Objective and Subjective Guilt
“What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.”- Romans 3:9
In washing the feet of His disciples, Jesus made it clear that those who follow Him need both the definitive cleansing from guilt they receive when they first exercise faith as well as continual forgiveness for any sins they commit thereafter (John 13:1–20). This story gives us an opportunity to reflect more on what the Bible says about the guilt of sin and the forgiveness we find only in Christ. To study this important topic, we will take a short break from our walk through John’s gospel and will base our next few devotionals on Guilt and Forgiveness, a teaching series by Dr. R.C. Sproul.
Apologetics is the discipline that focuses on providing a defense of the Christian faith, and it deals with such topics as the existence of God, the identity of Jesus, the reliability of Scripture, and so on. Over the centuries, Christian theologians and philosophers have helped us develop sound answers to the questions skeptics have about the Christian faith. As believers, we must deal with these issues; however, many of them can be quite abstract and difficult for people to grasp. One issue, however, takes us out of abstractions and down to the street level, as it were. We are talking about the issue of guilt and what we can do with it. After all, beneath all of the abstract arguments unbelievers may offer, they still are searching for a way to deal with the feelings of guilt they possess. In fact, all of us are trying to do just that.
Yet, when we speak of the feeling of guilt, we are starting to get into subjective territory. Only personal beings can experience feelings, so our guilt feelings are a consequence of our personhood. Rocks, for instance, never feel guilt. Moreover, rocks cannot be objectively guilty. That is because objective guilt is also something that is possible only for personal beings. We incur objective guilt when we break a law given by another personal entity such as the civil magistrate. If we break a law, we are objectively and factually guilty. There is nothing subjective about it. We may feel subjectively guilty when we are objectively guilty, but a lack of subjective guilt feelings has no bearing on whether we are, in fact, lawbreakers. Things can start to get complex because it is possible to be objectively guilty and yet feel no subjective guilt, and it is also possible to feel subjectively guilty when we have incurred no objective guilt.
Ultimately, our feelings cannot tell us for certain if we are lawbreakers. The only sure guide is the Word of God, which tells us that apart from Christ, all people are objectively guilty of sin (Rom. 3:9).
As with other matters in the Christian life, our final objective standard is the Word of God. Only God’s Word can tell us whether we are actually guilty and need forgiveness, so we must study God’s Word in order to understand what sin is, to know when we have committed it, and to know when we need to ask for forgiveness.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 1:4–8