As we’ve preached our way through Hebrews I’ve been reflecting on how it applies to us. The author seeks to convince his readers that the New Covenant is better than the old, but we don’t want to hang on to the Old Covenant right? How does the call to let the old go apply to us today? When I got the opportunity to preach on Chapter 9 it hit me. The Old Covenant was a God-ordained method of managing guilt, but it could never cleanse a conscience from guilt. That’s what the new heart is for that was prophesied in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews alludes to. So how do we let go of our old guilt management systems and instead live into the reality that our consciences are cleansed form dead works? Here’s how I see the author guiding us through the process.
First we need to identify our old guilt management systems. Just like the original readers needed to let go of the system of the Old Covenant, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to cope with the inherent feeling that we have something wrong with us. What do we feel like we have to do? What is the unresolved guilt in our hearts? We need to identify it to move from unresolved guilt to cleansed consciences.
Although we may not trust in the Old Covenant to cleanse our consciences and change our hearts, we often use the law to beat ourselves or others into submission. We shame others when they fail us, or we shame ourselves when we fail. In doing so we are trusting in outdated modes of guilt management. Shame and guilt may motivate for a time, but eventually we are either crushed by them or rebel against them.
Often we think that if we just try harder that will cleanse our guilty conscience before God. We feel guilt and we then think we have to just do something to appease our conscience and make it all go away. Our to-do list grows as our shame grows. I have to pay off God, I have to pay off people, I have to prove myself. All of that is just dead, ineffective works.
Sometimes instead of working it off we run to addictive behavior to numb our conscience. Anything that speeds us up will push back our pain, or so we think. In the end we just accumulate guilt and shame debt and fold under its weight. We become inefficient, lazy, and unmotivated because we walk around with a burden that is too heavy for us to bear.
Finally, we can look to others to unburden our guilt. We think we need to get the verdict of “cool, beautiful, amazing, strong, wealthy, knowledgable, culturally or politically savvy” from others. Yet people are never satisfied with you, and you will never be satisfied with their verdict. Look to social media and you’ll know what I mean. No one is politically correct enough, or brave enough, or woke enough, or conservative enough, for anyone in our culture. Taking care of our guilt through other’s approval is a dead end.
So maybe you’ve identified with a few of these four methods. We try to work it off, shame ourselves out of it, numb it, or unburden on others. Once we’re aware of it, it’s time for the next step.
Let It Go
To move from unresolved guilt to a clear conscience, we need to identify and then let it go. Whatever our method, it doesn’t get the job done of allowing us to draw near to God. Romans 2:4 says “The kindness of God leads us to repentance”, yet we can still use the law to try and bring transformation in our lives. God’s love and grace brings transformation, the law, exposes sin like an X-ray machine, but it couldn’t fix you. Only Jesus can heal. There is now, presently, no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, yet we still pour past truths on ourselves and others. We drag the past truth about our selves in our guilt and shame and bring it into our present reality and we rely on dead works to worm out way out from under their weight.
How can you tell that you haven’t let it go? Consider what you do when your fail and motivate yourself to “do better”. Ask yourself this, would I motivate and talk to a child the way I talk to myself? Is my self-talk filled with the words of the gospel, or only fit for a rated R movie? Of course we shouldn’t motivate anyone we love in a condescending or profane way because it doesn’t work! God doesn’t motivate his children that way either. Sometimes we confuse the voice of God with our inner critic that is informed by the lies of the enemy instead of the gospel.
Just like each animal slaughtered for human guilt was just kicking the can down the road until Christ came, all our techniques are just as ineffective when we rely on the law to change us. You want results in yourself? You want to be done with dead works? You want transformation and a clear conscience for your kids your spouse, your counselee, your friend? Let grace devastate and obliterate those old guilt-inducing ways we’ve been relying on. Grace devastates them because you don’t need them. Just like the new covenant made the old obsolete. Yes the law condemns, and, by they way, condemns rightly. But Christ has provided a way for your conscience to be cleansed, to be free from the burden you carry around and often place on others, so you can draw near to him in repentance, faith, and vulnerability, and he welcomes you and motivates you by his love so you’re free to worship him and love others. Let grace devastate and let the old methods go.
Cling To Christ
Once our hands are freed of the old guilt management we’ve identified, we need to use them to cling to Christ. The work has been accomplished by Christ, and so our response now is to approach God boldly, to hold on to him in faith and not hold on to our righteousness or our law-keeping. The author calls us to draw near to Christ in faith, hold fast, and encourage others to do the same (10:18ff). “Drawing near” is priestly work, and we are a kingdom of priests. The new heart is declared righteous, and is renewed as it approaches the living God in worship. That looks like drawing near, that looks like clinging to Christ, that looks like following in faith when it’s hard, and encouraging others to do the same.
Instead of asking what do I have to do to prove to myself that I can change, ask what do I have to do receive from God in order to change? What truth needs to replace a lie, what forgiveness needs to be received, what burden needs to be laid down? That’s drawing near in worship by letting go of our old methods of transformation. Drawing near to Christ will transform us. Holding fast to Christ, confessing boldly, worshipping freely, and loving others relentlessly is our calling. That is what it looks like for God to “cleanse our consciences from dead works so that we can serve the living God”.