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Putting Your Past Behind You

Pardon For The Unpardonable

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 29, 1989

Selected highlights from this sermon

The voice of conscience begins as a whisper and builds to a megaphone. Guilt has sent many people to an early grave. But those nagging thoughts, those feelings of disappointment and shame don’t need to control you. God has provided relief.

Throughout the Bible, on every page, we see God’s rescue plan: the cross of Jesus Christ. And through it, you can be forgiven. But is there an unpardonable sin? Yes. It’s the sin of refusing to expose yourself to Christ who is the One who can save you and cleanse you.

Do not harden your heart against the Savior.

The voice of conscience has driven many a person to an early grave. “Damn you! Damn you!” It begins as a whisper but soon it can become a megaphone that sends people over the brink.

Why is it that we live in a society that is so guilt-ridden? Why is it that people are living with low-grade depression oftentimes because of a heaviness of spirit and a sense of condemnation? There are many reasons for it.

First of all, it’s because of the overwhelming feeling that they’ve disappointed their parents. If you were brought up with parents and they told you that you were a disappointment to them, that can cut so deeply. It can put you under a cloud of guilt. Now if you were abused by your parents, that kind of abuse will magnify the guilt many times over. Always remember that every single abused child always believes that he is getting precisely what he deserves, and because of that, if you’ve been abused, no doubt you’ve struggled with an overwhelming load of depression and guilt.

Then, of course, we’ve all disappointed our teachers. We go to school and we find out that our performance determines our acceptance, and some of us maybe didn’t perform as well as we think we should have, and so we feel like failures, and we feel guilty as failures.

And then, of course, we have disappointed ourselves. Every one of us knows that we have done things that we are ashamed of, and we say to ourselves, “How could I do something that was so stupid (something that would be undercutting my own sense of wellbeing)? Look at the failure that I’ve been.”

And more important than all the reasons I have already listed there is one that stands out, and that is the sense that we have disappointed God. We’ve disappointed God! Think of all of the people who have turned from God simply because they feel that the Almighty, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth, is waiting for them like an angry father at the door waiting for his son to come home. And the minute he comes over the threshold he’ll be beaten with a club. That’s the way they perceive God. There is no way to please Him. His standards are too high. He demands too much, and He’s angry with sinners, and so we feel guilty.

I was riding on a plane recently with a man who believed that salvation was based on his performance, and I said to him, “You believe that salvation is a matter of good works.” “Oh yes,” he said. “Do you know what my greatest fear is? It’s standing in line on the day of judgment with Mother Theresa ahead of me, and overhearing the Lord say to her, ‘Lady, you could have done a whole lot more.’” That’s the way people perceive God.

Now what are the consequences of this kind of guilt that people have? They have what is known as the cycle of the damned. Listen to what William Justice says. He says, “For every failure to live up to some ought, there is the tendency to punish oneself in such a manner as to produce another failure. And every failure produces the response, ‘I ought not to have failed.’ I stand convicted of having violated an ought that in turn produces the need for further punishment, which results in further failure. Having failed I punish myself in such a manner as to produce a further sense of failure. 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. It is the cycle of the damned.”

And then he says he was in a hospital speaking to a young man who was blowing his brains and ruining his mind with the use of heroin and he said, “Why did you do it? Why do you do it?” The kid said, “You ought to know the answer to that question without me telling you.” He said, “I feel so badly because of what I have done, I want to kill myself, but I don’t have the guts to blow my brains out so I do it the slow way with heroin.” Death on the installment plan!

Have you ever thought of the number of criminals who become criminals because subconsciously they want to be found out? They are crying to be punished because they have this overwhelming sense of guilt, and only punishment will make them feel a little better, because they think then they’ll be getting precisely what they deserve.

Remember Shakespeare’s insight into human nature? I have a daughter who is into Shakespeare, and she reminded me of these quotes. Lady Macbeth sang, “A little water will cleanse us of this deed,” after being an accomplice to the murder of the king. But her husband, Macbeth, is unconvinced. He says, “Will all the Neptune Ocean wash this blood from my hands?” And then he says, “No, rather my hands will make all the oceans bloody.” He says, “I am in blood steeped so far that should I wade no more to return is as difficult as to go o’er. I can’t go back because I am in blood. I cannot go forward because there is more blood.” What is the answer? Lady Macbeth finally says, “Here is the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” And when the torture became unbearable she did what 25,000 Americans do every year. She committed suicide.

Is there such a thing as an unpardonable sin? In Matthew 12 Jesus spoke of such a sin. The leaders of His day were attributing His works to Satan. They said, “You are casting out Satan by Satan.” And Jesus said, “Well, Satan will never be divided among himself. Satan will never cast out his own comrades.” And then He said, “Every sin that man commits is capable of forgiveness,” but He said, “He that sins against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come.” In Mark we read Christ saying, “It is an eternal sin.” What is that sin?

Here at The Moody Church, as you know, we have a radio ministry. As a matter of fact, the message that you are listening to will be on the radio, but listen to this letter received from one of our listeners: “Last Saturday night I was tempted to commit the unpardonable sin. Ever since I found out about this sin four years ago I was worried about committing it. Last Saturday night it happened. I became angry and started cursing God and calling the Holy Spirit blasphemous and insulting names. And then I asked for forgiveness, but nothing seemed to go right, so I became even more angry and I cursed. Do you think that God got so angry that He left me? I know I should give up a friendship with a man who is immersed in pornography, but I’ve not done it. I didn’t sleep all night because I was so upset and worried that I had committed this sin. Do you think that Satan is making me real gloomy so that I think that I have committed the unpardonable sin?”

What about it? What is the unpardonable sin? I want to make two comments about it. First of all, when Jesus said this He was speaking to the religious leaders who were standing in the way of the common people accepting Christ as Messiah and Savior. The unpardonable sin was a sin committed by the nation, Israel. It was a national sin. But secondly, and most importantly, the unpardonable sin was committed by unbelievers. It was committed by those who had not responded to Christ. It was committed by hardened people who turned against God. It was not committed by somebody who would write me a letter, worried that she had committed the sin.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, that is of some comfort to me, but what about the memories that I have of the sins that I have committed?” What about past experiences? What about past sexual relationships that resulted in a terrible amount of grief and hurt and the tearing of human emotions? What about divorces that were caused for no good reason? What about those deep scars and sins?

What I’d like to do today so that you might understand that no sin is unpardonable, and to lead you out of the wilderness of guilt, is to help you get ahold of four very important concepts that are found in the Bible. Four concepts! And yes, you can write them down. We’ll be covering territory that some of you are acquainted with, but for some of you it will be a means of liberation and of freedom. I suggest that you listen with incredible care for the next 15 or 20 minutes.

The first concept, of course, is the cross. It’s the cross, and I want you to turn in your Bibles to Colossians 2 where we read this about Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. It says in Colossians 2:13: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” What the Apostle Paul is saying is that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, He took all of the offenses that God had against us.

You know, in ancient times there was a custom that they would have. If you owed a debt and it was known that the debt was owed, all of the things that you owed were listed on a piece of parchment, but after you paid the debt, it was stamped PAID, and then it was nailed up for everybody to see: “Your debt has been paid. You’ve been exonerated.” And the Apostle Paul says that all that we owed God for all of our transgressions, everything that God had against us, was nailed to the cross for all to see, that Jesus paid it all.

Now I want you to understand something. Many people say, “I can’t come to God because of this sin, because I’ve done it a second time or a third time.” My dear friend, do you understand clearly that Jesus Christ already paid for the sin that you are bearing on your conscience? How many sins were still in your future when Christ died? All of them! Two thousand years ago before you even appeared on the scene God already took your sin if you are a believer in Christ. God took your sin and had it nailed to the cross, and you were exonerated by Christ’s death. The text says, “He forgave us all of our transgressions.”

You know, of course, that Christ died for sins that you haven’t committed yet. There are sins that you will commit tomorrow or sins that you will commit the next day that were already included in Christ’s death, because He does not have to be re-crucified when you sin. God gathered our sins in one bundle, and in one act took care of them.

Now follow very carefully. When you received Jesus Christ as your Savior, God took care of your sins and wiped them away past, present and future. In one act, the Bible says, He perfected forever those who are sanctified—period! That’s what Paul says. He says, “When you believe, you are raised from your sins, and you were seated with Christ, and He forgave all your transgressions, legally given forgiveness in one divine act. It’s all gone. It’s all wiped away.

Now that is an amazing statement. That’s why the Bible can say, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” Paul says in Romans 8: “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 and is now on the right hand of the throne of God and also makes intercession for us.”

Who is going to pronounce you unclean when God has pronounced you clean? You see, if it were not that way I could not be sure of heaven. You see, if God only forgave me when I believed on Him as Savior, if God only forgave me for the sins I had committed so far, what if I died tomorrow with a sin on my conscience that I have not yet asked God’s forgiveness for? I’d go to hell. But there’s only one way for God to do it. If there was to be assurance of heaven He would have to wipe out all of our sins, past, present and future, perfecting forever those who believe. You must understand the cross.

Secondly, you must understand confession, because I know what you are saying. You are saying, “Yes, but what about the fact that the Bible says that as believers we should confess our sins? If God forgave us all of our sins, why should we bother confessing them?”

My dear friend, confession has to do with my fellowship with God. It is the discipline that God puts me through because of my sins, where He asks me to agree with Him that I might be back in fellowship with Him. But it has nothing to do with the standing legally that I have before God as a Christian. That remains secure even while I sin.

You say, “Wait a minute. You’re going to encourage people to sin.” No, I’m not. That’s what grace does. It delivers us from sin when we see the wonder of God’s amazing grace. There could be no other way that God could do it if we’re to have security in our relationship, but confession keeps up my fellowship with God.

Remember the prodigal son? He was still a son even when he wandered into the pigpen. But he was not enjoying the blessings of the father until he came home and said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against thee,” and then he was restored to fellowship. And then the blessings of God came upon that prodigal. That’s why the Bible says we have to confess our sins. Why? We are legally forgiven, but then we need to be subjectively forgiven. We have to be cleansed. Our consciences have to be purged. Our memories of the sin need to be taken care of.

Now hear me out, friend. Listen to this like you’ve never listened to this before. You must always distinguish forgiveness of sins from the consequences of sin. You see, there are certain consequences that continue even after we have been forgiven, and that’s what throws many people off. They say, “Well, how could I be forgiven, because look at what I’ve done, and look at the awful consequences that have resulted from it?”

My dear friend, you must distinguish forgiveness from consequences. Here’s a young teenage girl, perhaps bearing a child because of an immoral relationship. She asks God’s forgiveness, and she is cleansed and she is forgiven completely, but the baby continues to grow in her womb. And when she looks at the child she says, “How can I be forgiven?” because the child reminds her of sin. But I want to tell you something today. That young lady can be washed as clean as the freshly driven snow despite the consequences.

I want you to hear me carefully. There was a man who gave his wife AIDS because he was bisexual. And he said later, “I don’t want God’s forgiveness, even if He were to give it to me, because I deserve to burn in hell.” Now I want to agree with him. He does deserve to burn in hell, but every one of us deserves to burn in hell. Every single one of us deserves that. But, you see, what he was saying in effect was, “If God forgives me, I want Him to handle the consequences too,” but that’s not the way the universe is set up. But I want to tell you today that that man can be forgiven. He can be cleansed and purged and declared righteous by the Almighty, even though his wife dies of the AIDS virus that he gave to her because of his sin. You must distinguish the consequences from forgiveness.

You know, I am told that Ted Bundy, the man who confessed to murdering (what was it?) about 28 young girls because of his involvement in pornography that led him from one bizarre thing to another… I am told that before he died he received Christ as his Savior. Now I don’t know whether that is true. Nobody can judge the human heart. But I’m here today to tell you that it is possible that that is true. It’s possible that Ted Bundy was acquitted by God, and declared absolutely righteous in the sight of God before he died, even though there were 28 young women in their graves and families greatly and deeply upset because of the hurt and the devastation that he brought upon so many people.

Now, I want you to know, for the sake of the record, that it pains me to have to say that, because there is something within me that says, “Ted Bundy ought to burn.” And if that had been one of my daughters I’d have said that even with more emphasis. Now I want to tell you something today. That is the amazing wonder of God’s grace. You can be forgiven even if the consequences of your sin are deep, long-lasting, and in one sense go on forever. You must distinguish forgiveness and consequences. You see, there are so many Christians who look at the consequences of their sin and then they say, “Well, how could I be forgiven? Look at the consequences.” My dear friend, there’s a difference between forgiveness and consequences.

You must also distinguish guilt from punishment. Distinguish guilt from punishment! There are some people who say to themselves, “Well, I’ve got to feel guilty because I deserve to feel guilty.” Well, of course, you deserve to feel guilty. We all deserve to feel guilty, but guilt is not God’s means of disciplining you for your sin. And God does discipline people for their sin by the internal struggles that He brings and the circumstances of life that He brings upon them. That is God’s discipline, but it is never guilt. Let me tell you why.

If you say to yourself, “Before I am forgiven I need to feel guilty for a couple of days, weeks, months, years,” what you are saying is: “The blood of Jesus Christ was not quite sufficient. I must add to that sacrifice.” This awful crushing feeling called guilt! And you are calling into question the wisdom and the completeness of Christ’s death. That’s what you are doing.

However humble you may feel, however unworthy you may feel… Some people feel good because they feel so unworthy, and their unworthiness makes them feel as if they are so humble. What a vicious cycle! But I want to tell you today that when God forgives, His forgiveness is complete despite the consequences, and guilt is never His means of punishment. Never!

The third concept to get ahold of is conciliation. Conciliation! I use that word rather than reconciliation because I just wanted to have all my four concepts begin with the letter “C.” I have that right when I preach—to do whatever I like within certain limits. I have to look over here to see some of the elders.

What do I mean by conciliation? I mean reconciliation. Listen carefully. That means, first of all, that you are at peace with yourself because you have forgiven yourself. You know, there are some people who say, “Well, you know, I have God’s forgiveness, but I will never forgive myself.” Oh, let’s just analyze that statement with a little bit of care. What are you trying to tell me, that you aren’t going to forgive yourself? Are you trying to tell me that the God of the universe, the God who created the sun, the moon, the stars, the most holy and the most high God has acquitted you and declared you to be free from condemnation because of the completeness of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, and you’re going to turn around and tell me that you’re not going to forgive yourself? Who in the world are you anyway? That’s nothing but devilish pride. Devilish pride, once again, calling into question the right of God to pronounce you clean. If God pronounces you clean, what right do you have to pronounce yourself dirty? If God has not withheld His pardon from you, could you tell me one reason under heaven why you think you have a right to withhold pardon from yourself? It’s absurdity.

You’ve got to forgive yourself. Reconciliation within! Also, reconciliation without! You’ve got to forgive others who have wronged you. And in a future message we’re going to talk about that in a lot more detail, but also, you must go to others whom you have wronged to try to make restitution. Reconciliation! You see, that’s part of being forgiven by God. If there is a person who says, “Well, you know, I’ve been forgiven by God, and I’ve hurt a lot of people, but I have no interest in going back and trying to make things right and asking their forgiveness,” I have to seriously question whether such a person indeed has been forgiven by God. How can you be forgiven by God and not seek the forgiveness of someone else whom you have wronged? How can that be?

There’s a final concept. We’ve talked about the cross, confession and conciliation. And now we get to another word, and it’s the word commitment because you’re saying to me, “Pastor Lutzer, wait a moment. I’m glad that you are offering the pardon of Christ to me, but those consequences of my sin still bother me to this day.” Perhaps you molested a child, and there is some person growing up today whose marriage is messed up, whose life is messed up because of you. And you say you deserve to burn, and I agree. You do. And don’t we all, regardless of the extent of our sin?

Could I just throw this in at no extra cost? Have you ever thought of the fact, Friend, that instead of measuring sin the way we do, what we ought to do is to recognize that the bigness of our sin is determined by the bigness of the being against whom that sin has been committed? And when you look at sin that way you realize that even those of us who, thank God, are exempt from some of the sins that I’ve talked about today have all offended the Most High, and we all deserve condemnation.

What do I mean when I say commitment? First of all, what you have to do is to give the consequences of your sin over to God. That’s what you have to do. You’ve got to say, “Lord, I committed this sin, and these are the consequences. I have ruined other people’s lives. I have done ‘thus and so’ and I can’t handle it. I can’t go back and make things right. I wish I could, but I can’t. But God I give you those people and I give you those circumstances, and I turn the matter of my consequences all over to You. Be merciful, oh God.”

And when you pray that, God may be merciful, and some of those consequences may be lessened. Did you know that? How do I know that? Oh listen! Did you know that karma is wrong? Thank God that karma is wrong. Karma says that we get in this life precisely what we deserve. There’s a cause/effect relationship in the universe and everybody gets exactly what they have coming to them. Oh, I am so glad that karma is wrong.

I read in Psalm 103: “He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor has he rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Isn’t that good news for sinners? “For as the heaven is high above the earth so great is his mercy toward them that fear him, for he knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust.” Sometimes God takes consequences and intervenes and lessens them and makes them smaller than we predicted they might be. And sometimes He takes even the messes and uses them for His glory. Would you give the consequences of your sin to God?

Secondly, there’s something else you have to give to God in commitment, and that is the memories. Some people who say, “Well, you know, how am I going to get rid of those memories?” You know, there’s a verse in the Bible that says that God casts our sins in the depths of the sea (Now get this) and He remembers them no more.

What on earth does that mean? Does that mean that God doesn’t know everything after all? There is something that God doesn’t know? He does not remember your sin, and He’s blotted it out, and so while God is omniscient, there are some things that He has blotted out of His mind? Of course not! God knows everything, and He doesn’t forget anything. What it means is this: God says, “I no longer regard your sins. I no longer hold them against you. I no longer bring them up when we have discussions together. As far as I’m concerned, your sins are no longer a factor between you and Me. I simply have taken them and put them away, and they are no longer an issue.” That’s the way we are to interpret that.

And did you know that that’s precisely the way in which God expects you to forget your past? It’s not that your memory is going to be blotted out so you say, “Well, I can’t remember what I did back there.” No, what it means is, “Yes, I can remember what I did back there. I can remember what happened, but it no longer controls me. It does not have authority over me. I no longer am subject to its power. It’s there but it’s put away, so that I need no longer dig into my past.”

It’s been said that God takes all of our sins and casts them into the depths of the sea, and then He puts up a sign that says, “No fishing.” God says, “I put them away. You leave them where I put them.”

Let me ask you a question today. Do you have a right to remember that which God says He has forgotten? Do you have that right? Do you have the right to say, “Well, you know, I know that God has forgiven me, but I must continue to wallow in the past sin?” or do you have a right to be cleansed and forgiven, to be spoken clean, as you stand before the angel of the covenant, as you stand before Jesus Christ, and are pronounced clean? And you take your past and all of the hurts, both those that have been done to you, and those that you have done to others, and you give them over to God.

What about my question, “Is there an unpardonable sin?” Yes, there is an unpardonable sin, and it is the sin of refusing to expose yourself to Christ who is the only one who can save you and who can cleanse you. The unpardonable sin today is people hardening their hearts against the Savior, saying, “I’m going to hang on to my own sins, and I refuse to expose my life to God so that He can cleanse me.”

So there is “an” unpardonable sin that is committed by people who withhold themselves from Christ, and those who come to Christ, also, who try to add to what He has done on the cross by their own guilt and by their own good works, thinking that they can receive forgiveness by a mixture of works and faith. Those two are excluded also from God’s mercy and grace. That’s why there are many people who confess their sins consistently and still have not even been saved, and have no assurance that they have ever been pronounced clean by God.

Is God reluctant to cleanse you? Does God say, “Oh, good night! Good night!” No! Why? It’s because Jesus died for sinners, and if we say that there is a sin that is too big for God to forgive, we are saying that God is one who has poor planning and we charge Him with the foolishness of saying that there was more sin in the world than God anticipated, and the cross can’t handle it. What kind of a God is that? It’s not the one I’m preaching to you today.

Remember when the prodigal son came back to the father and he said, “Oh good night! Not you again!” No, he said, “Bring hither the fatted calf and kill it. And bring hither the best robe and put it on him. And put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And yes, bring hither that fatted calf and kill it, for this my son was dead and is alive, and was lost and is found, and it’s time to be rejoicing because a boy who has been in the pigpen is back home where he belongs.” The generosity of the father!

Remember that story about the boy who left his parents and lived a very simple, worldly life? And then when he wanted to come back in future years, he wondered whether they would receive him. He knew that if they didn’t receive him they had every right to do that. But he thought he’d give it a try and he wrote and said, “Dear Mom and Dad, I’d like to come home. If you won’t have me I’ll understand but,” he said, “I’m taking a train into town, and from the train window I’ll see our backyard. If you want to receive me, if you welcome me, put a handkerchief on one of the branches, and then I’ll stop at the station, but if there’s no handkerchief I’ll go to the next town.”

And days later as the boy was riding into town on that train, as he was looking out the window (You remember the story.), he wept as he saw a handkerchief on every branch of the tree.

God says today, “I can speak you clean. I can cleanse you.” Those of us who live in Chicago know what smell is like. “I can cleanse you like the freshly driven snow.” It says whiter than snow. I don’t know what that would be because I’ve seen some snow that is so white, I don’t know what in the world whiter than snow means. But that’s what the Bible says God can do for you today. He can put that ugly past behind you, cleanse you, and say, “You are clean. You are clean.”

Let’s pray.

Father, we pray that in these brief moments Your Holy Spirit will take Your Word, and take people whose pasts have haunted them, relationships that have been damaged, families that have been ruined because of sin, and because of sins of the past, and we pray, Father God, that every single person listening to me today will receive that pardon and that forgiveness. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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