DEALING WITH GUILT

Copyright © Rosemary Bardsley 2003

 

A. SOME FACTS ABOUT 'GUILT'

A.1 GUILT IS LEGAL CULPABILITY.

Guilt is an objective fact. If we break a law, or if we fail to fulfil the requirements of a law, we are guilty, whether we realize it or acknowledge it or not. We are legally guilty, even if we are never found out by the law enforcement agency.

This objective guilt is true in respect to the justice system of our land. It is also true in respect to God's law. It is this objective legal guilt that is true guilt.

A.2 GUILT FEELINGS ARE SUBJECTIVE.

Guilt feelings may or may not be associated with true guilt, and they are usually associated with false guilt. The absence of guilt feelings does not mean the absence of true guilt, or the failure to admit true guilt. The presence or absence of guilt feelings has no bearing on our salvation, yet, as we will see in this study, can have a devastating impact on our perception and our enjoyment of our salvation and of our relationship with God.

If you are doing this study in a group discuss the difference between objective true guilt and subjective guilt feelings.

A.3 FALSE GUILT IS SOMETIMES ASSOCIATED WITH:

      • shame or embarrassment,
      • inferiority complex,
      • low self esteem/self worth,
      • melancholic temperament,
      • non-affirmative environment.
Think about the times you have struggled with feelings you thought were guilt, but were probably expressions of one of the above negative factors.

A.4 TRUE GUILT IS NOT TO BE DEALT WITH BY:

      • focusing on the sin and guilt,
      • wallowing in self-pity and self-negation,
      • condemning/punishing oneself,
      • allowing others, including Satan, to condemn you,
      • believing your failure is final,
      • expecting some form of punishment from God.

None of these responses to true guilt can adequately deal with the problem; they are all dead-end and they are all destructive; they fail to take into account the comprehensive and complete answer to guilt found in the cross of Christ.

A.5 TRUE GUILT IS TO BE DEALT WITH BIBLICALLY BY:

      • acknowledgement of sin,
      • repentance,
      • commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ ,
      • confidence in the cross-work of Jesus Christ.

This will be dealt with later in this study.

 

B. HOW CAN WE RECOGNIZE FALSE GUILT?

B.1 FALSE GUILT IS SOMETIMES SELF-GENERATED.

Example: Judas [Matthew 27:1-10]. Yes he was actually guilty, but the guilt he felt was focused on himself. He felt bad about what he had done. He couldn't stand the accusations of his own conscience. He couldn't bear to live with the expected criticism/condemnation/hatred of his fellow human beings. So he put an end to it by taking his own life. True guilt does not focus on self: its focus is God - the high and holy One against whom the sin has been committed. True guilt knows that it has offended him, that it has dishonoured him, that it has disobeyed him - the One who is the Lord God Almighty. It falls down before his majesty in abject contrition. [Isaiah 6:5]

B.2 FALSE GUILT IS SOMETIMES MAN-GENERATED.

Example: Peter in Antioch [Galatians 2:11-14]. As long as there was no one around judging him for eating with Gentile Christians he did it quite happily. Because of the Gospel he knew that God did not judge him; in fact, God had given him a special revelation assuring Peter it was his will for him to associate with Gentiles [Acts 10 & 11]. But as soon as some Jewish Christians turned up he stopped eating at the Gentile tables and went across to Jewish tables, knowing that the Jewish Christians believed it was wrong to eat with Gentiles. Here man-centred guilt caused Peter to act in a manner contrary to the Gospel which teaches that we are all one in Christ Jesus [Galatians 3:36-28]. Peer group generated guilt belongs in this category.

B.3 FALSE GUILT IS SOMETIMES CHURCH-GENERATED.

Where a church, or fellowship group, or Christian service group, insists on conformity to its rules, regulations, traditions and expectations, in such a way as to make an individual Christian experience guilt and perceived rejection when he/she fails to conform, the guilt generated is false guilt. In this case the church/group is acting contrary to the Gospel, and is robbing the individual Christian of his present enjoyment of salvation. This church-generated guilt includes guilt generated by broader church or Christian culture. As examples of this we could refer to false teaching that was being taught or expressed in the churches in Rome, Colossae, Philippi and Galatia . In each of these instances guilt was being generated by the imposition of rules and regulations; failure to adhere to these rules and regulations resulted in false guilt, which in turn undermined assurance of salvation.

Read these verses; discuss how they liberate us from false guilt; make notes about what they teach you.

Romans 3:20-24

Galatians 2:15-16

Galatians 3:1-5

Galatians 3:26-29

Galatians 5:1-12

Philippians 3:1-9

Colossians 2:8

Colossians 2:16-23

B.4 FALSE GUILT IS SOMETIMES CONSCIENCE-GENERATED.

Our consciences are only accurate indicators of guilt if they are accurately informed from the Word of God. Under-informed consciences mean we don't even register true guilt; over- or wrongly-informed consciences mean we will be feeling guilty about a hundred and one things that don't bother God at all. In addition, conscience by itself only tells us how 'good' or 'bad' we are; it does not, by itself, remind us of the Gospel of Christ by which our real guilt is legally annulled. It is also a ready tool for the evil one to use in his regular activity of accusing and destroying.

B.5 FALSE GUILT IS SOMETIMES GENERATED BY FALSE EXPECTATIONS OR FALSE PERCEPTIONS.

Example: if we believe that Christians ought never be poor or sick, and we are poor or sick, then we will assume that some sin or lack of faith on our part is the cause of our poverty or illness, and we will feel and believe ourselves to be guilty. Or, if we have assumed that missionary service is meant to be 'forever' but find that after a few years our entry visa is cancelled, our perceptions/expectations are likely to generate false guilt.

This form of false guilt is the result of the ideas that we have inherited or embraced from our background, our culture, our church or peer group, our reading, our listening, and our own conclusions - ideas which need to be placed alongside the Gospel of Christ and compared and contrasted with that Gospel. If we want to live without this false guilt we need to discard all perceptions and expectations which conflict with Gospel truth, or, at the very least, we need to remind ourselves that these perceptions and expectations are neither absolute nor definitive. If I choose to try to live up to them that is fine, as long as I do not descend into guilt when I fail or fall short.

Important statement: It is very easy for false guilt to make us believe that our relationship with God has been broken, that we are not 'spiritual', that we are failures. False guilt of each of the above kinds makes us look at ourselves instead of at our Saviour.

 

C. GUILT SHORTFALL

Some people have very little or infrequent awareness of guilt. This does not alter their real guilt, but it does mean that, because of their lack of awareness of the extent of their real guilt, there is also a parallel lack of understanding of the comprehensive nature of the salvation obtained for us by the death of Christ, and a parallel failure to honour Christ by a godly lifestlye.

When true guilt is minimized, the following are the causes and/or the consequences of that minimization:

C.1 WRONG PERCEPTION OF GOD:

God's holiness minimized - the lower our perception of God's holiness, the lower our perception of real guilt.

God's justice minimized - the less we understand of God's absolute justice, the less we will understand our guilt.

Exclusive emphasis on God's love - if we think only of God's love, to the exclusion of his justice, or if we see God as easy-going in his love, we will have a minimal concept of guilt. [In addition, in the long term, God's love will be minimized in our perception.]

C.2 WRONG PERCEPTION OF SIN:

Minimization of sin . Co-relative to the minimization of God's holiness is the minimization of sin. For example, 'sin' is understood to be only deliberate disobedience, and 'guilt' incurred only by deliberate disobedience.

Conscience hardened . Persistent and repetitive sin hardens the conscience to the extent where sin is not perceived to be sin. Again, guilt ceases to be acknowledged, and the conscience hardened further.

Conscience wrongly informed . As mentioned earlier, our consciences are not reliable. In addition to being the result of many contributing influences in our past, our conscience can be persuaded that sin is not sin - 'everybody's doing it', 'it's just a little sin', 'it's okay to sin now that your saved' - all of these phrases and more provide a constantly increasing accumulation of wrong information which diminish our awareness of our real guilt.

C.3 WRONG PERCEPTION OF SALVATION:

Self-centred instead of Christ-centred. In the Bible our salvation is not an end in itself; it has a purpose beyond itself. God saved us through the death of his Son, in order that, restored to a right relationship with himself, we will live our lives to his glory. [See Ephesians 1:6,12,14; 2:8-10; 1 Peter 2:9-10]. If we believe that our salvation centres on us, not Christ, we will be unaware, or only minimally aware, of our real guilt when we fall short of his glory, when we fail to image him.

Saviour instead of Lord. The New Testament challenges everyone to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord [Romans 10:9; John 8:23,34]; it knows nothing of receiving Jesus Christ as 'Saviour'. He is indeed our Saviour, but he is the Saviour only of those who believe in him [John 1:11-12; 3:16-18; 20:31; 1 John 5:20] - that is only of those who believe that he is God. The easy road of 'receiving Jesus as Saviour' fails to confront us with the fact that this Jesus whom we are receiving is indeed the Almighty Lord, to whom we are all answerable and accountable, and who has the authority to command and demand our absolute obedience. The minimal view of Christ goes hand in hand with a minimal awareness of real guilt when we fail to submit to his authority.

Freedom to sin. As Paul indicated in Romans 3:8 and 6:1, some people respond to the good news that Christ died for our sins with the lawless response 'my sins are forgiven so it does not matter if I sin.' This godless response is entirely self-centred, and portrays an utter failure to understand who it was who died in our place on the cross, and what that cross was all about. The death of Christ on the cross as our substitute demonstrated once and for all:

  1. how much God loves us
  2. how horrible sin actually is
  3. how great is his wrath against our sin
  4. how horrific the penalty and punishment due to sin actually is
  5. how utterly impossible it is for us to ever make up for our sin.

Only those who do not understand these things can respond to salvation with an 'I'm forgiven so sin is okay' mentality. Sin is never okay. It is forgiven, but it is never okay. Real guilt is still incurred by sin, but it has been borne by Christ our substitute.

Salvation equals eradication of sin. On the other hand, some understand that salvation means the eradication of sin. This understanding frequently comes from a misinterpretation of the Bible's use of the words 'wash' or 'cleanse' or 'clean' [see John 13:1-11; 15:3; 1 John 1:9]. This 'cleansing' is understood to mean that God washes sin out of our hearts so that there is none left there. To live with this understanding of salvation it is necessary to minimize sin, as indicated under point 2 above, and results in failure to recognize true guilt.

If salvation meant the eradication of sin then all of the New Testament commands are redundant; it would also contradict 1 John 1:8-2:2. What the Bible means when it speaks of cleansing or washing is the wiping off of the record of our sins, as indicated in Colossians 2:14.

C.4 WRONG PERCEPTION OF SELF:

Self is seen as the centre and focus of salvation. This corresponds with the first point in 3 above.

Over-confidence in one's own ability/performance.

Under-estimation of one's weakness.

The second and third of these wrong perceptions of self go together, and express or reflect a performance-based understanding of salvation rather than a grace-based understanding of salvation: salvation is here seen as something that I, by my own efforts, am able to gain or maintain. The self-righteousness indicated here refuses to acknowledge guilt; it sees itself as in the right, it sees itself as able to earn or merit salvation.

 

D. GUILT OVERLOAD

Some people live with an overload of guilt. Interestingly, the cause of this overload of guilt can be traced to misconceptions, or unbalanced conceptions, in the same four areas as guilt shortfall. The misconceptions, however, are different. If we are experiencing a heavy load of guilt it could be because of:

D.1 WRONG PERCEPTION OF GOD:

Disproportionate concentration on God's justice. Over-emphasis on God's justice has the potential to burden us with relentless guilt. We do need to have a high view of God's justice - for it was his absolute justice which necessitated the death of Christ. But if we consider only God's justice, apart from the great love he demonstrated in the death of his Son, we will live with guilt over-load.

Disproportionate concentration on God's anger. Similarly, we must have a Biblical view of God's anger. God is indeed angry about sin [Psalm 7:11]. His wrath is real [Romans 1:18]. But an exclusive or disproportionate concentration on God's anger generates a burden of guilt.

Minimization of God's mercy. If our understanding of God's mercy is absent or minimal, we will not understand how the cross of Christ is completely effective in dealing with our guilt, and will instead, live our whole lives burdened with guilt.

D.2 WRONG PERCEPTION OF SIN:

It is essential to have a strong Biblical concept of sin. But if our concept of sin goes beyond what the Bible identifies as sin, guilt overload can occur.

Wrongly informed conscience. If our conscience is overloaded with man-made rules and regulations which identify as 'sin' or as 'wrong' things that God himself does not view as sin, we will have a parallel overload of guilt.

Legalistic Christian environment. If we have been brought up in, or are currently involved in, a legalistic Christian environment we will almost certainly be burdened with guilt overload. Sometimes legalism is very blatant; sometimes it is subtle. Even though the Gospel is affirmed in many legalistic groups, the spoken or unspoken impression gained is that failure to maintain a certain level or expression of goodness is a sin that has the power to separate one from God and/or from God's blessing.

D.3 WRONG PERCEPTION OF SALVATION:

Legalistic Christian environment. Irrespective of what is preached in Gospel messages, some Christian churches or groups generate the impression that salvation depends in part on my own performance, instead of being completely and totally the result of Jesus Christ and his substitutionary death. As Paul pointed out, if we depend even for a small part on our own works to contribute to our salvation, the work of God's grace in the cross of Christ is rendered useless. [Read Galatians.]

Salvation equals eradication of sin. If we have been exposed to the teaching that salvation either is, or leads on to, the eradication of sin, and, in contrast to those who cope with this by minimizing 'sin', we maintain a Biblical view of sin, we will be constantly hounded by terrible guilt, for our lives will be continuously in conflict with our understanding of salvation.

Salvation can be lost. Similarly if we believe that our salvation can be lost, and if we at the same time maintain a Biblical view of sin, we will be hounded not only by guilt, but by a destructive and spiritually debilitating insecurity and uncertainty of God's acceptance. We will live as though Christ had not died.

Assurance of salvation is seen as presumptuous. When we live with a guilt overload, and the accompanying self-orientated, performance-based perception of salvation that promotes, accompanies, and perpetuates it, we also stand in danger of concluding that assurance of salvation is presumptuous and impossible. Failing to understand that salvation is our permanent possession in Christ we interpret all the commands and exhortations of the Bible as conditions that need to be filled in order for us to keep ourselves saved, and we cannot understand the mindset of those who have the assurance of a grace-based salvation. Indeed, their assurance is sometimes seen to be offensive.

D.4 WRONG PERCEPTION OF SELF:

One's performance gains and/or maintains one's relationship with God. This is the regular 'partner' of a legalistic perception of salvation. The person who holds this belief lives with a constant need to perform to an acceptable standard in order to have present peace with God. The failure to reach or maintain the acceptable standard of godliness plunges one into the throes of guilt.

The quality of one's faith determines the level of blessing. God's blessing is understood to be co-relative to how much faith I have, or whether or not there is sin in my life. If I experience sickness, injury or poverty I am driven to self-searching to discover what 'sin' I have committed, or what lack of faith, that is causing this lack of blessing. In addition to the physical suffering I will also suffer guilt because of this false perception.

True spirituality is seen as progressing to a level beyond simple faith in Christ. As the letter to the Colossians makes clear, any teaching that entices believers to a step beyond simple faith in Christ is contrary to the Gospel. Anything beside or beyond or in addition to Christ of necessity is something that I myself have to provide or acquire by my own efforts or merit. This immediately puts the 'have nots' in a position of guilt - because it is obviously some failure in them that is hindering their progress.

Christians are thus divided into levels of spirituality. This follows on from the above, generating in those on lower levels guilt and the perception of being judged by those on the upper levels. The 'all one in Christ Jesus' and the 'there is no difference' that the Bible teaches are effectively denied, and their liberating truth rendered impotent.

 

E. BIBLICAL GUILT

The reality of the above errors in our perception of guilt is obvious. Our own personal histories provide us with ample testimony. So also do the current lives of many Christians: far too many are living with:

  1. a great load of guilt feelings,
  2. a great load of guilt generated by sources other than God's truth,
  3. a godless ignorance of their true guilt, or
  4. a despairing and destructive awareness of true guilt.

None of these is compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We turn now to study how we can have a true, Biblical perception of guilt. We will find that a Biblical perception of guilt is understood on the basis of a Biblical perception in each of the four areas we have considered when looking at guilt shortfall and guilt overload.

E.1 RIGHT PERCEPTION OF GOD:

1.1 God is utterly holy. The Bible teaches us of a God who is utterly unique: one of a kind, separate and distinct from everything else that exists; awesome and majestic in his glory and his otherness; absolutely pure and uncontaminated by evil. He is so holy, so different from us, that to be in his presence is overwhelming. To be in the presence of this God who is awesome in holiness is to be instantly aware of one's own unworthiness and guilt. [Job 42:6; Isaiah 61-7; Ezekiel 1:28; Matthew 3:14; Luke 5:8; 7:6,7; Revelation 1:17.] Thus true guilt is generated by God's holiness.

1.2 God's justice is perfect and unchanging. The Bible teaches that God is just and that he does what is right [Genesis 18:25; Deuteronomy 32:4; Isaiah 45:21; John 5:30; Acts 3:14; Revelation 15:3]. Disobedience to God's law incurs his wrath, his judgement and his condemnation [Deuteronomy 6:1-15; 8:19-20; Ezekiel 18:4,20; John 3:18; John 3:36; Romans 1:18-32; Ephesians 3:6; Colossians 3:6]. This justice of God is still in place. Sin must be punished; sin's penalty must be paid. This strict and immovable justice of God is one of the necessitating causes of the death of Christ on the cross: according to God's justice we, in ourselves, apart from Christ, are objects of God's wrath, guilty of the foundational sin of rejecting him as our God, and guilty of the many individual sins that express that rebellion, and condemned to an eternity of separation from God that is called 'death'. In perfect alignment with God's perfect justice, Christ, the sinless One, voluntarily stood in our place, as our substitute, and all the wrath, judgement and condemnation that was due to us fell upon him.

The cross of Christ does not set God's justice aside; rather, it demonstrates, affirms and fulfils God's justice. The cross of Christ likewise affirms the reality of our guilt. Thus we read in Romans 3:25-26:

'God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished - he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.'

True guilt is thus affirmed by God's justice, including the demonstration of his justice at Calvary.

2.3 God's love is perfect and unending. God's love is not an on-again/off-again thing. It is eternal. In Romans 5:6-11 Paul emphasises this point by saying 'when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly', 'while we were still sinners, Christ died for us' and 'when we were God's enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son - '. His point is that God's love did not start after he saved us, but before he saved us, and he makes this point to encourage us to understand that nothing we do in the present can turn God away from us, stop him loving us, and cause him to pour his wrath upon us. [Read Romans 8:28-39.]

Thus we understand that present real guilt and God's present love for us are not incompatible, but exist at the same time.

2.4 God's mercy is unmerited and uninfluenced/unconditional. In the same way, God's mercy is unmerited and unconditional. God's grace by which we are saved never ceases to be sheer gift, unearned, unmerited, undeserved. It has its root and cause in God himself, not in anything that we are or anything we do. Our salvation was sheer gift at the beginning, it is sheer gift today, and it will still be sheer gift tomorrow.

Thus present real guilt and God's mercy to us are not mutually exclusive: in fact, mercy is only mercy in the presence of guilt. If we could cease to be guilty even for a moment, then we would merit our salvation at that moment, and God's mercy would be meaningless at that moment.

Rather than ban us from God's mercy, our real on-going guilt evokes and attracts God's real on-going mercy.

E.2 RIGHT PERCEPTION OF SIN:

2.1 Everyone is a sinner and commits sins. Everyone, including every Christian, is a sinner who sins. Not only do all of the New Testament commands not to sin clearly assume our sin, but our present sinfulness and sin is also clearly taught:

'There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' [Romans 3:22,23].

In this verse the 'have sinned' is past tense, but the 'fall short' is present tense, meaning that we all, without exception, keep on falling short of the life as his image that God created us to live.

'If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. - If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. - if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence - Jesus Christ, the Righteousness One.' [1 John 1:8-2:1].

This fact means that we are all actually guilty, right now, with real, Biblical guilt . If we deny this, these verses inform us that we actually are strangers to God's truth. If we know God, we also know that we are sinners - it is as simple as that.

2.2 Anything less than 100% perfection is sin. Lest we think that some of us are not as guilty as others, or that on some days we are not as guilty as we are on other days, the Bible also tells us that God's standard is 100%. If we do not love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength, we are guilty of breaking the greatest commandment [see Mark 12:30]. If we are not 100% obedient to 100% of God's laws 100% of the time, we are guilty of breaking his law [read Galatians 3:10].

We cannot honestly deny the fact of our on-going guilt, unless we reduce the meaning of 'sin' and end up with a non-Biblical understanding of sin.

E.3 RIGHT PERCEPTION OF SALVATION:

3.1 Salvation is entirely an act, and a gift, of God. The Bible teaches that our salvation is entirely unmerited. It is totally unrelated to our keeping of God's laws. As we have already seen God loved us and moved to save us while we were powerless, ungodly, sinners and his enemies [Romans 5:6,8,10]. The only thing about us that made him act to save us was our sin that made his saving act necessary. The Bible teaches:

Romans 3:24

'we are justified freely by his grace'

Romans 5:15

'God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ' overflows

Ephesians 1:7

'we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us'

Ephesians 2:4

'God is rich in mercy'

Ephesians 2:7

God shows 'the incomparable riches of his grace expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus'

Ephesians 2:8

'it is by grace you have been saved '

Neither in the past, nor in the present, nor in the future, does our salvation depend on the absence of guilt. Because salvation is entirely free - sheer gift, sheer grace - it is not, and cannot be, jeopardized by our present real guilt.

3.2 Salvation is neither gained nor maintained by our performance. Hand in hand with the sheer-gift nature of salvation is this parallel truth: that it was not gained, nor is it maintained, by our performance. There is no causative factor linking our present salvation with our present performance. In fact, to make such a causative link between present performance and present salvation is to deny the very grace that grants us salvation.

The Bible teaches (emphasis added):

Romans 3:20,21

'No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known?'

Romans 3:28

'We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law'

2 Corinthians 6:1;

'we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain [read 5:14-6:2]

Galatians 2:15-16.21

'We know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.'

Galatians 5:4

'You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace.'

Ephesians 2;8,9

'It is by grace you have been saved through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.'

Philippians 3:3

'we - glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh'

Philippians 3:9

'not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith'

Salvation is not affected by my guilt. My failure to keep God's law does not undo my salvation. A Biblical understanding of salvation means that I can acknowledge both my sin and my real deep guilt, and at the same time enjoy the complete salvation provided for me by the cross of Christ my Saviour.

3.3 Salvation means that our sin is never again taken into account by God: it is forgiven because of the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf; he bore the guilt, condemnation, judgement for our sin. When the Bible speaks of 'righteousness' or 'justification' it is speaking of the incredible salvation that God provides. We tend to automatically understand 'righteousness' to mean a standard of goodness or godliness which we have to provide. Gospel 'righteousness', on the contrary, is the salvation that God provides.

This is evident in the Old Testament:

In the Psalms, in which we find the parallel thoughts expressed side by side, the terms 'righteousness and 'salvation' are used to convey the same thought: read Psalm 24:5; 40:10; 51:14; 71:15; 98:2; 119:123.

Isaiah expresses the same thoughts: 45:8; 46:13; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10.

[For some of these texts it might be necessary to go to the King James Version for the full impact.]

It is also evident, indeed it is stressed in the New Testament, where 'righteousness' and 'justification' translate the same Greek word in the original texts. The word - dikaiosune - is a word from the law courts and means the declaration of legal acquittal, the announcement of the verdict 'not guilty'.

Here is an absolutely amazing thing: that God justifies the guilty, that God acquits the guilty, that God pronounces a 'not guilty' verdict on us, the guilty ones. It is this fact that enables us to live with the knowledge that we are really guilty. Consider what the New Testament has to say about it, remembering that 'righteousness' and 'justification' and 'justify' are all talking about the declaration of legal acquittal.

Romans 1:17

'In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.' '

Romans 3:20-24

'But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.'

Romans 4:5

'However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.'

Romans 5:1

'Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ'

Romans 5:17,18

'For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.'

Galatians 2:16

'So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law'

Philippians 3:9

'not having a righteousness of my own but that which is through faith in Christ the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith'

It is clear that this 'righteousness', this 'justification', this declaration of legal acquittal is a gift from God; it comes to us from him, freely, uncaused and unmerited by us. It raises the huge question: how can God do it? How can he acquit the guilty? How can he declare the guilty not guilty?

He does it through the death of Jesus Christ as our substitute. Christ died for us in our place, as us, so comprehensively that God considers his death our death, his bearing the sin penalty our bearing the sin penalty. We, by our real guilt, incur God's wrath, God's judgement, God's condemnation, God's rejection: Christ bore all of that on our behalf:

1 Peter 2:24

'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree'

Colossians 2:14

'having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross'

Colossians 2:20; 3:3

'You died with Christ' 'you died'

Galatians 2:20

'I have been crucified with Christ '

Galatians 3:13

'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us '

2 Corinthians 5:14

'we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died'

2 Corinthians 5:21

'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God'

Romans 5:6,8

'Christ died for the ungodly ... Christ died for us '

Romans 6:2,4,6,8

'We died to sin ... We were buried with him ... we have been united with him in his death ... our old self was crucified with him ... we died with Christ '

Romans 7:4,6

' you died to the law through the body of Christ by dying to what once bound us ...  we have been released from the law'

As a result of this substitutionary and atoning death, our sins - past, present and future - are forgiven, and we are reconciled with God. God no longer relates to the genuine believer as a guilty person, but as one whose guilt has been paid for, who has received from him full acquittal, and who now is judged by him always, only and ever in Christ.

Colossians 2:10 KJV

'You are complete in him'

Colossians 3:3

'You died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God'

Colossians 1:22

'now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation'

Colossians 1:12

'the Father - has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light'

Hebrews 10:10

'we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all'

Hebrews 10:14

'because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy'

Though we are in ourselves guilty with real Biblical guilt, that guilt and condemnation has been taken by Christ our Saviour, the penalty fully paid by him, and we live moment by moment in the presence of God acquitted and free from condemnation.

[For further on Justification, Forgiveness and Reconciliation go to the Words of Salvation studies, the Studies on Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, The Lord's Prayer, and Knowing Christ Knowing God - all on this website.]

4. RIGHT PERCEPTION OF SELF:

4.1 I am a sinner, saved by grace. We will never cease to be sinners. We were sinners before Christ saved us; we are sinners today; and we will still be sinners tomorrow. At every moment of our lives we need Jesus Christ our Saviour and Mediator. There is never a moment, and never will be a moment, nor even a nano-second, when we are qualified to stand in the presence of God on our own two feet. At every moment our acceptance by God is sheer gift. [See 3.1 above.] Thus the tax-collector, honestly acknowledging his sinfulness, and aware also that he was utterly dependent on God's mercy if he was to stand in God's presence, was acquitted; but the Pharisee, seeking to find acceptance in the presence of God because of his list of personal good works, was not acquitted [Luke 18:9-14]. It is 'sinners' Christ saves, not those who think they can acquit themselves by their own merits [Luke 5:32].

4.2 My performance does not affect my salvation because I am now in Christ. Because our acceptance with God is God's sheer gift to us in Christ Jesus, it is not affected by our performance: our real Biblical guilt at any given moment does not diminish or alter our relationship with God in any way. If, however, we believe that we stand alone before God on our own two feet, and have to bear the punishment of our current guilt, then this belief, this perception that we have embraced, will alter our perception and our enjoyment of oursalvation and of our acceptance with God. We will live with the perceived reality of condemnation and separation from God, while all the time the true reality by which God always, ever, and only relates to us in Christ is still in place and effective. Consider all that the Bible teaches we have in Christ:

Access into God's presence

Ephesians 2:18; Hebrews 4:14-16; 10:19-22

Adoption as God's children

Ephesians 1:5; Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 3:26-4:7; 1 John 3:1,2; John 1:12.

Atonement

Romans 5:11

Cancellation/deletion of the record of our sin

1 Corinthians 6:11; Colossians 2:14; John 13:10; 15:3; 1 John 1:9.

Completeness

Colossians 2:10

Eternal life

John 5:24; 10:28; 17:3; Romans 5:21; 1 John 5:11-13,20.

Forgiveness

Acts 5:31: 13:38; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14

Freedom from condemnation

John 3:18; 5:24; Romans 8:1

Freedom from having to keep the law to be saved

Romans 6:1 to 7:6; 10:4; Galatians 2:11 to 5:13; Colossians 2:16-3:3

Holiness

Ephesians 1:4; Colossians 1:22; Hebrews 2:11; 10:10,14; plus every reference where believers are called 'saints' - which in the Greek text is simply 'the holy ones'.

Justification

Romans 3:24 - 5:1; 5:9, 12-32; 8:30,33; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 2:11 to 3:24; Titus 3:7

Life

1 John 5:12; Colossians 3:4; Galatians 2:20; Romans 8:2; 5:17

Peace with God

Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 2:14-17

Perfection

Ephesians 1:4; Colossians 1:22; Hebrews 10:10,14.

Qualification

Colossians 1:12

Reconciliation

Romans 5:10,11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:19-22

Redemption

Romans 2:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Galatians 3:13; 4:4,5; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:11-15; 1 Peter 1:18,19.

Regeneration

Romans 6:4-11; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:19-20; Ephesians 2:3-7; Colossians 3:1,3; Titus 3:5

Righteousness

Romans 1:17; 3:21-22; 4:1-25; 5:17-21; 10:4-10; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9.

Removal of guilt

Hebrews 9:11-14; 9:26-10:22;

Sanctification

Acts 26:18; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2.

Wisdom

1 Corinthians 1:30; 2:6-16; Colossians 1:24-2:3.

Because God always sees the believer in Christ, salvation in Christ is completely, continually and comprehensively effective. It does not alter or fail for even a moment. It is safe and secure in Christ our Saviour. It is our present, permanent possession. In fact the Bible states that it is guaranteed [Romans 4:16]. On the basis of all of the above texts, and on the affirmation of Colossians 2:10 and 3:3 in particular, we can confidently know that if we genuinely believe in Jesus Christ - if we are united to Christ by faith, - then we are, at this very moment, as safe and secure in the presence of God as Jesus Christ is:

  • God will never again reject him - he will never again reject us;
  • God will never again condemn him to bear the punishment for our sin - he will never again condemn us;
  • God will never again put the load of our guilt upon his Son - he will never again put the load of our guilt upon us.
  • Christ, the perfect sacrifice and the perfect mediator, has carried and borne it all: there is none left for us to bear.

This understanding of how God relates to us - that he never again relates to the Christian apart from Christ - is the one truth above all truths that comprehensively, completely and continuously deals with our guilt.

4.3 True 'spirituality' consists in understanding our union with Jesus Christ. Christian books and sermons present a wide variety of ideas about what constitutes 'spirituality'. Most of these opinions generate guilt in those who see themselves as 'unspiritual'. Most of them see 'spirituality' as some quality in the believer - some achievement, some evidence of progressive sanctification, some evidence of spiritual gifts, or of spiritual fruits, or adherence to current perceptions or expectations of what a 'good' Christian does or does not do.

The New Testament uses the term 'spiritual' only twice in reference to people. The first is in 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul had to rebuke the believers for taking their significance not from Christ, but from the particular Christian teachers by whom they had been taught [1 Corinthians 3:1-22]. With such a mindset, such an understanding, Paul states that he could not address them as 'spiritual'.

The other occurrence is in Galatians 6:1. Here Paul is speaking of the responsibility of those who are 'spiritual' to gently restore a fellow Christian 'caught in a sin'. A study of the following verses teaches us that these 'spiritual' Christians:

  • Are also susceptible to temptation [6:1].
  • Are not 'something' - they are 'nothing' [6:3], that is, no different from the one 'caught in a sin'.
  • Need to test their own actions [6:4].
  • Each have their own load of temptations and weaknesses [6:5].

If we look into the broader context, we find that the 'spiritual' people, while obviously still sinners, also have other characteristics which the pressure of false teaching was pushing even them to put aside:

They know that their relationship with God is the result of the Spirit's work not their own [3:1-5].

They know that they are God's children and heirs, not 'slaves' because God's Spirit assures them of this on the basis of their redemption by Christ [3:26-4:7].

Rather than try to gain their own righteousness, they by faith 'eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness' for which they hope, that is God's gift of righteousness apart from the works of the law [5:4-6].

Thus, instead of living their lives centred on their own efforts, focused on their own desires, trusting in and seeking to establish their own righteousness [5:16,19-21,24,26], they 'live by the Spirit' [5:16], 'are led by the Spirit' [5:18], and express the 'fruit of the Spirit' [5:22,23].

Thus, the 'spiritual' people of Galatians 6:1 are firstly people who, through the Gospel, have stopped trusting in their own efforts to justify them before God, and have therefore, by that same Gospel, been liberated to stop trusting in their own efforts to justify themselves in the presence of men. Not having to justify or preserve themselves they are free to live for God and for the other.

This is the true spirituality of people who know themselves to be safe and secure in Jesus Christ. Not having to worry about our real guilt, we can stop focusing on ourselves and get on with the purpose for which God both created and saved us: that we bring him glory.

4.4 My role is to glorify God. God created us in his 'image' [Genesis 1:26,27]. An image reflects and displays the nature of the real thing. If the real thing is glorious, the image reflects and displays that glory. When Jesus Christ lived on earth he glorified God [John 17:1-5]; he did this both as true man, and as true God. As God he showed us exactly what God is like [John 1:14-18; 10:30; 14:4-9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:1-3]; as man he showed us exactly what man, made in God's image, was created to be. In Christ we see our potential, our dignity, our destiny as humans played out in the reality of this one genuine human being.

Not only did God create us to image or reflect his glory - to display his nature in the way we live - he also saved us for that same purpose [Romans 8:29; Ephesians 1:6,12,14; 2:10; Colossians 1:27; 1 Peter 2:9,10]. In saving us he undid the Genesis 3 rebellion against God and rejection of God, and reconciled us to himself, restoring us to an unimpeded face to face relationship with himself in which we can again reflect and image his nature. As we look at the Lord, the Holy Spirit within us is quietly and gradually transforming us into the image of Christ [2 Corinthians 3:18].

When we understand the salvation we have in Christ, and when we understand our whole purpose is thus God-centred not self-centred, our understanding of the significance of our sin and guilt undergoes a powerful change. Whereas we once understood our sins and their accompanying real guilt to condemn us and cut us off from God [which they actually do for all who are not united to Christ by faith [Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5,6], now we know that our sins and our real guilt have been robbed of their power and their authority to condemn us by the sin-bearing, substitutionary death of Jesus Christ our Substitute and Saviour.

We no longer have to live with the perception that we have to be 'good enough' to earn, merit or deserve God's acceptance of us; we no longer have to strive to build up enough brownie points to keep God loving us; we no longer have to live with the fear that God will reject us and turn us away from both himself and heaven; we no longer have to live with the dread that terrible consequences might come upon us as punishment for our sins. All of this self-centred, self-preserving reaction to our own sin and guilt has been banished forever by Jesus Christ. We are now in him - safe and secure from all that would otherwise sever us from God.

We live not for ourselves: we live for God. Because he has shown himself to be completely for us in Christ our Saviour, we are now liberated to be completely for him. Our responsibility is not to keep ourselves saved by maintaining ourselves guilt free, but to glorify him by obeying his word. We are here for him. We are saved for him. Our sin does not re-open our case; it does not undo his declaration of legal acquittal; it does not take us out of Christ. But it does dishonour him. It means that we are falling short of the perfect human life - life lived as his image and to his glory. It does mean that we are 'grieving' him [Ephesians 4:30] and short-circuiting and suppressing his work in us [1 Thessalonians 5:19].

The fear of the child of God is not the fear of rejection by God, but the fear of hurting or abusing his love. It stems not from guilt, but from overwhelming gratitude. When we become aware that we are guilty of a sin, that real guilt, in the hands of God, instructs us about areas of our lives where we need to listen to his voice so that we can reflect his likeness. The enemy, Satan, takes our guilt and uses it to make destructive and damning accusations against us, aiming to rob us of our peace with God and the joy of our salvation. God, in pointing out our sin, takes our real guilt and uses it as his constructive tool to make us more like him.

4.5 My performance validates or invalidates my claim to believe in Jesus Christ. This final point is a point of caution. While the Bible affirms confidently the grace-based nature of our salvation in Christ, and the completeness of God's dealing with sin's guilt and condemnation by the death of Christ, it never gives us the liberty to sin. It never gives us any excuse to think that it is okay to sin; indeed, it condemns such a godless response to the Gospel [Romans 6:1-14]. The Bible goes further and states quite firmly that if we pursue a lifestyle of unrepentant sinfulness, with no evidence of the transforming work of God's Spirit, then our claim to believe in Jesus Christ is null and void [Matthew 7:21-23; John 8:31; 14:15; James 2:14-26; 1 John 2:3-6, 9; 3:7-10]. True faith trusts not only God's promises but also his commands. If there is no commitment to obey his commands, then the Bible concludes that we do not, and never have, really believed in him. Our perceived response to the Gospel was self-centred, superficial and spurious [Luke 8:5-15; John 2:23-25].

All that has been said in this study about our liberation from guilt in Christ is true only for those who are indeed in Christ. It must never be taken as an excuse to sin or to think that sin doesn't matter. As we have already seen, such a conclusion indicates a massive failure on two fundamental points:

  • a failure to understand who it was who died on the cross, and
  • a failure to understand what happened on the cross.

To embrace sin as okay is clear evidence of a deep and real ignorance of these two essential points of faith, irrespective of what verbal expression of belief is stated. To such a person no assurance can be given that their guilt has been taken by Christ; to such a person the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, needs to be proclaimed over again so that they can come to true faith and repentance.