In our last letter we spoke of what Scripture means when it speaks of walking before the face of God with a good conscience. You will recall that we talked about the fact that a good conscience is possible only in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. It is only when we, by faith, appropriate that sacrifice in all its fulness that we can also have a good conscience. This means, as I explained last time, two things.
It means, first of all, that we appropriate the forgiveness of sin. By faith we stand in the consciousness of the truth that all our sins and all our guilt are covered by Christ’s blood. We appropriate the truth that, for Christ’s sake, we are righteous and holy before God. But this stands inseparably connected with another truth: we, by that same faith in the cross, walk by the power of Christ within our hearts so that we repent of that sin which we commit, turn from our evil ways, and walk in holiness before God. Our lives are in conformity with the will of God. When this is true of our lives, then we walk in good conscience before God.
Concerning these two truths we must say a bit more because they are so important for our understanding of a good conscience.
Confession of sin is often taken rather lightly by us, and that in more than one way. Certainly confession means not only confession of our actual sins, but also confession of our sinful nature. Both Scripture and our Confessions speak of this. In Lord’s Day XXI, e.g., we read: “What believest thou concerning ‘the forgiveness of sins’? That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.” Very clearly, the Catechism implies here that our corrupt nature is also in need of forgiveness and must be confessed. We must learn to be sorry before God for our sins, but also for the fact that these sins proceed from a corrupt and depraved nature which is the source and fountain of all our transgression. This is very clearly the emphasis in Scripture too. In Psalm 51, after his sin of adultery and murder, David prays: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Surely David does not mean to say that the corrupt nature with which he was born is some kind of excuse which mitigates the seriousness of his sin and diminishes his responsibility. This too is a part of his confession. He pleads with God to forgive him because of his nature which is corrupt and which is the foul fountain of his sin. This same truth is emphasized by the publican who prayed in the temple, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He did not pray, “God be merciful to me because I sin.” He pleaded rather for God’s mercy in the consciousness that he was a sinner. And surely this could only be because of his deep consciousness of his own corrupt nature. Thus this is also an important part of our confession of sin before God. It is so important because only when we recognize this truth can we also recognize our own utter unworthiness and helplessness. And only in the consciousness of our unworthiness can we go to the cross to find in Christ all our salvation.
Confession must also be of specific sins. This is not always recognized by us as being very important. It is probably true that most, if not all, of us rather regularly pray, “Lord, forgive my sins.” And surely this is important. But to confess our sins means to repent of our sins. And repentance is possible only when we turn from specific sins of which we have been guilty and bring them to God to confess them to Him Who forgives through the blood of the cross. In some parts of the Roman Catholic Church, a regular part of the life of the clerics is what is called, “daily examination of conscience.” Usually at the end of the day, such an one who engages in this spends a bit of time going over the deeds of the day to examine them in the light of Scripture and before the face of God. He not only examines his outer deeds of words and works, but also his heart and soul and his deepest motives. He asks himself the question, why did I do this? What was the reason for this? And his purpose is to inquire whether or not what he did was for wrong reasons or for the glory of God. Now, Roman Catholicism has this about it that it reduces every act to a mere formula and habitual practice without spiritual substance. And no doubt this evil infects also this daily examination of conscience. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Scripture calls us to self-examination which must be daily practiced. It is a sure preventive for escaping the vice of being casual and insensitive to our sins. It will be of assistance in knowing our sins, remaining spiritually sensitive to sin, and bringing them specifically and concretely before the throne of grace. This too is important.
The Scriptures also make a considerable point of it that we must not only confess our sins to God, but we must also confess them to each other. James writes in 5: 16: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed.” It is clear from the context that James speaks here of spiritual healing, i.e., healing from the wounds and sicknesses brought on by sin. Confession to one another is the way to healing. This ought to characterize our life in all our relationships here on earth. Husbands ought to learn to confess their sins to their wives when by their sins they hurt their wives. And wives ought to do the same to their husbands. I have talked with married couples who have trouble in their marriages and have asked them whether they have ever confessed their wrongs to each other. Surprisingly, there are many who have never done this. They have either never thought of it or they excuse their failure to do this by saying, “He (or she) has his faults too. It was his fault that all this happened. He is a difficult person to live with. Why should I do what he never does?” But the same holds true of children in relation to their parents—and parents, too, in relation to their children when that is necessary. Children must be taught from childhood on that confession of sin is vitally important. And that sin must be confessed not only to God, but also to those who have been affected by their sin. Without this confession of sin to one another within the Church the communion of the saints is ultimately impossible. After all, we live in the Church which is still in the battle of faith. Sin is always present. Unless the saints learn to confess their faults to one another, life cannot go on in the Church. But in all the relationships of life, confession clears the air, heals the wounds, bridges the chasms which sin digs, and brings joy and unity to the saints.
How important, therefore, confession of sin is.
On the other hand, confession of sin and repentance from sin means also a turning away from sin. I emphasized the fact in my last letter to you that this was possible only by continually relying on the cross of Christ. Christ is the fullness of our salvation. He is not only the complete atonement for our sins, but He is also the One Who by His perfect sacrifice, earned complete salvation for us. So, if we are to walk in newness of life, we must walk in conscious dependence upon Christ. If we try to walk by our own strength and fight against sin by relying upon our own resources, we will always fail. We have no strength of ourselves, for all the inclinations of our natures are towards sin. But Christ is a mighty power within us to walk in God’s ways. When we walk in the consciousness of His strength then we can say with Paul, “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). This is also the reason why Paul says, in II Corinthians 12:10: “When I am weak, then am I strong.” Paul speaks clearly of the fact that when he is weak, then he recognizes that he has no strength of his own and must rely only upon the strength of Christ his Savior. And then, ironically enough, he is strong.
There is grave danger here—danger which sometimes raises its ugly head even within our circles. I speak of the danger of antinomianism. This evil manifests itself in many different ways. Sometimes it manifests itself in a spirit of spiritual complacency. We tell ourselves (and others) that we have appropriated the forgiveness of sins in the cross of Christ; but failing to understand what this means, we excuse our sins by saying that they are all forgiven anyway—as if this is a certain license to continue in sin because of the grace of forgiveness. Paul addresses himself to this very problem in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” From a doctrinal point of view, the error is the failure to recognize that justification (the forgiveness of sins) is inseparably connected with sanctification (walking in new obedience). One who walks in sin and boasts of forgiveness has no forgiveness and paves his road to hell. Other times this antinomianism becomes manifest when parents excuse the sins of their children with some such remarks as: “They are only kids. They will grow up and settle down. They only do what everyone else is doing. They do not mean it so bad.” What parents are saying is that sin is not important and does not really matter very much. Israel said, “The people of God, the people of God are we.” And they thought this guaranteed their salvation regardless of their wicked lives. But the judgment of God comes upon them—whether they are Israel or not. Again, it happens sometimes that we excuse our sins by appealing to our own depraved nature. A sinner may be reprimanded for his sin and may say (in excuse of it): “You must remember that we are all totally depraved and that we have only a small beginning of the new obedience”—as if this will excuse his sin before God and man. Carelessness towards sin always brings God’s judgment upon us. We had better be warned.
Finally, we must bear in mind that, although we know that we shall not be perfect on this side of the grave, nevertheless, overt transgression of God’s commandments can and must be rooted out of our lives (by the power of the cross of Christ). It is true indeed that, as our Communion Form expresses it, we shall not here in the world have perfect faith nor serve God with that zeal as we are bound. But this does not mean that sin cannot be rooted out. The sins of blasphemy, obscenity, Sabbath desecration, fornication, slander, theft, etc., as well as the sins of hatred, pride, covetousness, etc. (all of which lurk in our hearts) can, by grace, be rooted out of our lives. The cross has this power. Shall we slander the cross of Christ by denying that His cross is able to eradicate these sins from us? Shall we speak evilly of the power of Christ’s atoning death by acting as if that cross has no power within us? God forbid.
It is only when we remember these things that we can walk in good conscience before our God.
But now I must close.
Fraternally in Christ,