A CONFESSING SINNER AND A FORGIVING GOD!
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:8, 9]
Man, in a state of nature, whether he be in profanity or in a profession, KNOWS NOTHING OF THE REAL CHARACTER OF SIN.
God indeed has not left himself without witness in the human heart; natural conscience, where it is not seared as with a hot iron, bears testimony against sin. But its hideous nature, its awful depths, its subtlety, its workings, its movements, its cravings, its lustings; the heights to which it rises, the depths to which it sinks—no man is vitally and experimentally acquainted with sin thus, except that man into whose heart light has shone, and into whose conscience life has come. There is a veil over man’s heart by nature—a veil of ignorance, of delusion, of unbelief, of self-deception; and as long as that “veil remains not taken away in the reading of the Old Testament,” as the apostle speaks, (2 Cor. 3:14,) nothing is seen of the purity and perfection of God, or of the spirituality and breadth of his holy law, and nothing is known of the deep sinfulness and corruption of the creature.
But when the Lord the Spirit takes a man really and vitally in hand; when he truly begins his sovereign work of grace upon the soul, he commences by opening up to the astonished eyes of the sinner something of the real nature of sin. I do not mean to say, he discovers to the sinner at first the whole depth of the malady; he rather deals with him as the wise physician deals with his patient. The patient comes with an incurable disease; the physician sees in a moment the nature of the malady; he knows that death has laid hold of him, and that a few months will close his mortal career. But he does not tell him so at first; he begins to open up the case, wears a solemn countenance, hints to him his condition; but reserves his deeper admonitions for a future occasion, that he may gradually let him into the awful secret, that he may by degrees unfold to him that he is on the borders of the grave, and that the green turf will soon close over his bones.
Thus the blessed Spirit, in his first dealings with the sinner’s conscience, does not open up to him the depth of the malady. He makes him indeed feel that the whole head is sick, the whole heart faint; he discovers to him the purity of God, the breadth and spirituality of the law, and, correspondingly, a sense of iniquity in himself; he brings upon his conscience outward transgressions, and lays upon it the guilt of those sins which are open to the eye, and which are the more conspicuous branches that spring out of so deep a root. But, after a time, he begins to take him, as he took the prophet Ezekiel, into “the chambers of imagery,” and shows him greater things than these. He not only shows him the huge, high, wide-spreading branches of sin, but bids him look down and see how deeply-rooted sin is in his very being; that sin is not an accident, a faint blot that may soon be washed out; a something on the surface, like a skin disease, that may be healed by a simple plaster, or gentle ointment. He shows him that sin is seated in his very bones; that this deep-rooted malady has taken possession of him; that he is a sinner to his very heart’s core; that every thought, every word, every action of man’s whole being is one mass of sin, filth, and pollution.
And if he attempts, as most awakened sinners do attempt, to purify himself, to ease his guilt, by lopping off a few outside branches; if he attempts to wash himself clean from iniquity, the Spirit will teach him the meaning of Job’s words, “Though I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands ever so clean; yet shall you plunge me in the ditch, and my own clothes shall abhor me.” (Job. 9:30, 31.) Until at last God brings him to this spot, that he is a sinner throughout; yes, that he is the chief of sinners; that every evil lodges in his heart, and the seed of every crime dwells in his fallen nature.
When a man is brought here, he is brought to the place of the stopping of mouths—his own righteousness is effectually cut to pieces; his hopes of salvation by the works of the law are completely removed from under him. Those rotten props, those vain buttresses are cut away by the hand of the Spirit from the sinking soul, that he may fall into himself one mass of confusion and ruin. And until he is brought here he really can know nothing of a free-grace salvation, of the super-aboundings of grace over the aboundings of sin, of God’s electing love, of Christ’s substitution and suretyship, of his atoning blood, his justifying righteousness, and dying love; he can know nothing of the rich provisions of almighty power and eternal mercy that are lodged in the fullness of a covenant Head. He has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no heart to feel, no arms to embrace a whole Christ, a precious Christ, a Savior from the wrath to come; who has stood in the sinner’s place and stead, made full atonement for sin, fulfilled the law, brought in everlasting righteousness, and justified the ungodly. He cannot receive this precious Savior who “of God is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” until he has fallen and been buried in the ruins of guilt and shame.
Now, such a character as this will never say, “I have no sin. A man taught by the Spirit, who has a living conscience, who feels the workings of godly fear, who has seen an end of all perfection, who knows the breadth of God’s law, never dares to mock God, never dares so deceive himself, as to say, “I have no sin; I have cleansed my heart from iniquity; there remains no more pollution in me; I am pure every whit.” No such presumptuous language as this can ever pass out of that heart which God has circumcised to fear his name. None can utter such language but that “generation who are pure in their own eyes, and yet who are not washed from their filthiness” (Prov. 30:12); or such as resemble that wretch, of whom we read, “such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eats, and wipes her mouth, and says, I have done no wickedness.” (Prov. 30:20.)
Can we say of ourselves, in any shape, in any form, that “we have no sin?”—when it gets up with us as we rise in the morning, and to our shame and sorrow is with us all the day—when it lies down with us, and often accompanies us in the night season? Can we say, with this daily, hourly, momently experience of sin continually defiling our conscience with its filthy streams, can we ever be among those who say, “we have no sin?” If we say so, we would have a lie in our right hand. If we said so, we should do violence to our own convictions, and speak against the testimony of God in our own conscience.
It is, then, a mercy to have a negative evidence, if you have not a positive one. It is a mercy, if you feel that you are sinners. Look at those who say they have no sin, who are perfectly free, who have cleansed their hearts, and reformed their lives, and have lopped this wide-spreading tree down to the very ground. What is the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning them? They “deceive” themselves; they are deluded; they are blinded by the god of this world; they know not God; they know not themselves; they know not the evil of their hearts; they know not the workings of their fallen nature; they are altogether under the power of Satan as an angel of light, and there is no truth in them. They know nothing of the power of God, of the truth as it is in Jesus, of salvation by grace, of the Spirit’s work upon the heart, or of the dealings of God upon the enlightened conscience.
BUT WHAT A GRACIOUS PROMISE THE LORD GIVES TO THOSE WHO CONFESS!
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”
“He is FAITHFUL.” Why would John select this attribute? Why would not John say, “He is merciful”—”He is gracious”—”He is kind?” Why would John lay this stress upon God’s faithfulness? I will tell you—because he desires to lay it upon a very broad foundation. If I wish to erect a very noble, commanding and lofty superstructure, I must have a foundation, a basis, equally broad equally strong, for that building to stand upon. Now God’s faithfulness is, if I may use the expression, that broad attribute in the divine majesty on which everything rests. As the Apostle says, “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” Faithfulness—in other words, truth—is the very character of God. He might not be merciful, but he must be faithful. The mercy of God was not known until man fell. Ages had rolled away before the mercy of God was known; but God’s faithfulness was ever known, and must be known, to the creatures of his hand. It is the very foundation of the Godhead. If he could cease to be faithful, he would cease to be God.
And, therefore, when the Apostle would lay a very broad foundation for the poor sinner to stand upon, he does not build it upon God’s MERCY, though so great; nor upon God’s GRACE, though superabounding; nor upon God’s LOVE though everlasting; but he places it upon a greater, wider, stronger, broader foundation than these; and that is, God’s eternal faithfulness—the veracity, the truthfulness, the very character of Jehovah, as he who cannot lie.
But in what way, and in what sense is God’s attribute of faithfulness manifested? In this—God has promised to pardon repentant sinners; God has promised to forgive those who come to him, confessing their transgressions against him. Now it would impugn the divine veracity, it would cast a shade over God’s holy character, if there were any repentant sinner whom God rejected; if there were any broken heart which God did not heal; if there were any spiritual confession that did not enter into the ears of the Lord almighty. And therefore, John builds up the soul, not on God’s mercy (though all pardon flows from God’s mercy), but on God’s faithfulness, because what he has said, he will fulfill to the very letter!