Sin, Guilt, Forgiveness. A Classic Sermon.
March 03, 2002
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which
the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, “Yea, hath
God said, ‘Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
And the woman said unto the serpent, “We may eat of the
fruit of the trees of the garden. But of the fruit of the tree which is
in the midst of the garden, God hath said, ‘Ye shall not eat of it,
neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’”
And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die.
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes
shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to
make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave
also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of
them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and
they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
Reading from Swedenborg
Real repentance is examining ourselves, recognizing and acknowledging
our sins, holding ourselves guilty of them and confessing
them before the Lord, asking for help and power to resist them,
and so desisting from them and leading a new life—and doing all
of this as if we were doing it by ourselves. Do this once or twice a
year when you go to Holy Communion. And afterwards, when
the sins you have found yourself guilty of recur, say to yourself, “I
do not want to do these things because they are sins against God.”
This is real repentance. (True Christian Religion #567.5)
What about sin? Sin is a strong Anglo-Saxon word; a three
letter word capable of covering the whole gamut of
human failure. It is used in particular to express the rebellion of
man against the divine order; against the commandments of God.
In the Old Testament, sin is a stumble, a fall, a breach of the
covenant with God. It has the connotation of breaking one’s
word, disloyalty, treason. In the New Testament, the severity of
the term softened. It becomes more psychological; less legal.
“Missing the mark”—meaning failure to achieve the goal—is the
root meaning. Also to fail in one’s purpose, to commit an error.
Some of our contemporaries try to shy away from this word,
particularly when under the influence of modern psychology and
psychiatry. The attendant complex of guilt feelings has prompted
some mind doctors to abolish the word “sin.” Unfortunately for
the patients, the fact of sin cannot be eliminated. By whatever
name you call a skunk, its odor is still offensive.
We should first clarify the meaning of this state of the soul
called sin. The word “evil” is closely allied, but is not identical.
Our doctrine defines sin as an evil act not against man, but
against God. Therefore an atheist cannot commit a sin because he
has no one to commit it against. He may lead an evil life; he may
steal, he may lie, he may commit adultery, as it is done all over the
world, in all religious and atheistic nations; but he cannot sin.
It takes a man who believes in God to commit a sin. To sin is
to turn away from God. To sin is not to obey the Divine truth
that a man knows, and so to avert himself from God. In Swedenborg’s
words, “To sin is to do and to think what is evil and false,
intentionally, and from the will” (Arcana Coelestia #8925). In other
words, “I want to do this, though I know God forbids it.”
To sin, therefore, is to add insult to injury. In sinning we
insult our own intelligence, because we know better. In sinning we insult God, because we are quite aware that this is against his
desire, his order, his will to provide eternal happiness for us. Sinning
is an aggravated condition of doing evil. It adds intention
and will to the knowledge of what is wrong.
Man cannot sin in ignorance. It is insanity to condemn a newborn
baby who dies without baptism to the hell of damnation.
Only a perverted theological mind could have dreamed this up.
And can a Christian church teach that the “heathen” go to hell
unless they are converted to the particular brand of Christianity
that is preached to them?
Our church has no part with such doctrines. We consider
them false, unchristian, and unscriptural. No one can be convicted
of sin who has not realized what sin is. This means that he first
must acknowledge a God—in particular, a God whom he has
accepted freely and without compulsion from anyone. This
Divine Being whom he has acknowledged has revealed a certain
way of life, a series of commandments to live by. Only when
someone knows, acknowledges, and willfully transgresses such
commandments, in defiance of the Author, can we speak of sin.
The mythological being called Adam, and his wife Eve, define
exactly this condition in a simple story. They knew the commandments
of God, “Thou shalt not eat from the tree in the midst of
the garden.” It could be expressed, “Look: there are plenty of fine
fruit trees all over the place. Just leave that one alone.” Was this
not a test of their obedience? If there had not been a choice to do
or not to do, how could we know about man’s ability to withstand
tests of this sort—called temptation?
But the selfish nature of man, pictured by the serpent, kept
nagging away. The serpent said to the woman: You will not die.
For God knows that when you eat of this fruit, your eyes will be
opened; you will be really enlightened; you will be in on the secret
that God kept away from you. You will be like God, and know
good and evil.
The result of this test is called by some theologians the original
sin: the beginning of all sin. In a way, it is. It is a simple way of
telling that man was tempted from the beginning to set himself
up as a god. He is still trying to do this very thing. There is something
in man so godlike that it always tempts him to usurp the
power of godhood for himself, and run the world and his life as if
he were the originator of all this power and this life!
To sin, then, is to seek to deny God. It is to unseat God from
his throne and act as if he did not exist at all. To sin is to become
an antideist, working against God. Let us repeat, then. To sin
requires several conditions of mind:
- Man must know good and evil, not as a philosophical discussion,
but as experienced conditions of human life.
- He must know these aberrations from divine order to be such,
namely, transgressions against divine order, not merely against
human order and discipline. A child, therefore, who has a very
limited understanding of this order and its Author, can hardly
be said to be able to sin. A child can do evil, but cannot sin.
- Sin requires a conscious, willful, intentional breaking of a commandment,
and this against God—against the highest authority
This, in turn, brings on a state of guilt. I feel guilty when I have
not told the truth. I feel guilty when I have laid plans to defraud
someone, to deceive someone, to commit adultery by harboring
desires to steal another’s husband or wife. Now, this is quite a
modern sport among secular permissives, which may become a
social evil; but it cannot be a sin with them. I doubt that they
have a guilty conscience from it.
Guilt is a feeling that we have done something wrong, and in
particular something that we knew was wrong. We acknowledged it
to be wrong and yet did it. And when we are overwhelmed with
guilt, we may cry like David when Nathan the prophet came to
him and pointed out his adultery with Bathsheba:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy everlasting love.
According to thy abundant mercies, blot out my transgression.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my
sin. For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done that which is evil.
Now, the feeling of guilt is not something that should hound us
forever. It is but an intermediary stage between sin and forgiveness.
Forgiveness can be had freely from God when sin is
acknowledged—when there is a feeling of guilt followed by repentance.
Thus the stage is set for divine forgiveness.
But there can be no forgiveness without repentance. . . . and
acts of repentance. This the Lord made clear in the Sermon on the
Mount, where he made it a condition of divine forgiveness that
we first forgive our own debtors. The correct translation of this
phrase in the Lord’s prayer is: “Forgive us our debts as we have
forgiven our debtors.” Divine forgiveness is to be had freely under
this one condition.
The orthodox term for this act of divine love is “grace.” This is
the nature of divine love: that it must forever draw all men unto
itself. Thus it must continually give opportunities for men to
acknowledge their sins, and repent of their transgressions.
This is a very important religio-psychological law. No one
needs to be saddled eternally with any guilt. Anyone who feels
that way is mentally ill. I once observed a woman in a state hospital
who had this affliction. She could not be shaken from her fixed
idea that she was unpardonably guilty. All sins are pardonable
except one, which is the firm denial in heart, mind, and action of
truth when a man knows it. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit.
Guilt, then, is an instrument of divine love to bring about
man’s regeneration. “The heart of the matter,” says the Swiss physician
Paul Tournier, “is that the word ‘confession’ denotes for the
doctors a psychological event, and for the cleric an act of piety.
We doctors consider that confession has occurred when there is an intense shudder of shame and humiliation over that which a man
knows he is guilty of, and which he has concealed up to that time
with the greatest determination.”
Confession of sin can take place alone with one’s God, as the
Lord prescribed it. Or it can take place with a group of people, as
John the Baptist practiced at the occasion of the washing off of
sins in the Jordan—or as the apostles James writes: “Confess your
sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be
healed. The prayer of the righteous man has great power in its
effects” (James 5:16).
After confession—in whatever way practiced—there descends
the feeling of having been forgiven. One is washed clean of guilt.
One’s sin is blotted out. There is no condemnation for the one
who sincerely confesses and repents. The effects of the law are
then dissolved. One is paroled into life once more. “Go and sin no
more” is the Lord’s is own advice. “If no one has condemned you,
neither will I condemn you” (John 8:11).
Guilt is dissolved, the slate wiped clean. Man can begin afresh.
This is the path of regeneration. This is the way of life.
Dearest Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we thank you that you are
always near, and ready to forgive. We long to accept your forgive-ness;
yet we know that only a changed heart, mind, and life can
heal our sin, put away our guilt, and open us to your grace. Give
us the strength, we pray, to leave behind the wrongs that we know
we are doing—the wrongs against your commandments and your
way of love. When we are tempted, and are beginning to falter,
come into our hearts and minds with new resolve to stay on the
path that you have shown us. Help us to direct our lives by your
Word, so that we may find new forgiveness and new life. Amen.
Rev. Othmar Tobisch