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The Cure for an Accusing Conscience

Charlie Boyd - 2/28/2021

Nearly every week, I talk to someone who is laboring under a load of guilt. Sometimes, the guilt comes from some old sin that, even though it’s been confessed a hundred times, the person just can’t seem to forgive themselves. Sometimes, the guilt comes from a broken relationship—a marriage gone wrong, estrangement from a child, a wall that now separates two people who had been close friends. All too often, the guilt is self-imposed. Sometimes we think, “I’ve blown it so bad that there’s no way to dig myself out, so why bother?” People tell themselves, “I’m no good”—“I’ll never measure up.” People tell themselves, “God is so disappointed in me that he’ll never use me again.” The accusing voices inside our heads can beat us unmercifully. Oh, of course, we know that God is a forgiving God. We know he promises to not hold our sins and shortcomings against us. But to say, “I believe God forgives my sins'' is not the same as saying, “I believe MY sins are forgiven.” That’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes, the grace we say we believe doesn’t go deep enough—it’s not real enough for us to forgive ourselves. So, what do you do with a guilty conscience? Interestingly enough, John the apostle also wrote a letter we call 1 John, and in chp3, he actually talks about this issue of dealing with an accusing conscience. John tells us that when our hearts condemn us, we need to hold on to this amazing truth—"This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we reassure our hearts in his presence; whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. (1Jn 3:19-20). He’s saying—If you’ve blown it big time, “When you feel guilty, reassure yourself that God is greater than your feelings and that he knows everything.” He says we need to reassure ourselves with the truth that God is greater than our hearts, our feelings, our guilt, our accusing consciences b/c what God says about us is more important than what we say about ourselves. And, we need to reassure ourselves that God knows all things—he knows everything that’s in our hearts, he knows the remorse and the regret you feel, he knows you’ve confessed and repented of that sin, he knows the “real” you—the you that wants to love him and love others with all your mind, soul, body, and strength. God knows everything!!! The point is, we need to reassure ourselves with what God says about us instead of what the voices in our heads say about us. This is so very important. And this week in our study through the Gospel of John, we see a case study of how this works out in real life. So, I want to look at how God deals with us when we’ve blown it, and we can’t seem to forgive ourselves. The question is: How does God deal with us when we are beating ourselves up for messing up—for not measuring up?

And as we pick back up in Jn18, we find a perfect example of how Jesus deals with Peter’s sin and his guilty conscience, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself here…Let me catch us back up to where we left off in John’s Gospel by way of review. Jesus knows his time has come to leave this world and return to the Father. He’s met to observe a final Passover meal with his disciples in an Upper Room to fill them in on how they will continue to move forward in their relationship with him after his death, resurrection, and return to the Father (Jn13-16). He concludes his time with his disciples by praying for their unity and for them to endure the coming persecution. They arrive at a familiar meeting place in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Judas shows up with a detachment of Roman soldiers. They arrest Jesus, and they lead him away to be questioned and to be tried on false charges. The interesting thing about the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial is that running alongside what's happening to Jesus is the account of Peter denying Jesus—not once, but three times. This was something Jesus predicted would happen back in 13:36-38. Now, notice how John weaves Jesus’ story and Peter’s story together. READ 18:12-27.

18:1-9 —Judas and the soldiers show up to arrest Jesus / 18:10-11 —Peter tries to stop the arrest. … 18:12-14 — Jesus is arrested and led to Annas, the high priest, to be questioned. / 18:15-18 —Peter follows Jesus, and he stands outside in the courtyard of Annas’ house. A servant girl questions Peter. Peter denies knowing Jesus. …18:19-24 — Jesus is questioned by Annas. / 18:25-27 — Peter is questioned by someone in the crowd and then by a servant of the high priest. Peter denies knowing Jesus two more times. The rooster crows. It’s like a TV show or a movie or a novel where the scenes keep shifting back and forth between two characters in two different geographic locations to let us see how a plot is thickening and moving toward a certain climax—the back and forth shifting of the scenes allows us to see things that the characters in the story can’t see. We can see all the action, and good writers will show us all the action in order to develop their theme so we don’t miss the point they’re trying to make. So, what’s the point? Jesus is being questioned inside by the high priest who is asking him about his disciples and his teachings (v20). Jesus says in v21—"Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely, they know what I said." He says, “If you want to know who I am and what I teach, ask my disciples.” As Jesus is saying this, Peter is outside being questioned about his relationship to Jesus. But instead of confessing Jesus, he’s denying Jesus. The trial shifts back and forth between Jesus and Peter, and the point is, Peter blows it big time, not once, but three times. But that is not the end of Peter’s story.

After Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples several times. The last time mentioned in John’s Gospel, Jesus shows up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and the other disciples are in their boats fishing. Jesus tells them how and where to cast their nets and they catch a boatload of fish! Peter realizes it's Jesus, and he jumps out of the boat and swims to shore. The others follow in their boats and drag the nets bursting with fish to shore. Jesus and the 11 eat breakfast, and John tells us nothing of what was said or if anything was said while they ate. But after breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He asks the question three times, and three times, Peter affirms his love for Jesus. Here's the “Big Idea”—here’s the point—finally—here’s the point of everything I’ve been showing you this morning—all this back and forth between Jesus and Peter.

Jesus did not define Peter by his worst moment. And neither does he, you. Jesus doesn’t define you by your worst moment. Jesus judges us, not by the incidents of our faithlessness, but by our faith—not by our failures due to our sins, but by our successes in appropriating his grace. Yes, Peter failed, and yes, you and I fail Jesus as well. But it’s critical that we understand that Jesus doesn't pass his judgments on us when we crack under pressure. What does Paul say? There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom8:1). Remember what John said in his letter 1 John 3? —God is greater than our hearts. God knows everything. What does Peter say here, “Lord, you know I love you”—“Lord, you know all things, you know, I love you.” And Peter was right. Jesus did know that Peter loved him, and that's all that mattered. And Jesus knows you love him too. God’s grace really is greater than all our sin! “He is faithful even when we are faithless” (cf 2 Timothy 2:13). Peter’s story is a beautiful illustration of that great truth. Jesus forgave Peter, restored Peter, and used Peter in a mighty way as the new church got off the ground.

So, how does God deal with us when we are beating ourselves up for messing up—for not measuring up? He deals with us in compassion and mercy, and grace. Jesus doesn’t forgive you reluctantly. He doesn’t define you by your worst moment. No, he loves you, and he knows your heart. God's amazing grace and his unconditional love for you is the cure for an accusing conscience. Just ask, Peter!

*We are a church located in Greenville, South Carolina. Our vision is to see God transform us into a community of grace passionately pursuing life and mission with Jesus.