Have you ever wondered how it is that the guiltiest of people have no trouble maintaining their innocence, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of their guilt? “I am basically a good person, and I always tell the truth and always do the right things.” How can people tell such bold-faced lies? It is because we are at the core sinful people and are determined to continue in our sin.
In this light, I was again struck by the fascinating story of Joseph and his brothers when the ten brothers come down to Egypt to buy grain. We take up the story in Genesis 42. The brothers appear before Joseph, who is the prime minister of Egypt and is the one who has full authority to give out the grain. He is dressed as royalty and has no doubt taken on some of the features of the Egyptians, so he is unrecognizable to his brothers, but the brothers are immediately recognized by Joseph. “You are spies, and you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land (Genesis 42:9).” The response I want to highlight is what the brothers say next. “We are honest men . . .” This becomes the statement that controls the action for the rest of the chapter.
Consider the irony of this statement from Joseph’s ten brothers, “We are honest men,” because these men are certainly not honest men. They themselves know that they are not honest men; Joseph knows that they are not honest men; the readers of the Scriptures know that these are not honest men. These are men who have taken their own brother, Joseph, and thrown him into a pit to die and then sold him into slavery to passing Midianites. These same men then lied to their own father, telling him that Joseph had been killed by wild beasts. These men themselves know that they are not honest men, but are living a lie and have betrayed their own brother, and his blood is still on their hands. Yet they have the audacity to say, “We are honest men.” “O, Mr. Prime Minister, you can trust us not to be spies, because we declare to you that we are honest men.”
More than that, Joseph, before whom they stand, knows that they are not honest men. These are the men who threw him into a pit for no reason and who ignored his pleas for mercy and laughed when he begged them to do the right thing. These are the “honest men” who sold him into slavery into Egypt and stole from him the best years of his life. These are the “honest men” who exercised cruelty and hatred toward Joseph and now they stand before him and say, “We’re basically good guys.” They do not know that the one before whom they stand is the one who can testify that they are not honest men, but are unrighteous, deceitful, malicious and cruel.
So the question comes up: “How could men who were so guilty of sin insist on their innocence?” I think there are three basic reasons: They ignored their conscience; they think that there were no witnesses to their sins; and they think that there are no consequences to their sins.
First, the guilty brothers continued to insist on their innocence because they ignored their conscience. In this passage it is obvious that the consciences of the brothers are bothering them, but not enough to bring them to repentance. Feeling guilty that you did something wrong is not the same thing as repentance, and the brothers refuse to repent. So they insist on their innocence because they ignored their conscience.
Second, they insist on their innocence, because they think there were no witnesses to their sin. Oftentimes men are bold to declare their honesty when they think there is no one who can prove that they are liars. In the mind of the fallen man or woman, you are only guilty if you get caught. If there are no witnesses, then there is no crime. In this case there is at least one witness to their sin, and that is the man who is standing before them. Joseph is one who can declare the guilt of his brothers. But the second reason why a person will claim their innocence is if they believe there are no witnesses.
The third reason why people claim their innocence when they are certainly guilty is because they do not believe there are any consequences from their action. Men are much more prone to sin and to commit acts of unrighteousness if they believe there are going to be no consequences. Joseph’s brothers did not think there would be any consequences when they threw Joseph in the pit. If Joseph died in the pit or if he was carried off to Egypt and never seen again, no one would ever know, so what possible consequences could come from that sin? If there are no consequences, why not commit the crime?
But having examined the behavior of Joseph’s brothers from so long ago, here is a more pertinent question: “How is it that men and women today who are guilty of all manner of sin insist on their innocence?” You know the situation, when you are sharing Christ with someone whom you know to be unsaved and guilty of sin, and when the subject of sin comes up, he insist that he is a pretty good person, that he goes to church once in a while and that his grandmother was a pillar of the church when he was growing up. “I’m really not a bad guy and I occasionally give to the poor and I went to Catholic school when I was a kid.” So again, how can such people who are guilty of sin insist on their innocence? I think the same three reasons apply as applied to Joseph’s brothers.
First, they ignore their conscience. When their conscience tells them of their sin and brings feelings of guilt, they simply suppress the conscience. The inner voice of the Law of God, which is the very instrument given by God to convict of sin, is silenced so that it no longer bothers them.
Second, they insist on their own goodness because they believe there are no witnesses. In fact there are at least two witnesses to every sinful act. The one committing the act is a witness against themselves and they know that they committed the sin. But more importantly, God is a witness against them. God is a witness to every sin and He remembers every transgression. “There is no creature hidden from His sight and all things are open and laid bare before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:13).” No sin is ever done in secret, because the Lord knows all sin and all sins.
Third, people can insist on their own innocence or acts of unrighteousness because they think there are no consequences. But the problem with this is that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” “The soul that sins, it shall die.” “The wages of sin is death.” God sees all sin and every act of sin and each sin carries with it a death penalty. All sin has consequences, both in this life and in the life to come. All sin brings us into judgment and all sin requires punishment.
The keys, then, to sharing our faith are first to help the unbeliever feel the guilt of their sin that their conscience is bringing to their attention and not ignore it. Second, we should explain to the unbeliever that all their sins are known to God and nothing they have done has been done in secret. God knows all their sin. He is a witness to all their sin. Third, we need to tell the unbeliever that their sins have consequences and that, if they do not come to faith in Christ, their sins will doom them to eternal judgment and condemnation. But then fourth, we must tell them that, through faith in Jesus Christ, the guilt of all their sins done in secret or done in the open will be removed and they will have a clear conscience (Hebrews 9:14; 10:22); the condemnation due to them for their sins will be taken away (Romans 8:1); and reconciliation with the living God will be ushered in and they will have peace with God (Romans 5:1). Guilt and condemnation are removed in Christ. This is the good news. RMB 5/4/2015