“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God”(Romans 3:19)
We were hanging out at my friends’ apartment. One guy was watching T.V. on the couch, one was in the other room, and I was talking to a friend (I’ll call him “Sam” to avoid confusion).
Sam was a friendly guy. He had a good sense of humor, and we joked about things often (we were in our 20’s). On this night, however, he began to share some of his burdens. It was a moment etched into my mind forever. As he was speaking, I realized that he was feeling guilty and condemned for something he had done. He was beating himself up for his own sin. It wasn’t the first time. This seemed to be a repetitive occurrence for Sam. Looking back on it now, I can clearly see it was a cry for help.
At that time, I knew very little about grace. I was raised in a church, and had been through different church incarnations, but I rarely had any wisdom to dole out to those who desperately needed it. I believe that the Holy Spirit spoke to Sam that night through me. After he had gone on for a while heaping guilt upon himself, I said to him something like, “Why are you beating yourself up for your sins? It’s blasphemous to think you could pay for the sins that Christ has already paid for”.
For the first time in the discussion, he lifted his head up, and got a smirk on his face. You could tell he felt the relief he was looking for.
Sam, the other friends and I all attended a little Baptist church. We liked the church for many reasons. The pastor was a great teacher. He studied the Bible diligently and presented things in a clear way. He was an authoritative leader. You had to bring your Bible and a pencil every week, because the teaching was so thorough, you might forget what he said otherwise.
The church followed him without exception. Many people were clone-like in their devotion to his teaching. I was one of them.
The pastor’s style of preaching involved: 1.reading a portion of Scripture, 2. developing principles out of it that were to be obeyed. If you didn’t follow these principles, he (or someone just as zealous) would “call you out on the carpet” for your “sin”. This was called accountability.
The effect of such preaching on the hearers was never considered. You had sermons entitled, The Seven Steps to a Better Prayer Life, and Ten Steps to Overcoming Sin. By the end of one year, you might have a couple hundred principles that you were supposed to obey.
The burden of these rules had a practical impact, but an impact on the conscience as well. If you took these principles seriously, you would start to realize that you didn’t always obey. In fact, you probably broke a principle here or there throughout the day. Christians who were self-reflective felt guilty. They looked for relief in the prescription from the pastor; work harder to obey. Individuals would re-double their efforts in an attempt to find some inner peace, but things just got worse. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus declares that the expectations of the law go beyond the physical to the intent of the heart:
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30“If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (NASB)
The above statement is part of The Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus adds significant weight to the Law by adding the unseen dimension of heart-felt obedience to outward obedience.
The intent of Christ’s words is to demolish any last bastion of hidden sin. He was not going to allow for “white-washed tombs” like the intensely religious Pharisees to escape without admitting their guilt before a Holy God.
What is the effect on you? Do you feel the weight of your own guilt? Do you feel shame? I certainly do/did. Christ is using the Law as a launching point to cut to the heart. Even the season Christian man would be lying to himself if he said he never looked at a woman with lust in his heart. “Every mouth” is closed in conviction. We are all guilty.
And, for those young men who continued to struggle mightily with this sin, shame was an added feeling that emerged. It became more and more prevalent as they tried to overcome the sin by application of their self-control. And then, if they did “overcome” the temptation, they became self-righteous and conceited, judging others who lacked the same self-control.
Personally, I went through a period where I thought I wasn’t saved. As I “submitted” myself to the church, I also became self-righteous. It didn’t last long. Because of the words of Christ in Matthew, I came to realize that God judges the heart and the intentions. I did not love God. What’s worse is that I was troubled by this development (which I thought was strange) and went to many people to find the type of relief Sam felt as I spoke to him.
Various members said things like, “You need to pray more,” or “You need to read the Bible more”, or “Maybe you’re not saved”. This amplified my own anxiety and concern.
I voiced this concern about not loving God to another friend of mine. He simply stated, “John, you love God 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year because Christ loves God for you. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had just given me The Gospel. The guilt, trouble and concern I had were lifted off my shoulders and replace by the peace of God.
Maybe you are in a church like the one I described above. You feel the weight of your sin. You know that God expects an obedience that is greater than what the pastor has required of you, as Jesus said, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). You are troubled.
To you Christ says,
28“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11, NASB)
It is not your faithfulness that saves you. It is not your obedience that makes you Holy. It is not your observance that makes your righteous. It is Christ’s faithfulness, it is Christ’s obedience, and it is Christ’s observance that had made you righteous. He has forgiven you for all of your sin and mine.
He has also died for your conceit, your self-righteousness and your judgment of yourself and others. Paul declares your innocence in Romans, Chapter 8:
1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us …
Christian, return to the cross. The Gospel of Christ is not the beginning point of the Christian life, He IS the Christian life. He has come to set you free. He has come to you who are bound in your conscience to speak the words, “I forgive you all of your sins”. And He will repeat these words over and over and over to you.
You might think He doesn’t know your sin. The truth is that He knows it intimately because your sin and mine were placed on Him just before the Father poured out His wrath on Jesus. As the Scriptures say, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
My friends, This is the Gospel for you.