Overcoming The Gospel of Guilt

If Christianity offers the only ‘real’ solution for guilt, why are so many Christians plagued by guilt in their daily lives?

Of course, if you are a Christian in the Western tradition, then the notion of guilt is foundational to your understanding of the gospel. Whether you are a Roman Catholic , a Protestant, or a member of a tradition derived from the latter; the notion of the ‘guilty sinner’ is at the heart of your commonly held understanding of the ‘good news’. Indeed, without guilt, the message of salvation, that you and countless millions have come to believe, simply does not make sense.

Yet, for many affiliated with the aforementioned tradition, their appreciation of the gospel, whilst incorporating the potential to assuage moral guilt, does not seem to deal adequately with its ongoing influence in the daily life.

In some cases rather than alleviating guilt, the crippling emotion is exacerbated through the acceptance and acculturation of this Western understanding of the gospel. Yes, the gospel, as presented, may deal with the idea of guilt, perhaps even superficial feelings about it, but guilt’s insidious reality remains relatively untouched in depths of the soul, and the vast landscape of concrete life in the world. Moreover, despite many adherents tirelessly performing religious activities and/or committing themselves to active ministries, to try and assuage guilt’s corrosive influence in their lives, they cannot escape it’s power. This state of affairs is often magnified by religious clergy and the ‘programs’ run in God’s name, giving birth to illegitimate guilt; a tool often used to hold power over captive adherents.

Now, lets be clear, guilt is a real thing, and a real consequence of actual sin. Guilt, like pain, lets us know that something is wrong, that something morally askew ‘inside us’ needs to be fixed, confessed, repented of, and forgiven. Coming to terms with real guilt, in the right way, is vitally important if we are to make sense of God’s grace, his offer of forgiveness, the manner and matter of Jesus’ death on behalf of our sin, and our need for a clear conscience.

However, guilt should drive the sinner to grace, freedom, and righteousness; not law, bondage, and fear! When guilt is inappropriately addressed, it drives the sinner toward legalistic duty, albeit legitimated by Christian ends. This illegitimate guilt gets it’s claws into our fragile consciences and soon gains mastery over our behavior.

Regretfully, the reality of ongoing guilt ( whether legitimate or illegitimate), has not been theologically or pastorally considered in depth in Western Christian traditions.

I would suggest that the ongoing power of guilt is practically augmented by a Platonic framing of the doctrine of salvation. This is where salvation is conceived along the lines of the soul escaping the material world to attain a heavenly abode, with the problem of moral life in the material world treated poorly or even ignored. As such, getting right with God is conceivable if one simply follows the ‘gospel formula’, but the much bigger problem of addressing how to get along in this present life without the debilitating influence of sin and resultant guilt is realistically problematic. Indeed, a life of free service to Christ in the world of everyday life without religiously motivated guilt, remains a mystery for too many Christians.

Indeed, this vertical framing of salvation (getting right with God so I can go to heaven) is further exacerbated by the asymmetrical treatment of the doctrine of Justification–a doctrine advanced in these traditions as the grounds of ‘getting right’ with God ( the means of animating vertical salvation).

The doctrine of justification is central to both the Catholic and Protestant forms of the salvation message. For the Catholic, one is justified by faith in Jesus Christ, in association with certain necessary religious works; for the Protestant one is justified by faith in Jesus, without any religious works. Protestants have been fighting Catholics over the ‘correct’ grounds for justification and the role of faith in it, since the 16th century. Yet, both groups (especially the later Protestants) have failed to consider that justification of the individual self may not be the sum total of God’s gospel of salvation; and that the believer also needs to be saved from the lingering power of sin and guilt. In short, there has been a general failure to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of salvation in the matters of concrete life.

Notwithstanding this, this does not mean these forms of Christianity have no way of attempting to address ongoing guilt–they most certainly do!

In this regard Roman Catholic’s have given the matter a considered treatment. Attend mass, do penance, perform religious good works, participate in the sacraments etc. All of which appear to deal with guilt, but these very acts, these religious duties ‘themselves’, are motivated by guilt! So instead of freeing the guilt-ridden Christian, this ‘penance’ system enslaves the beleaguered adherent even deeper into a culture of religious guilt.

Protestantism is not much better in this regard. Instead of Mass attendance, Protestants, are regularly reminded of the sufficiency of Christ’s ‘death on the cross’ for dealing with their guilt. Protestants don’t have to ‘do’ anything except remind themselves they can’t do anything, and that Christ has done it all for them! But, when you really think about it, this is little more than a Mass for the mind--a non-ritual rational attempt to assuage moral guilt. This rationalistic approach is often grounded on a misinterpretation of Romans 7:24 ” What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! ” (NIV) A scripture which is interpreted by many Protestants as conveying the ‘normal’ Christian plight, has become the foundation for a pseudo paradigm of understanding the problem of ongoing sin and guilt; the solution– rational affirmation of the work of Christ.

However, Paul, in this key passage is addressing those of a Jewish provenance, converts who have relied on the system of law to address ongoing sin and guilt. He is actually addressing the insufficiency of the law as the means of addressing the problem. Consequently, these verses serve to affirm the futility of a life under the duty of religious law as a means of dealing with the ongoing power of sin and its attendant guilt. In actuality, it is a statement that forms a bridge into a fuller discussion on a more comprehensive understanding of the gospel via union with Christ through the Spirit; a spiritual union which does substantively set the believer free from sin’s power and guilt’s grip: ” Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are ‘in’ Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8: 1-2 (NIV)

Furthermore, whilst guilt may be technically addressed ( or attempted to be addressed) via reason; in practical terms, Protestantism reintroduces its crippling influence via the ‘law’ of ministry service. As previously hinted at, believers are regularly made to feel guilty (often unwittingly), to get involved in ministry, giving, supporting missionaries and students, perhaps even going to Bible College –all noble religious good works. All of which, though legitimate causes, in and of themselves, are all too often subtly interpreted as means to assuage the latent guilt of ongoing sin, that their rational misinterpretation of Christ’s work fails to do. Furthermore if these offers are not taken up by those goaded into action, then guilt is further exacerbated. As with Roman Catholicism, this alternate solution remains ineffectual.

In summary then, both forms of the Christian ‘gospel’ (Catholic and Protestant), simply revert to their underlying ‘type’–human religion. That is, ‘put your faith in the deity, then then sure that up with religious activity to assuage existential guilt. This will all serve to give comfort against the inevitable reality of confronting God on judgment day.

But the elephant in the room remains: Existential guilt and how to address it!

I will grant you, that despite bad and or deficient theology, Christians from all traditions can still believe and do the right things. But, it would be much better to start with a more consistent position, so at least one has a chance to avoid the pitfalls of false guilt so prevalent in religious culture.

The first step in overcoming guilt and the bondage of religion that perpetuates it, is to look beyond the, ‘Get to heaven via justification gospel’, and seek out a more adequate way of interpreting the gospel. So are here are four brief points to assist in that endeavour…

Firstly, Christians must recapture the comprehensive all-sufficiency of Christ’s work in addressing sin and its power over them. The focus on justification in Paul’s letter to the Romans, has often overshadowed his equally important treatment of union with Christ, and the power it offers Christians. Having outlined the problem of sin to the human condition in Romans 1 and 2, Paul goes on to talk about the gospel and the sufficiency of Christ for addressing the legal penalty of sin in Romans 3 and 4 ( Justification). The grounds for legal Justification is exclusive trust in Christ–faith alone. This is how a Christian might ‘know’ their past sins have been addressed. But for too many Christians, the good news stops here!

But, Paul is not finished with his good news when discussing justification. The work of Christ also delivers the Christian from the power of sin; that is, the lingering power of sin and guilt with it. This is significant for Paul, because his supporting argument carries through from Romans 5 through to Romans 8. Culminating with his powerful statement in Romans 8:1-4, ‘ Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.’

Paul, is making it clear that ‘in Christ’ the Christian can appropriate a state of condemnation free existence. Through being in Christ, the law and its power to produce guilt have been made redundant and impotent against the believer’s conscience, and this because of the new state of living according to the Spirit. Paul is affirming that Christians are not justified by faith and then left to return to the guilt-producing law as a means of ‘going on’ with God. Rather their justifying faith unites them with Christ, in the Spirit, which in turn replaces the law as the means of living rightly. You see, just understanding the gospel as justification only enables the Christian to be notionally set free from guilt, but understanding the gospel as incorporating union with Christ in the Spirit, enables the Christion to be existentially set free from guilt–actually free from it!

Secondly, Christians must recapture the practical relevance of the Kingdom of God. We are not redeemed so we can get into the kingdom of God ( in heaven) after we die. No, we are redeemed into the Kingdom of God ( here and now)–the Kingdom is the Christian’s present reality.

I fear that too many Christians really think ‘this life’ is about their kingdom, and the next life is about God’s. However, to embrace Jesus as savior, is to embrace him as Lord–lord of his present kingdom. The radical ‘kingdom’ demands of Jesus, as set out in the Sermon on the Mount, should not be interpreted as a moral bridge too far. Rather, these commands represent the kind of lifestyle a Christian is to adopt in the world–here and now.

These radical kingdom commands are often ignored or disregarded, because they seem impossible. Whilst known to be true and right, but being unable to accomplish them, the Christian person often takes on latent guilt–knowing that they should live this way but do not. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that they do not, because they think they can not! But they can not , because they will not–that is they will not relinquish their reign.

But, Christian’s must relinquish their kingdoms, if they are to be liberated into God’s kingdom and a life free from guilts power within it.

But how do they do that? How can an Christian perform the allegedly impossible moral demands of Jesus? It would seem that this can only be accomplished through full self-denial, and this can only occur as a consequence of divine power working directly on the human heart. Which, leads us to the third issue in our discussion.

Thirdly, Christians need to capture and embrace the power of the Holy Spirit for daily living. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the least understood or rather most misunderstood doctrine in the history of the Church. There are, and have been, two erroneous views of the Spirit. Firstly, an unhealthy over-emphasis on the Spirit’s power regarding spiritual gifts, first evidenced in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and manifested in the contemporary Charismatic movement. Secondly, there has also been, and remains, an unhealthy under-emphasis on the Spirit , witnessed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and evident recently among conservative Protestants/Evangelicals. In this approach, apart from the ministry of regeneration, the Spirit exists to assist the believer to interpret Scripture, enabling them to live an enlightened life. Sadly, both of these approaches fail to deal with the Spirit’s primary role of empowering the effective kingdom life.

Yes, the Spirit gifts believers, and yes the Spirit enables an understanding of scripture, and yes, both of these things are related to effective living–through indirectly. But the Spirit’s primary role is the direct empowerment for kingdom living, the empowerment of moral conformity to Christ’s kingdom in the midst of a hostile world. The Spirit enables and empowers a style of life that allows, as the Lord’s prayer suggests, (God’s) kingdom to ‘come’.

Paul said, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (Gal 5:1,17-18 NIV)

The sinful nature, even in the redeemed Christian, is at war with our conformity to Christ. Paul is suggesting, that to look to and embrace a duty oriented approach to the law, albeit an spiritual interpretation of it, as the grounds and means of effective living, is not only futile, but leads one back into moral slavery and existential guilt–an all too familiar and unpleasant state of being that many Christians find to their dismay.

Without doubt, one of the biggest hindrances to embracing the Spirit’s power, is the fear of surrendering to the Spirit’s control. Which translates into a ‘perceived’ fear of lack of control. But honestly, this is only a perception created by the sinful nature. Do you really have control of your life? Do you really want the heavy yoke of playing God and directing your life and destiny? When you stop and think about it, you know just how that turns out–existence under the oppressive rule of fear and guilt.

There is a better way.

Finally, the ultimate goal of the gospel needs to be reconsidered. The goal of the gospel is not to get us into heaven–even though that is one of the goals. But, viewing the gospel as merely or only eternal insurance, is quite a selfish way to think of God’s grace. Does God simply exist for ‘you’? No.

God’s grace has come to us that we might turn from our selfish oriented lives and live for him and his glory, and know the joy and fulfillment that comes from such an Godward approach to life. The view of having the gospel as eternal insurance, whilst pursuing our self-oriented goals, albeit with a religious justification, will always lead to a conflicted conscience and invariably to a life under the depressive power of guilt. Little wonder depression is common among Christians.

When the focus shifts from you to God; what matters to him, how he feels, how he is perceived, and how he might be honored, the guilt producing selfishness that all too readily plagues the fragile Christian conscience fades into insignificance, in the light of God’s glorious grace.

In summing up, then, it is a sad but true fact, that the gospel many Christians have come to believe does not truly set them free from sin and guilt. Rather, all too often, it serves to further enslave them under the oppressive regime of a human generated religious guilt. But, in taking a fresh look at scripture, beyond the restrictive paradigms of human religion and ecclesiastical power, the beleaguered Christian is enabled to perceive, embrace and adopt a new hope–the hope of a guilt free life.

Will you be courageous enough to cut through of the false security of religious comfort that has been presented to you, and courageously embrace a life of guilt-free service?

It all begins with a step of faith–believing that with God the impossible is possible!

One comment

  1. Thanks Roland,

    I skimmed over this afternoon and will give the article a full read when I get my head back from doing church leading this morning.

    I am pleased to see you still waiting.

    A helpful article for me.

    Blessings, Keith

    Liked by 1 person

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