We live in a world racked with guilt. It is so prevalent that most people feel guilty all the time. The non-Christian world does not have the ability to handle guilt, and they have no way of coping with the feelings that accompany guilt. They simply try to help people either live with the feelings or ignore them. Because they don’t understand guilt or who guilt is against, they can only deal with symptoms, effects, and feelings of guilt. This is because they don’t understand that they are guilty before God already.
You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made, and you have brought your days near, the appointed time of your years has come. Therefore I have made you a reproach to the nations, and a mockery to all the countries. (Eze 22:4)
And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isa 6:7)
Non-Christian way of Addressing and Dealing with Guilt:
I’ve attached an example of how non-Christians deal with sin. At the end of the day, their view is that there are a variety of reasons that guilt exists. It could due to genes, chemicals in the brain, mental illness, victimization, wrong thinking, or related to bad self-image. They observe feelings and symptoms of guilt, but because they don’t have a real understanding of God and justice, they are unable to deal with guilt in a way that actually does anything about it. They try to make past right their past wrongs by doing right in the future—a cosmic yin-yang, or karmic sort of thing. All the while they attempt to ignore the feelings that accompany guilt, pretending that nothing wrong really happened. Or they manipulate and twist things around so that they become victims rather than wrong doers.
Biblical view of Guilt:
When we talk about guilt, it is important to remember what we’ve already said about covenantal relationships. The Bible teaches that when Adam produced offspring, those offspring were members of his covenant family. Therefore, all that he did, we did, because we were and are in him. We were/are in him in two different ways: physically, and covenantally. So, before we did anything ourselves, we were sinners because we were in Adam when he sinned (Heb 7:9-10). The Bible says all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, even before we did anything ourselves, we were guilty of sin, dead in our sins, and in need of salvation (1 Cor. 15:22).
In addition the fact that we were in Adam when he sinned, covenantally, we were also born as sinners. He sinned and we sinned. But he became a sinner because of his sin and we became sinners because of his sin. This means that the only reason we don’t sin when we are first born is because we lack opportunity and physical ability. As soon as we are able and have the opportunity we all sin, by nature. Our nature is to sin from the beginning. As Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” So, we not only sinned because we are in Adam, but also because we sin on our own as soon as we were able.
All this is to say that we feel guilty because we are guilty. We sinned against a holy God and deserve judgment and condemnation. Exodus 34:6, 7 says, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” So, we feel guilty because we are guilty. Getting rid of feelings of guilt is not possible without removing actual guilt. The world does not have a solution to this problem, but the Bible does.
God’s Solution to the Problem of Guilt:
We need to remember is that God wants a pure and holy relationship with us far more than we want one with him. This is why, even before we knew anything about it, God sent Jesus to die on our behalf. God loves the world and so he sent his only son to die for us. 1 Timothy 1:15 says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….” Jesus saved sinners by becoming sin (2 Cor. 5:21), dying on our behalf (Rom 5:6), in our place (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3), as a sacrifice for sin (Heb 2:26), taking away the wrath of God from us and cleansing us from all sin and guilt resulting from our sin (1 Jn. 2:2).
What happens when we cry out to God acknowledging our sin? Like Isaiah, we cry to God acknowledging that we are sinners and deserve only death for our sinning (Isa. 6:1-5). God sees us only through the death and resurrection of Christ (we are the aroma of Christ to God—2 Cor. 2:15). This means that when we die with Christ and acknowledge our helplessness, God raises us up with Christ and seats us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Whereas we used to be in Adam, we are now in Christ. Remember that covenant thing? Well here it is again. We were in Adam, but God has transferred us from the kingdom of man to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13). And in Christ he no longer holds our sins against us, we are no longer guilty (2 Cor. 5:19).
Another aspect of this that should be discussed is the concept of forgiveness. We’ve already noted that God no longer holds our sin against us. Jesus took the penalty/punishment that was due us and suffered and died in our place. With that in mind, God only sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are in Christ and thus God sees only Christ when he looks at us. This is why he is able to say, And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb 10:15-18).
This means: First, that God doesn’t hold this wrong against you. Second, He will not remember this event again (Heb. 10:16-18). Third, He will not talk to others about this incident. Fourth, He will let this event go and not cling to it or become bitter about it (Eph. 4:31). Finally, God will aggressively love you from here on out (Eph. 4:32).
The Omniscient God says that he will remember our sins no more. When Satan, the accuser comes to God and points out our sinful past, God’s response is to say, “I don’t know what you are talking about. All I see is Jesus. I refuse to remember George’s sin. It as if he never committed it.” God is committed to not remembering our sins.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians says that we are to be like God, “imitators of God” (5:1). With regard to the topic of forgiveness, we need to glory in the fact that God does not remember our sin. We need to believe this fact and trust that it is true. Then we need to imitate him. We don’t need to forgive ourselves, we didn’t sin against ourselves, we sinned against God. So, when the accuser comes to us and says, “remember that sin? You’ve done that a thousand times. You’re so terrible.” Remember what God says about the same accusation: “I don’t remember what you are talking about. All I see is Jesus.” Its all about believing God; having faith in God; trusting God. Do you believe that God has forgiven you because of what Jesus did on the cross? Believe also that you have been forgiven and that God does not remember your sin anymore. Let your faith work itself out in you imitation of God.
Finally, we need to constantly remember that God saves us, convicts us, forgives us, and transforms us because he loves us. You might ask yourself, who wants this relationship (between God and us) more: “God or you?” This question might help clear things up, “What have you done to create or sustain the relationship?” God sent his son to die a horrible death so that he could relate to you in a loving way. God wants this relationship more than you ever could. So, go with that. Let God pour his love out on you. Accept his love, his salvation, his forgiveness. Imitate him in loving others, in not holding other’s sins against them, in not remembering their sins. Love from the heart.
This is what God has done on our behalf. This is the good news—the Gospel, but how do we incorporate this into our lives? The first step is that we should believe it; every bit of it, from top to bottom, inside to out. Second, we should throw ourselves on the mercy of God and beg him to accept us into his life (Mt. 11:28-29). Third, we should accept or receive his forgiveness and new life and live accordingly. We should throw off our sin and strive to live for righteousness. Study to know what walking with God looks like and then walk with God (2 Cor. 6:14-18).
If there’s Time:
What about guilt feelings? Some people feel guilty for things that happen to them. They think they may have done things to earn or warrant what has happened to them or to others in their lives. They may live or have grown up in a culture of shame or guilt manipulation. These people need to think about the difference between real guilt and false guilt. Guilt is only valid when we have sinned against God (Psa 51:4) or against others. If you were three years old and treated horribly by your father, you didn’t do anything wrong, you were actually a victim of his sin. In this case you need to trust God about your forgiveness for the things you actually did do, and imitate God by forgiving your father. Distinguish between your sin and sin done against you. If you aren’t sure, go ahead and confess it as your sin and accept God’s forgiveness by faith and live in faith (Rom. 6:11; 1 Cor. 6:11). We’ll talk more about letting sin against you go when we talk about anger and shame next month.
What about continued guilt feelings? I just don’t feel forgiven. We need to remember that feelings follow thoughts. Our feelings come from what we have previously thought. Ultimately, feelings of guilt come because we think we are guilty. If we are, we need to confess it and believe that we have been forgiven and imitate God in not remembering our sin. If you never were guilty, but still suffer the thoughts of guilt and shame, we need to believe God about who we are in Christ and pray that God would give us his mind about who we are in Christ. As we grow in our imitation of God we will begin to think right thoughts. As we do this more and more consistently, those things that we beat ourselves up with from our past will drift away until we think rightly about every area of our lives. We should begin by rejoicing in God because he rejoices to know us (Zeph. 3:15-19).
From Forgiven to Forgiving, Jay Adams
Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds, by Chris Brauns
When People are Big and God is Small, Ed Welch