The Necessity of Guilt

Guilt is a funny thing. Even when we know that we are guilty, we don’t like to admit to it.  As children, we try and pass off the blame on our younger siblings…or maybe onto the dog. As we grow older we get a little more sophisticated and direct the blame at those who are not present in the home; hence, they cannot defend themselves. How many times have you said, “What officer, I didn’t know that I was speeding,” or “But I thought I did come to a complete stop at that sign”? As a pastor, I do a fair amount of counseling and it always fascinates me how two different people can describe the same event and in each case, make the other person look like the guilty party.

We don’t like guilt nor do we like the feeling that goes along with being guilty of some great crime or error. And so, many people flee from places and contexts where they will be made to feel guilty of wrong-doing. Even many churches are catering to this perceived need and are only preaching the loving-kindness of God and not the wrath and punishment of sin. Yet, the Heidelberg Catechism says that our guilt is one of the things that we must know in life — it is an essential thing in the life of the Christian. Why is that?

The answer lies in an essential truth: if you do not come face to face with your sin and the vile and wretched state of your soul, you will never understand the grace of God in salvation. Or, to word it another way, the more you understand your guilt as you stand before God, the more you will appreciate the grace found in Christ’s work. In many ways, Christian faith starts with the old Greek maxim: γνῶθι σεαuτόν (gnothi seauton) — “know thyself.” Until you know yourself, you will not feel guilty regarding your sin and until you feel guilty over it, you will not repent and until you repent, you will never know the grace of God. 

Some modern critics of the contemporary mega-church movement call the messages at such services “therapeutic, moralistic, deism.” But, if you refuse to deal with sin and the guilt of sin, just making people feel good about themselves — get a spiritual “recharge” for the week to come — then what more do you expect? Truly, the life-changing Gospel is meaningless in contexts such as these — how could it be? The Gospel begins with an acknowledgment of the greatness of God and the wretchedness of our human condition — they are being taught that God likes them just the way they are. Until you are crushed under the weight of sin, you will not understand your desperate need for grace and the greatness of the one who purchased it.

So no, guilt feels terrible, but it is a good gift of God that is designed to drive us to Christ in a spirit of brokenness and repentance. And that is a good thing…more than that, it is a necessary thing.

“For the sake of your name, Yahweh, forgive my iniquity, for it is great. Who is this man who is fearful of Yahweh? He will teach him in the way he chooses. His soul shall lodge in goodness and his seed shall possess the earth. The counsel of Yahweh is for those who fear him and his covenant he makes known to them. My eyes are continually on Yahweh for he will pull my feet from the net.”

(Psalm 25:11-15)

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