Are You Held Captive to Guilt?

From a biblical perspective, guilt is black or white. You’re either guilty or not guilty. God has said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). James says, “If you violate one portion of the law, you have violated the whole law.” Either you crossed the line, or you haven’t. Either you made the mark, or you missed it. In answer to the question, “What is sin?” the Shorter Catechism explains,

Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

We could point to 1 John 3:4, “…sin is lawlessness.” Objectively, you are declared guilty. In this case, we are all declared guilty of sin. Every single person. The Old Testament has a semi-technical term which is foundational to the biblical concept of guilt, which teaches us that guilt is fundamentally a relational idea (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary). We clearly see guilt and a guilt offering in the Old Testament. Liability and forgiveness becomes clear in the New Testament. Our sin produces spiritual death. Jesus Christ gives life. Handling guilt biblically requires three steps:

  1. Humble repentance and confession of sin (Psalm 51)
  2. Humble reception of God’s cleansing (1 John 1:9-10)
  3. Humble rest in the finished work of Jesus (Hebrews 9:13-14; 10:19-22)

Do you have feelings of guilt? If God’s moral law has been violated, a person is guilty regardless of whether or not she feels guilty. On the other hand, just feeling guilty doesn’t mean that a moral law has been violated. There is a difference between feeling guilty and actually being guilty. The term “guilt” properly denotes the fact of liability and not the feeling that often accompanies it.  Negative feelings are a result of guilt. So we can be truly guilty but not feel guilty. Many times, people want to minimize guilt but severe guilt feelings are real, and Christians are not exempt. Christians must never minimize guilt: Guilt is universal because sin is universal (Rom.3:19, 23). Guilt is serious because God is a Holy Judge (Rom.1:18, 2:5-6). Guilt will remain even if it is explained away or if its effects are somehow lessened, and where guilt remains punishment is inevitable.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ro 3:23). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Saved persons must confess and turn from sin (Rom.7:14-25; Galatians 5:16-17). Wayne Grudem defines repentance as a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ. Biblical repentance is more than regret over failing to meet God’s standard, It includes a decision, turning from sin toward righteousness. The word repent basically means to turn or to change. Repentance is a necessary component of genuine conversion (Luke 3:3; 2 Cor.7:10).  

  • 2 Corinthians 7:9
  • 1 John 1:9
  • James 5:19-20
  • Acts 26:20
  • Psalm 51:17

Unsaved people must turn from sin, which is the state of self-rule they have lived in as their own lords (Rom.10:9; I John 3:4).  True guilt is caused by sin and calls us to repentance and restitution. Repentance also remains continually necessary after conversion (Psalm 51; Luke 17:3-4).  True repentance always includes a willful resolve to not repeat the sin and an active resolve to pursue righteousness in it’s place (Isaiah 1:16-17; Luke 5:27-28). Have you committed an act in what you are feeling guilty about? We must never minimize the feeling of guilt, and it’s important that we never underestimate the effects of guilt. Psalm 32:1-5 and Psalm 38:1-8 graphically reveal the emotional and physical effects guilt can have on a person.  There is always an underlying reason for guilty feelings, and taking them seriously provides great hope for change. It’s important we identify whether the guilt is caused by what is an actual sinful act or if the guilt is caused from regret. Again, the only true answer to guilt is forgiveness through repentance. God must remove the guilt of our sin through His appointed means of repentance. This is true both before salvation (Luke 24:47) and after (Matt.6:12).

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 38:1–8). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

A misunderstanding of biblical guilt can lead to shame. Shame is something we place on ourselves because of regret for the past, failure to live up to our own or someone else’s expectations, or even causes that are unknown. Simply, guilt is behavior-focused, and shame (sometimes referred to as false guilt) is identity-focused. Guilt says, I did something disgusting while shame says, I am disgusting. Yet, sometimes guilt can appear to be false but underneath there is some sin that has been committed. When we are focused only on our shame, we deny the truth about who God says we are. It’s vital that we wholeheartedly believe that biblical salvation is not merely turning from sin to the result of living day to day under guilt’s heavy load.

People will typically seek to deal with guilt in a few different ways: One way is to ignore it by blame shifting, dismissing, or denying the issue. Others try to numb it. Another way people often try to deal with guilt is to compensate for it with busyness, thrill seeking, or even substance abuse – none of these behaviors lead to freedom. Guilt is a feeling of remorse or regret caused by feeling responsible for something. When a Christian dwells on guilt over our past sins which have been confessed, we are not believing God, and are embracing lies about God and ourselves. Satan is the author of confusion when it comes to guilt. We can experience feelings of guilt that cause deep physical or emotional problems. Genuine repentance and salvation by way of God’s Holy Spirit renews the mind, resulting in one’s turning to Jesus Christ. Don’t be held captive to guilt.

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ro 6:9–14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The Jews regarded the lands of their captivity as graves. They were nationally dead, their bones were dried, and their hope was lost. Matthew Henry explains “It was also a clear intimation of the resurrection of the dead; and it represents the power and grace of God, in the conversion of the most hopeless sinners to himself. Let us look to Him who will at last open our graves, and bring forth to judgement, that He may now deliver us from sin, and put his Spirit within us, and keep us by his power, through faith, unto salvation.”

For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ro 11:15). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

  • Hebrews 9:27
  • 2 Peter 3:10
  • Romans 6:11

Counselor Brad Hambrick explains, “Guilt, shame, and regret are products of the Genesis 3 Fall. We experience guilt, shame, and regret because we live in a broken world marred by sin. Each of these emotions respond to types of wrong in our life and the world around us. But each emotion responds to different types of wrong, or better said, each of these emotions emerge when we have a different relationship to the wrong that prompts them.” A counselor will help you sort through these kinds of emotional complexities. However, it’s important that you first know that the Gospel speaks to both sin and suffering, but it speaks to them differently.

Let’s look at portraits of guilt:

• For the first ten years of her marriage, Lydia lived in a house on the street behind her parents. She visited them every day, and her mother helped babysit her children. She was always very close to her parents. Then her husband got a job in a new location. Lydia feels tremendous guilt over moving away from her parents, who had become quite dependent on her.

• When Glen was nine years old, he was told to go home right after school to check on his great aunt, who lived with them. He got asked by a friend to go play football in the park and decided his great aunt would be fine for a bit longer. When he arrived home an hour late, there was an ambulance at the front door. Aunt Muriel had suffered a heart attack. She passed away that day, and Glen carried the guilt with him into his adult life.

• Marjorie stole some money years ago from a previous employer. It wasn’t a lot of money, and she had gotten away with it undetected. However, recently she became a Christian and feels a lot of guilt over what she did.

 Clinton, T., & Hawkins, R. (2009). The Quick-Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling: Personal and Emotional Issues (p. 136). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Clearly, when we do something wrong, we should feel badly! That’s the purpose of our God-given conscience, a conscience that has been informed biblically. Guilt is the inner tension we feel when we fail and our conscience convicts us. Hidden sin traps and torments. There are steps to confess our sins before God and to others (Ps 32:5, Heb 4:16, Jas 5:16). In these steps, we have an opportunity to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross, but many Christians are unnecessarily paralyzed by I messed up. I let people down. I am not good enough. Guilt that is not properly dealt with can keep us from doing things we know we should. Don’t get stuck! Puritan minister Richard Baxter warned about the emotional toll of carrying unnecessary guilt: “That sorrow, even for sin, may be overmuch. That overmuch sorrow swalloweth one up.” In order to experience God’s presence that brings anxiety-killing peace, we must pray with repentance, ponder God’s truths, and put into practice what is real and true.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 32:3). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 4:16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Php 4:6–9). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ro 8:15–16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Unmistakably there is godly sorrow and worldly sorrow: Godly sorrow leads to new life, but worldly sorrow places us in a spiritual grave. Worldly sorrow only mourns getting caught or regrets what was lost, while never grieving for the wrong that was committed. Godly sorrow produces different results. When we experience godly sorrow, we are deeply grieved for the wrong we committed. In godly sorrow, we desire to ask forgiveness to repair the damage and to make reparation for the harm done (not merely to protect ourselves from pain or regain what we didn’t want to give up). We genuinely want to confess and repent. So if you are feeling sorrowful that you didn’t love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, what are you to do? Are you beating yourself up over it, engaging in some sort of penance where you’re wanting to cause yourself more pain, trying to do enough to make up for it, or are you doing the only thing that can free you from the guilt by taking it to the Cross of Christ? Are you confessing and believing? And are you thanking Him for the fact that He has forgiven you?

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Jn 1:9). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Dr. Paul Tautges notes that there are grave differences between temporary remorse and genuine repentance:

  • Remorse is short lived. Repentance is long term.
  • Remorse involves emotions. Repentance involves emotion and will.
  • Remorse is distressed by the consequences. Repentance is distraught by one’s actions.
  • Remorse makes vague resolutions. Repentance makes specific restitution.
  • Remorse wants public attention. Repentance humbly accepts obscurity.
  • Remorse desires immediate return to position. Repentance recognizes need to rebuild trust over time.

Even after repentance, many Christians continue to needlessly live under a heavy load of self-induced guilt and shame. Their baggage indicates they’ve become afraid their heinous sins are greater than God could merely cast away at the moment of salvation. In their daily struggle, they revisit the time of their particular sins and dwell on necessity for some sort of repeated penance that might be required for absolution. There can be emotional guilt and shame, but God sees his children as righteous because of the perfect sacrifice, Christ’s shed blood. Scripture teaches that the death of Jesus cleansed those who are saved completely from sin. You can learn more about assurance of salvation here. To be clear, faith in Christ is impossible without repentance, and God freely gives new life through grace alone. Scripture tells us that though we were once dead in sin, we become a new creature alive in Christ.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 2:1–8). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 9:24–28). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns defines God’s forgiveness vs. human forgiveness:

  • God’s forgiveness – A commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.
  • Human forgiveness – A commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.

Are you held captive to guilt? If you struggle with unrelenting feelings of guilt, you may not consciously embrace them, but you may function as if you do. Guilt-strugglers can be so paralyzed by introspective fear that they become idle. If this is you, you need the truth: As Christians, we are a resurrected people. We were made alive together with Christ and raised up with him so we might walk in newness of life for the glory of the One who saved us. If you have not already done so, may you find forgiveness and experience His mercy today. We are to confess our sins, knowing that he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

  • Ephesians 4:2-6
  • Romans 5:8

How can we practically apply these truths? God’s plan is that in our sorrow over our sin, we might turn from that sin, asking forgiveness both from Him and from those we hurt. He would have us let go of that sin, leaving no regret behind as we continue on with our Lord. We lay it down, turn, and move forward. We acknowledge that it was not a simple act for Christ to cover our sin. The cross was the ultimate illustration of unconditional love that God recalls as he bestows mercy. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. If we ever get to the point of believing we have no sin, we are deceived. Dealing honestly with sin is one of the evidences of a true believer.

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jn 8:32). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

  • Romans 5:12
  • 2 Corinthians 5:17
  • James 1:18

Our loving God is not ashamed of us, but rather delights in us as His children. As Christians, we carry the name of Christ! Because of Christ’s sacrifice, my redemption is secure no matter how I feel. Whether you are objectively guilty or feeling guilty, you need to take it to Jesus. Your conscience can finally become clear. His abundant mercy is available. May you get past the things keeping you from experiencing the fullness of God’s love for you. He alone will unshackle a guilty soul.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 9:11–14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

For further study:

Romans 8

Salvation Worksheet by Martha Peace – available here

Brass Heavens- Reasons for Unanswered Prayer by Paul Tautges

The Grace of Repentance by Sinclair Ferguson