, and should be helped, I should say.

Next, confession should reflect the seriousness of the offense. Now just yesterday I began reading Gary Chapman’s book entitled When Sorry Isn’t Enough. That’s a great title. The book is very, very helpful in helping us understand as to how we should ask for forgiveness, and all of the elements that are involved.

So what I’d like to do now is to give you the five different ways that you can say you are sorry when sorry isn’t enough, and sometimes all five ways are necessary to ask for complete forgiveness. So you stay with me as we go through these five different ways to apologize.

Way number one is, “I’m sorry.” And that usually does it if it’s a minor thing. “I’m sorry that I spilled some coffee on your coat. It was unintentional but I am sorry.” “I’m sorry that I happen to have forgotten to carry out the garbage.”

Was there a man who was so dead
Who never those things to his wife has said?

I wasn’t planning to quote that, by the way, and I quoted it a little differently than it was originally written, but you do get the idea. And of course, wives too! You know, “I’m sorry that I didn’t get home when I said I was going to.”

Most of the day-by-day interaction between us to say that we are sorry is enough. But oftentimes it isn’t. “Okay, I messed up.” I’m thinking now of a couple where a man took their savings and he invested it in a get-rich-quick scheme on the Internet, and they lost all of their retirement. “Well, alright! I’m sorry! I messed up!” “Oh, okay, so let’s just move on and pretend that this was no big deal.” It is a big deal! I think “sorry” is not quite enough.

Second, Gary says, “I was wrong. I accept responsibility. This was no minor matter.” And when you say, “I was wrong,” you do not add, “Okay, I was wrong, but look at what you did.” That’s not the way you say, “I was wrong.” You take your responsibility so seriously that even if you think you are only 30% responsible, you look at that 30% as if it is 100% and you take responsibility for this, for your part. And if the other person doesn’t take any responsibility, well then, you begin to understand that that’s between him or her and God.

You know there are some people you cannot reconcile with. Just simply accept that they are so toxic, they are so skewed, their reality is so different from yours that there’s really no way that it’s possible for you to do anything else except, of course, perhaps if you feel you have wronged them, to give your side. But then, don’t expect anything back. What’s important is that we do all that is possible for us to have a clear conscience before God and before man.

Now here’s something very, very critical. When we have harmed someone, what that person wants to know is that we understand the extent of his or her pain. You see that’s why saying I’m sorry is not enough, because after all, if you’ve done something to ruin your marriage, then for you to simply say, “Oh, I’m sorry!” is not enough. I mean you’re sorry? Thank you! But do you understand the pain you caused in this relationship? And it would be good for you to articulate the pain and to say, “I know that my actions did this, this, this,” because the person whose forgiveness you are seeking needs to know that you understand the depth of the pain. You know, where sin is thought of superficially it is dealt with superficially, and sometimes sin is not at all superficial. Actually it never is, but there are some instances in which it is absolutely huge. So, to say, “I was wrong,” may be very, very important as you get to the depths of the reconciliation process.

Well, I’m following Gary Chapman now. Number three for him is this: How can I make it right? Now there are some things you can’t make right, but there are other things that you can, and one of those things is what we call restitution. You know, in Luke 19 there’s a very interesting story about a man named Zacchaeus. He was a small man and so he goes up the sycamore tree to see Jesus going by, and Jesus, just apparently from our standpoint, arbitrarily says to him, “Hey, Zacchaeus, come down from the tree. I’m coming over to your house.”

Now remember he was a tax collector, and tax collectors did not have a good reputation. They really did not. Let’s just say that ninety-nine percent of them made the other one percent have a bad name. (I think that that floated past you far too quickly.) And so Jesus is there, and Zacchaeus evidently believes on Jesus, and he said, “Half of my goods I’m giving to the poor, and if I defrauded anyone, I’m going to pay them back fourfold. And do you know what the words of Jesus were? Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house. Yeah, you have been converted because of the fact that you have understood the principle of restitution.” Now you don’t always have to pay five times or four times, but whenever possible, repayment should be made.

Let me give you a couple of stories. Here’s a man, for example. He’s a Christian. And all these stories are true, by the way. Most of them did not happen here in this church but they are true stories. This man loves God. He comes to church, but he was injured in a hunting accident and when he filled out the form on workman’s comp he said that it happened on the job. Why not? You get a check every month, and you get paid basically for the rest of your life – workman’s comp. His pastor found out about it, and this was another pastor, a friend of mine, and he said, “You know, that’s sin. You have to deal with it.” The guy said, “Do you think I’m crazy? If I were to go to the workmen’s comp and explain to them what I did I could be put in jail. I’m not going to jail. Alright, but he comes to church. He wants to sing some of the songs that we sang this morning about Christ alone – Christ is all that I have. He’s a saved man. He wants to worship God but there it is. So, how are you able to worship God, getting a fraudulent check every month because you lied and you defrauded workmen’s comp? “Well, I just bungle along.” Yep!

Let me give you another example. John Claypool – 1975! He’s a teenager. He kills a neighbor and his wife, and for no other reason other than to see what it’s like to blow somebody away. Well, he lives with it. He gets married and has a couple of children. His wife divorces him. Then he gets a Bible and begins to read and he becomes a Christian. Now the question is what is he going to do? He said it was as if God said to him, “If you want my full blessing you can’t have this without confessing it, no matter what the consequences are.” So he turned himself over to the authorities and was sentenced to second-degree murder. I don’t know if he still is in jail but he was given a jail sentence, and I have the actual transcript of what he said, and I’m summarizing it for you.

He said, “I am freer in jail than I was when I was out of jail. This finally was taken from my conscience, which I could not bear. You go to bed and you think about it. You wake up and you think about it. You put it out of your mind during the day, but during lunch you think about.” And now that was all gone because he had come clean. He said, “Within the confines of this jail I have found a freedom that I didn’t have when I was out of jail.” Restitution – honesty – desperately wanting to be right with God!

Let me tell you another true story. Rebecca and I know a man who is very wise. Now he’s also old. Sometimes wisdom comes with age. That’s why some of us aren’t as wise as we might be someday because we are too young. Well let me tell you. Here are two teenagers from Christian homes, kicked out of a school because of misbehavior and the suspicion that they were into pornography. So he invites them to his house and says, “Come live with me,” because he has a redemptive mindset. He wants to redeem those boys.

Well, they come over and they bring their suitcase, and he says, “You can stay in this room but I want you to open your suitcase.” “Well, we can’t open the suitcase because we don’t know where the key is.” “Well, that’s okay. I don’t have anything to do. I can sit here while you are looking for the key.” A little while later the phone rings and he leaves and comes back, and lo and behold the key was found, and all of the stuff was put throughout the room – the few things that they had. And he said, “Okay, where is it?” “Where is what?” He goes under the bed and there is their stash of porn. He was a very wise guy.

What he said was, “Here’s what we’re going to do. First of all, we’re going to burn it.” Now he was in more of a rural area where you could burn things and that’s what should be done to trash. So he said, “We’re going to burn it, but before we do, we’re going to add up the cost of all of these magazines and see what it comes to.” And he told Rebecca and me that it was nearly $300. So they burn it, and then he said, “I have work for you to do.” He said, “I’m going to put you to work (you’re going to work for me) and I’ll pay you something (not a lot but enough) because you are going to earn that amount, and when you have that amount we’re going back to the convenience store where you did the stealing.”

So within time the boys earned back the money, the amount of money they had stolen, and they go back and tell the owner, “Look, this is the money that we are bringing back for the stuff that we stole from your back room.” And the man is smitten in his conscience, and the wise man (the older man) said, “Do you really want to be corrupting boys like this?” And he said, “No, even my wife told me I shouldn’t be selling this stuff. I’m not going to sell this stuff anymore.”

But just to finish the story, these two young men are missionaries today. And they aren’t just missionaries. They actually head (at least in one instance) a mission organization. So my friend, today when you are dealing with teenagers or those who are older or those who are younger, and you are thinking of restitution and taking care of issues, always think redemptively because we serve a redeeming God. And blessed are those who have the wisdom to know how to restore.

Well, alright, let’s go to number four in Gary’s book.
“I want to change.” This is now repenting. And we’ve talked so much about sin and repentance before God in the previous messages, so I’m just going to give that to you as number four and go to number five. Ask, “Can you forgive me?” Can you find it in your heart to forgive what I’ve done? Whenever possible it is very important that the person whom you have offended, the person that you hurt, be able to say, “Yes, I forgive you.” That’s important in relationships. Now maybe they won’t be able to forgive you. Maybe they’ll say, “No, I can’t. The hurt is too deep,” or “I need more time,” or they may be one of these toxic persons who are never going to offer forgiveness, but whatever, what you are seeking is the forgiveness that should be extended to you hopefully if you ask for it.

You know, there are so many situations. Can I tell you another one? It’s a true story. This woman comes to us and here’s her story. She and her husband have three or four children. He leaves and runs off and gets married to the woman of his dreams. But now the children are in school and they have various events that they need to attend to and are involved in, and he as their father wants to participate in their children’s education and their work at school, and so forth. So he comes to his ex-wife and says, “Well, why can’t we just be friends? I mean, can’t we just go out together after the play, and I know that I’m with my new wife, but why can’t we just enjoy each other? Let the past be past.”

In this instance I wrote him a letter. I wish I could find it because I believe that God gave me very specific wisdom for him. I said, “You know, your ex-wife wants exactly what you do. She also wants to be able to go out and let the past be past, but you can’t act as if nothing happened. There was never any asking for forgiveness, never a hint that he did something wrong or offended her or betrayed their marriage and destroyed their relationship. “Oh no, let’s just pretend that it’s all okay. Let bygones be bygones. Let the past be past.” Not so fast!

What I’d like to do is to give you a couple of bottom line comments here as we apply this to ourselves. First of all, asking for forgiveness begins with receiving forgiveness. And so, some of you who are listening today don’t know that you’ve been forgiven by God. Some of you say, “Well, I’ve confessed my sins.” Well, that’s fine but what you need to do is to receive Christ as Savior because confession only takes care of past sins. You need a relationship with God that will endure forever, and that doesn’t happen just through confession. We explained that in a previous message. But isn’t it wonderful to know that God is a redeeming God, and the God who knows all about us and all of the details invites us? And as we get to know one another and our sinfulness and our proclivity (I don’t think I’ve used that word in years, but it seems to fit here.) to sin, we exercise the same grace that we have been shown in Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s the standard and that’s what we must do.

Now, Gary Chapman tells a very sweet story in his book that I have to repeat, and that is that his little granddaughter came over to their place. I think her name was Davy Grace, and she’s about five or six. And she asked whether or not she could have some stickers. And her grandmother told her, “Yes, you may have three stickers.” She knew the drawer in which they were. “You can have any three you want, but only three.” Well, pretty soon stickers began to show up all over the house, and so they went to her and they said, “You know, you were told that you were to have only three stickers. You disobeyed Grandma.” And the little girl began to cry and she said, “I need somebody to forgive me.”

I don’t care who you are. You and I need somebody to forgive us. And thank God that in Jesus Christ He sent somebody to forgive us. (applause) And He can cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If you’ve never received Christ as Savior, that’s the beginning point, and then you can talk about reconciliation.

Secondly, we will reconcile when our desire to be right with God (This is absolutely critical and if you are writing this down, this is the place to write.) is greater than our pride and our reputation. When the hand of God is really on us we will reconcile when our desire to be right with God is paramount. And that’s the stuff of revival. In the early 70s in Canada there was a great revival that swept Western Canada. I actually wrote a book about it, though that book is out of print now. And the great way in which the revival caught the attention of the world is all the people who were coming back to make things right. I mean the equivalent of the IRS was being sent checks unasked for. You had people going back to stores. You had all of these things because God was working mightily, and the world was definitely convicted. I mean, I’m thinking of my own sister-in-law who went back because a 99-cent bag of potatoes was on the bottom of the cart and it wasn’t seen. And now she goes to the manager and confesses and he says, “Either it’s my lucky day or something is happening in this town. You’re the second person who has come to me today to confess.”

Well, something was happening in the town because people were so desperate to be right with God. You see God blesses people who reconcile. You know in Matthew 18 it says, “Where two or three are gathered together, there am I in the midst.” Why does Jesus say that there? It’s not talking about a prayer meeting, though He is there. He’s talking about reconciliation because it is the final way in which God humbles us. And who of us has not been humbled because we’ve needed to confess?

I can think of many personal instances. I’m going to tell only one. I was in seminary. We had to go to the chalkboard and we had to write out some Greek verbs over here, and you know, the various forms of the verbs. I was never good at languages. I liked the philosophical big idea – theology (Now that’s better.), but I knew the guy next to me whose name was Paul (who is a missionary today) knew Greek. He had a facility for languages. So I stepped back from the board a bit and I saw his thing and I wrote it down.

Later on – a week or so later (I forget the timeline) we were having communion, and during this communion service, the Holy Spirit so convicted me because of my cheating. I’ll tell you when the service was over I beat my professor to his office. And I waited for him and said, “I want you to know today that I cheated.” And he was very forgiving because he knew that the temptation of being on a chalkboard close to somebody else is great.

But I think of another man who taught me chemistry actually in high school. He was a person who was in church as often as the pews. I mean they were there all the time as a family. He taught Sunday school; he was in the leadership of the church, but when he graduated with a master’s degree earlier he had cheated on a term paper. I won’t go into detail of how the cheating happened. From our standpoint it wasn’t that big of a deal, but he said that when he walked across the stage to receive these honors, it was as if his feet were as heavy as lead. But he received the honors and worked in the church for 20-30 years, but now the Holy Spirit was working, and he was going to really pray to God for his daughter. I mean not just a little “God bless her.” And the Holy Spirit said, “Henry, don’t bother.” Wow! Why would God say, “Don’t bother?” He said, “Henry, you are regarding iniquity in your heart. There’s something that you need to make right, and then you come to me and pray.”

He went back to the university and confessed what had happened and he was willing for them to even take his degree away because his desperation of wanting to be right with God was more powerful than his own humiliation as to what he went through.

I’ll leave you with a final comment. Sometimes we must risk it all, particularly our reputation, to have radical transformation where we simply say, “For the good of my conscience, for the good of God so that He can bless me abundantly, I will take care of this, no matter the cost.”

Some of you need to take care of things, and you may not know exactly how. Maybe you can receive counsel from someone whom you respect and is wise enough to walk you through it. But blessed are all those who have a conscience free of offense before God and before man. You can’t straighten it all out, but you can straighten it out to the best of your ability to be free.

Father, help us. Lord Jesus, as this word goes out, there are all kinds of people dealing with You right now, and there are all kinds of issues that are coming up. We ask, Father, that whatever the cost may be, we may humble ourselves, broken in Your presence, and be willing to say, “Lord, whatever.” Oh Father, do it. Even as I’ve experienced conviction in my life, bring that to all who have outstanding issues. We ask this in Jesus’ blessed name, Amen.

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