Guilt is a universal experience. Everybody at some time or other has had the bad feeling of not doing what he ought to have done. Even people who deny that there is any such thing as right and wrong are trapped by the law of God written on their hearts. They set out to prove there is no such thing as right and wrong and that all ethics are relative and arbitrary, but wind up saying it is right for you to agree with them and wrong for you not to.
No one has ever successfully erased the sense of ought which God writes in every human soul. Our moral sensibilities may be perverted so that they are the very opposite of God’s, but everyone senses that he ought to do certain things and not others. And we all know we have not done all we ought to have done, or felt all we ought to have felt. And at some time or other this has made us feel bad. The failure to do what we ought to have done we call guilt. And the bad feelings that often accompany it we call guilt feelings or a bad conscience.
How the World Copes with Guilt
If our conscience is sensitive, these feelings can produce so much misery we may be tempted to commit suicide. More often we seek other ways to ease the misery of a bad conscience. There are at least three ways contemporary people try to solve the problem of guilt: intellectual ways, physical ways, and religious ways. For example, among the intellectual ways there is the teaching that guilt is owing to unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves. Of course, we fail and do wrong, but we are only human and it is unreasonable to expect so much.
So lower your expectations of your own virtue and you will have less guilt. Another approach is to say that our moral principles are dated and restrictive. They are products of the worn-out Protestant work ethic, or remnants of puritanical prudery or Victorian mores. You will solve your guilt problem if you come of age and stop living in the ethical dark ages.
One of the most amazing strategies for handling guilt in the last ten years or so has been the teaching that some of the things we all used to think were vices are, in fact, virtues, and not to have them is wrong! Like: greed and intimidation and self-exaltation. (Ellen Goodman had an editorial in Friday’s paper about seminars being offered on how to marry for money. A book on how to intimidate becomes a best-seller. And everything from R.C. to cottage cheese is sold with the word ME in capital letters.) For many it has seemed very promising to solve their guilt problem by joining the campaign to turn vices into virtues.
But even though the seventies were marked by an astonishing multiplication of intellectual strategies to solve the guilt problem, the old-fashioned physical ways still predominate. For those who don’t have enough brains to think their way out of guilt feelings, there is always alcohol to fall back on and, more recently, other drugs. I think a bad conscience is the root cause of alcoholism. He may say it was stress that drove him to drink. She may say it was grief and loneliness that drove her to drink. But is it not the case that they felt deep down that they should be able to cope with stress and grief and loneliness and that the growing guilt of their failure was what they wanted to drown?
Of course, alcohol and drugs are not the only escapes from guilt. Some people talk, talk incessantly, compulsively, and never listen quietly, lest they hear something they don’t want to hear. Some people devote themselves day and night to games and hobbies and sports. Some people keep the television on all day for a constant barrage of sound and sight on their minds to guard them from what Simon and Garfunkel called the unsettling “sounds of silence.”
But the oldest and most revered tactic for avoiding the misery of guilt is religion. This tactic may be the most deceptive because it comes closest to the truth. It recognizes what the intellectual and physical strategies generally ignore: that the ultimate cause of guilt is that there is a righteous God whose will for his creatures is ignored or defied. It recognizes that under every pang of conscience in the human soul there is the silent, often unexpressed conviction, “I have gone against God.” The means that religion has developed to deal with this guilt is to try to placate or appease God with good works or religious ritual. Religious people know they owe God a great debt for their disobedience. But they often make the terrible mistake of thinking they can pay it back through good works and the performance of religious duties.
God’s Way of Dealing with Your Guilt
I think if we took the time and were very careful, we could show that none of these ways of dealing with guilt (intellectual, physical, or religious) is satisfactory. Our heads may be easily diverted from the depth of our guilt, but our hearts are not so lightly healed. And we all know deep down there is something inauthentic about the self-asserting, dollar-hungry, intimidating executive who meets you at the top. We know alcohol and drugs and compulsive entertainment and noise are not the way to life and peace. And we ought to know, who have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, that the debt we owe to God cannot be paid off by our paltry virtue.
But instead of trying to show the inadequacy of all this, I want to build on what we began in the last two messages. The point of the last two messages was that the biblical portrait of Jesus is true. It is historically rooted and defensible. And it is rationally compelling to the open mind. No man ever spoke like this man, Jesus (John 7:46). He can be trusted. He is true. He endorsed the Old Testament, and it is he who speaks by his Spirit in the New Testament.
“Jesus is precious because he removes our guilt.”
Therefore, it is enough for us to hear from him through his apostle, Paul, how God has dealt with our guilt. It is the best news in all the world. It is the only strategy that owns up to the truth of God’s righteousness and the depth of our debt before him. Once you have been grasped by God’s way of dealing with your guilt, every other way will seem thin and superficial and utterly inadequate by comparison. And you will rejoice with me that “Jesus Is Precious Because He Removes Our Guilt.”
Remember now, it is not my word, but God’s word, the Bible, that shows us the way. So let’s look together at Romans 3:19–29. All I want to do is let this text speak because it has tremendous power to persuade and win our hearts. Let me sum up five observations from the text, and then we will look at it more closely to follow Paul’s line of argument.
First, all persons, whether Jew or Gentile, are held personally accountable by God for their sin (verse 19). Second, the resulting relationship of human guilt and divine indignation cannot be made right by works of the law (verse 20). Third, God, on his own initiative, has undertaken to seek our acquittal freely (verses 21–24). Fourth, the way he has done this is by putting forth Jesus Christ to redeem us by his death and demonstrate the righteousness of God (verses 24–26). Fifth, this gift of justification only comes to those who trust in Jesus (verses 22, 25, 26). Now let’s follow Paul’s line of argument from verse 19 to 26.
All People Under Sin
In Romans 3:9 Paul sums up the point of what has gone before: “All men, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” All men have sinned and are under the awful sway of sin, slaves to sin (Romans 6:16). To illustrate and substantiate this point he takes words from Psalms and Isaiah and describes the condition of sinful mankind in verses 10–18. Then in verse 19 he says, “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” Our first point, therefore, is that all people, regardless of race, are personally accountable to God. The universal problem of guilt is not owing to the fact that we have failed our fellow man, but because we have failed God.
Every person in this room is accountable directly to God. God deals with you as an individual, and you will have to give an account to him of your life someday. That should be a frightening thought if you are trying to deal with your guilt in one of those intellectual, physical, or religious ways I mentioned earlier. Oh, how silly and foolish and tragic they will all seem “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment is revealed” (Romans 2:5).
No matter how virtuous we appear, we are accountable to God and there will be a reckoning for what we have done and said and thought and felt. The universal problem of guilt is not just a problem of how to feel better, but how to be right with God. The secular devices to lessen the misery of our guilt will always fail sooner or later because they ignore the main problem of human existence. We are guilty before God. It is his law we have broken. It is his glory from which we fall so short (Romans 3:23). Every person in this room is personally accountable to God and will meet him some day either guilty and condemned, or acquitted and destined for joy.
No One Justified by Works of the Law
Verse 20 is given as the basis or ground of verse 19: “For no human being will be justified in his (God’s) sight by works of the law, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” To be justified means to be acquitted by God, to be declared free and innocent, to be made right in relation to God so that his indignation is removed and our rebellion is taken away. The point of this verse is that acquittal is never achieved by works of the law. This means that, if a person does not trust the freely justifying mercy of God, and yet undertakes to make himself right with God through works of the law, he will always fail. The effect that will have on such a person is to reveal his sin all the more clearly (Romans 5:20; 7:7, 8; Galatians 3:19).
The connection between verses 19 and 20 seems to be something like this: when people do not trust the mercy of God but try to use the law to get right with him, the law brings to light their sin and condemns them for their unbelief. And since this is true of all humans (“all flesh”), Jew and Gentile (verse 20), we know that when the law speaks thus to Jews, it also has the whole world in view, that every mouth may be stopped and all people held accountable.
So the first two points are that all people are sinners and personally accountable to God, and that this relationship of guilt cannot be set right by works of the law.
God Has Acted to Accomplish Our Acquittal
Third, God, on his own initiative, has undertaken to seek our acquittal. Verses 21–24: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”
Regardless of how many promises of God’s mercy there were in the Old Testament law, and regardless of how many calls to repentance and faith, the actual effect of the law was, by and large, to expose and condemn sin (Galatians 3:21, 22). Therefore, when God undertook to manifest his righteousness for our justification, he did it “apart from the law.” That is, he did not direct our attention back to the law with its animal sacrifices, but he directed our attention to his Son whom he sent to die for our sin. Romans 8:3 puts it like this: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, he condemned sin in the flesh.”
What I want to stress under this third point is that God has not left us to deal with our guilt alone, but he has taken the initiative, while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8), to seek our acquittal and to offer it to us freely. The glory of the gospel is that the one before whom we are guilty and condemned has himself undertaken to replace our guilt and his indignation with righteousness and reconciliation.
This act of God which puts us in a right relationship to him where there is no more guilt and condemnation is called “justification” in verse 24. And please don’t miss the basis of justification in that verse: it is based on grace and therefore is a free gift. You can’t earn it or merit it by works. Grace and works are opposed to each other. Listen to Romans 11:5, 6: “At the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” When Paul says that our guilt is taken away by grace, he means it is a free gift and you can’t earn it by works.
God Put Christ Forward for Our Justification
The fourth point is how God brought about this free gift of justification. Verses 24 and 25 say that it was “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood.” Oh, how important this sentence is! All secular efforts to deal with the human misery of guilt are impotent because they ignore this fact: God’s holiness and righteous glory have been desecrated, defamed, and blasphemed by our sin. It is with a holy God that we have to do in our guilt! And there can be no justification, no reconciliation, no cleansing of our conscience, unless the holiness of God is honored and the defamation of his righteousness is repaired.
The urgency of our problem with guilt is not that we feel miserable, but that God’s name has been blasphemed. We live in a day with such a horrendously inflated view of human potential and such a miserably tiny view of God’s holiness that we can scarcely understand what the real problem of guilt is. The real problem is not, “How can God be loving and yet condemn people with such little sins?” The real problem is, “How can God be righteous if he acquits such miserable sinners as we?” There can be no lasting remedy for guilt that does not deal with God’s righteous indignation against sin.
That’s why there had to be a sacrifice. And not just any sacrifice, but the sacrifice of the Son of God! No one else, and no other act, could repair the defamation done to the glory of God by our sins. But when Jesus died for the glory of the Father, satisfaction was made. The glory was restored. Righteousness was demonstrated. Henceforth it is clear that when God, by grace, freely justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5), he is not indifferent to the demands of justice. It is all based on the grand transaction between the Father and the Son on the morning of Good Friday at Calvary. No other gospel can take away our guilt because no other gospel corresponds to the cosmic proportions of our sin in relation to God.
Justification Comes Only by Faith
The fifth and final point now is that this free gift of justification purchased by Jesus on the cross only comes to those who trust in him. After Paul says in verse 21 that God has manifested his righteousness apart from law, then he defines that righteousness in verse 22 as “the righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (see Philippians 3:9), then in verse 25 he says that Christ is an expiation (or propitiation) “through faith,” or “to be received by faith.” Finally in verse 26 he says that God “justifies him who has faith in Jesus.” So the teaching of God’s word is plain, and this is the gospel: anyone who trusts in Jesus for justification will have it freely.
“Anyone who trusts in Jesus for justification will have it freely.”
This is at once the hardest and easiest thing for a human to do. It is hard because it means acknowledging in your heart that you are so guilty before God that there is nothing you can do to solve the problem. Human beings don’t like to think of themselves that way. And so the human-potential movement has a heyday and the real problem of guilt remains unresolved for most people. Saving faith in Jesus Christ is hard because it is born in desperation, and apart from God’s grace, humans hate to admit that they are desperate.
But on the other hand, what could be easier than faith? It doesn’t require extraordinary strength, or beauty, or intelligence. No one will have an excuse on the judgment day that the way of salvation was too hard. God will simply say, “All you had to do was become like a little child (Matthew 18:3), and trust me to take care of you. Was that hard? Was it too hard to lean on me, to rest in my promises, to rely on the finished work of Christ? Was it too hard to accept a free gift? To cherish the pearl of forgiveness? To love the Savior who died for you?” It is free! It is free! It is free! Own up to your need and rest in him!
And now in conclusion let me sum up these five observations. And remember, they come from an apostle of Jesus Christ who saw the Lord and was commissioned by him to reveal the mysteries of God (Ephesians 3:3–5). These are not cleverly devised fables. They are truths rooted in history and coming from the risen, self-authenticating Jesus.
First, all human beings are personally accountable to God for their sin (verse 19). Second, the resulting guilt of man and righteous indignation of God cannot be made right by works of the law (verse 20). Third, God, on his own initiative, set about to accomplish our justification by grace and offer it as a free gift (verses 21–24). Fourth, the way he did this was by sending his Son, Jesus, to redeem us by his death and to demonstrate the righteousness of God (verses 24–26). Finally, this gift of justification, the removal of our guilt and God’s wrath, comes only to those who trust in Jesus (verses 22, 25–26). I urge you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20). Turn away from all the intellectual, physical, and religious tactics the world uses to evade its guilt, and rest in Jesus. Jesus is precious because he alone removes our guilt.