John Piper: How to handle guilt over sexual sin

What follows is the most helpful sermon on sexual sin and guilt I’ve ever heard (or read, in this case). It’s by John Piper. He delivered it years ago at the Passion Conference for Christian college students, held in Atlanta—at which time, being the smug, liberal seminarian that I was, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, “John Piper!” (Yes, I know… I need to work on forgiving myself for those years.) Regardless, I read the sermon now, and his words are the balm of Gilead.

If you have tried to live a Christian life, you know firsthand the power of guilt. I think Piper is right, however, to say that guilt over sexual sin in particular is an especially powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. Left untreated (or unhealed), this guilt will prevent us from becoming not only what God wants us to become, but what we—at our idealistic, passionate, Spirit-filled best—dream of becoming. As Piper puts it,

The great tragedy is not mainly masturbation or fornication or acting like a peeping Tom (or curious Cathy) on the internet. The tragedy is that Satan uses the guilt of these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have, and in its place give you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.

I have not come to Atlanta to waste your time or mine. I have come with a passion that you not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. O, God, let it happen! But mainly I want to take out of the devil’s hand the weapon that exploits the sin of your life to destroy your valiant dreams, and make your whole life a wasted worldly success.

Whatever you think you know about Piper, I suspect you’ll be surprised by the pastoral tone throughout this sermon. First, he’s no culture warrior railing against the handful of sins that culture warriors usually rail against. In fact, given his words above—and elsewhere in the sermon—about American middle-class prosperity, he isn’t holding out hope for our culture—or any culture—with or without its sexual proclivities. No culture on this side of eternity will ever be the kingdom of God.

Second, he’s speaking to a Christian audience who mostly already agree that sexual sin is truly sinful. That’s not the issue: the issue is, many of them don’t know how to handle the potentially self-destructive guilt that comes when they fall victim to it.

By the way, by using victim language, I’m not minimizing the sinner’s guilt at all. I’m recognizing that on a higher level, Satan and his minions are actively working to destroy Christians by luring them into sexual sin. Spiritual warfare is real, and there are casualties—irrespective of any moral failures or tactical mistakes made in the fighting. Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” in part because he knows we’re terrible at resisting it—whatever the temptation may be. Inasmuch as our hearts have not been transformed by God’s sanctifying grace, we are weak. Read Romans 7, and don’t think for a moment that Paul isn’t speaking from personal experience, Christian or otherwise! (Sorry, Tom Wright.)

Again, Piper directs this sermon to sincerely Christian people whose consciences are killing them—to whom Satan is whispering, “You’re a loser. What good are you?”

What [breaks my heart] today, is not mainly that you have sinned sexually, but that this morning Satan took your 2:00 a.m. encounter in the hotel room — whether on TV or in bed — and told you: “See, you’re a loser. You may as well not even go to worship. No way are you going to make any serious commitment of your life to Jesus Christ! You may as well go back to school and get a good practical education, and then a good job so you can buy yourself a big wide screen and watch sex till you drop.”

I want to take that weapon out of his hand. Yes, I want you to have the joyful courage not to even do the channel surfing. But sooner or later, whether it’s that sin or another, you are going to fall. I have come to Atlanta to help you deal with the guilt of that failure so that Satan does not use it to produce another wasted life.

The first strategy for dealing with guilt, Piper says, is to remind ourselves of the theology of substitutionary atonement: Reflecting on Colossians 2:13-14, he emphasizes that Christ has suffered in our place for all of our sins—past, present, and future. There is no further punishment required for any sin that we commit. Our acceptability before God is made possible by an objective event in history two-thousand years ago, not by anything we’ve done or failed to do yesterday or today—or anything that we will do or fail to do in the future. This is theology, Piper says, the truth of which we won’t arrive at through our feelings; we must think it through. Satan wants us to feel our way through it. That won’t do in this case: we must love God with our minds.

Against accusations of cheap grace, he says the following:

I know that there are hundreds in this room right now who see so little of the beauty of Christ in this salvation that it simply sounds to them like a license to go on sinning. If all my sins are nailed to the cross, then let’s all sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1). Paul confronted that blindness in his own day and said, “Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:8). The reason they will be condemned is that we are saved by grace through faith. That’s plain in Colossians 2:12, “You were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God.” This faith connects you with Jesus so that his death counts for your death and his righteousness counts for your righteousness (compare Romans 5:1, “by faith” and Romans 8:1 “in Christ”). And this faith receives Christ. It’s not a performing. It’s not an adding to what Christ has done. It is a receiving. Saving faith receives Jesus as Savior and Lord and Treasure of your life.

In the final part of the sermon, he says we must “trust Christ to the hilt with gutsy guilt.” (I just noticed that this rhymes.) Then he recommends that we learn to recite and meditate on Micah 7:8-9 when we feel guilt over sin.

This is what victory looks like the morning after failure. Meditate on it long and hard when I am gone. Learn to take your theology and speak like this to the devil or anyone else who tells you that Christ is not capable of using you mightily for his global cause. Here is what you say:

“Rejoice not over me, O my enemy.” You make merry over my failure? You think you will draw me into your deception? Think again.

“When I fall, I shall rise.” Yes, I have fallen. And I hate what I have done. I grieve at the dishonor I have brought on my king. But hear this, O my enemy, I will rise. I will rise.

“When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.” Yes, I am sitting in darkness. I feel miserable. I feel guilty. I am guilty. But that is not all that is true about me and my God. The same God who makes my darkness is a sustaining light to me in this very darkness. He will not forsake me.

“I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.” Oh yes, my enemy, this much truth you say, I have sinned. I am bearing the indignation of the Lord. But that is where your truth stops and my theology begins: He — the very one who is indignant with me — he will plead my cause. You say he is against me and that I have no future with him because of my failure. That’s what Job’s friends said. That is a lie. And you are a liar. My God, whose Son’s life is my righteousness and whose Son’s death is my punishment, will execute judgment for me. For me! For me! And not against me.

“He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.” This misery that I now feel because of my failure, I will bear as long as my dear God ordains. And this I know for sure — as sure as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is my punishment and my righteousness — God will bring me out to the light, and I will look upon his righteousness, my Lord and my God.

This post is already 1,500 words, and I’ve only shared a few highlights. Obviously, I recommend the entire sermon.

A few weeks ago, in a sermon on witnessing, I said that the solution to our problem with not witnessing is “falling in love with Jesus,” or falling more deeply in love with him. In his conclusion, Piper makes a similar point about resisting sexual sin:

O my brothers and sisters, when you learn to deal with the guilt of sexual failure with this kind brokenhearted boldness, this kind of theology, this kind of justification by faith, this kind substitutionary atonement, this kind of gutsy guilt, this kind of unshakable position that you have in the crucified, risen, invincible king Jesus Christ — when you learn to deal with the guilt of sexual failure this way, you will fall less often. Because Christ will become increasingly precious to you.

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