Cleanse me…and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness. Let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity….Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalm 51:7-12)
Menninger and Sin
One sunny day in September 1972, a plainly dressed man stood on a street corner in downtown Chicago. As pedestrians hurried by he would solemnly lift his right arm, point to a passing stranger nearby, and loudly repeat one single word: GUILTY! Then he stood quietly for a minute. Then again, he raised his arm, pointed to another stranger, and again pronounced the one word: GUILTY! People stared at him, hesitated, looked away, looked at each other, and then hurried on their ways. One man turned to another and said, “How did he know?’
That’s the opening paragraph of the book Whatever Became of Sin? The author is psychiatrist Karl Menninger (1893–1990), one of the founders of the Menninger Clinic. Menninger wrote about how sin has been minimized in America since World War II. But people still feel guilty, even if they won’t admit it. Menninger said that if he could convince his patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75 percent could walk out the next day! In Psalm 38, the writer attributes his illness to sin and guilt. He calls on the Lord for help in the midst of intense pain. He says: “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.”1
The Remedy is Jesus Christ
Thank God, Psalm 32 begins like this: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”2 God’s Son has come down from Heaven to be our Great High Priest and also the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!3
Guilt Is an Objective Reality
In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking which focused on overcoming our fears and failures by having confidence in ourselves. Peale was criticized by many theologians and medical doctors of preaching false hope, but he was very popular and many writers and pastors have followed him like the Pied Piper.
Scripture teaches that we are guilty before God when we break His law in any way and that makes us liable to His punishment. Since colonial days in America, mainstream Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have taught that human beings are guilty of sin and we need to repent (turn back to God and His ways). We may or may not feel guilty because our consciences are not reliable.
Romans 1:18-3:20 teaches that the whole world is held accountable to God and guilty before Him. We are not able to save ourselves from this condition by anything that we do. We must be rescued by the Lord from His just punishment. Thank God, He remembered us when we were humiliated, brought low, in trouble, and defeated, because His steadfast love endures forever!4
God Forgives the Sin That Made Us Guilty
Jesus Christ who is fully God and fully man in one person bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness. By His wounds we have been healed. We were like sheep going astray, but God the Holy Spirit returns us to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.5 When we were dead in our sins, God made us alive with Christ. He forgave us all our wrongs, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us. God has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.6 That’s good news!
God Cleanses our Consciences
Hebrews 10:22 says: “Let us approach God with a true and sincere heart in unqualified assurance of faith in Him, having had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
The Lord gives Jesus’ followers total freedom from guilty feelings based on the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ in history. God the Holy Spirit enters our lives, washes away our sin, purifies our conscience, and redirects us toward God. This is the fulfillment of Ezekiel 36:25-27. The Holy Spirit gives us Regeneration (new birth); Justification (pardon and acceptance with God); and Sanctification (new ways of Christ-like thinking, being, and living). Now we should no longer live for ourselves but for Jesus who died for us and was raised again.7 Do our lives show that we’ve been cleansed by the Lord?
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make the Lord out to be a liar and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
To be continued
Notes (various translations): 1 Psalm 38:4 and Reformation Study Bible. 2 Psalm 32:1-5. 3 John 1:29,36. 4 Psalm 136:23. 5 1 Peter 2:24-25. 6 Col 2:13-14. 7 2 Cor 5:15.