Guilt and Forgiveness: Why We Need Both

Time and time again, I’ve come across a very disturbing teaching about guilt–one that is pervasive in our godless culture, but also appears to have infiltrated the church. I’ve seen unbelievers and believers alike advocate for this view, relying heavily on emotional traps and ignoring or explaining away the truth. I’ve witnessed popular, so-called Christian authors persuade their readers to abandon what they thought was biblical in favor of this “new and improved” version of Christianity.

What are they teaching? The minimization of guilt, or, at worst, the eradication of guilt from our lives.

And as a result, they have militarized the sinful flesh and disarmed the God-given conscience.

THE “ART” OF SUPPRESSION

We might expect the world to think this way. We’re told in Romans 1 that they have “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18), because they want to ignore the reality they already know in their hearts–that God is real and He is holding them accountable to His moral law written on their hearts. And since unbelievers want the “freedom” to keep sinning without remorse, they must find a way to eliminate their own sense of guiltiness.

One of the best methods to suppress something is to replace it with something else. So in desperation, they create their own gods and their own system of beliefs, founded upon lie after lie.

Whenever something that the true Creator says gets under their skin, they set up a pillar to oppose it. He says, “I am God.” They say, “We are gods.” He says, “I made them male and female, in My image.” They say, “You don’t decide gender; we do. We fashion our own image.”

After a while, they convince themselves and others that what they’ve created has always existed, and they spend their lives defending what they’ve made. When they call good evil and evil good, their conscience protests, but they sear it shut. Eventually what was meant to be a help and guide becomes only a testimony against them in the day of Judgment.

One ancient pillar they’ve erected, still standing today, is secular psychology. The word psychology comes from Greek, and at its root it means “the study of the soul.”

We know that only God can tell us the truth about our souls, but the unbeliever invents an alternative version of the facts.

An increasingly popular teaching is that guilt and shame are bad feelings we should try to get rid of, so that we can find peace and happiness. We are told to accept that we all make mistakes, but deep down, we are good people with good intentions. Rather than grieving over our wrongdoing, we should move on with our lives, loving and forgiving ourselves.

After all, who are we to even say what is “right” and “wrong”? Isn’t that up to the individual, anyway?

You’re probably familiar with feel-good platitudes like, “Just be who you are,” “Follow your heart,” or “The best way to learn is to make mistakes.” That is exactly the kind of advice that stems from the silencing of the conscience and the abolition of guilt.

THE CHRISTIAN, THE CONSCIENCE, AND THE SPIRIT

As Christians, we are categorically different from conscience-suppressing unbelievers. We are new creations in Christ, and we embrace the truth about God rather than running from it.

However, before we reach glory, we all have the remaining sinful flesh to wrestle with–a constant struggle between who we once were and who we’ve become.

At times, our soul will want to obey God, but our flesh will cry out in protest. Though Christ is reigning over our hearts, our indwelling sin still violently fights for the crown. Its bitterness disguises itself as sweetness, and tempts us to fall for the old lie: that sin will satisfy us more than God.

We have more weapons on our side than the wicked do, because we have a conscience being renewed by the Word, and the Holy Spirit to guide us. The two come together in the moment of temptation and offer us a way out–a way that pleases God. If we ignore them both and trespass God’s law, we’ve done something out of character for our new nature. We’ve acted like the people we once were, before we were saved, by ignoring God and following our flesh instead.

But in the aftermath of sin, our response is different from the world’s and from how we used to be. In the past, we dealt with the guilt of our sin by covering it up and suppressing it, because we didn’t care about offending God. Now, however, our souls love God and grieve over wronging Him.

The Spirit convicts us. We confess our sin and repent. We cry out to God for mercy, often with tears, and feel the sting of shame and regret. We recognize that the sin wasn’t worth it, that is never is, and that we were more foolish than a dog returning to his vomit. We resolve by the grace of God to never commit that sin again, and we seek His face to commune with Him again.

Thomas Watson, in his book, “The Doctrine of Repentance” (highly recommended), explains what repentance should look like for the Christian. You may find the following outline helpful:

Repentance means…

  1. Seeing your sin – 1 John 1:8,10.
  2. Sorrowing over your sin – We must do more than admit it. We must internally engage with it. Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15; 2 Corinthians 7:9.
  3. Confessing your sin – We must put our sin into words and agree with God that what we did was wrong. Psalm 51:4; Hosea 14:1-3; 2 Corinthians 7:11; 1 John 1:9.
  4. Being ashamed of your sin – Watson: “blushing is the color of virtue.” Jeremiah 6:15; 31:19.
  5. Hating your sin – Job 42:5-6.
  6. Turning from your sin – Watson: “Reformation is left last to bring up the rear of repentance. It is not the heart of repentance, but the fruit of repentance.” Matthew 3:7-8; Acts 26:20.

a. At the very least, this means removing yourself as much as possible from places of temptation (Proverbs 4:14-17).
b. If your sin was against other people, then you must go to them and ask their
forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24).
c. If the sin involves stealing, then restitution must be made (Luke 19:8). (Source)

Mercifully, when we repent, the Lord forgives us by the blood of Christ, and we are free from condemnation. He restores us to Himself and continues to sanctify us.

As difficult we may find it, and as imperfectly as we may perform it, repentance should be an experience common to all of us as we continue to struggle every day.

FORGIVENESS DOES NOT NULLIFY GUILT

But there is a disturbing trend going around in popular “Christianity” today that needs to be addressed.

There is, first, the downgrading of sin to the categories of “mistakes” and “flaws.” Authors and teachers are avoiding the “s” word and choosing softer alternatives, to the detriment of their followers. The problem with this is that the words sin and wickedness emphasize the great offensiveness of our actions toward God, whereas the softer words water down what we’ve done to something minor and maybe even unpreventable. After all, “imperfect” people can’t help but “make mistakes.” Remember that from secular psychology? Why are these teachers mimicking the world?

Another issue is that as believers, sin should not be something we are comfortable with. We are new creations in Christ, so committing sin is out of character for who we’ve become. We should view it as a dangerous, invasive threat rather than an annoying roommate we have to live with.

If sin starts to have a hold over our lives, red flags should pop up and alarms should go off. Instead, by making sin so acceptable and commonplace, many teachers are not too far from the “carnal Christianity” movement.

That leads us to the topic of guilt and shame, where the same pattern can be seen.

It’s true that once we’re saved, we are justified by Christ and can never be condemned for our sins. They are completely paid for by His blood, and we are given His righteousness so that we stand blameless before God. This is a marvelous truth and the greatest news we could ever receive and share with others.

Yet Christians are not exempt from experiencing guilt over our sins. Forgiveness does not nullify our need to grieve over the idolatry of our hearts. We ought to be sorrowful, especially when we give in to the same sins that cause us to fall away so often from obedience.

Sadly, many today are teaching that we shouldn’t spend time in feelings of grief or regret. We should get back up, “remember what Christ has done,” and move on, forgetting our sins like He has seemingly forgotten ours.

Yet if we were to deeply wrong someone we love, like our spouses, family members, or friends, we would be amiss to smile and say, “I’m sorry I did that, but I’m so glad I’m not going to be punished for it!” If we love them, we’d hurt over hurting them. We may even shed tears and beg for their forgiveness. Few of us would react in that callous way, so why would we skip over the grief and guilt of wronging God?

Not only that, but we should feel shame–because it is a shame! It is a shame for us to act like the world, to give ourselves over as slaves to our flesh. It is spitting in God’s face to sin, and a dreadful act of treason against our King. Even more so, it is a betrayal of our Beloved, the one who so graciously rescued us and died to save us from the very sins we just committed.

We can’t just “move on” and forget what we’ve done so quickly. On the contrary, we won’t understand the blessing of forgiveness unless we first feel the weight of our need for it.

Yes, the Lord has “forgotten” our sins, but only in the sense that they can no longer be counted against us. It’s impossible for our all-knowing God to have amnesia. Likewise, we shouldn’t count our sins against ourselves and think we can’t receive forgiveness, but we also shouldn’t sweep them under the rug.

If it horrifies us to see our sin, in light of all Christ has accomplished for us, it will cause us to wonder at the mercy and long-suffering of God, and be even more thankful for His love. If we grieve properly over them now, it will also help prevent us from sinning again in the future.

THE RIGHT WAY TO VIEW PAST SINS

But what about when we remember our past sins–ones we committed either before we were saved, or as Christians?

It’s important to feel the guilt and shame of our former rebellion as unbelievers. That doesn’t mean wallowing in it, or allowing our sense of unworthiness to keep us from drawing near to the throne of grace with confidence.

But whenever the memories arise, or when we are telling our testimony to others, our cheeks should blush in remembrance of how brashly we defied God in our hearts and actions. We shouldn’t be able to explain our wrongdoing lightly or flippantly, but with soberness and regret. The same goes for our sins as believers.

So if you’re suddenly reminded of what you’ve done in the past, what should you do? What is the healthy and biblical way to deal with it?

Don’t follow the advice of those who encourage you to immediately put it out of your mind and disassociate with the memories. Remember that Paul often recounted his former life to the church and how he had once persecuted Christ and His people. And surely every time King David sang Psalm 51, or remembered the son he lost, his heart stung with remorse over his sin with Bathsheba.

Instead, in prayer

  • Remember that you sinned willingly and freely–don’t excuse yourself or try to mentally change what really happened.
  • Give yourself a moment to acknowledge and mourn over your past sin. (A moment–more than a second, but not hours or days.) 
  • But also reflect on how God saved you through Christ and has sanctified you since then. Rejoice!
  • Let the memory spur you on to never again offend God in that way, but to live in renewed holiness. 

As I write this, I am writing to myself as well as you. Let us all resolve to grieve rightly, and rejoice rightly; to forsake sin, to repent and grieve when we do sin, and to cling to Christ always.

As Thomas Watson wrote in his book, “The Doctrine of Repentance”:

“There is no rowing to paradise except upon the stream of repenting tears. Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”

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5 thoughts on “Guilt and Forgiveness: Why We Need Both

    • melanie gunsolus says:

      Fantastic article. I am sick of hearing about past mistakes, and not sin. Sin, when dealt with properly, such as; confessing repenting and allowing Gods word to clean(because it will) you will be free from any past guilt or shame! We have all done things which we regret, why do we regret? because more times than not it had something to do with sin. Go to the One who has the words of life(Gods word) drink and thirst no more. Thank you for such a well-written article on this subject.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Kay Cude says:

    Your statement, “We can’t just “move on” and forget what we’ve done so quickly. On the contrary, we won’t understand the blessing of forgiveness unless we first feel the weight of our need for it,” is so foundational to our servanthood to Christ (and foundational to our eliminating servanthood to our “self”).

    How can the redeemed not experience the weight of remorse? How can we “move on” without regret and utmost sorrow for sinning against the One who paid the wages of our sin? How can we allow deception concerning sin and guilt, sounding so “spiritual,” increep into our “understanding?” Perhaps it has become far too easy to refer to counseling sessions with or publications by a “licensed Christian psychologist” instead of studying Scripture under the discipleship of a proven spiritually mature sister-in-Christ.

    Pamela Couvrette advises we “guard the deposit” of God’s written inerrant Word and its deposit within us! Oh how profoundly true!

    Blessings!
    Kay Cude

    Liked by 1 person

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