Great Themes of the Bible (#15-God's Forgiveness)

"He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy."

Psychosomatic disorders are not uncommon phenomena. From two Greek words meaning "spirit" (psyche) and "body" (soma), a psychosomatic disturbance is one in which an individual's state of mind generates a physical problem. Such a problem is not imaginary, but very real. Throwing up, hives, sweating, headaches, fainting all these are very real physical phenomena. And while all these symptoms may occur in connection with infections or injuries, they may also be produced by one's mental or spiritual state.

Have you ever suffered from stage fright? Most of us have. Symptoms ranging from dry mouth to clammy hands to cold feet a symptom so common that "a bad case of cold feet" is a synonym for stage fright are some of its milder manifestations. Some people literally black out and others simply go blank. Severe childhood trauma such as sexual abuse or witnessing a gruesome murder or accidental death can generate psychosomatic problems not only in its immediate aftermath but well into that person's adult life. They can be debilitating and destructive, if the person doesn't get competent professional help.

Unresolved guilt and shame are the most destructive of all the root causes of psychosomatic disturbance. And while it would certainly be misguided to link every case of mind-body illness or debilitation to unresolved guilt, many are. Sin is real. It is a wedge driven between the self and God. I'm not talking about "guilt feelings," mind you, but real and authentic transgression of the divine will that has interrupted life with God. Until the sin is dealt with, the obstacle remains. The pain continues. A life is thrown into chaos and confusion, and that one life most often touches and spoils other lives linked to it parents, mates, children, co-workers, roommates, other members of his church.

Unaddressed, unresolved, unforgiven sin is a monster that tracks down its adversaries and takes them by the throat. It shows no mercy. It destroys. The Bible talks about this phenomenon. It has case studies. It tells us how to deal with the problem.

Blessed Is the Person . . .

Psalm 32 begins with two Old Testament beatitudes.

Blessed is he
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the LORD does not count against him
and in whose spirit is no deceit (Psa. 32:1-2).
David uses three different words to names the dimensions of evil that are possible in a human life. The word "transgressions" often signifies those positive steps of rebellion against God we humans commit when we knowingly step across or knock down a boundary he has erected; we know God has said "You shall not do x," but doing this or that forbidden thing is enticing enough at a given moment that we are willing to defy his commandment. The word "sins" in the very next line is the most general of the three terms in these two verses and signifies one's failures to attain heaven's ideal or a turning aside from the true path God has marked for us; we know God has said "You shall do x," but doing that thing seems too demanding or unnecessary to us. The third word in the original text is obscured to us by the use again in verse 2 of the word "sin" for a word the New Revised Standard Version renders "iniquity." This word points to moral perversity and perhaps even criminal behavior; these are things so evil that they are not only offensive to a holy God but are considered outrageous even to fallen men with their otherwise warped sense of values.

Now I admit to pressing these three words a bit harder than the text requires. David may simply be using poetic license in linking essentially synonymous words together for effect. But I suspect there is a point here about the pervasiveness of sin and thus the completeness of forgiveness. Just how extensive is sin? It ranges from failing to attain the ideal to knowingly stepping over a line God has drawn to forcing evil on some innocent party. Trace it through with me on a couple or three items.

The divine ideal is that you should forgive those who do you wrong, but some of us not only defy the explicit command against harboring hatred and grudges in our hearts but go so far as to take revenge or to murder the person who did us wrong. The divine ideal is that all men and women live sexually chaste lives, but some people not only sin by committing fornication but even act out their sexual iniquity by raping innocent victims. The divine ideal is that every married person live in unshared devotion with his or her mate, but some sinners not only fall prey to adultery in moments of weakness but are so treacherous as to violate their fidelity vows again and again with flagrant affairs. The divine ideal is that you live in contentment with such things as you have, but there are people who not only envy or sabotage the good fortune of others but actually steal from them.

Sin is not only our common failure to achieve the ideal in our lives (i.e., sins of omission) but also our self-willed rebellion against God (i.e., sins of commission). In its vilest form, sin is both deliberate and incessant. This third class of sin is the worst of all. It quickly leads to what the Bible terms a "hardening of the heart" that makes repentance impossible. It is willful and high-handed disregard for all that is holy such that it destroys one's conscience and makes forgiveness impossible. Until one reaches that point, forgiveness is always a "blessed" possibility.

The Beauty of Guilt

Guilt, you see, is really a beautiful thing. It is a gift from God. It is the warning signal that moves us to own our wrong behaviors, seek him out, and receive his pardon. Guilt has gotten a bad name of late, and the notion that it is a bad thing ever to feel guilty is simply wrong-headed and deluded.

When someone sins against God or treats another human being with disrespect, feelings of remorse are the natural result. Children do something they have been taught is wrong, and they typically run hide or sometimes put their hands over their eyes as if their inability to see Mommy hid them from her gaze. It reminds me of what Adam and Eve did in the beginning. It reminds me of my own behavior. These days we often call it "denial" one's refusal to face up to and own what he has done. In the final line of Psalm 32:2, David calls it "deceit."

The man or woman who can sin without feeling bad about it is in serious trouble. What the Bible calls "godly sorrow" at 2 Corinthians 7:10 is what most of us call regret or embarrassment. It is the red flag a guilty conscience has raised to signal that we are off-course in our behaviors and need to make a change in direction. It is a jet's automatic warning system screaming "Pull up! Pull up!" because we've gone into a moral or spiritual dive. At the very least, we are failing to live up to the divine ideal and know it. We may have already stepped over one of the moral boundaries he put in place for our protection.

At that point, not only the guilt pangs of conscience but even some psychosomatic symptoms begin to appear especially if the warnings of a guilty conscience are not heeded quickly.

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer (Psa. 32:3-4).
Those were some of David's "symptoms" after his sin against Bathsheba and Urriah. Do you realize that it was nearly a year after his sin before he acknowledged the terrible wrongs he had committed? As that year went by, he first lived in denial and resisted an accusing conscience. No joy, no sleep, no zest for life it was the lament of a tormented soul. And if he had kept fighting his conscience, he would have crossed the line between a pardonable and an unpardonable offense. He was at the point where he either had to confess his sin or go insane, acknowledge his transgression or completely harden his heart, go to God for pardon or abandon himself to Satan.

The critical turn in David's experience came when he moved from denial to ownership, from defensiveness to confession.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD"
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin (Psa. 32:5).
The sins we hide, deny, and keep to ourselves remain ours to atone for. They remain ours to undo or resolve. Since these are impossible tasks for humans, those sins will rise up to condemn us in the Final Day. All those we admit, confess to God, and surrender to Christ will be atoned for by his blood. They will be expunged from the record, washed away, erased.

Go back to the first two verses of Psalm 32 and notice the three words that describe pardon words that balance the three already noticed that describe the treachery of evil. Happy people are those whose sins are "forgiven," "covered," and "not count[ed] against" them. The blessed and happy people of this psalm are not those whose lives are free of sin but those who have been able to move beyond it by God's grace.

Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
while you may be found;
surely when the mighty waters rise,
they will not reach him.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance. . . .
Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous;
sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psa. 32:6-7, 11).
David's sins were forgiven with the death of Christ in anticipation. The animals whose blood was shed on his behalf at the hands of a priest signified something far greater than themselves. Those countless lambs anticipated the one Lamb Without Spot or Blemish who would take away the sins of the whole world forever.

God could not overlook our transgressions, sins, and iniquities. So he mercifully dealt with our sin problem by the all-important method of substituting someone in our place. The wages of sin is death, and heaven arranged for Jesus to substitute himself in order to bear the penalty we were rightly due to suffer. He substituted himself for us at the cross. "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them," wrote Paul. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:19,21).

Terrible fires have been raging out west this summer. Thousands of square miles of land have been destroyed by their devastating power. The professional firefighters battling those awesome blazes have a technique for survival that parallels the one God has given us in Christ. If surrounded by a fire that changes direction on them and cuts off their escape route, the firefighters set a fire right where they stand. Letting it burn outward from their location, they dig a shallow grave and cover themselves with a reflector shield carried in their backpacks. Their salvation is in that burned-over place.

Our salvation is in a burned-over place called Golgotha. The death-dealing wrath that was due against sin was meted out to Christ on the cross, and now we join him in the shallow baptismal grave that signifies our covering over by the blood of Christ. We rise to new life. On the assurance of God's own word in the matter, our sins are forgiven, covered, and never counted against us again!

The Ugliness of Guilt

There is another form of guilt, however, that is anything but beautiful. It is the guilt some of us struggle with long after our salvation. It is the ongoing regret some of us carry in our hearts after God has actually taken away our sins. It is the crippling, paralyzing remorse that keeps people from healthy relationships, joyous worship, and spiritual assurance. It is the lingering shame of a lie or an abortion, an offense against parental love or a criminal record, the havoc wrought by drunkenness or the shambles of a family destroyed by an affair.

In his Leaving Home (pp. 181-182), Garrison Keillor creates a character who summarizes much of what I would want to say about this ugly form of guilt that continues to be Satan's tool in the life of some believers I've known.

Larry the Sad Boy . . . was saved twelve times in the Lutheran Church, an all-time record. Between 1953 and 1961, he threw himself weeping and contrite on God's throne of grace on twelve separate occasions and this in a Lutheran church that wasn't evangelical, had no altar call, no organist playing "Just As I Am Without One Plea" while a choir hummed and a guy with shiny hair took hold of your heartstrings and played you like a cheap guitar this is the Lutheran Church, not a bunch of hillbillies, these are Scandinavians, and they repent in the same way that they sin: discreetly, tastefully, at the proper time, and bring a Jell-O salad for afterward.

Larry Sorenson came forward weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, to the amazement of the minister, who had delivered a dry sermon about stewardship, and who now had to put his arm around this limp, soggy individual and pray with him and see if he had a ride home. Twelve times. Even we fundamentalists got tired of him. Granted, we're born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions is too many. God didn't mean us to feel guilt all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use, but Larry kept on repenting and repenting.

Larry the Sad Boy and all his brothers and sisters in real life is the opposite character from the one whose heart is so hard he cannot repent. Larry can repent, all right. But he seems not to be able to believe. He can't bring himself to believe that God is as good as he is and that he is going to keep his word about forgiving us.

If you wrestle with the assurance of your salvation, let me begin by telling you that your salvation does not depend on your psychological state but on God's faithfulness. Even in your doubt and insecurity, even in the face of the "ugly guilt" Satan is using to deprive you of you, you are secure. "This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (1 John 3:19-20). The God who is "greater than our hearts" keeps us secure in spite of whatever apprehensions we struggle with in our Christian experience.


Isn't God wonderful to make salvation so simple for us? He has taken the initiative and provided the answer to sin. We merely acknowledge our need for sin and accept what he has done through Christ as a free gift.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (Jas. 5:16a).

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
But it is this simplicity that is our greatest challenge, for our sinful, proud, and self- deceiving hearts are inclined to conceal and deny rather than confess our sins. God help us!

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