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May 15,1980 

Dear Timothy, 

In our discussion of the conscience, we were talking in our last letter of the “searing of the conscience” and how that takes place. We discussed how, from man’s point of view, he silences the voice of his conscience so that it no longer speaks to him; and we talked about how, from God’s point of view, God punishes sin and hardens in sin so that man becomes spiritually immune to sin. 

It is time now to talk about the other side of the picture the life of the child of God with respect to sin. That is, we must discuss, not the relation between the child of God and sin in general, but the relation between sin and the conscience of the child of God. 

To do this we must understand clearly what sin is like and what the power of sin really is in our lives. We believe, because the Scriptures teach it, the truth of total depravity. This is not, however, an abstract doctrine. It is a reality in our lives. Sin is not something which characterizes only what we do; sin is in our natures, corrupting and polluting them. The result of this is that the power of sin in our natures is so great that we are even unable to recognize our own sin. Sin makes us so spiritually blind that we lack the power to see our own sin for what it truly is. The result is that the sinner cannot and will not recognize and admit to the depravity which characterizes him. It takes the work of God’s grace in the sinner even to bring the sinner to a recognition and confession of his own sin. 

Because the sinner is this way, when he does sin he will never admit to it and express proper sorrow for it. He will instead make every effort to justify his conduct and explain away what he has done wrong. It is always characteristic of the sinner that he attempts to explain away his sin. 

But this characteristic is found also in the people of God. And it is found also in them because they still have the power of sin in their own flesh and life. In how many ways is this not true? It began already in Paradise when Adam blamed Eve for his sin and when Eve blamed the serpent. It has continued ever since as a major part of our life. When we do something which is contrary to God’s commandments, we always react with outraged innocence. Not we are to blame for what we have done. Sometimes we blame others, as if they are at fault for our transgressions. A rebellious child blames his parents and teachers for making demands upon him which are too great; a husband blames his wife for his marital unfaithfulness; a drunkard blames his companions for leading him into drunkenness; etc. Sometimes sin is blamed on circumstances. One excuses his lack of interest in the Church and in the things of God by blaming his upbringing. Another excuses his theft by his environment in which he was deprived of so many things in life. Another justifies his cheating in school by saying, “They all do it.” Not he himself is to blame, but the circumstances in which he finds himself. Or, again, sin is excused on some higher and nobler ground which is supposed to give him license to break God’s law. A man admits that union membership is wrong, but he justifies his continued membership in the union on the ground that God calls him to feed his family; or on the ground that no other job is available to him and God commands him to work. He operates on the principle that the end (which is approved. by God) justifies the means to attain that end (though the means may be contrary to God’s will). There are even times when a man attempts to excuse his sin by an appeal to his sinful nature. I suppose that every minister has had the experience of hearing one of his parishioners come up to him after the service and say, “Yes, pastor; what you said in your sermon is true. But you must remember that I carry with me my old sinful nature which can do no good.” And the implied argument is that this sinful nature is a ready and handy excuse for explaining away that which is obviously quite contrary to the will of God. And, while this is quite clearly true, the answer to the attempt at evasion is simply: “Yes, but we are also responsible before God for the sinful nature which is the fountain of all our sin. For this nature too we must plead forgiveness.” But so often the excuse is nothing else than an antinomian evasion which seeks to escape accountability before God. 

We have become extremely adept at such self-justification. The trouble is that we have remarkable ability to see sin in others and we are very quick and eager to point out these sins and to condemn them. But when the same sins are found in our own life, we cannot see them, or, if we can, we have a thousand excuses why, in our case, we are perfectly justified in doing what we did. This is so true that self-justification and condemnation of others almost always goes hand in hand. The Pharisee in the temple boasted of his good works for he was blind to his own sin. But he was eager to condemn the poor publican yonder who was surely not worthy of a place in God’s house. And so it always is. 

The trouble is that it is exactly this sort of process of self-justification which lies at the bottom of searing our own conscience. When we attempt to explain away or justify or excuse our sin, we have set our feet upon a path of hardening and have put into motion a plan of action which will silence our conscience and make us spiritually insensitive to sin. And if that process continues, we shall lose the voice of our conscience, live in sin oblivious to its consequences and horrors and be deprived, by God’s just judgment, of even a sensitivity to sin. 

It is exactly because of this that Scripture puts so much emphasis on confession. We need not spend a lot of time at this point proving this contention. Anyone who is at all acquainted with the Scriptures knows that confession is emphasized on almost every page of Holy Writ. It is so tremendously important because it is the only power to break that vicious cycle of sin, justification of sin, more sin, hardening, and damnation. Nothing in all the world will break that terrible cycle except the one act of confession. 

Confession is, on the one hand, so simple; and, on the other hand, it is so desperately difficult. It is so simple because nothing in all the world seems, from one point of view, to be easier than to say those two words which sum up all confession: “I’m sorry.” That is all. That is what confession is all about. There is really, nothing more to it than that. It is really quite amazing, when we stop to think about it, that these two words can have such a mighty power and do such great things. But indeed it is true. To say, I’m sorry, is to stop sin in its tracks, to break a vicious circle which leads finally to hell, get out of that hopeless situation where one sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire of sin. Two words do it all. And yet, yet, what, in all the world could be more difficult? It has been said, with considerable truth, that these two words are the two hardest words in the language of any people to say. In fact, (and we might just as well say it) the difficulty is so great that it is really impossible to say these words apart from grace. 

There are several reasons for this. In the first place, to confess sin is to go contrary to all our nature. At the very root of all sin lies that one devastating sin of pride. Pride governs all we do. And pride is such a controlling force in our lives and is so in control of the whole of our nature that it absolutely prevents us from ever truly confessing our wrongs. Our whole depraved nature absolutely prevents us from confession. And there is no earthly power which can break this deadly hold of our nature upon us. In the second place, to say I’m sorry implies a number of other things — all of which are really spiritual impossibilities. To confess one’s sins means to have a deep spiritual awareness that one’s sins are sins against God. I cannot stress this enough. There is a certain remorse for sin to be found even in the world. Judas had something of this when he hurled his ill-gotten pieces of money on the floor of the temple. But this has nothing to do yet with confession. At bottom is the awareness of, as our Catechism puts it, having transgressed against the most high majesty of God. This awareness is altogether apart from a sorrow of the consequences of sin and is quite different from a general remorse over what we have done. It is a pure and unalloyed awareness that God has been hurt by what we have done. And we are sorry for that. To confess one’s sins means that one is aware that one has harmed others by his sins and has wrought havoc not only in his own life, but also in the lives of those who are touched by his life. He has not only not loved God, but he has not loved his neighbor — whether that neighbor be his wife or children; his friends or working companions, his fellow saints within the Church of which he is a part. To confess one’s sins means that one puts out of his mind all thoughts about trying to justify his conduct, blaming I others for it, explaining away what he has done. There is a certain sense in which he stands alone and naked with no shelter behind which to hide and says, “I did this. It was wrong. I am responsible. I am sorry.” Nothing else but this will finally do. And, finally, confession of sin means that one is so sorry for what he has done that he has the deep desire that that fault will never again be a fault of his life. He has a sincere sorrow of heart for his sin, but he has also a deep longing never to let that happen again. It is what our Catechism calls the crucifixion of the old man and the quickening of the new man. 

Understanding this, it is not difficult to see that, after all; confession can only be the work of God through the Spirit of Christ in the heart of the sinner. Only God can break the horrible circle of sin. Only God can deliver from sin’s devastating power to suck us ever deeper into its grasp. And God does this mighty work by causing the sinner to do that which is humanly impossible — confess his sin before God and man. 

This is the way to escape from hardening and to keep one’s conscience from being seared as with a hot iron. There is no other way than this. It is the way of a good conscience before God. 

But to what Scripture says about a good conscience before God we must address ourselves at some future date. 

Fraternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko