Guilt and Guilt Feelings

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Ps. 51:1–2).

- Psalm 51

Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers is among the most profound examples of forgiveness in Scripture. As God’s people, we know that we must eagerly forgive (Matt. 6:14–15), but we also understand that we will not be able to extend forgiveness to others without the Lord’s pardon of our own guilt. To help us better comprehend and apply the biblical teaching on these matters, we will now pause our study of Genesis and turn temporarily to Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series Guilt and Forgiveness to guide our study of God’s Word.

In many ways, guilt is a complex topic because it involves both subjective and objective elements. Subjectively, feelings of guilt are a universal phenomenon, evidenced in the variety of approaches — religious, psychological, and so on — human beings employ to erase their personal experiences of guilt. As God’s image-bearers, we are all personal beings and therefore able to feel the pangs of guilt whenever we are aware the divine law has been broken. Scripture alludes to guilt feelings in many places, especially in the book of Psalms, and the distress such feelings bring to the soul is particularly clear in today’s passage.

Feelings of guilt are an acknowledged reality, but we must admit that a person’s objective guilt is far more important than his subjective experience of it. In the first place, guilt feelings do not always correspond to our actual, guilty situation. Many people are plagued by guilt because they think they have broken God’s law even though no stipulation has actually been violated. However, others who are actually guilty according to the divine standard are not continually troubled for having violated it. Repeated indulgence in sin can deaden one’s conscience to the point where it is all too easy to call good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20).

In the final analysis, true guilt results from our having violated the objective standards of the Lord, which are revealed in nature and in the Bible. Guilt feelings can lead us to become aware of having violated this standard, but their presence or absence says nothing in itself about our standing before the Creator. 

Coram Deo

Whether we feel guilty or not, all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Take time today to repent of your sin and acknowledge this truth. Then pray that your feelings of guilt would match its reality. Ask the Spirit to make you hate sin so that your conscience would be stricken with disgust and sorrow each time you violate God’s law. Let us strive to imitate our Father’s perfect holiness and hate sin just as He does.

Passages for Further Study

Lev. 4:22–26
Isa. 6:1–7
Luke 7:36–50
Rom. 1:18–32

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