Should A Christian Feel Guilt?
What Does It Mean To Be Free From Guilt?
“Free From Guilt and Free From Sin” is a beautiful song played by the Steve Pettit Evangelistic team that declares the wonderful reality of those who are washed in the Savior’s blood. Their robes are made white, their heart is cleansed, and they are set free from guilt and sin. But what does that mean to be free from guilt and sin? Does it mean Christians no longer feel guilty or commit sin? Clearly not. Every believer can testify that is not the reality in which they live. In fact, a Christian is usually even more aware of sin in their life after they are converted. For example, Paul eventually described himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
So what place does guilt have in a believer’s life? How can a gospel-centered life really be a guilt-free life?
Two Types of Guilt
It may be helpful to understand the two different ways in which we refer to guilt. “Guilt” can describe the condemnation we deserve for our sin, just as a judge would pronounce someone “guilty.” But the word “guilt” can also be used to refer to the feeling we get when our conscience reacts to wrongdoing.
1. The Weight of Our Condemnation Before God
Imagine the classic courtroom scenario where the verdict is waiting to be determined. The looming question is, “Guilty or not guilty?” And the answer will determine whether the accused will face consequences for the crime.
This is the type of guilt that all of us face. It is the inverse truth of Romans 3:10: “Everyone is guilty; yes, everyone.” Romans 2:5 describes this accumulating guilt as “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
This is the guilt (condemnation) that is cleared from the life of a believer. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believes on him is not condemned” (John 3:17-18). “Whoever hears my word and believes on him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
Never should a believer come back under the weight of this condemnation. Any accusation or temptation to think we are still deserving of the wrath of God should be quickly denied. “For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things” (1 John 3:20). “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Romans 8:34). “If any one sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
2. The Reaction of Our Conscience to Wrongdoing
There is another type of guilt that refers to a personal feeling we have in response to doing wrong. This is what R.C. Sproul refers to as subjective guilt. Our “guilt” or condemnation before God is objective, whereas our “guilt” or reaction to doing wrong is subjective. The objective guilt is always bad, and those in Christ should never fear that condemnation. But the subjective guilt is good if our conscience is accurately accusing us of wrong, and we respond to it correctly.
The correct response to our conscience’s feeling of guilt is described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10.
“As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly friend, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)
Clearly guilt is good if it produces repentance. This is the good guilt that tends to grow after conversion. When we come to Christ, though a major burden is lifted as the guilt of all our sin is forgiven, the guilt over continuing sin will typically increase – not because we are once again condemned, but because we now care more than ever to do what is right in God’s eyes.
Andy Naselli notes in his book “Conscience” that after we enter into a relationship with Christ, “our knowledge of truth often grows faster than our obedience to truth,” resulting in a believer who can feel even more guilty than they were before coming to Christ.
This is important to understand because that increased feeling of guilt can cause doubts in a believer’s mind about whether they truly are saved. They think “If I am forgiven, then why do I still feel so guilty?” because they have yet to distinguish the good guilt from the bad. They do not know precisely what it means to be “free from guilt and free from sin.”
Our guilt before God is gone, but our guilt over sin grows. Our bad guilt is gone because we’ve been justified, and our good guilt is a means toward sanctification. So, praise God for the guilt He paid for on the Cross, and learn to love the guilt that God uses to transform us into the image of His Son.