Do you feel guilty this morning? Maybe you did or said something to your spouse or child that you regret. Or maybe you did something that no one else knows about and you feel guilty about that. There are many reasons why we may feel guilty. And our feelings of guilt often drive us to do things to handle our guilt. It was guilt that caused my mother to blurt out to my father that she just smashed up the back end of our car in the parking lot. Guilt feelings can lead a person to honesty and confession. Guilt feelings can also lead people to despair, drug and alcohol abuse, and broken lives. Clearly it is important to deal with feelings of guilt in our lives.
But what is more important than dealing with our feelings of guilt is to deal with guilt itself. There is a difference, isn’t there? Guilt and guilt feelings are like cancer and its associated pain. A doctor may be able to reduce the pain, but if the cancer is still there, there still is a serious problem. But if he can get rid of the cancer, the problem is removed completely. If we can get rid of the guilt itself, we will be much better off. Ezekiel 18 talks about guilt and how God responds to guilt. From this we learn that we are truly guilty, but there is a solution to guilt that can relieve the burden of guilt. Let’s read Ezekiel 18:1-18.
I. The biblical principle of guilt is very clearly stated in Ezekiel 18.
Ezekiel is writing to the exiles in Babylon. Ezekiel has been explaining why the Israelites had been taken captive. They had wandered far from the Lord and had followed other false gods. As a result God punished them by letting the Babylonians conquer them. However, Ezekiel has been having a hard time convincing the people of the seriousness of their crime since they have been making various excuses. Some were saying that their sins weren’t that bad. Others were saying that God had abandoned them and so it was God’s fault. Others were saying that it was all their father’s fault. That is the excuse that Ezekiel deals with now. They were saying that it was their fore-father’s sins that got them into trouble. In verse 2, they were quoting a familiar proverb as proof: “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” They were saying, “Our fathers are the ones who sinned and yet we are the ones who are being punished!” Ezekiel’s answer is very clear in verse 4: the principle that God uses is that “the soul who sins is the one who will die.” God holds each person responsible for his own actions.
Then Ezekiel gives an example of this in verses 5-20 to illustrate his point. First, in verses 5-9, he describes a truly righteous man who always obeys God’s law and even goes the extra mile to do what is right. According to God’s principle of guilt, he will live. Next, in verses 10-13, he describes this man’s son who is thoroughly wicked. He goes out of his way to do things that are wrong. Such a man will not live; his father’s righteous actions won’t save him. Then in verses 14-20, Ezekiel describes the grandson, the third generation. He is just like his grandfather in obeying God and doing right. The principle of guilt says that he will be judged by what the good he has done, not the sins his father did; he will live. The principle says that the wicked will be punished and the righteous will live. Verses 21-23 illustrate the same point only within one person’s lifetime. If there is a really wicked person, but he repents and now lives to obey the Lord, he will live because now he is acting righteously. However, if there is a righteous man who falls into sin and begins to do terrible things, he will die. His former righteous acts won’t save him because he is bad now.
The fact of the matter is that we not only feel guilty, we are guilty before God. A defendant was on trial for murder and while there was strong evidence indicating guilt, there was no corpse. In the defense’s closing statement the lawyer, knowing that his client would likely be convicted, said: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you. Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom.” He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened. Finally the lawyer said, “Actually, I made up the previous statement. But you all looked on with anticipation. I therefore put it to you that there is reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty.” The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. A few minutes later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty. “But how?” inquired the lawyer. “You must have had some doubt. I saw all of you stare at the door.” The jury foreman replied: “Oh, we looked, but your client didn’t.”
We know that we are guilty even though others may have doubts about our guilt. We have to admit that we love ourselves more than our neighbors. We don’t love God above all other persons and things. We have our own idols in ourselves or in our possessions or whatever it is. We are not only guilty of sin but in many ways are like a person who is deeply in debt. Some people amass all kinds of debt and then when they can’t borrow any more on one credit card, they get a different card and go to the limit on that. They end up getting into a spiral of debt but keep spending anyway.
This is the language that the Heidelberg Catechism uses in Question and Answer 12. Question: “According to God’s righteous judgment we deserve punishment both in this world and forever after: how then can we escape this punishment and return to God’s favor?” Answer: “God requires that his justice be satisfied. Therefore the claims of his justice must be paid in full, either by ourselves or another.” Look at Question 13: Can we pay this debt ourselves? Answer: Certainly not. Actually we increase our guilt every day. We know that we are unable to pay the debt for our guilt. And we know that we are can’t withstand the punishment coming to us for being in debt but we keep on sinning any way and our debt of sin continues to accumulate. Moreover, we realize that there is nothing that we can do to save ourselves. So in desperation we begin to look for another to pay our debt, our punishment. But then we return to this biblical principle: The one who sins is the one who will die. Question and answer 14 states this with clarity as well. Question: “Can another creature – any at all – pay this debt for us?” Answer: “No. To begin with, God will not punish another creature for what a human is guilty of. Besides, no mere creature can bear the weight of God’s eternal anger against sin and release others from it.” We are doomed to death because of the sinful things that we have done.
III. What is the solution? How can we possibly get rid of our guilt?
Jesus came to free us from the guilt that condemns us to death. Jesus didn’t come into this world just to show us a good way to live. If that were the extent of Jesus’ life, it wouldn’t have solved anything. For example, if a financial expert could show a debt-ridden person how to manage his money, there would still be the problem of being in debt. If they stopped borrowing money all the time and lived within their income, they would not get in more debt. That would be helpful, but they would still owe all the money from before. But we can be very thankful that Jesus came to us to also pay our debt. And so if you still struggle with feelings of guilt, then listen carefully.
You need not feel guilty if you believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was for you. I did not say that you are not guilty for we all are sinners. But because of Jesus, we are forgiven sinners and so we need not feel guilty. And if you still feel guilty, ask yourself if you have openly and honestly confessed that sin which makes you feel so guilty before God. If you have not done that, you are still legitimately guilty and you need to confess your sin to God. But then realize that God does forgive and cleanse us. If you have confessed your sin and tried to correct things and still feel guilty, then you can ask for God’s healing grace and presence. Often Satan tries to lure us into feeling guilty because it weakens us. But you need not feel guilty about your own sin if you confess them and believe that Jesus died for them.
Secondly, the passage this morning also should contain valuable comfort for those who feel guilty about the actions of others. Many feel responsible for the problems of others. Many parents feel guilty about children who do not believe. Many husbands and wives feel guilty about their spouse’s actions. Leaders in the church feel guilty when a person wanders away from the church. But let’s remember the principle: each one is responsible for his or her own actions. Now we have to be careful here for we do have a certain responsibility towards others. We must do what we can to share the gospel and to encourage those who don’t believe to respond to Jesus. We must do what we can to encourage those who are wandering to return. Yet if they don’t respond, we are not held responsible for their failure to respond. There is certainly much that we can and should do to help them. We can warn them, confront them and encourage them. We should certainly be continually praying for them. If we are not doing these things, then we will be held responsible for our actions. However, if we have done all we could and they still do not believe, we need not feel guilty.
Do you feel guilty? The good news this morning is that you need not feel guilty! If you believe in Christ, your sins have been removed and you are free from guilt. Once there was a priest in the Philippines who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had repented but still had no peace, no sense of God’s forgiveness. In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ and he with her. The priest, however, was skeptical. To test her he said, “The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” The woman agreed. A few days later, the priest asked, “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?” “Yes, he did,” she replied. “And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?” “Yes.” “Well, what did he say?” The woman said, “He said, ‘I don’t remember.’” What God forgives, He forgets. God has freed us from our sin and thus from the guilt that can plague us.