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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:God's solution for a condemning conscience.
Text:1 John 3:18-20 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Struggling with doubts

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

All songs from 2010 Book of Praise:

Psalm 63:1,2
Hymn 11:9 (after the law)
Psalm 23
Psalm 4
Hymn 81

Reading:  1 John 3
Text: 1 John 3:18-20
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,

Maybe you can imagine how she felt.  After all these years, the woman came to her pastor and confessed that she had two abortions when she was a teenager.  She had asked God numerous times to forgive her, but she was still nearly paralyzed by the guilt.  The guilt was overwhelming and negatively affected her personal and spiritual life.  Not only that, but it was causing problems in her marriage. 

And then there is the brother, now a senior citizen and an active member in the church.  He came to his pastor one day and confessed a sexual sin he’d committed over 60 years ago.  At one level, he knew he was forgiven because he’d confessed this sin numerous times to God.  Yet he couldn’t break free from the feeling of condemnation.  He didn’t really know what it was like to live in the joy of faith. 

Those are real stories from real people, though I didn’t know them personally.  There was someone I did know.  She was a widow, nearly 100 years old but sound of mind.  A godly woman who has since been promoted to glory.  I was one of her pastors and she called me one day to come and visit her.  Something was burdening her.  This dear sister was overcome with guilt because her rent had gone up and her pension didn’t and there was no wiggle room.  She was a wreck because she could no longer give 10% to the Lord.  “Am I really God’s child if I don’t give him 10%?” she asked me through tears.    

All of these folks illustrate a problem which some Christians seem to struggle with.  We could call it a malfunctioning moral thermostat.  You see, that’s what your conscience is:  just like the thermostat in your home controls the temperature in your house, so also your conscience measures and regulates the guilt you feel in your heart.  And just like your thermostat can malfunction, so also can your conscience. 

There are several ways that can happen.  One of those is what Paul calls a “seared conscience” in 1 Timothy 4:2.  The conscience is no longer affected by violations of God’s law.  The sense of guilt is nearly or completely gone.  However, we’re not concerned with that kind of conscience malfunction this morning.  Rather, we want to see how God’s Word addresses an overly sensitive or hypersensitive conscience, one which feels overwhelming guilt when there’s no need for it.   We want to see what God has to say about the conscience which condemns and accuses a person for small errors, forgiven actions, and just plain human failures.  What does God’s Word say about our situation if we have vague feelings of guilt and just don’t know why?  What does Scripture say when we don’t feel acceptable to or accepted by God? 

Now you may say that you can’t relate to any of this.  Perhaps you’re one of those people who don’t have such an overly sensitive condemning conscience.  Yet loved ones, you can use what you hear from God’s Word to help others.  When you encounter a fellow brother or sister who has this difficulty, you can point them to God’s Word and show them how God’s Word addresses the problem of a condemning conscience.  

And our text does speak clearly to this problem.  John was a tender-hearted pastor who knew the needs of his flock.  You can see his tender-heart when he calls them “Little children.”  That’s meant in the most affectionate way.  And this gentle pastor was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the beautiful words of our text.  He knew that many believers were being troubled by a sort of perfectionism.  There were people who claimed to be Christians and said that they didn’t sin.  They said to be a real Christian you have to be sinless.  It appears certain believers fell into the trap this wrong way of thinking presented.  Yes, they said, I have to be perfect and sinless.  Unless I am sinless, God will not accept me.  So they saw all the sin in their lives and they started to condemn themselves.  All the joy of being a child of God was gone.  How can I be a Christian, how can God accept me when I go on sinning?  I have to be like so-and-so who doesn’t sin any more.  That conclusion would have been spiritually disastrous for someone with a sensitive condemning conscience.  The apostle John knew this and he perceived clearly both the problem and the solution.  So I proclaim to you God’s Word with this theme:

God’s solution for a condemning conscience.

We’ll see that this solution requires

1.  Sober self-examination

2.  Focussed faith

Sometimes it can be difficult for us to bring up something touchy and sensitive.  We can feel the awkwardness of the moment and we don’t know quite how to say something that needs to be said.   We’re afraid of either coming across as a sledge-hammer or not coming across at all.  Thankfully, the Holy Spirit speaking to us in Scripture never has this problem.  He always knows just how to address a problem.  And in our text and its context, the approach to the problem is masterful.  The subject is broached naturally – and the message comes through clearly. 

We read together chapter 3 of this epistle.  Surely you noticed how there’s such a strong stress on the love which believers are to have for one another.  Verse 11 says it plainly:  “We should love one another.”  And then also in verse 17 the question is asked whether the love of God can be in a rich person who sees a brother in need and yet has no pity to help him.  The answer is obvious:  such a person cannot possibly be filled with the love of God.

So we come to verse 18 and here we find words for the dear children of God’s flock everywhere.  The apostle writes, “Let us not love with words or tongue…”  Let’s get straight what is not being said here.  John is not saying that love cannot or may not express itself in words.  He is not saying to parents, “Never say ‘I love you’ to your children.”  Nor is he saying that to children about their parents, or husbands to their wives.  Our love is to be modeled on God’s love and there are many examples in the Bible where God says “I love you” to his people in words.  The point here is that for love to be true it must show itself in deeds.  Do you really have the love of God in your heart if your brother is starving and you see it and just pass him by?  You can say all you want, but your words would be meaningless. 

That’s why we’re called to love “with actions and in truth.”  “In truth,” points us to true love.  And what truer love is there than that of our Lord Jesus?  He loved us in words, but most importantly he loved us in his actions:  verse 16 reminds us that he laid down his life for us.  So we are to love as he loved by being prepared to lay down our lives for our brothers.  It may never happen that we’ve got to do something so dramatic – but there are always plenty of opportunities to show our love in other more mundane deeds.  The point here is that love cannot hide in a closet of words, rather it lives in the daylight of deeds.

This love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Love for our brothers and sisters is an inescapable fruit of regeneration.  If God has worked the new life in you, how can there not be love?   That’s why we read later in this same epistle (4:21), “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”  Love for God absolutely must lead to love for the brother.  And it works the other way too:  the believer who shows love for his brother loves God. 

Now all of this is why our text says in verse 19, “This then is how we know we belong to the truth…”  Those words, “this then” point us back to verse 18.  So what this means is that our loving in concrete deeds (not just in words) is one of the means by which we get certainty that we belong to the truth.  In other words, that we get certainty that we belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, the great truth-teller.  Remember what He said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…”  However, we read about the devil in John 8:44, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  The lie or the truth:  which do you belong to?  When we love in deed rather than just in empty words, we can be sure that we belong to the seed of the woman rather than the seed of the serpent.  We can be sure that we are children of God and not children of the devil.

Because this is true, we must do some sober self-examination.  We need to sit down and think quietly without any distractions.  We need to ask ourselves the question:  do I show acts of love which would be unnatural for me if I wasn’t a believer?   Loved ones, when we ask a question like that, we’re not looking for perfection.  We’re not asking, “Am I perfectly in every way showing love for others?”  There is room for that in our lives, but not when we’re faced with the problem of a condemning conscience.   Rather what we’re looking for is evidence that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in our lives.  Is he there leading and guiding me in acts of love?  How can you tell?  Look realistically at your life.  Don’t be afraid to ask the help of a close friend, someone who knows you well and loves you dearly, if you’re married maybe your husband or wife.  See the successes which God has graciously given you by his Spirit.  See the growth and progress over the years, even if it is minimal.  As we do this we can take heart from the words at the beginning of chapter 3:  “Dear friends now we are children of God and what we will be (perfect) has not yet been made known.  But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  Perfection isn’t here yet, but yet we are children of God and we can see this in his work in our lives. 

This sober self-examination is one of the means by which we can have assurance that we belong to God.  We can be sure that he has accepted us in the Beloved.  And this is also part of how we can set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.  You’ve probably noticed that our text speaks of our hearts rather than our conscience.  You very rarely find the word “conscience” in the writings of the apostle John (only once), but here we can be positive that “heart” includes “conscience.”  In Greek writings outside the Bible, the two are often used interchangeably.  Also in Scripture we find the conscience doing the very thing ascribed to the heart here in 1 John 3.  In Romans 2, for instance, we read about the conscience with its thoughts accusing and excusing.  The conscience can be clearly a cruel judge and so it is also in our text. 

When that trouble-maker comes around and acts like a judge pointing the finger and pronouncing judgment, saying “You are not worthy to be accepted by God!” – then we need to set our hearts at rest.  We need to remind our hearts that, yes, by ourselves we are unworthy, but there is so much more to be said.  We need to point ourselves to the evidence in our lives that we belong to the truth, that we are not children of the Devil, but sons and daughters of God.  We’re told in our text to “set our hearts at rest.”  What it literally means is that we have to pacify our hearts through persuasion.  Sometimes we make fun of people who talk to themselves, but the reality is that we do it all the time, at least in our heads.  That’s what our text is calling us to do when we have a malfunctioning moral thermostat, a faulty conscience.  Say to yourself, “Stop it, look at the fruit of the Spirit in my life – I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all my heart, I love God and so I also love others.  By grace and through the Saviour, I am acceptable to God!”  Through all of this we need to look at ourselves the way God does.  But then we also need to understand better who God is and that’s why we need a focussed faith.

When we say that God’s solution for a condemning conscience requires focussed faith, we should be clear what we mean.  It means that we need a faith that is in focus, just like you might focus a camera before taking a picture.  We need to have a faith which sees God clearly for who he is, that sees God according to how he has revealed himself in his Word.  In other words, this solution requires that we do not have a distorted faith, a distorted picture of who God is.

In this connection, we should note that our text speaks in the first person plural.  “This then is how we know...”  “…how we set our hearts at rest…”  And not only that, but everything here is active.  The verbs are not passive, “this is how it will be made known to you,” or “this is how your hearts will be set at rest.”  The text is calling us to action.  We’re called to look beyond ourselves.  We’re called to look to God – after all, this setting our hearts at rest takes place in his presence, before him, in his sight.  The condemning conscience is not something that can be addressed in isolation from the One who gave us the conscience. 

So when conscience points the condemning finger at us, we’re to have a focussed faith in God.  We have to see God for who he truly is.  Who is he?  He is revealed in our text as the One greater than our hearts and who knows everything.  That means he knows our weaknesses, but more importantly in this situation it means that as a loving Father he also sees the work of his Spirit in us.  God sees the fruit of His saving work even when we cannot and so God is greater.  God knows all things which our heart doesn’t perceive, know, or observe when it condemns.  God’s love is greater than the love we might have for ourselves.  Martin Luther put it beautifully when he said, “Conscience is but a single drop, but the reconciled God is an ocean of consolation.” 

The reconciled God does not know us as objects of his wrath, but of his grace.  He isn’t the stern judge who pronounces the condemning judgment.  Rather he looks upon us a loving Father looks upon his children.  He can do that because his justice has been satisfied through Christ, and so even when we do sin, there is still the love of the Father.  That’s what we see clearly in 1 John 2:1, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.  But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”  He is our Father through Christ!  He is ours and we are his.  We can confidently say that in Christ we are accepted and acceptable. 

So what must be done with the heart or conscience that condemns?  It must be taught and reminded that God is greater than us.  Indeed, we need to remind ourselves constantly that God’s love for us is greater than the things we think about ourselves.  The Father’s love is greater than the feelings we have about ourselves – and also greater than our shortcomings.  God can and does forgive where we would never forgive.  Scripture tells us that an important part of God’s forgiveness is that he forgets our sin.  Hebrews 10:17, drawing on Jeremiah 31:34, says “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”  So God forgets where we would never forget or find it very difficult or even impossible to forget, also when it comes to our own sins and weaknesses.  Conscience can only point the finger, it can never place a loving Fatherly hand upon our shoulders. 

Our overwhelming sense of guilt may feel like an obstruction to acceptance and fellowship with God, but the beautiful thing brothers and sisters is that it isn’t for God.  He knows all things, also that the blood of his Son was poured out for those who are his, and so we can nod our heads when we hear 1 John 1:3, “And our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ.”  He knows that we share in Christ’s anointing with the Spirit and are therefore united to Christ.  He sees the fruit of that.  And so how can you come to say anything else but:  what a God!  Indeed, he is greater than us.  Where we would find it unimaginable, he comes and brings comfort and consolation to the down-trodden.  He does it by revealing himself in his Word and by showing his glory through the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of believers.

So we must look to God as he has revealed himself to us.  When conscience condemns, when the guilt is unbearable, flee to the Word, to the Bible, and see God for who he is.  True, you could think of him as a judge who pronounces judgment all day long, condemning the guilty and acquitting the innocent who plead on the blood of the cross.  But more than that:  think of him as the same judge who takes off his robes and goes home to his children who know him as a loving Father.  He comes in the door and embraces them with all the love you can imagine.  See him as the Father who grabs hold of his children in the most loving way and holds them for dear life.  Think of our heavenly Father as the One who puts away the sins of his children as far as east is from west.  Who treats those sins as if they are not an obstruction to fellowship, who forgets about them.

By this point you might get it that a large part of the problem with a condemning conscience is the tendency to have a distorted image of God.  God is only known as a harsh judge and so the conscience dwells on failures rather than on God.   This distorted view can arise from difficult circumstances in life, from your upbringing or some tragic events.  Just the same, the problem has to be recognized for what it is:  creating God in another image.  Making God into someone more harsh and less loving than he truly is.  We are making God into somebody else than who he has revealed himself to be in his Word.  If this is our problem, then we need to have a change of mind and turn away from this distortion.  The only way to do that is by attention to Scripture.  Only by studying who God is in his Word can we have a focussed faith, one which clearly sees God for who he is, the One greater than our hearts.  Then we can also know the joy of faith.

We all crave that joy, don’t we?  Those who know about this problem will know better than all of us that a condemning conscience can rob us of that joy.  However, it is God’s Word that can set our hearts at rest, that can give us the antidote to such a conscience.  Only the Bible can suck out the poison of a condemning conscience by giving us a focussed faith.

Now we should recognize one fact:  conscience is a gift from God.  It is not something to be despised or ignored.  When it’s functioning normally, we should be listening to it, especially when it is informed by Scripture.  Oftentimes the sense of guilt is a good thing in the sense that it points to something wrong.  When any of us here today have a condemning conscience, when we feel guilt, we need to ask ourselves whether we need to pay attention to 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” do we need to pay attention to that or do we need to pay attention to our text of this morning, especially verse 20?  Perhaps our conscience is working normally.  Perhaps we need to confess our sins, ask for forgiveness in Christ and be reconciled to God. 

But it could also happen that the sin has been confessed, forgiveness has been asked for and granted, we have been reconciled to God – but yet we still feel guilty and condemned.  Then we have to recognize that, under the influence of Satan or the remnants of our old nature, our conscience may be trying to erode our relationship with God.  That’s when we need to engage in sober self-examination.  That’s when we need to bring our faith in God back into focus using the Scriptures.  We need to recognize when that happens that we’re doing something that not even God himself does:  casting a verdict of condemnation upon ourselves even though we cling to Christ!  Really, what we’re doing is making ourselves higher judges (and far less just) than God himself.

So, brothers and sisters, whether we experience the trial of a condemning conscience or not, let’s all make sure we’re always focussed properly on Christ and the adequacy of his finished work.  Let’s look to the God who is greater than us.  By doing that we can begin to receive a delicious foretaste of the abundant joy which awaits us in the new heavens and new earth, when our consciences will at last always be at rest.  AMEN. 


Acknowledgement:  The first two examples in the sermon came from an article by Ed Welch in the Journal of Biblical Counseling.  This article was later worked into a booklet in the Resources for Changing Lives series.  I also made grateful use of this material elsewhere in this sermon.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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