By Pastor Glenn Pease
The one thing all people have in common is guilt. Ever since Adam and Eve hid from God, because they were afraid, out of a sense of guilt, man has had to bear the burden, and suffer the effects of guilt, and these effects are enormous. Modern psychiatry is discovering that guilt is enemy number one of good mental health. It is the destructive force behind dozens of different kinds of mental illness. It is the basic cause for the anxiety and fear that makes millions live in dread and depression. It is the cause for the ineffectiveness of many Christian lives. It disarms the believer of the whole armor of God. It cuts at the root of the tree of life. It poisons the springs of living water, and it sends a corrupting worm into the fruit of the Spirit.
Everyone who has done something he does not want known has guilt. This of course means that just as all are sinners, so all are guilty. The more we learn about the guilt of man, the more we realize it is a major factor in all of human life. One doctor treating one hundred cases of arthritis and colitis found that a hidden sense of guilt played a role in 68% of these patients. Flanders Dunbar in the book Psychiatry In The Medical Specialties reports that, "It has been found that at least 65% of patients are suffering from illness syndromes initiated or seriously complicated by psychological factors." Conclusions like this are being reached in one study after another, and the result is that men are beginning to see that man's ultimate problem is sin. It is sin and its effects that are the greatest plague in the world. And guilt is sins major effect.
Rowe expresses the minds of millions when he writes, "Guilt is the source of sorrow! 'Tis the fiend, the avenging fiend, that follows us behind, with whips and stings." There is no escape from the facts. Modern psychiatry has confirmed what the Bible says: "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." All are caught in the web of guilt. But thank God the facts do not stop there. John knew almost 2000 years ago that this was man's major problem, but he did not just analyze it and diagnose it, but he gave a prescription authorized by the Great Physician Himself. John had to have an answer for the problem of guilt in order to ever bring his readers to his established goal of fullness of joy, and fellowship with the God of light. Guilt is just the opposite of this, and no amount of truth could ever lead to that goal that did not first show a man how to be relieved of guilt. That is why John begins with the matter of sin and forgiveness, for all Christian maturity begins with clear understanding of this basic issue. John shows us three basic steps from guilt to God.
I. CONSCIOUSNESS OF SIN-V 8.
John says that if we try and live on the hypocritical level of non-admission to guilt and sin, then we are self-deceived. The truth is not in us, and in such a state we cannot be forgiven. Such a person, and they are not rare, suppresses his guilt and tries to give the impression that there is nothing wrong in their lives. Meanwhile, though they have succeeded in hiding their guilt from their consciousness, it is invading their whole being like a poison, and will reveal itself in either a psychological or physical problem, or both.
Many unbelievers do not respond to Christ just because they refuse to admit they are guilty. They are hiding their guilt, and they are saying we do not need a Savior, for we are not so bad. The natural man is fighting for survival, and does not let himself be conscious that he is a mass of guilt in need of cleansing, for to do so he knows must lead to repentance and death for the old man. The same is true for the Christian who lets the old man revive and live again in his body. He hides his guilt because to admit it is so painful, and his old man does not want to die. This is why guilt so often leads to mental illness. It is an escape. It allows the sinner to say he is sick rather than guilty. This sounds foolish, but this is just how hard man struggles against admitting he is a guilty sinner.
This may sound like a harsh and cruel judgment on mental patients, but the facts being discovered by competent men are reversing the idea that there is nothing to be ashamed of in mental illness. It could well be that such illness is, as Dr. David Bellgum calls it, "An involuntary confession of guilt." Unconfessed and unforgiven sin acts like a cancer of the soul. It effects the total person in body, soul, and spirit. O. Hobart Mowrer in his book The Crisis In Psychiatry And Religion comes right out and says that neurotics and psychotics are not sick so much as they are sinners caught and condemned by their own conscience. Dr. Bellgum says this applies also to many with physical problems, for he says physical "symptoms are often the amplified voice of conscience." In other words, you might suppress it, but one way or another guilt is going to show itself.
The saying was never more true than when applied to this area of life, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Let us not jump to the conclusion that all mental problems reveal suppress guilt. There are many other causes; some uncontrollable which result in brain damage, and for which the person is not responsible. There are many exceptions to what we have stated, but there are many cases in which it is true, and it shows that the church has the only answer to man's greatest problem-sin. People do not need to be psychoanalyzed, they need to be saved. They need to stop lying to themselves and admit they are guilty sinners, for it is only then that they will be conscious of their need for forgiveness. This is the first step on the road to recovery.
To make it clear that we are not only dealing here with non-believers, let us consider some actual examples of Christians who fell into the category of those who refuse to admit guilt. Paul wrote to the Corinthians , and said it was for this very thing that many of them were weak and sickly, and some had even died. In I Cor. 11 he explains that the reason was, they had been guilty of unworthy participation in the Lord's Supper. They were observing this remembrance of His death for sin, but were refusing to do so with a consciousness of their sin. In lightness and carelessness, and with no sense of guilt for their heathenish attitude, they remembered the sacred event of Christ's death. The result was hardness of heart. They sought no forgiveness, for they were not conscious of sin, and the result was all kinds of symptoms in body and mind, and in some cases leading even to death. These early Christians were experiencing the consequences of repressed guilt and unconfessed sin.
All of the facts support the statement that holiness is the best way to health, just as sin is the surest way to sickness. Even the pagan philosopher Seneca observed that guilt always punishes even if the law does not. He said, "Let wickedness escape as it may at the bar, it never fails of doing justice upon itself, for every guilty person is his own hangman." Plautus said, "Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt." It is true and it is painful, yet, as John says, and as science supports, to be conscious of guilt and to admit your sin is the only way you can be ready to take the next step to the wholeness for which all men seek. Admit your guilt and then take the next step.
II. CONFESSION OF SIN. V.9.
This verse is tree with so many branches, on each of which hangs so much fruit, that we cannot begin to taste all of its riches in one message. James Edwin Orr said, "Clear teaching concerning the confessing of sins by Christians is one of the most neglected doctrines of today." Here is a concept given by inspiration of God to aid people against the most destructive force in the world, and yet it is ignored as if it were incidental. The result is, all things have not become as new as they ought in the lives of believers, because they have not availed themselves of God's provision. Christians have needlessly borne mountains of guilt when they might have had it dissolved and cleansed through the blood of Christ. Continuous and consistent confession of sin is a must for a Christian who truly desires to attain the fullness of the stature of Christ. If your aim is any lower than that, that too is a sin needing to be confessed and forgiven.
Many are uninhibited when it comes to the confession of the sins of others, but John is writing to Christian people who need to confess their own sins. Confession is no part of the life of the unbeliever. No doubt many deceive themselves into thinking they can gain God's forgiveness, but John clearly states that only those who walk in the light have fellowship with God, and only they are cleansed by the blood of Christ. Confession is of no value unless one is a believer walking in the light. Sin is a blockade as long as we walk in darkness, but if we walk in the light and confess our sin it becomes a bridge back into fellowship with God, for he loves the sinner and waits in hope that they will confess and come back to Him.
The story is told of how Satan approached God with the complaint that He forgives His children over and over again, but He never forgave him, and God replies to him, "You never asked." This illustrates the truth that confession is an essential condition of forgiveness, but it does not go far enough, for even if Satan did ask, it would be to no avail unless he cease to be the prince of darkness, and began to walk in the light.
It is important to see this truth, for those who do not see the whole picture abuse this promise and stretch it beyond what it was meant to cover. To think that one can confess, and yet have no sense of guilt about continuing in the same pattern of life is to be deceived. It is of interest to note that some Catholics are perfectly aware of this danger in their own practice of compulsory confession. In a questionnaire sent out to priests asking what kinds of persons failed to gain anything from the confession, one answered in a way that made clear he was aware of all the things that Protestants criticize about the confessional. Here is what he wrote:
"The insincere-those who really are not in earnest about
breaking a habit of sin. The uneducated who consider the
powers of the confessional as magical. A 'bad confession.'
They are either so attached to the pleasure or advantages
deriving from the sin that they do not really intend to stop
the sin or the habit, or they are presumptuous of God's help,
thinking God will change them without their effort or
Not only will the Catholic confessional not be effective for those people, but neither will the personal and secret confession to God alone. No confession will cleanse the sinner who refuses to walk in the light. Confession implies a change in walk, and not merely a change in talk.
A basic maxim to be followed in confession is this: "Let the circle of the offense committed be the circle of the confession made." That is, if the sin is secret, it is to be confessed secretly to God alone. If the sin is private, that is, against a particular person, you are to confess to that person as well as God. That is called private confession as distinct from public confession. Public confession is to be made when the offense is against the whole church, or a large segment of it. In other words, confession is to always be made to those who have been offended, for they alone can forgive. This is why we do not practice what is called auricular confession by the Catholic church. Auricular means, told in the ear, and refers to telling the priest one's sins. A party not involved in the offense can not be involved in the forgiveness. We feel that no party who is not offended can honestly be a party to the forgiveness. We do not deny that it can be effective in relieving guilt, but we feel there is a better and more Biblical way that exalts Christ rather than man. That is by direct confession to God through Christ, who is our High Priest, and who daily intercedes for us.
All of this is not to say, however, that God does not use men as instruments of conveying his message of forgiveness. All of the reformers such as Luther and Calvin rejected auricular confession, but still retained what they called private confession to the pastor. They simply recognized that in exceptional cases a child of God gets burdened with guilt, and cannot sense the forgiveness of God. Such a person can gain victory by confessing to a pastor, and by receiving his assurance, as God's ambassador, that He has been truly forgiven. This is more a matter of counseling than confession.
John R.W. Stott, the well known English pastor and author, has written a book on confession. In it he rejects auricular confession, but retains the concept of private confession. He stresses, however, it is exceptional and not to be habitual. The normal pattern for believers is to confess to God alone, or to the persons offended. This would be the position and practice of most, if not all evangelicals. The important thing to see is that the normal Christian life is to be one in which there is a consciousness of sin whenever we have departed from God's will, and an immediate confession of it to Him since He is ever present. These two steps are essential for Christian maturity. The third step that John mentions is-
III. CLEANSING FROM SIN.
This is God's step in the process. There is nothing we can do to cleanse our life once we have stained it. God does not ask us to do this. If we confess, He is faithful and just to forgive. This is the step He promises to take if we take the others, and the result will be fullness of joy and fellowship with the Father and the Son. Cleanliness is not next to godliness, it is godliness, for this is the final goal of Christian confession.