Have you ever had a lingering feeling of guilt even after you’ve confessed your sins to God? Today, R.C. Sproul urges us to take God at His Word when He promises that He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins (1 John 1:9).
I remember, many years ago, going to see a minister to tell him about a struggle I was having with guilt. And I went into his office, told him what my problem was, and he opened the Bible for me to the first epistle of John, chapter one. And he asked me to read this passage out loud, and he pointed to verse eight of chapter one of 1 John, and so I read it. It says this, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Let me just pause there for a moment.
One of the customary ways that we deal with guilt is to deny it or to seek to excuse it by some process of rationalization. Here, John is speaking to that scenario when he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” We all have sin, and therefore we all have contracted guilt. And if we deny that, we are engaged in perhaps the worst kind of deception—namely, self-deception.
But when I read that passage, the minister said: “That’s not your problem, because you’ve just told me why you came here. You came to tell me that you had a problem with sin.” Then he had me read the next verse: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I finished reading that and he said, “What does that mean?” I said: “Well, I know what that means. I’ve read that a hundred times.” And he said, “Have you confessed your sin?” I said, “Yes, but I still feel guilty.” He said, “Okay,” but he said, “How about reading 1 John 1:9 for me?”
I looked at him with a puzzled look. I said, “That’s just what I read.” He said, “I know.” He said, “I want you to read it again.”
So, I picked up the Bible and I said, “Okay, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And I finished reading it and I looked at him, and he looked at me and he said, “So what else?” And I said, “Well, again, I’ve told you, I understand this passage, and I’ve read this passage, and I’ve confessed my sin, but I still feel guilty.” He said, “Okay, well, then this time let me have you read 1 John 1:9.”
And he made me read it again, and I ended up reading it five or six times. Finally, he got my attention and he said: “R.C., here’s what the truth of God declares: if A, B will necessarily follow. God has promised that if you confess your sins, He will forgive you of your sins and cleanse you of your unrighteousness. Now, you don’t believe that you’re forgiven because you don’t feel forgiven.” He said: “What are you trusting? Your feelings, your experience, or the truth of God?” And I got the message.
And I remembered it years later when I was in the pastorate and I had a similar experience. Another human being came to me just like I had gone to my pastor. It was a woman, and she told me that she was guilty of a particular sin, and she was plagued with this guilty conscience. And so, I had her read 1 John 1:9. And she read it and she said, “Whoa, I have confessed this sin.” She said: “I have asked God to forgive me of this sin a hundred times, and I still feel guilty. What can I do?”
I said, “Well, let me ask you to do something else.” She said, “What?” I said, “I think you need to get on your knees and ask God to forgive you again.” And she really got frustrated. She said: “Look, you’re supposed to be a theologian. I expected something a little more profound than this kind of advice from you.” She said, “I’ve already told you that I have confessed this sin to God and asked Him to forgive me a hundred times.”
And I said: “I’m not asking you to confess that sin to God. I want you to confess a different sin.” She said, “What’s that?” I said, “I want you to confess your sin of arrogance.”
“Arrogance. What do you mean arrogance? I’ve been the most humble person in the world. I’ve been beating my breast, and I’ve been on my face begging God to forgive me a hundred times.”
And I said: “Wait a minute. Does God say that if you confess, He will forgive?” “Yes.” I said: “So, how many times do you have to confess that sin before God? If you confess it once, truly repent of it, truly confess it before God, what does God say He will do? He says He’ll forgive it, but that wasn’t good enough for you. You had to go a second time and say to God: ‘Run that by me again. I don’t really trust Your sincerity. I don’t really believe, God, that You mean what You say when You promise that You will forgive me.’ Or maybe what you’re thinking is the free remission of sins that God offers humbly penitent people may be good enough for gross sinners, but not for you. You’re sitting there thinking: ‘It can’t be this easy. Let other people wallow in mercy and wallow in grace. I have more dignity than that. I want to do something to make up for it.’ But you can’t make up for it. You’re a debtor who can’t pay your debts. All you can do is cry unto God, ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’”