This series of posts was written with pastors and church leaders in mind. All posts in the series:

We have been considering problems that harass all of humanity, including the people in your church. The plan is to address six areas: anger, suffering and victimization, guilt, fears and anxiety, desiring more, and shame. Guilt is up next.

The challenge is that guilt seems unpopular and less common. As a counselor, I cannot remember the last time someone wanted to meet with me because of the weight of guilt. As preachers, sermons that focus on sin and judicial images such as justification feel less relevant to people who are, for the most part, more familiar with shame, victimization, and brokenness than guilt. So an important part of pastoral care is to find guilt and rehabilitate its reputation.

What Is Guilt?

Guilt indicates that we have sinned against God. It can be aided by the law of God and the conscience. For many of us, it isn’t hard to find. Our wrongness is a palpable presence. We know we can behave badly and we know God knows it. Yet even then, we might not have a sense that our offense is against God. How many times have I sinned against my wife and confessed my sin to her, but didn’t confess it to the Lord? I know what I did was against her, but it doesn’t always feel personally against God.

This is the very nature of sin—we can usually identify how it disrupts the relationship with the person in front of us, but we are blind to how it is also against God. Scripture, therefore, helps us to see. The simple principle is that our relationships with others reveal our relationship with the Lord. If you wrong another person, you are being unfaithful to the Lord (Num 5:6). When you complain, even against no one in particular, you are holding the Lord in contempt (Num 14:11). In other words, if you cannot easily name your sin and guilt, consider your recent relationship problems and expressions of anger. There you will find a heart that, at least temporarily, has turned away from the Lord and pursued other gods. Perhaps our decreased awareness of guilt comes, in part, from thinking that sin is only when we consciously reject God. The truth, of course, is that whenever we violate his law, we are rejecting his name and his honor.

Guilt Is Good

Guilt is good because it helps us to see our sin. I have an orthodox friend who often objects to the emphasis on sin in some churches. Grace and mercy, he says, are the keynotes of the gospel. This is certainly true, but forgiveness of sins is the frequent summary of, or at least the entrance into, the grace of Christ, and our present battle with sin is a result of being freed from sin’s dominion. Our alertness to grace and mercy is dependent upon sin and guilt having a high profile in our lives.

Sin is not good—yet guilt joined with the message of grace is stunning. Indeed, one of the evidences of the Spirit at work in us is conviction. Guilt, after we have come to Christ, is evidence that we are spiritually alive. But it can be complicated. There are at least two ways that guilt becomes untethered from God’s grace. One is that we wither under Satan’s accusations of guilt. Satan tempts us with lies that God is not that good and sin is not that bad. Then, when we sin, he is right there to say that our sin is exceedingly bad and forgiveness is out of the question (Zech 3:1–2), and we are prone to believe him.

A second way that misery rather than mercy attaches to guilt is when we drift into legalism or works righteousness. Instead of resting in God and his grace to us, we invent our own system of reparations that we can do to appease God, such as:

  • Put a little more in the offering basket.
  • Endure a season of feeling really bad for what you did.
  • Turn from God’s presence until you can act more worthy.
  • Make a pledge that you will do better next time.

These are all variations of legalism. They are religious-sounding but malicious. They suggest that God’s forgiveness is less than lavish and that we can atone for our sins.

Guilt coupled with satanic accusation or legalistic self-effort is death. Guilt coupled with the one-time sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, and guilt coupled with daily confession and foot-cleansing (John 13:10), is fullness of life.

Guilt, Regret, and Other Associates

In its pristine form, guilt says, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4). Then it turns to the Lord for mercy and receives it. When corrupted, guilt is linked to satanic accusations and legalism. But guilt has other associates as well.

Regret could be an indicator of sin and guilt that can’t seem to get out from under satanic accusation. But it can also be mere sadness and grief, and the wish that we could have done more in a past tragedy, as in “if only I had...”

Shame, too, gets inaccurately folded into guilt. Shame can be from sin, though more often it is the etchings of sins done against us. It shares the feeling of uncleanliness with guilt, but the causes are different.

A sense of failure can also act like guilt. The failure might have nothing to do with God’s laws. Perhaps it comes from familial or cultural rules for success.

Each of these will not be fully moved by preaching on guilt and justification in Christ by faith. This preaching is for us all, and we always need to hear it, but in order to speak to the hearts of our people, we will either extend the boundaries of justification beyond the image of judge and accused, or we will draw out other ways of approaching some of these experiences that mimic guilt (e.g., adoption, union with Christ, hope in God’s sovereign control).

Guilt is not a human experience that waxes and wanes through history. Though it might take some work to truly uncover it, guilt is part of our humanity and can be the power behind some of the other problems we are addressing in this series like fear, anxiety, and even anger. Careful preaching and pastoral care will draw it out, create a place in which guilt can be openly discussed, identify some of its complexities, and lead others in thanks for how God has spoken to the depths of human experience in Christ.

1 If you want to read one book on legalism, consider The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson