Guilt and Guilt Feelings

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for’” (vv. 6–7)

- Isaiah 6:1-7

Paul’s account of the internal struggle between the flesh and spirit in Romans 7:14–25 has helped us understand that while there has been a true change wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, we will nevertheless be tempted and succumb to sin throughout our lives. Knowing that he continually falls short of the righteous demands of God, the Apostle exclaims, “Wretched man that I am!” (v. 24a)—a frank admission of his feelings of guilt for his failure to live in conformity to the Lord’s revealed will. Paul’s discussion of sanctification and admission of guilty feelings in Romans 7 offer us a good place to take a break from our study of Romans in order to look at the broader issue of experiencing guilt. Dr. R.C. Sproul will help us do this from a biblical perspective as we base the next week or so of studies on his teaching series Guilt and Forgiveness.

When the subject of guilt comes up, it is important for us to distinguish between guilt and guilt feelings. Guilt and guilt feelings are not identical, for many times people are guilty of something for which they feel no guilt or remorse. It is also possible to feel guilty when one has not done anything wrong. The human psyche is complex, and because of our sin and our limitations, what we feel does not always line up with what is true.

This points to the key difference between guilt and guilt feelings—objectivity and subjectivity. Guilt is an objective matter. One has either broken a law or one has not. If one has broken a law, then one is objectively guilty. By the standard of the law, one has not done what is legally proper. Whether one ever feels guilty is irrelevant to the actual reality of guilt. Just think of the sociopath who has murdered someone. The murderer may not feel any guilt, but that has no bearing on his guilty status. He is guilty because he has broken the law, not because of what he feels or does not feel.

Guilt feelings, on the other hand, are a subjective matter. There is no objective standard that measures the reality of our guilt feelings. Even when our guilt feelings are illegitimate, they are still real, unlike guilt that has no existence if no law has been broken. Moreover, the feelings of guilt that we experience are not unimportant, but they are secondary to guilt itself. No one goes to hell simply for feeling guilty; damnation is only for those who are objectively guilty. That is why there is nothing more important than determining if we are guilty before God and, if so, what can be done about it.

Coram Deo

Today’s passage is a good illustration of a person whose guilty feelings matched with the reality of his sin. When brought before the Lord of hosts, Isaiah confessed his guilt—he felt it—and it was atoned for—because he really was guilty. When we feel guilt, we should honestly look at what we have done to see if we are guilty. Should we find that we are objectively guilty, we must confess our sin to God through Christ Jesus. If we do so, we will always be forgiven.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 25:11
Proverbs 28:13
Lamentations 1:8
Luke 15:11–32

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