Passion Sunday: Gods Remedy For Guilt
Our society has thrown out guilt as a bad carryover from our Catholic past. Movie stars and celebrities not only cast off their guilt, but also go on TV to boast about their shameful deeds. Even Christians who have fallen into sin explain how they have come to feel good about themselves in spite of their failures. They complain about self-righteous, judgmental Christians who won’t accept their “shortcomings.”
And yet, in spite of our widespread efforts to suppress or deny guilt, we can’t quite shake it. Years ago, psychologist Eric Fromm observed, “It is indeed amazing that in as fundamentally irreligious a culture as ours, the sense of guilt should be so widespread and deep-rooted as it is”. A cartoon hit the nail on the head. It showed a psychologist saying to his patient, “Mr. Figby, I think I can explain your feelings of guilt. You’re guilty!”
The Bible declares that all of us are guilty before the bench of God’s holy justice.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Bible teaches that guilt is more than just a bad feeling. It is true moral culpability that alienates us from God and brings us under His decreed penalty, eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Revelations 20:11-15). But, thankfully, the Bible also declares that God has provided a remedy for our guilt. It is vital that we understand and apply this remedy personally.
The Hebrew Christians were tempted to leave the Christian faith and return to Judaism. The author is showing them why that would be spiritually fatal. In our text, he shows that the old covenant sacrificial system was temporary and imperfect. It could not provide a clean conscience for the worshipers. God designed that old system to point ahead to the superior, final sacrifice of our high priest, Christ, who offered His own blood to obtain for us eternal redemption and a clean conscience.
Thus his point is that…
God’s remedy for guilt is the blood of Christ.
But lets start with a question. What is a conscience?
1. Conscience is an internal rational capacity that bears witness to our value system.
A few decades ago, a common figurative picture in comedies and cartoons was the shoulder angel/devil. A person’s inner turmoil was personified by having an angel, representing conscience, on the right shoulder and a devil, representing temptation, on the left shoulder. This type of folklore imagery gave people the false impression that the conscience was like an inner listening room in which a person could hear the voice of God (a “good conscience”) or the devil (a “bad conscience). A more Catholic view is to consider the shoulder angel/devil as representing witnesses to our inner value system. Our conscience is a part of our God-given internal faculties, a critical inner awareness that bears witness to the norms and values we recognize when determining right or wrong. Conscience does not serve as a judge or a legislator; that is a modern take on the concept. Instead, in the Biblical and Catholic sense, conscience serves as a witness to what we already know.
(Romans 2:15) They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
(Romans 9:1) I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.
Conscience may induce an inner dialogue to tell us what we already know, but more often it merely makes its presence known through our emotions.
When we conform to the values of our conscience we feel a sense of pleasure or relief. But when we violate the values of our conscience, it induces anguish or guilt. Conscience can be described as a built-in warning system that signals us when something we have done is wrong. The conscience is to our souls what pain sensors are to our bodies: it inflicts distress, in the form of guilt, whenever we violate what our hearts tell us is right.”
Conscience is a trustworthy guide only when it is informed and ruled by God.
A few days before he became a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama sat down with religion reporter Cathleen Falsani to talk about his faith. When Falsani asked, “What is sin?,” Obama replied, “Being out of alignment with my values.” While there is a lot wrong, theologically speaking, with that answer, it does contain a kernel of truth. What President Obama was describing as “being out of alignment with my values” is what we could call “violating our conscience.” To violate one’s conscience is indeed a sin (as we’ll discuss in a moment). But what makes something a sin is not merely being out of alignment with our values but in choosing our own will over the will of God. Our conscience is therefore only trustworthy when it does not lead us to choose our will over God’s will.
We have to remember that acting according to conscience may sometimes be sin as well. If the conscience is misinformed, then we seek the reasons for this misinformation. Is it misinformed because the person has been negligent in studying the Word of God, or failing to understand what the Church teaches?
A prime example of the way our conscience may lead both Christians and non-Christians to sin is when we violate, or advocate for the violation, of creation ordinances.
Among the creation ordinances are the clear injunctions to preserve the sanctity of the marriage bond between one man and one woman, the necessity and propriety of godly labor, and the keeping of the Sabbath. (Genesis 2:1-3, 15, 18-24). Our conscience bears witness to the reality and truth of these ordinances, and we are guilty of sin when we deny or break them.
Conscience is to be subordinated to, and informed by, the revealed Word of God given to us through His written Word and by Tradition given to us through the magisterium of the Church.
Conscience cannot be our final ethical authority because it is, unlike God’s revealed Word, and the Dogma of the Church, changeable and fallible. Too often, though, Christians reverse the order and attempt to use their conscience in order to judge God His Church. Many Christians claim, for example, “I could not worship a God who would say [a clear statement from the Bible or from the Church]” or “I couldn’t believe in a God who would do [something God clearly told someone to do in scriptures].” In making such statements they may be appealing to their conscience. But in such cases, their consciences are being informed by Satan, not by God. A person’s conscience may cause them to question a particular interpretations. But our conscience can never legitimately judge a holy God or his holy Church. When we find ourselves thinking “Did God really say?” when Scriptures and the Church clearly says He did, then we know it is the serpent and not the Savior speaking. (Genesis 3:1)
Our conscience should always be informed by what God has said. But what if we are mistaken about what the Bible or the Church commands or forbids? What if, for example, if I were at a neighbor’s house and see a wallet lying on the floor. Thinking it’s my neighbor’s wallet, I quickly take the cash from it. Later I realize that it wasn’t my neighbor’s wallet at all – it was my wallet, which had fallen out of my pocket. Would I still be guilty of theft, even though it was my own money I took? Yes, I would be since I had intended to do wrong.
I had intended to steal – intended to violate God’s commands—even though I was mistaken about the object of my theft. As Paul says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
If we do something that we think is sin, even if we are misinformed, we are guilty of sin. We are guilty of doing something we believe to be wrong. We act against our consciences. That is a very important principle.
Conscience can be suppressed by sin.
If we desire to develop a positive habit, we need to perform an action repeatedly, over time, until it becomes an automatic reflex. The same process occurs when we fall into sin. When we sin, we reject God’s authority. If we repeat our sin, over time, the rejection of God’s authority becomes an automatic reflex. Even unbelievers, who innately know God’s general revelation, such as his invisible attributes, and the the creation ordinances, begin to deny such knowledge because of sin. Paul says that by our unrighteousness we suppress the truth. They think they are wise, but their sin makes them foolish. Eventually, God gives them over to their debased minds. (Romans 1:24) Believers are also in danger of falling into this destructive pattern. Sometimes our sin leads us to doubt the very reality of God. When we deny God’s authority we begin to doubt his existence so that we can salve our conscience about his judgment. (Not all doubt is caused by sin, but sin almost always leads to doubts.) Sin can cause our conscience to become “seared” and “corrupted” and wholly unreliable. (1 Timothy 4:2)
Titus 1:15 says, “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.”
This is why to protect our conscience and keep it in working order God has provided a remedy.
And what is that remedy? We find it in our Epistle reading for today.
Christ’s blood provides the complete ability to cleanse our consciences (9:13-14).
The blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh.” In addition to the Day of Atonement ritual, the author of Hebrews adds the red heifer ritual (Numbers 19:1-13). This was a ritual for purification, especially if someone had been defiled by touching a dead body. The author argues from the lesser to the greater. If these rituals could cleanse the flesh, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Jesus Christ is the only one who could atone for man’s sin, because He alone was a man without blemish in all that He did. Thus His blood can act as the substitute for the penalty that we deserve.
This infinitely efficacious sacrifice satisfied God in a way that the blood of bulls and goats never could. Through Christ’s blood, we can have a clean conscience.
So how can our guilt be removed and our consciences be cleansed? Only through the sacrifice of an acceptable substitute. As 1 Peter 3:18 puts it, “For Christ also suffered and died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God….” Or, as Paul put it (Romans 3:24-25), “being justified by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation, through faith in his blood .” Our guilt is not removed by doing penance or good works. Our guilt is totally removed by God through the blood of Christ. We receive this through faith.
“But,” you may wonder, “if it is totally by God’s grace apart from anything that we do, won’t people take advantage of His grace by living in sin?” Paul deals extensively with this objection in Romans 6. But here our author counters it with a single phrase at the end of verse 14:
3. Christ redeems and cleanses us from dead works to serve the living God (9:14).
Some Christians serve God in an attempt to pacify a guilty conscience. They erroneously think, “If I do enough for Him, maybe He will forgive me.” That is a wrong motive! Others mistakenly think that God forgives them so that they can feel good. Their focus is on themselves, not on God and others. Again, that is a wrong focus. The proper order is, “God has forgiven me by His grace through the precious blood of His Son. Now I am free to serve Him!”
There are three senses in which the works of those who have not trusted in the blood of Christ are dead works. First, they are dead works because the one doing them is dead in his sins, separated from the life of God. Second, they are dead works because they “are essentially sterile and unproductive.” They cannot communicate spiritual life to others because they stem from a person who is spiritually dead. Third, they are dead works because they end in spiritual death. A person does them thinking that they will earn him eternal life. But if eternal life could come through our good works, then Christ died needlessly! No amount of so called “good works” can qualify a person for heaven.
But once we are born again by God’s grace at our baptism, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2), so that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we do it to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). Our daily lives become an act of worship and praise to the living God out of gratitude (Hebrews 13:15-16).
The Jews, concerning their offerings, knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering. Is their a sacrifice that I may transfer all my guilt to? Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His head? Yes He has.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son....” (John 3:16) So then, By Gods grace you do not have to bear your guilt on your own soul one moment longer. Lay your sins upon the sacred head of Jesus.
Have you done that? If you have not, you are truly guilty before God and stand in jeopardy of His judgment. If you have, you have applied God’s remedy for your guilt, the blood of Christ. With a clean conscience, you now can serve the living God.