Guilt and the Gospel
Almost everyone will acknowledge a sense of guilt. Guilt can weigh heavily upon us, indeed we may wonder if here is any relief from it. The wonder of the gospel is that Christ relieves the guilty conscience.
The Westminster Confession helps us to understand what guilt is. It says, ‘Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.’ (WCF 6:6).
Here we are taught that guilt follows sin, and it tells of God’s impending judgement. Is there any way of being freed from guilt (and the judgement that follows)? Scripture teaches that there is a way to be freed. It comes by repayment. We have an example of this in Leviticus 6. If a person is guilty of stealing then he or she is freed by restoring those belongings to the rightful owner, with an additional payment of 20%.
Scripture teaches us that we are all guilty before God for, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). But when an adequate payment is made we are no longer held guilty for wrongdoing. The question is: What payment will free us from our guilt? In order to answer, we must first of all discover the extent of our guilt. For this we must go to the Scriptures. God is judge, and there he has revealed the case against humanity.
Generally the guilt we are conscious of follows intentional sins. But we are guilty of unintentional sins as well. God holds us as guilty not only for the wrong things we do intentionally, but also for the wrong things we do unintentionally. In the Old Testament the guilt offering was made for such sins (Lev 5:14-6:7). We are guilty of breaking God’s commands whether we do so self-consciously or not.
God charges guilt for our individual sins, the sins we commit against him personally. But another aspect of God’s case against humanity is mentioned in the above quotation from the Westminster Confession. We are guilty of both ‘original and actual’ sin. ‘Actual sin’ refers to personal sins. ‘Original sin’ refers to the sin Adam committed in the Garden of Eden. This is a sin committed corporately. The Scriptures teach us that we are responsible for this sin too and God, righteously, charges us with guilt as a result.
Scripture reveals that we are guilty of individual, corporate, intentional and unintentional sins. We begin to see the comprehensiveness of our guilt before God. Like Ezra we must say, ‘O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.’ (Ezra 9:6). We find that our debt to him is higher than what we can repay. What payment then will free us from our guilt?
God by his grace has made payment that frees us from our guilt. This payment is his Son Jesus Christ. Christ’s payment to God on the cross frees us from all our guilt. While the guilt of sin is comprehensive, the salvation we have from Christ is more so, covering guilt and removing it altogether.
Atonement addresses both sin and guilt. There is an illustration of this in Isaiah 6. In his vision of the Lord, Isaiah sees the glory of God and is astonished at God’s holiness. This vision causes him to see his own sinfulness and the sin of his people. But then, “one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” (Isa 6:6-7). Here we see that atonement addresses sin and guilt.
Christ’s atonement cleanses the conscience from dead works (Heb 9:14). If we examine our conscience and find guilt, Christ cleanses us from that guilt. He deals with all our sins, including our unintentional sins. We are told about this in Isaiah 53:10, where he is spoken of as making a guilt offering to God. He also relieves us from the guilt that follows Adam’s original sin. Faith in Christ means we are no longer ‘in Adam’ but ‘in Christ’ and so we are ‘made alive’ (1 Cor 15:22), no longer guilty for the sin committed in Eden. Christ delivers us from every aspect of guilt – guilt that follows intentional and unintentional sin, individual and corporate sin. The Christian receives full redemption from Christ. All our guilt is paid for at the cross. And so Christ ‘will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor 1:8).
The Lord has provided a saviour, now in heaven, who grants freedom from guilt to all on earth who receive him. Have you received him yet? Receive him and sing joyfully this verse from Thomas Kelly’s hymn ‘We sing the praise of Him who died’.