As far as I see it, feeling guilty serves one purpose, and that is to let you know when you are guilty. And you’re aware of your guilt, either through knowing God’s law, or simply because your conscience is condemning you.
Let’s take this Scripture in Romans 2:12-15 by way of explanation:
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
This scripture is basically saying two things. The first is that it’s not enough to be familiar with God’s holy law – you actually have to obey it. Perfectly. (I would make a joke and say “And good luck with that” if it weren’t for the fact that I’m still tempted to try to be perfect through my own righteousness). We know that that will never happen. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)
The second thing it’s saying is that, even people who grow up in the bush, or similarly secluded communities – and have no access to any form of literature – still know God’s holy law. They cannot claim to be unaware of God’s law because their consciences show that the law is written on their hearts, accusing them and defending them.
So feeling guilty serves its purpose when you are sinning, whether under the law or outside of the law. It lets you know that you’re missing the mark. You’re falling short of perfect. There is perfection out there, and you can obtain it if only you just . . . (and when you become a Christian, you finish that sentence with “if only you just allow Jesus to be perfection for you“).
Someday I’ll write a post called “The Acts of the Sinful Nature” and then we’ll all throw a party. A little light reading to brighten your day. But in the meantime, let me just say, as it says in Galatians 5, that the acts of the sinful nature are obvious. You feel guilty when you know you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing. When you live apart from Christ, you either stop doing it to ease your conscience, or you decide to keep doing it and harden your heart so you won’t have to feel the crushing weight of guilt.
When you become a Christian, it should be a simple matter of repentance. But things can get a little sticky in the area of guilt and repentance because some struggles are harder for certain people than others – and because some sins of the heart are just there. They’ve taken up camp and don’t magically go away, simply because we have a desire to repent. I’m talking about impulses like greed, pride, lust, rage, etc. Every time you think you’ve squashed it, it pops right back up again!
It seems that Christians often fall into two camps concerning guilt and its salve – grace. On the one side, (often encouraged by harsh teachings in the church), people take God’s blanket of grace and cut it into little pieces. They say, “Each time you sin, one of those pieces of grace is taken away; and each time you’re “good” you earn a piece back. Now go try to reconstruct a blanket of grace to cover your sins and we’ll see how well you manage it.”
In the other camp people throw God’s grace around like shreds of confetti. “I’m only human!” they say glibly. And they continue to live like non-Christians (cheating on their taxes, lying for convenience, engaged in sexual impurity or immorality, gossiping). “Christ saves me from my sins!” they say gaily, forgetting that Christ also said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15:21)
Guilt is only supposed to prompt us before we’ve repented, and before we’re made holy by Christ’s blood. Once we’re a Christian, it no longer serves its purpose. In the old law, we had to keep sacrificing, keep doing penance in order to be cleansed. That’s the old law – because we still felt guilty for our sins. (See Hebrews 10:1-2).
The new law is so much more liberating. Take a look later on in Hebrews 10, verses 19-22
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
We’re blessed with a conscience that prods us to continue to walk in repentance. This was the gift Jesus promised right before he went to the Cross. It’s a good thing – a joyful thing – having a conscience to counsel us. ‘All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:25-26)
But that is wholly different from guilt. Once we’re cleansed by Christ’s blood, our guilt is removed. Completely.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
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