March 23, 1997
The symptoms of a guilty conscience plague fallen humanity. Both the old and new covenants confronted this burden—but only one did so effectively. Hebrews 9 highlights how these covenants contrast with and complement each other. As Alistair Begg explains, both point to the glory of Jesus and the ministry of His divine priesthood. The Savior’s blood opened a new and living way to cleanse the conscience and reconcile sinners to God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Let me invite you to take your Bibles and turn once again to the portion of Scripture which was read earlier, in Hebrews chapter 9.
I do want to encourage you to always turn up your Bible, to check that what is being said is actually there. Very possible for individuals to make all kinds of outlandish statements and to have no authority to them at all. Therefore, when I am sitting on the receiving end, I want to have my Bible open so that I can see if what I’m being told is actually in the Bible. Because I have only scant interest in listening to the speeches of a man, no matter how interesting and stimulating he might prove to be. The real question is, is this the Bible? So I want to encourage our congregation to buy a Bible, read their Bible every day, carry their Bible, turn their Bible up on every available opportunity. And that’s why we put the Bibles in the pews, so that if you’ve come and you feel somehow embarrassed to be left out, we don’t want you to feel left out at all but to be able to reach and grab one of those portions of Scripture.
Let’s pray and ask God’s help:
Father, I pray that the Spirit of God will be our teacher. May we only hear your voice. We only want to be the students of your Word, and we want to be obedient and changed by your truth. So grant, then, that we might be freed from every distraction and that our minds might be fastened on the wonder of who you are and what you have done for us and what you are saying to us. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
In this central section of Hebrews, which is where we’ve been for a couple of weeks now, the writer is establishing with purposeful repetition the superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ and the superiority of the new covenant. And he has been setting this forward by means of a series of contrasts that are highlighting the old as opposed to the new. And here in chapter 9, he makes his point very strongly by showing how it relates to a matter with which each of us will be able to identify, and that is the issue of a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience.
No matter how young or old we might prove to be, the fact is that all of us understand what it is to feel a sense of guilt. People may try and urge us away from this, suggesting that it is somehow unhealthy. They may suggest that conscience is an aberration, that it is an externally understood thing, that it has no basis, really, in the creative purposes of God, if there is a God. But the fact remains that each of us understands it. And the Bible says that our conscience is a faculty which enables us to apprehend the moral demands of God. That we are built with an innate sense of right and wrong. That we are not simply physical beings and social beings and sexual beings, but we are also moral beings, and we are able to violate against our own sense of conscience, which is established within us by the very act of creation. And it is by means of this same conscience that we are then enabled to feel guilty when we understand ourselves to have violated God’s moral demands.
And the sense of feeling guilty is a complex experience. Children wrestle with it, because it includes a sense of judgment. They wonder why it is that, having stolen from the jar of cookies, they feel the way they feel. They have no real explanation as to why it is that they run and hide in a closet underneath the stairs—why the sound of their parent’s voice strikes terror in their tiny lives rather than joy and anticipation in the way that they might have anticipated before this event. The accompanying sense of unworthiness, of self-deprecation, and of estrangement all is part and parcel of a guilty conscience. Men and women who feel estranged from God, estranged from other people, and estranged from themselves—their own personal sense of angst can more often than not be traced to the fact of a guilty conscience, and to the fact that, despite the passage of time and despite all of their endeavors, somehow or another they are unable to relieve this deepening sense of burden.
Now, my purpose this morning is not to address this issue of conscience. It is fascinating; we can leave it for another time. But rather, it is simply to acknowledge its place in this contrast between the old and the new covenants. Because here in chapter 9, the writer makes it clear that the way in which the old covenant and the new covenant was able to deal with the matter of conscience is vastly different. For example, in 9:9 he says, “This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered”—notice the phrase—“were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.” They couldn’t do it. Then you go forward to verse 14, and he says, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death,” or from deathly acts, to “serve the living God!”
Now, I don’t think I have to labor too hard to make it clear to us this morning that this is not a matter of arm’s-length theology—that when people want us to believe that the study of the Bible in itself, and particularly ancient and disturbing books like the book of Hebrews, which seems to have so many pictures and worldviews that are very alien to the late twentieth century, that somehow or another that folks would be suggesting, “You know, you would do well to leave that alone. It really is fairly irrelevant; it doesn’t have much to say to you.” I would suggest that anybody who can stand up and speak clearly about how a guilty conscience may be cleansed will get a listening in the ranks of all who are prepared ever to admit that their conscience was guilty. Indeed, one of the great fallacies of modern psychology and psychiatric help is to always constantly externalize the guilt, so that the first response to somebody who says, “I feel this way,” the answer is, “Oh, but you shouldn’t feel that way, because it’s not your problem,” and seek to alleviate the guilt by externalizing it, by projecting it—either back, forward, sideways, or somewhere else. It doesn’t work—especially when we’re the ones that stole the cookies. ’Cause we’re the ones that feel the sense of guilt.
In the 1970s, when the late David Watson was working very successfully and effectively with university students in evangelism in the United Kingdom, he described how on one occasion, speaking at an English university, he had talked at the end of one of his sessions to a young girl who had the reputation of being “the toughest girl in our university.” She had quite openly slept around, she’d taken every drug that was available on the campus, outwardly she didn’t care about a single thing, and she flat out had zero interest in the notion of Jesus Christ and Christianity.
And he tells how, after speaking one evening at this English university, as he was greeting people at the conclusion of it all, this girl came up to him, smoking a cigarette. And she walked up to him, and she said, “Reverend Watson, I just came up to let you know that I just received Jesus Christ as my personal Savior”—took a drag on the cigarette, turned around, and walked right out. And Watson says, “And I looked at her go, and I said to myself, ‘Time will tell.’”
At the conclusion of the following evening’s meetings, he was again greeting people. And in the course of greeting people, he encountered a young girl whom he did not immediately recognize. It was the girl from the previous evening. She actually looked radically different. And she explained to him, “Since last evening, I have spent most of my time crying. Because in spite of all my toughness and all my hardness, for all my life I’ve felt as guilty as hell.”
And some are here this morning, and behind the nice suits and the smiles and the cars and the stuff, two people know—God and you—that’s exactly how you feel. And for this girl, what brought it all out was this amazing story of Jesus. She couldn’t fathom that a God who was absolutely pristine in his holiness could love her. She couldn’t imagine that a Christ who had lived a perfect life and died a death upon the cross had died to forgive her sins. And the whole notion of Hebrews 8:12, “I will forgive their wickedness and [I] will remember their sins no more,” was an absolutely mind-blowing concept to her—that God not only forgives sin, but he forgets sin and he cleanses the guilty conscience.
So the Word of God comes to troubled consciences—comes to the troubled consciences of men and women—not to demoralize but instead to arouse them to their great need so that they might turn to him. So those of you who are on the receiving end of people giving you advice which says, “You shouldn’t feel guilty,” and you’re running around to make sure you don’t feel guilty, you are running into oblivion. Guilt is given to us in the same way that a fear of fire is given to us: as a brake and as a protector and as a guide, so that we might be led to the only answer to a guilty conscience.
Now, when we come to chapter 10, we’re gonna discover the same thing. In 10:2, speaking of the sacrifices that were “repeated endlessly year after year,” he said, “If they could have made people perfect, wouldn’t they have stopped being offered?” “For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.” But the fact is that they did feel guilty for their sins. And they continued to! And 10:22, the contrast is there: “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience.”
Now, this is the context, then, loved ones. How is this obsolete, old covenant made clear to us? And how is the wonder and glory of the new covenant made appealing to us? “Well,” he says, “there is this reason and this reason. Now,” he says, “let’s think about this issue of conscience.”
Now, in the first ten verses, he emphasizes all over again the inadequacy of the old covenant—or, if you wanted to turn it on its head, you could say that he prepares for us for the adequacy of the new covenant. But the inadequacy of the old covenant is stressed by paying attention to two things.
Number one, a description from the past. You read these first five verses and you say to yourself, “What is this all about?”—a tabernacle and a lampstand and consecrated bread and curtains and altars and incense and gold coverings and jars of manna and so on, and budding staffs and everything else, and you say, “Oh, goodness me, what is this about now? I wonder how long it’ll take us to get to verse 6.” Well, not particularly long. And the reason being is because he tells us that we shouldn’t take that long, because, in the final sentence of verse 5, “we cannot discuss these things in detail now.” Well, some of us breathed a sigh of relief. The first readers would have been very familiar with it. It wouldn’t have been a difficulty to them; they would have been able to fill in the gaps. For most and many of us, that is not the case.
It’s been of some intrigue to me this week that despite the writer’s perspective here—in other words, he wants to advance his main argument, and so, although he could stop to discuss this, he decides not to so that he may continue—and you pick up commentary after commentary after commentary, and the people have spent nine and ten pages doing what the writer to the Hebrews determined really didn’t need to be done. Well, you can relax, ’cause I’m not about to do that to you. There are applications of these things, but now, according to the writer, is not the time to make them.
He doesn’t establish the superiority of Jesus by denigrating what had been a God-ordained ritual in the earthly sanctuary. In fact, he gives glory to Christ by giving these Old Testament, old-covenant things their due place, and he says, “These were of significance, God established them, and therefore, Christ and the new covenant are even more significant, insofar as these are not denigrated; they are in their place, and yet these issues supersede them.” The old covenant was divinely prescribed, and the new covenant is its fulfillment, not its contradiction. The new covenant does not contradict the old covenant; it fulfills it. And what you have in the Old Testament, again, as we’ve said all along, is you have promise, and then in the New Testament, fulfillment. You have shadow and copy, then you have reality. And that’s what the writer is saying: “We’re not going to discuss these things in detail now.”
Calvin warns against trying to fill in the blanks. He says,
Since nothing is enough for inquisitive men [and women] the apostle cuts out any opportunity for subtleties … in case too much discussion of these things might break the thread of his argument. … Philosophizing beyond reasonable bounds (as some do) is not only futile … [it is] also dangerous. … We must show discretion and moderation in case we desire to know more than it has pleased God to reveal.
And on the average week, we have at least a dozen telephone calls from people, which are sincere calls; they want to know about bits of the Bible they don’t understand. And I want to say to them as graciously as I can, “Don’t worry about the bits you don’t understand. You go and worry about the bits you do understand. ’Cause the bits you do understand you need to start doing, and if you give yourself to doing the bits you do understand, then we’ll come back later—like eating fish, and you get a bone, put it on the side of the plate: we’ll come back and deal with that later on.” And there is an inquisitiveness in us that says, “You know, unless I answer this, I won’t be able to keep going.” The plain things are the main things; get on with them and keep marching. Some of the other stuff, we’ll be in heaven before we get the answers. The writer understands that.
So the inadequacy of the old covenant is established, because he gives us this description of what is past, and then he provides us in verses 6–10 with an illustration for the present. Now, we get that right out of verse 9: he says, “This is an illustration for the present time.” You don’t have to be too brilliant to do this stuff, as you can see. To study the Bible, you just need the English language and a prayerful heart. What is he saying? He’s saying the old covenant is obsolete and it’s passing away; that’s the end of chapter 8. He goes on and shows how this is true by describing the things of the past and providing a very good illustration in the present.
He moves from the description of the sanctuary, which has been in the first five verses, to examine the limitations of the ritual of what was going on in the sanctuary. What was happening in there? Well, people were going behind curtains: some were going behind the first curtain; one chap was going behind the second curtain; most people couldn’t go behind any curtains. The outer court was frequented by the ministering priests, but only the high priest went behind the second curtain, according to verse 3. And it was dangerous to do that. See, I’m sure we don’t fully understand this. Very difficult for us in our very contemporary, familiar, individualistic culture to understand the notion of the awesomeness and the holiness of God.
I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that the key to effective Christian living is an awareness of God’s majestic holiness—that the key to significant worship is an awareness of his holiness. And so, when the high priest went into this Most Holy Place, the people were aware of it, he said prayers before he went in, and he took blood with him in order to safeguard himself. Verse 7 says that he “never” entered “without blood.” And that blood was to atone first for his own sins, because he himself was a sinner, and then, having dealt with himself, he was able to minister on behalf of others. But it was a fearful thing to go into that which symbolized the presence of the living God. And we understand that in the unfolding pattern of Scripture we have these two truths in tension: one, that God is awesome and beyond us in his holiness, and two, that the Holy Spirit enables us to cry, “Abba, Father.” Therefore, we have the intimacy of a relationship with Jesus, and we have the awesomeness of the holiness of the triune God.
Suffice it to say that these first-century believers would not have understood those of us who come late to worship—especially in the nine o’clock hour. Ten forty-five, it’s difficult. There are practicalities. But in the six o’clock hour, people coming in at five past, ten past, quarter past, twenty past six—to say, “You are worthy!” God says, “Sorry? How worthy am I? Am I worthy of you getting here on time?” Fell in love with a girl, kept her twenty minutes late? You fall in love with a girl, you’re there half an hour early, practicing for what you’re gonna say. You’re around the corner working on it, so when she shows up, you’re ready.
The high priest entered into the Most Holy Place. And according to verse 8, his movements were illustrating the fact that ordinary men and women did not have direct access into the presence of God. And that brings us to the first of three central truths that I want you to notice.
Number one, the inadequacy of the old covenant is expressed in the fact that access to God was restricted. Access to God was restricted. Ordinary priests were restricted from the Most Holy Place by this curtain here in verse 3. Their ability to move around was in itself only with a limited clearance. If they had moved into the sort of space-age twentieth century doing these things, they might have been issued with a card which they put in one of those things, and it would only take them so far; it would only take them as far the outer court. If they tried to go in the inner court and use their card, it beeped up and said, “No clearance beyond this point.” That was the issue. They could only go so far. And the people couldn’t go as far as them. And there was only one backstage pass. And it was only given out once a year, for one individual to use, and that was the high priest. And to everybody else, the access to God was restricted.
And so people began to look at those individuals—and with a measure of justification—as the key to their access to God. And in our generation, unless men and women’s understanding of the nature of what it means to have access to God is transformed by the truth here of Hebrews 9, men and women continue to look at religious men in the exact same way. “Oh!” they say, “he’s able to go in the holy place! Now, if I can hitch my wagon to him, maybe he’ll be able to take me places that I could not go on my own.” When an individual thinks like that, it is clear that they have never understood the radical change that had been brought about in the establishing of the new covenant. And they are living their lives in the awareness of the fact that their access to God is totally restricted. And they are aware of the fact that something needs to happen if there is to be freedom of movement, not just for the priests but also for the worshippers.
“How can I know God? How can I have my conscience cleansed? I go in the outer court, the priests do their thing, but they’re there every week, and I’m there every week, and I do the same thing every week. And I have to wait for 365 days for the day to come around when the fellow does the main thing. And when he does the main thing, even then he goes by himself, and I can’t get to God.”
Now, the writer is building to what he is going to proclaim in verse 24, which we’ll come to this evening: “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” 10:19, the same truth: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain…”
You see how revolutionary this was for these individuals for whom access to God was restricted? And the writer to them says, “I want you to understand that we have confidence to enter the Holy Place.” That is revolutionary! You couldn’t go in there! There was only one chap went in there, and it was a dangerous thing for him to go in there. And before he went in, he had to make sure that he had atoned for his sins in the sacrificial system, and that he was then able to offer atoning sacrifices for the others who were restricted. And now the writer says, “I want you to know that you can come straight in.”
Walk right in, sit right down,
Baby, let your mind roll on.
Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout a new way of walkin’.
Do you want to ease your mind?
Walk right in, sit right down.
Baby, let your mind roll on.
I don’t know where that came from, but it’s good! That’s the deal: you can walk right in and you can sit right down. And you can ease your mind. Why? Not by means of the restricted access of the old covenant, but because of “a new and living way” that has been opened up by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, the identity of Jesus Christ is crucial. He is not merely another religious leader on the smorgasbord of opportunities. Who he is is vital to what he did. It wasn’t just the death of a man that provided for sins; it was the death of the incarnate God that provided for sins. And his identity is crucial to the issue. That is why the writer is taking so much time to establish it. This Christ is the Creator. “God spoke of old in various ways, by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things,” and so he goes through it. Why? Because the identity is absolutely vital.
In Sunday school, in Bible class, in Scotland, we used to sing a song that went like this:
There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open [that] you may go in:
At Calvary’s cross[, that’s] where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus.
Why do I have a guilty conscience? Why are the heavens like brass? Why does God seem so removed from me? And what am I to do about it?
You see, we have people living in this generation, like the people in the old covenant, living with restricted access—haven’t understood that when Jesus “cried … [with] a loud voice” and “gave up his spirit,” in that moment the temple curtain “was torn in two,” declaring that the restricted access had been superseded by an immediate possibility of entry for all who will come in repentance and in faith.
It was inadequate because the access was restricted. It was inadequate also because the cleansing was partial. The cleansing that was on offer was only partial. The various ceremonial washings of verse 10 could only do so much. The food and the drink and the “external regulations,” they applied for a time until “the new order.” The old covenant couldn’t answer the deep dilemma of man, the real barrier between God and man. It’s not a curtain; it’s my sinful heart. It’s the fact that I know that I have no justification to go into the presence of God. I know that God is holy. I know that sin deserves to be punished. And I know that I haven’t loved him with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. Even if I kept every other commandment for all of my life, I’d never manage to do that one; therefore, I’ve got a problem.
“And I’ve been trying to clean up my act, and I’ve been trying to become a little more religious, and I’ve tried to put a few things into my life to try and alleviate these problems. And actually, I feel not bad after a Sunday morning at Parkside; I feel quite good—usually till just about after lunchtime, and then it all descends upon me again. There’s a sort of palliative moment or two whereby I get a superficial lift. It’s kinda nice to be around those people. I like the songs, and the prayers kind of calm me, because I live such a busy life, and I’m receiving benefits from these things.” But you don’t have a cleansed conscience. You put your head on the pillow… Why? Well, Isaac Watts put it,
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away,
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
You either love or hate Shakespeare. Few people are sort of on the fence with Shakespeare. I guess I love it. I don’t fully understand it, but I like it. And I can’t come to this issue of conscience—I can’t come to this issue of partial cleansing—without going to Macbeth. What is it? Act 5, somewhere around there? Act 1, scene 5? I can’t remember.
Remember, they call in the doctor to see Lady Macbeth. And as they stand and they observe Lady Macbeth, she’s often portrayed as being, like, at her vanity. And as they stand and look at her, the guy says to the doctor, “Look and see how she keeps on the rubbing of her hands.” And then we draw closer to her, and as she fiddles with her hands, we hear her say, “Out, damned spot! Out I say! … What, will these hands ne’er be clean? … Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” And then it says, “Oh, oh, oh!” And when you read that in the class, it’s pathetic, isn’t it? You know, when you read the scene? And some girl fancies herself as Lady Macbeth, you know: “Oh, out damned spot! And all the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!” And the teacher says, “Get a grip, you know. Get a life. Can you not put something into it?”
See, it’s the difference between reading somebody else’s lines and facing my own guilt. Some of us cannot alleviate our guilt with a casual little “Oh, oh, oh.” But in the silence of our own lives, it is a strangulating cry of embittered misery which pierces our souls, and we cannot alleviate it. And under the system of external religion, there is only a partial cleansing that is on offer to us. All of the sacrifices and all of the gifts could not ease the pain of a wounded conscience.
And finally, it was inadequate insofar as the access was restricted, the cleansing was partial, and the pardon was limited. The pardon was limited. Verse 7, at the end of verse 7: and “he offered” these sacrifices “for himself and for the sins the people had committed”—notice the final two words in verse 7—they “had committed in ignorance.” The provisions of the old covenant only covered the sins which had been committed unwittingly. That’s an inevitable problem for the individual with a troubled conscience: What is to be done for people like me, who, in the words of Forsyth, are not simply “stray sheep, or wandering prodigals,” but we are “rebels taken with [the] weapons in our hands.”
What good is a religion that can only deal with the sins that we did when we didn’t know we were doing them? What good is a cleansing that only cleanses from the sins I didn’t know I did? What about all the ones I knew I did? And there are a few of them. There are a lot of them! There are an overwhelming number of them. “Well, this will take care of the ones you don’t know about.” Thank you. But I’ve got an awful lot I do know about.
What am I to do? Where is the individual to go who is haunted by remorse, who is driven by failure? Can anything be done for the remorseful sinner who longs for a cleansing from sin, released from the impression of unrelieved guilt? That’s the question, you see. And that’s the way in which the writer moves. He sets the scene so wonderfully. And this is the way the gospel is to be preached!
You see, what purpose in my offering you a Jesus? “Would you like to know Jesus?”
You say, “I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.”
“Would you like to follow Jesus?”
“I don’t know!”
“Would you like a Savior?”
Say, “Well, you know, maybe, maybe not.”
And you see, that’s exactly what happens. And people say, “Well, that guy’s getting awful worked up about that, and I don’t know why. I mean, it’s kinda nice for him and for some others, but not for me.” Until the day that the Word of God pierces your soul and you’re before your own vanity, and you’re saying, “Out, damned spot! There’s not a perfume from Arabia that can deal with the taintedness that is on my sinful hands.” Then, in that day, you’ve got big ears for news of a Savior. But until that day? I can talk till I’m blue in the face.
And you know what? I feel total freedom. Because my words can never convict someone of sin. Only the Holy Spirit of God can convict someone of sin. I cannot take the scales off your eyes. I cannot pull the plugs from your ears. Only God can do that. And I don’t fully understand how he does it. But I know he does it. And you’ll know he does it. For when, in your heart and in your conscience, you are prepared to admit that you have unrelieved, unmitigated guilt for which all of your best endeavors are providing no satisfaction, and in that day you’re saying, “Oh, oh!”—then that day is the day of salvation. That day is the day when Easter comes to life. That day is the day when this dying Christ means something. And the question is, has there been such a day in your life?
We’ll come back to this this evening, but just notice how he leads to it in verse 11: “When Christ came…” The people have been holding their breath, saying, “What are we to do now?” He said, “Well, let me tell you. When Christ came, the high priest of the good things that are already here—all the benefits and blessings of salvation—he didn’t enter by means of bulls’ and goats’ and calves’ blood. He entered by his own blood, and he obtained an eternal redemption.” How long does that sound like? That sound like forever?
I don’t want a forgiveness that only lasts five minutes. Like going to the car wash: you go to the car wash, you get it cleaned up, you come out the car wash, you try to avoid every construction thing; you go right through the construction thing, it fires right up on the sides of your doors, and you might as well turn right around and go back to the car wash again. And then if you’re so stupid that you go right down the road again, then you’ll be doing that… you’ll be like the village idiot, just driving up and down dirty roads and going to the car wash. But if there was a way to get a car wash you never need your car washed again, show me that car wash! Right?
Is there a way to receive eternal redemption? Is there a way to have your sins forgiven—the sins of yesterday, the sins of today, and all the sins of tomorrow? The answer is yes, in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To ev’ry believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
What kind of pardon? A partial pardon? A total pardon! And someone come and accuse you of your sins, you tell him, “Hey, I got a total pardon.” Somebody says, “You know, you’re a little unclean.” Say, “You know what? He cleansed me completely.” Somebody says, “You’re not supposed to go in there. That’s only the holy place.” Say, “I can go anywhere. I’m with my big brother. His name is Jesus Christ. He died in my place. ’Scuse me, I’m going in here.”
You know the story of the evangelist who’s pulling up his stakes in the early part of the twentieth century, dismantling his tent and heading for home? And as on the Monday morning he’s putting the tent stakes into the bag, a young boy comes along who’d attended one of his meetings. And he says to the chap, he says, “What do I have to do to be saved?” And the fellow, hardly looking up and putting the stakes in the bag, says, “You’re too late.” And the boy says, “You mean I’m too late because I missed your services?” He said, “No, you’re too late because someone has done all that is necessary for you to be saved. You don’t have to do anything except believe.”
Some people say, “I’ve got to get out of here, this is way too simple. What am I supposed to do? I mean, don’t I need letters of recommendation, like for the country club? I mean, isn’t there a down payment? Isn’t there something that I can do to make myself feel good about the fact that I did it, so that I can say, ‘Hey, I joined!’?”
No, see, that’s the difference. I tell you what you can do: you can fall down on your face, and you can cry to God for his mercy to be bestowed upon your life.
What did the thief on the cross do? He said, “[Lord], remember me when you come into your kingdom.” For the blood that ran down his cross and the other chap’s cross was real blood. But the blood that he saw from the corner of his eye from the pierced and riven side of this Jesus of Nazareth was the blood that was shed for his eternal redemption.
[And] the dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
That’s essentially the story. And let’s bow together in prayer.
Some of us have never known what it is to be saved. We’ve certainly embarked on religion. We are moving in the outer courts, as it were. But our consciences are not cleansed. And we hear God’s voice today, telling us that the only thing we need to know is that we are great sinners and that Jesus is a great Savior—and then that we would come and acknowledge our guilt and our debt and our rebellion and our sin and our indifference, and Christ would affirm the fact that he bore all of that sin, all of that debt and rebellion and indifference, in his body on the tree, in order that in childlike trust and in repentant faith we may be transformed.
Father, I pray that you would look upon this congregation in your mercy. Bring men and women from darkness to light. Liberate the troubled and broken consciences. Free them from the “acts that lead to death.” Redeem them with your outstretched hand.
And now may the Lord bless us and keep us. May the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us his peace, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Hebrews 10:1 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 10:2 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6.
 Gus Cannon and Hosea Woods, “Walk Right In” (1962). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Hebrews 1:1–2 (paraphrased).
 E. H. Swinstead, “There’s a Way Back to God.”
 See Deuteronomy 28:23.
 Matthew 27:50–51 (NIV 1984).
 See Mark 12:30. See also Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5.
 Isaac Watts, “Not All the Blood of Beasts” (1709).
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.1.
 P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 54.
 Hebrews 9:11–12 (paraphrased).
 Fanny J. Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).
 Luke 23:42 (NIV 1984).
 William Cowper, “There Is a Fountain” (1772).
 Hebrews 6:1 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.