Addressing Our Guilt

“When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

- Romans 2:14–15

Feelings of guilt and of remorse are so universal that when we encounter people who do not experience such feelings, we recognize that something is seriously wrong. We have even developed a term—sociopath—to refer to someone who appears to feel no pangs of conscience when he sins.

Guilt feelings can be so powerful that we have developed several strategies to deal with them. Some people try to numb the feelings of guilt through addiction to something that helps them keep their minds off their pangs of remorse. But perhaps the most common way that we attempt to address our feelings of guilt is by adjusting our moral standards downward.

Consider the all-too-human practice of judging ourselves against the standard of other people. We readily look at people who engage in more heinous sins than we do, and then we use our comparative moral superiority to assuage our consciences. We might think something like, “Well, I tell little white lies every now and again, but at least I am not a murderer like that guy over there.” What we have done in such a case is rejected a high standard of morality that would frown upon more minor sins in favor of a lower standard that says we are all right as long as we do not do anything really bad.

Lowering our moral standards might help us feel less guilty, but it does nothing about our objective guilt before God. That is because the standard for righteousness before our Creator is perfection (Matt. 5:48). He does not evaluate us by comparing us with others but by measuring us against His perfect and holy law. And when He makes that evaluation, everyone except for Christ comes up severely wanting.

Truthfully, we can perhaps lessen the intensity of our guilt feelings by comparing ourselves to others, but we can never eliminate them entirely. That is because God has made us in His image, and so we possess a conscience that is sensitive to His law. The Apostle Paul tells us in today’s passage that even those who are outside of the people of God have the law on their consciences, and they judge themselves according to how well they measure up (Rom. 2:14–15). Paul does not mean that unbelievers ever truly live up to what God demands. His point is that we all know that we should live up to what God has commanded. The problem is, no matter how hard we try, apart from grace we cannot meet God’s standard. And so, until the objective reality of our lawbreaking is addressed, our guilt feelings remain.

Coram Deo

Many thinkers have observed that human beings have a sense of “oughtness.” We know that we ought to do certain things, that we must live in a morally upright manner. That sense of “oughtness” comes from God, and we can appeal to it to show people that they know He is there and that they have fallen short of His standards. We can point people to their guilt feelings as evidence that they need to be reconciled to their Creator.

Passages for Further Study

2 Samuel 12:1–15
Psalm 51:3
Luke 7:36–50
1 Timothy 1:5

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.