In the last two posts in the “The Gospel’s Five Words,” we looked at the topics of sin and judgment. We learned that sin means “to miss the mark” of God’s standards and that because we have missed the mark there are consequences. Today we will be looking at our proper response to this knowledge through the topic of guilt.
What is guilt?
So how do we define guilt? Dictionary.com defines guilt as “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.” This is a good secular definition, but if we are going to be talking about biblical guilt we could use a more Scriptural definition. So, for this post, we will define guilt as “a conviction of the reality that one has fallen short of God’s standard through his selfish actions.”
Why is guilt important?
Guilt is a crucial part of the salvation experience. Without the feeling of guilt, one cannot recognize his sinfulness. And without the recognition of his sinfulness, there is no recognition of the need for a savior. As a result, people often consider that they are good enough to get into heaven, but this thought doesn’t match the reality of the situation. The natural man does not think like God thinks, and because of this, in order to see the situation correctly, he needs a change of perspective that can only come through the experience of guilt. So the question is: where does this guilt come from? Well, the answer is that guilt comes from our conscience, our God-given moral code.
What purpose does guilt serve?
The conscience is a mysterious phenomenon to many. Everyone is born with a conscience (although some would argue with this point) and everyone knows what it is. The conscience is difficult to explain from a secular naturalistic view because it somewhat goes against the basic concepts of evolution. Evolution teaches that creatures evolve through natural selection in a way that ultimately benefits their survival, yet, the conscience can be self-destructive, encouraging people to put themselves in harm's way to help someone else. This is where scientists have a difficult time explaining how the conscience came to exist. Why would a creature that is willing to die for another be more likely to carry its genes? Naturally speaking it is counter-intuitive, but with a belief in God and an understanding of his Word, we can recognize that the conscience is not a construct of time and circumstance, but rather a result of God placing his moral code into the mind of every human being. This is even demonstrated in Scripture:
“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another;”
What does the Bible say about guilt?
Our conscience plays a similar role to the Law that God gave to the Israelites. Just as the Law stated God’s rules for living in writing, the conscience puts God’s law in the mind of every man. It tells us what is approved by God and what is condemned by God. Why is it that when we stole a candy bar as a child we had the innate desire to hide our actions? Why is it when we treat someone wrong and realize it later we feel guilty? The answer is our conscience condemns us through that guilt.
Although our conscience makes us feel guilty, it can also be seared by repeated offenses. This is seen in 1 Timothy 4:2 where it speaks of people chronically lying in hypocrisy because their conscience has been “seared with a hot iron.” So we can see that as we sin our conscience can become less effective than it was at birth. Although the conscience is weakened, it will still condemn us in things that we have not yet seared it in. It is this condemnation that helps us to recognize our sinfulness and our need for God. Without the conscience, when we hear the gospel message we think “I’m good enough, I’m a good person,” but the truth is we are seared from the recognition of our sinfulness. It's only through a tender, broken, and guilt filled heart that the conscience can properly do its work of conviction. The more bitter, angry, and self-absorbed we get, the more our conscience is seared and the more we begin to fall out of conviction for our wrongdoing. You could even say that we begin losing our humanity. We begin caring less about what others think, consider other people’s opinions and concerns as non-relevant, and completely focus on what moves us forward even if it is at the expense of others. Hey, it’s just “survival of the fittest” after all!
Jude says about these people that they are those who “speak evil of those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves” he continues to go on saying they follow fleshly desires. They seek money, sexual pleasures, complain, are arrogant and manipulate people for their own selfish gain. This is the end of the one who sears his conscience: total, utter depravity. Living in pursuit of the next stimuli to get just one more speck of happiness so they can survive another day, often at the cost of those around them. This is the base of sinful man, a path of godlessness that ends in destruction. And the scary thing is that this godlessness lives inside all of us.
So the conscience reveals this godlessness that is in us and as a result, our need for God in our lives. But knowing that we need God is not enough. Knowledge doesn’t equal change, there is still more that has to happen. We have to choose one of two choices: We can choose to live our lives in guilt until eventually the guilt is seared away, or we can choose to recognize our godlessness and pursue God. This is the hope we have for our sin-filled condition. We don’t need to live our lives under guilt and regret. We can seek God, cast our guilt on Him, and free ourselves from our slavery to our guilt-ridden lives. This is the true salvation of man.