Guilt is a universal problem. One of my fellow ministers had an experience while doing outreach work on a secular college campus that illustrates this reality. One weekend when his team was having trouble getting students to talk to them, the leader of the ministry suddenly stood up on a bench and loudly addressed those who were milling about: “You want to know your problem? You’re all probably dealing with guilt.” Remarkably, after that outspoken comment, several students stopped what they were doing and came over to talk. Guilt can be a powerful motivator.
There are occasions when God allows men to spiral downward into a condition of being unable to feel guilt. Some would think that might be a blessing, but it is really a fearful state to be in. It can mean that God has given them up to their sin. In a vivid description of depravity Scripture informs us that there are times when the Lord gives men over to a “reprobate mind” (Romans 1: 28). Sometimes men “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). People can reach the point of no longer being ashamed of shameful things. The Lord rebuked Israel for not being able to “blush” at their sins (Jeremiah 6:15; 8:12).
It is a sobering commentary on our age that we can see many examples of this absence of guilt in the world around us. Thankfully this does not describe everyone, nor does it represent a constant state of affairs. The more normal condition of the hearts of men is one in which they do recognize right and wrong and thus experience guilt. Even those outside of the church do this. It’s called conscience, and it’s part of what we call common grace. But the fact that men possess a conscience that tells them about right and wrong does not mean that they always respond correctly. It is of the utmost importance that men learn the right way of dealing with guilt for it will determine their welfare for eternity.
One of the first ways that sinners seek to deal with guilt is by ignoring it. When men “succeed” in this approach it becomes a fearful step in their being given over to the reprobate mind of Romans 1. They might achieve relief from the feelings of guilt by convincing themselves that they are not guilty (perhaps by saying such things as, “After all, everybody does it”), but that does not change the fact that they are truly guilty before God. Only God has the right to define right and wrong. We cannot change the fact of our sinfulness by ignoring the truth or trying to change the rules so that we feel better about ourselves. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). Trying to hide the fact of our sinfulness or seeking to ameliorate our problem by pointing to our commonality with other sinners only complicates our situation. The first step in truly dealing with guilt is to admit that we have a problem.
Perhaps the most common way sinners seek relief from guilt is by attempting to work it off. The danger of this natural mindset is to entertain the hope that somehow our good works will outweigh our bad. While some operate under this false hope in an entirely secular context, most men introduce religion into their lives to seek to accomplish this task. History affords ample evidence of this universal tendency toward religious observance on the part of mankind. But the problem is that mere religion, even if it comes under the banner of “Christianity,” cannot deal with the problem of man’s guilt. The Jews were experts at religion. They were the recipients of revealed truth, but they corrupted it. Romans describes them as “being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness” (10:3). Many churchgoers in all kinds of churches (good and bad) fail by thinking that their religion will be enough to cleanse them from their guilt.
The only true means of dealing with guilt is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Titus 3:5). The gospel is the amazing story of the grace of God, who sovereignly chose not to deal with believers according to their own sins but to place their sins upon Christ as their substitute and punish their sins there, all the while placing the righteousness which Christ worked out in His own perfect life (again as the believer’s substitute) to the believer’s account. The gospel is the good news of representation and full acceptance in the person of another, namely Jesus.
Ignoring our guilt won’t make it go away, and we do not possess the ability to work our guilt off ourselves. “If there had been a law given which could have given life, then verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). But while our efforts to fulfill the law and work off our guilt could never succeed, Christ’s fulfilling the law for His people does succeed. It is by faith in the work of Christ that we who could never work off our guilt can have our guilt entirely forgiven: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous (Romans 5:19). That is how the guilty enjoy release from guilt.
Rev. Reggie Kimbro is the minister of Grace FPC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.