Invocavit, the First Sunday in Lent March 12, 2000
1 John 1:8-9
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
In the name of Him who bore our sins in His body, dear friends in Christ, dear fellow redeemed.
A teenage girl, a Christian, came to the pastor with a problem. She attended church regularly. She prayed every day. But she could not get rid of this haunting sense of sin. “Why is it,” she asked, “that my friends who never go to church, who don’t take religion seriously one bit are never troubled with guilt.” The pastor thought for a moment and responded with a question of his own: “If we were to lay one hundred pounds of steel on a corpse, would the body feel the weight?” “No way,” she said. “The corpse is dead; it can’t feel a thing.” “Exactly,” replied the pastor. “And those who don’t feel the weight of sin are also dead. They don’t care about their sin, because the soul is dead with unbelief."
Put yourself in the shoes of that girl. Her problem is not uncommon. Maybe it sounds familiar. Her problem is a good one to have, if you know where to go for help. Having a sense of sin is healthy. Having a blindness or a dullness to sin is deadly. We see the contrast in our text, and that contrast will teach us a very important lesson.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Maybe it sounds obvious. Yet so many people fall into the trap. They deny their own sin, one way or another. Some go so far as to say that there is no sin. They claim that it doesn’t exist. It’s an out-of-date concept. Others think that sin is no big deal. It all happens all the time. Why get excited about that? I suppose it feels more comfortable to sweep the issue under the rug and avoid the inner conflict. But I have to tell you: if that is the pattern we follow, then we live a lie … a very dangerous lie, because of what it does to the soul.
Sin-denial is pretty much the way of the world and the specialty of our human nature. Our flesh has devised several ways to put a nice face on our sin. We could try to cover it up and pretend that it did not happen. We could try to justify our actions and put a good spin on everything that we say and do. We could be like Adam and Eve and pass the blame to somebody else: “It’s his fault. It’s her fault. The devil made me do it.” Or we could play the comparison game. Think of a person who’s really awful and compare your life to his life. You don’t look so bad when somebody else looks worse. We know how to rank sins according to size and category. The murders that we read about in the paper make our problem with anger, temper, or hatred seem rather insignificant. Criminal behavior or sleazy behavior makes our behavior seem excusable, harmless, no big deal.
Now you realize—that is never the attitude we should have. I was speaking tongue in cheek, as they say. We should never play the comparison game, or the cover-up game. Don’t try to justify your actions, or pass the blame to somebody else. We cannot whitewash what is dirty in the eyes of God. We cannot deodorize what thoroughly reeks of sin. God always knows! God knows if we give into pride, or lying, or laziness, or gossip. God knows if we neglect one of our duties and take the easy way out. God knows if we make the Bible and the study of His Word a low priority on our list of things to do. If we try to make our sins look small, God will answer: “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10) If we try to make our record look good, God will answer: “We are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” (Is. 64:6)
Keep your eyes on the danger ahead. If we diminish our sins or deny our sins, it’s just a small step away from the faulty notion that we can somehow save ourselves. Or we dismiss the idea of salvation altogether. Why worry about judgment or consequences, if sin is not an issue? Yes, the lie will kill you, because you end up losing Christ, the only one who can make a difference.
It’s good to feel the weight of sin. Listen to your conscience when it troubles you. It’s a warning signal. Your conscience is like a spiritual smoke alarm. Any type of sin has the potential to set you on fire and burn you badly. Your conscience will sound the alarm. You need to heed the warning and have the fire extinguished through the power of the Gospel.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Sin-awareness is a good thing, because it takes you down the path of truth. It avoids the lie and the danger of sin-denial. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Sin-awareness will lead to sin-forgiveness. We can put the truth into practice. We can practice the healthy habit of sin-confession.
In the Lutheran Church we have no rules about confessing sin. There are no specified times, no minimum requirements. It’s something we do voluntarily, from the prompting of our faith, most often in the privacy of our minds and our prayers. We do not police your habit of confession. But that is not to say we should give the habit up. When John tells you to confess your sin, he means the continual, day-to-day doing of it. Confess your sins today, tomorrow, next week, next month. Make it a regular habit between you and God. Of course, we should develop this habit with a right understanding of what we are doing.
We are taking a painful journey into the past. We are revisiting an ugly place in our lives, owning up to the wrongdoing that we alone are responsible for, admitting our guilt, and then realizing one more painful thing. We can’t fix the problem. We are stuck in a desperate situation. We need a Savior right now, right away. In the process of confessing your sins, God is going to crush you. He will crush the delusion that everything is OK, just the way it is. He will crush the delusion that we can make ourselves right with Him. Before He builds up, He has to tear down…the same way that you would handle an old house with rotting timber. It’s the only way to heal and repair the damage of sin.
Now confession comes in a few different forms. There’s the general type, like we do in church. We admit our sinfulness and our state of helpless condemnation. In the Bible Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Remember how the Pharisee stood up front, bragging about his good works. The tax collector would never make such a claim for himself. From the back of the temple, he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Pharisee made a list of his good works. The tax collector, on the other hand, did not list any one of his sins. He knew what they were. He knew that God knew what they were. He simply laid out his entire record of sin as one big, sorry mess and pleaded the mercy of the court. He pleaded that God would handle him according to His grace.
What a great example for us. Admit your sinfulness to God. Admit that all your life, all that you say and do is tainted with guilt. God is satisfied with that. He does not expect us to make a full listing of all our sins. Can you imagine if we had to remember every sin before it was forgiven? Thankfully, we can be like David, who said, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults.” (Psalm 19:12)
David also learned the value of confessing specific sins, especially the ones that were threatening his spiritual life. At one point he tried to cover up the sins of adultery and murder. God sent Nathan the prophet to deal with the problem. Once David confessed, he was ready for the next stage in the healing process. David learned to confess all his sins to God, and so should we. We can do it in our prayers. Before we start asking God for things, we should stop and remember the truth about our sin. That includes your sinful condition in general, the sins that you can’t remember, and all the sins that trouble your conscience, because you do remember. Lay out the entire problem before God, and He will take you through the healing process.
Confessing our sins to God is a spiritual necessity. You can’t live without it. Confessing your sins to the pastor or a fellow Christian is not an absolute necessity, although it’s highly recommended, especially if certain sins are troubling you. Sometimes we just need to hear it said out loud, human to human, that God has forgiven everything we did. The only way to do that is to make confession to somebody who understands Law and Gospel. You confess your sins to the pastor, and he will act as God’s representative. On the basis of your confession, He will make it clear that God has taken your sin away. He will do so in a way that respects your privacy and keeps the matter confidential.
You know what they say: confession is good for the soul. That’s because sin-awareness leads to sin-forgiveness. When you practice the habit of sin-confession, you also receive the benefit of God’s forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness is sure, because God is faithful. We have His promise, “As the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103:11-12) God will keep that promise, because every sin is paid for. The Lord does not decide to overlook sin and pretend it did not happen. He requires justice. Every sin has to be punished with the penalty of death and hell. That’s where Jesus steps in. He steps between you and God and becomes the target. On the cross Jesus becomes the target of God’s anger, which is aimed at your sin. On the cross He becomes the target of God’s punishment, which includes the penalty of death and hell as the rightful consequence of your sins. That’s how you know that your sins are forgiven. All the sins were pinned on Him. All of them! Even the so-called “bad ones.” Even the ones that keep coming back to haunt us. Jesus paid for them all completely to God’s satisfaction. So every type of sin, every occurrence of sin, every broken commandment in your life is washed away, erased from the record.
God is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When you’re cleansed of “all unrighteousness,” that means that you’re righteous where it really counts. In God’s book you’re spotless, clean, acceptable to Him. Your sins won’t condemn you in His court, because they’re gone. Depend on that. Believe it. When you confess, don’t become like Judas and wallow in your guilt. Take your guilt to the cross and see it flushed away. God’s forgiveness is yours, because God gives it to you—a free gift, no strings attached, no conditions or requirements to fulfill.
Even the act of confession is not a condition necessary to have the forgiveness of our sins. We still do it as a way to get ready, a way to prepare the heart for the transfer from God to us. Please remember that. Remember the truth of our text. If we deny our sins, that sin-denial will put the soul in danger. It puts up a barrier between us and the benefit of Christ and will ultimately drive us away from Christ. On the other hand, if we practice the habit of sin-confession, then good things are sure to follow. Sin-awareness will lead to sin-forgiveness. And sin-forgiveness will lead to life everlasting. You can’t go wrong when God is telling you, “Be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven.” Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.