That Feeling of Guilt
When browsing the agora (Canst thou speak Greek?), it is not uncommon to come across something blaming Christianity for guilty feelings about something. The thought is often that the teachings of Christianity are responsible for people’s guilt and shame, and if these old-fashioned morals were to be abandoned, these oppressive feelings would just disappear. Everyone would be so free.
The first step when having a serious discussion should be to define terms. Below is the definition of the word guilt from Webster’s 1828 dictionary1:
1. Criminality; that state of a moral agent which results from his actual commission of a crime or offense, knowing it to be a crime, or violation of law. To constitute guilt there must be a moral agent enjoying freedom of will, and capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and a wilful or intentional violation of a known law, or rule of duty. The guilt of a person exists, as soon as the crime is committed; but to evince it to others, it must be proved by confession, or conviction in due course of law. guilt renders a person a debtor to the law, as it binds him to pay a penalty in money or suffering. guilt therefore implies both criminality and liableness to punishment. guilt may proceed either from a positive act or breach of law, or from voluntary neglect of known duty.
2. Criminality in a political or civil view; exposure to forfeiture or other penalty.
A ship incurs guilt by the violation of a blockade.
3. Crime; offense.
A newer definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a little more expanded, yet not as detailed2:
Definition of guilt
(Entry 1 of 2)
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty
—A jury will determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence. broadly: guilty conduct
2a: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
—His guilt was written in his face.
2b: feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : SELF-REPROACH
3: a feeling of deserving blame for offenses
— Wracked by guilt, he confessed his affairs.
guilt — verb — guilted; guilting; guilts
Definition of guilt (Entry 2 of 2)
transitive verb: to cause (someone) to feel guilty
The other word is shame, related to guilt. Shame is the feeling that guilt brings, or at least it should. So what is it about Christianity that it is cast as the cause for guilt and shame?
Some, who have come out of or have seen the heavy weight that is laid on some by a specific doctrinal system, such as Puritanism, will say that the teaching is responsible for the guilt that they feel. I would agree to some extent, but to be fair, that is not the whole story.
This is not to excuse bad doctrine, but the number one reason that people feel guilty and as such, ashamed, is because they are guilty. In the times of Israel under the Old Testament, it was when the nation recognized its sinful ways, because the people heard from the Law that they were in violation of it, that they felt guilty. They then repented of their evil ways that were contrary to the revealed Word of God and were for a time restored.
The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, from the 18th verse of chapter 1 through the 18th verse of chapter 3 lays on mankind his guilt. At verses 19 & 20, he declares this:
Romans 3:19–20 — “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
The knowledge of sin is a good thing, and it is this knowledge of sin that makes a man cry out for a savior. The problem with these religious systems is not that they will leave the sinner knowing his guilt and ashamed of his guilt. The problem is that it is the knowledge of sin without the knowledge of the Savior, and His greatness.
Those who teach “Lordship salvation” have the same problem. Many blame this teaching for feelings of guilt and unworthiness, but that is only part of the story. The biggest problem that I see with “LS” is that it in all practicality leaves the sinner responsible to save himself. Also, the gospel that these folks teach may be correct when speaking of being saved, that it is indeed by grace through faith3. But then they will in all practicality leave it up to the sinner to maintain his salvation or prove his salvation in order to truly be saved. The sinner, or even the saved saint who has truly believed on the Lord Jesus Christ unto salvation, never has the assurance of salvation under this teaching because he is left in charge of it himself.
I’ve read several time from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and have yet to find the gospel in it. It certainly creates the fear of the wrath of God in the hearer, but to find his way out is not there.
Man, if he listens to his conscience, knows that he is guilty. If his conscience is “seared with a hot iron”, the message of his guilt may need to really dig through the calloused layers to pierce him, but he needs to hear it. He needs to know his guilt and the impending doom that it will bring, but the message is to drive him to the knowledge of the Savior, and that the Savior is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
In closing, the doctrines of Christianity will not leave the sinner with less guilt of sin, but it should leave him with a greater guilt of sin. Neither will it leave him with higher self-esteem. God did not design it to do so, and neither of these are what the sinner needs. These are precisely things that the sinner does not need. The gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes (Romans 1:16), and the apostle continues in the next verse:
Romans 1:17 — “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
Even further, we find why this is so important:
Romans 1:18 — “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…”
When Bible doctrine brings the sinner to the place of self-reproach and fear, as it is designed to do — it teaches the truth — then he is in the right mind to cry out “What must I do to be saved?” and hear the answer to his cry.
The gospel has this answer, as Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailor:
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved…” (Acts 16:31).
The gospel will not make the sinner feel better about his sin or himself. The Christian also, looking to himself, will not feel better about his sin or himself. His attempts at self-reform will prove futile and he will cry out with the apostle:
Romans 7:24— “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
The gospel of Christ presented faithfully with good Christian doctrine will give the sinner a place of refuge to be justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24), and the Christian can rejoice in the truth that there is now therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
- Often by grace through faith with many caveats because of their mixture of law and grace.
Charles Miller View All
Husband, father, engineer...Enjoys fishing, archery, guitar, running, and lifting, but most of all reading and studying God's Word.
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