For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God

- 1 John 3:20-21

The apostle John admits an important truth- Christians can still struggle with feeling condemned. This is not the person who made a casual profession of faith and has no intention of actually denying themselves anything, or taking up any cross to follow their Lord. There’s a reason that person feels condemned, and they better realize they can’t serve two masters. But what about the person who is fighting and struggling with their sin, to put it off and put on Christ-likeness, who is clinging to Jesus and the cross, but still feels overwhelmed by hopelessness because of their guilt? Those are two very different people, and they need to approach their feelings of guilt differently. I want to talk about the second person, the one who genuinely loves the Lord and is seeking to follow Him. 

We need to be very precise with our language when we’re talking about guilt and condemnation. Take the word very word ‘guilt’ for example. There is a difference between being guilty and feeling guilty. To be guilty means you have done something objectively wrong, and it doesn’t matter how you feel about it. If you don’t feel bad about lying, that doesn’t make you any less guilty. Our consciences are supposed to work to show us our guilt, waving the red flag and pointing out that we’re in trouble, and when they do that we feel condemned. We feel remorse for what we did. The Law of God can prick the consciences of Christians and non Christians to make us feel our guilt. 

What happens though, when we do believe the Gospel, and embrace the work of God that tells us there is now no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ, but we still feel condemned? We are Christians, but our hearts are still condemning us.  

We are far from the first generation of Christians to wrestle with this! That’s another encouraging truth that we can’t forget. This has always been a fight for Christians. Perhaps the only new twist is the pressure in our culture to compare ourselves and our boring, unglamorous fight with sin to the polished, highly edited versions of our friends' lives we see on Social media. "Why am I not like so-and-so, who seems to always be smiling and having fun in their life?" "Why can't I trust the way they seem to?" 

Why am I looking at their lives as if they are the standard for what I should do, and not looking to God like I know I'm supposed to? Well, here comes the guilt again! 

The people who struggle most with deep feelings of guilt are the ones most likely to never say a word about it, for fear of being rebuked and having even more guilt laid on them. I would guess that if we could see into one another’s hearts we would find that there are many who are fighting guilt, and many have given up that fight in despair. The apostle John spoke to those who are being condemned by their own hearts, and he didn’t discount them, or condemn them. He didn't tell them to just toughen up, and get over it. He called them “beloved”!

William Cowper, the great poet of England who often feared that God had left him because of his sin, once wrote: 

Return, O holy Dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn
And drove Thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.

Augustus Strong, in his Systematic Theology written in 1907, talks about this. He says, “Guilt, moreover, as an objective result of sin, is not to be confounded with the subjective consciousness of guilt.” In other words, for the Christian, being guilty and feeling guilty can be two different things. He points out that guilt, actual guilt, standing responsible for something you have done, is “primarily in relation to God.” God determines your guilt, and not your conscience or how you feel. Spurgeon said, “Depression of feeling is no index of declining grace.” When you work through this, there is a lot of freedom to be found here for the man or woman who is weighed down by the burden of their guilt. 

Our guilt is because we have broken God’s Law, rebelled against God, and have sinned against him. This is exactly why Jesus came and fulfilled that Law perfectly, and substituted himself for us on the cross, taking the guilty verdict we deserved and suffering the judgment that should have been ours. So, if God says we are not condemned for what we’ve done against him then we should trust His Word. This is what John is getting at when he says, “God is greater than your hearts.” And more, “He knows everything.” 

Our hearts can lead us astray because they are deceptive, and are easily molded in the form of this world and our culture. What goes into our hearts, into our minds, shapes how we think, and the truth is that our hearts can be turned from Biblical truth more quickly than we’d like to admit. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it!” Don’t fall into the trap of trusting your heart more than you trust our Sovereign’s Words. 

As a Christian, you may understand that God punished Jesus for your sins, and he laid the guilt for your sins on the cross, but you might be asking though, “Why then do I still feel so guilty?” Augustus Strong points out that is remorse over our sins. Here’s how it works. As we grow in understanding what holiness is, we will understand more and more just how great our sin is, and when that happens we may feel a greater remorse for our sin. At the same time we should also grow in our understanding of the Gospel! We should be experiencing “the assurance that our guilt has been taken away, and taken away by Christ.” When you read a passage of Scripture that lays you low because if exposes your sinful heart, shouldn’t it also lift you up into the heavens as you are once again reminded, “Jesus Christ paid for that sin too?"  

We may feel condemned, Christians, but we are not guilty anymore. When the Judge gives his verdict in the final court on the Day of Judgment, that verdict will never be guilty for those who are in Jesus Christ. It will be innocent. That’s the great gift of the Gospel. So John tells us that the person whose heart doesn’t condemn them is the one who keeps God’s commandments and does what pleases him. In part two, we’ll see how keeping God’s commandments and doing what pleases him can strengthen our confidence before God.