Probably there are few things worse than hearing the accusation, “Guilty!” To see the heads shake, to see the fingers pointed in your direction, and to come to the realization that your accusers are right. Your sin has found you out. Your deeds have been exposed. You did what they said you did and there’s no question about it.
We’ve all been in situations where we’ve felt that way. The question is, how should a Christian respond to guilt? Denial? Excuses? Downplaying it? Blame shifting?
How you respond to guilt has everything to do with understanding your identity in Christ. Earlier this year I launched an expository blog series through Ephesians called “Identity Matters”, and I’m making the case that understanding who you really are in Christ can revolutionize your life.
In my last article, we began focusing on Ephesians 1:7-10. In particular we considered the truth that”we have redemption through His blood.” One of the things that flows from our redemption is that we are forgiven.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, (Ephesians 1:7)
What exactly does “forgiveness” mean?
It’s not denying reality. It’s not saying what was done in the past was actually not done. That would be a lie. Forgiveness is not saying that the evil that was done was ok and not a big deal. That too would be a lie.
Instead, forgiveness is deciding not to hold someone’s sin over their head. It’s a refusal to throw back someone’s sin in their face over and over and over again and accuse them over and over and over again and punish them for it to make them pay for what they did.
As believers, what we discover in the gospel is that God is able to not hold your sins over your head anymore because when Jesus Christ hung on the cross your sin was held over his head instead! Your sin was imputed, or put on Him, and God punished your sin in Jesus.
When most people think about the gospel they stop there, but there’s actually more to it than that. What we experience because of our faith in Jesus is more than an elimination of our sin debt. When we receive Christ and when we are united to Him by faith we find also that His righteousness is imputed to us. Therefore when God looked at Jesus on the cross, He saw your sin and when God looks at you, dear believer, He sees you clothed with Christ’s righteousness. This doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle with sin anymore. What it means, however, is that in God’s great courtroom you are declared by the judge as “Not Guilty!” because all of your guilt was transferred to Christ and fully dealt with on the cross. John MacArthur describes it this way,
“In biblical terms, justification is a divine verdict of “not guilty—fully righteous.” It is the reversal of God’s attitude toward the sinner. Whereas He formerly condemned, He now vindicates. Although the sinner once lived under God’s wrath, as a believer he or she is now under God’s blessing.”
This does not mean that the Christian no longer sins and does things that are wrong. On the contrary, as we move further in Ephesians we will see many exhortations that warn against sin. In the wake of God’s legal declaration of “not guilty”, we still practically battle sin regularly. But one of the main points of Ephesians is that we need to now practically live in accordance with our new identity. We’ve been adopted, redeemed, forgiven, and declared “not guilty”, and therefore Paul will urge us in chapters 4-6 to “Be who we really are!” Later on we’ll explore Ephesians’ exhortations for practical living, but for now we need to pause and consider God’s amazing, divine, “not guilty” verdict. This is stunning, and should have radical implications on our lives.
There are many Christians that carry around a truck load of guilt. They are paralyzed by it. They are depressed and in despair about all the bad things they’ve done in the past. They cannot move forward and enjoy life because they are wallowing in the guilt of things they’ve done decades ago. They live in a state of guilt and condemnation.
Perhaps you can identify? You have received Christ. You have repented of your sins. You have forsaken your sins. You have tried to make amends or restitution towards those you’ve sinned against. You’ve done all that the Bible would expect from you but nevertheless you still hear the whispering voices of accusation.
“You did that. You are guilty. God will never accept you. He has rejected you. God can never use you. Your life is forever ruined. You’re not totally forgiven. There’s something else you must do to earn God’s favor”
You may think that those kinds of voices are your attempts to be humble. You may think those kinds of voices are just evidence that you take your sin more seriously than others. But in actuality, those voices are Satanic and to agree with them is to be a co-conspirator with the Devil against the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of the main ways that the Devil attacks us is through finger-pointing accusations and guilt. He is like a prosecuting attorney. Even the names “Satan” and “Devil” carry those courtroom connotations.
What many Christians don’t fully realize is that part of God’s redemptive plan is to silence the devil’s accusations.
Let’s consider a text that you may not have ever read in your morning devotions. Zechariah chapter 3. In this chapter we see Satan doing what he does best. Accusing. Let’s see how God deals with Satan’s accusations.
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by. (Zechariah 3:1-5)
Now what’s the point here? Were Satan’s accusations false? Was Satan lying about Joshua’s sin? Absolutely not. The scripture says that Joshua’s clothes were filthy! Satan was right. Joshua was unrighteous, Joshua was dirty because of sin. But the wonderful meaning of this strange vision is that the accusations of Satan are powerless against the one whom God determines to make clean. This vision, which at first shows Joshua as filthy, moves to a picture of having those disgusting, excrement covered clothes removed from him, with new, fresh clean clothes put on him.
Now Joshua is viewed by God as clean and righteous, just as if he had never sinned. But notice that it is not a righteousness of his own. Joshua instead is covered with a righteousness, with clothes, that did not belong to Him but belonged to God.
If you are in Christ, you need to recognize that as the Devil accuses you of all your sins, (and if you are like me there is a laundry list of sins), God’s response to Satan’s accusations is, “The Lord rebuke you! The Lord has chosen this one! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?”
God has taken you, believer, and he has removed your filthy clothes and He has clothed you with new garments called “The righteousness of Christ”, and the clothes are yours forever. The righteousness you possess is not your own but has been given to you, which means God gets the glory!
None of this means that God takes the sin of a believer lightly. He took it so seriously that He crushed His own Son for it! None of this means that God’s will for your life is not to kill the remaining sin in your life and pursue holiness. Later on in Ephesians, Paul urges us to be “imitators of Christ.” God isn’t pretending your sin never happened and that you won’t be tempted in the future. Instead, what the reality of the gospel means is that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
If you see your identity bound up as one who is still under the condemnation of sin, as if the blood of Jesus isn’t good enough to cleanse you, then you will be paralyzed with guilt and shame and you’ll be constantly running on an endless treadmill of religious works to try to pay for your own sins.
But if instead you see yourself as someone whose sins have been washed away by the precious blood of Jesus, you will experience the joy and freedom that comes with being regarded by your Lord as “Not Guilty!”
If this is true, then our response to our own sin need not be excuses, cover up, denial, blame shifting, our wallowing in depression. All of those things are very self-centered and distract us from genuine confession and genuine repentance.
But the person who is declared “Not Guilty”, has nothing to hide and can more freely confess his sin and repent. The person who is seen by God as clothed with Christ’s righteousness doesn’t feel the need to shift the blame for their sins. Instead, we can more easily take responsibility for our own sin because we aren’t afraid of judgment. That sin you committed this morning has already been judged by God in Christ on the cross 2000 years ago. The person who has stumbled does not need to wallow in depression over how bad they are. Instead, our sin should eagerly drive us back to the cross, knowing that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom 5:20). Yes, we should be angry at our sin. Indeed we should feel deep conviction and brokenness when we fall. Most certainly we should desire growth and change and have a repentant attitude. But in addition to all of that, our own consciousness of sin should also lead us to enjoy, thank, and magnify Jesus all the more, as Thomas Watson said, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”
As redeemed and forgiven believers, our response to our sin should not be a constant self-finger pointing session where we descend into the pit of self-centered despair. If that’s all we do, we are collaborating with the invisible Accuser. Instead, do a little spiritual Judo on the enemy and turn his accusatory attack into an opportunity to praise God!
Remember the words of that great old hymn, “Before the Throne of God”
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
You are a child of God. You are free. You are forgiven.
Grace and Peace,