Rev. Evan Goeglein
Joey felt terrible. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did it anyway. He couldn’t sleep and he didn’t feel like eating. Joey knew his high school guidance counselor was a Christian, so he thought he would talk to her. He confessed his sin, hoping to find some relief from the torment in his conscience. His guidance counselor was taken aback that Joey was bothered by this, as it was something most kids his age do and never feel bad about it. The counselor concluded Joey must suffer from low self-esteem or perhaps some kind of inferiority complex. Therefore, in an effort to assure him of God’s love she said, “Joey, you are a great kid. God loves you for you and no matter what you do, nothing can change that fact.” Joey liked hearing this, but it didn’t change the fact that he knew he had done something wrong.
Stories like Joey’s are all too common. Maybe it’s like your story. You hear your conscience tell you not to do something, but you do it anyway. A terrified conscience is unmistakable. It comes with a vengeance when we realize our standing before God after we’ve done something we know to be wrong. The reason this bothers us so much is because we realize what we deserve before God and what our sins mean for us. This bothers us tremendously and there is only one solution.
Many Christian books, preachers and well-meaning counselors attempt to answer the problem by overcoming your sense of guilt with the magnitude of God’s love. They emphasize that you are very precious to God and that He loves you unconditionally. Certainly, God does love you unconditionally and there is no doubt that you are precious to Him. But just knowing that God loves you isn’t the solution to your sin. It’s why God loves you and why you are precious to Him that is the answer to your sin: God loves you because you have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus in His death and resurrection. It is important to understand this distinction. It was not because you are precious to Him that Jesus died for you—it is that Jesus died for you, therefore you are precious to Him. In and of yourself you are not worth dying for, but Jesus died for you to forgive your sins and to declare you righteous. Having been made righteous by His blood, you are indeed His beloved child. You are worth dying for.
Romans 5:6-8 says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (ESV). It is not because we could make ourselves worth saving that Jesus died. It is because God is love that He died for us sinners.
Let’s look at it another way. Imagine a husband learns his wife has been kidnapped, so in order to secure her freedom, he offers himself in her place. That in itself is a loving act, but that would be what the husband should do—it would be expected of him. He does it because his wife is dear to him and she’s his wife. But imagine if the one who kidnapped his wife had been arrested and thrown in prison and then the husband were to give his life in place of the kidnapper. This is the kind of sacrifice God made for us. We are born enemies of God and yet, God’s love is such that He became flesh to die the death we deserved.
Martin Luther understood all too well what wrestling with a terrified conscience was like. As a monk he would go to his confessor so many times, he was admonished for it. Luther rediscovered the sweetness of the Gospel in Romans, that God’s grace through faith in Christ alone is what saves. In his commentary on Galatians, specifically chapter 2, is a section regarding Paul’s writing on salvation by faith and not works, Luther states emphatically, “For a true and steadfast faith must lay hold upon nothing but Christ alone, and in the terrors of conscience it hath nothing else to lean upon but this diamond Christ Jesus.”
This offers great comfort to a terrified conscience. It’s not about puffing up your ego so you don’t feel bad, it’s about there being a real answer when we know we have sinned against a holy God. It’s the answer God provides for us—a substitute for the punishment for sin in the person of Jesus. He didn’t wait to see if you would be precious to Him. Instead, He died for you, declared you righteous, so that now you are precious to Him. This diamond, Christ Jesus, is what gives you comfort because in Him you know your sin is truly, completely, and forever forgiven by God.
Rev. Evan Goeglein is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Rogue River, Oregon. He co-hosts the weekly internet radio show Table Talk Radio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.