Christian Living,  Ethics

The Bible and Guilt: Should you Feel Guilty?

According to the Bible, guilt is objective. Just because you feel guilty does not mean you have actually experienced guilt. On the other hand, just because you don’t feel guilty does not mean you have no guilt! Guilt is not an emotion, it is an objective status.

Picture of a flower signifying guilt

You have probably heard people say things like, “Don’t you feel guilty?” Or, “I don’t feel guilty about that.” What they are actually talking about is what the Bible describes as the conscience. The conscience and guilt are related, but they are two separate concepts. The conscience is supposed to tell you when you have guilt, but sometimes feeling guilty can be confused with actual guilt. This is why it is important for the Bible to form our definitions.

The Essence of Guilt

The main word used to describe guilt in the Old Testament is asham (אשׁם). Within the Old Testament guilt (אשׁם) is used to describe an objective reality of someone who stands guilty without regard to their feelings (Isa 24:6; Jer 2:3; Ezek 22:4; Hos 13:1; Hos 14:1). The word is also used in admonitions to avoid guilt by being obedient to the Lord (2 Chron 19:10; Jer 50:7). Hence, those who disobey the Lord are counted as having guilt (i.e., guilty). In contrast, those that obey have no guilt (i.e., not guilty). Biblically speaking, this guilt is an objective evaluation of one’s relationship to the commandments of God.

In the New Testament there is no exact vocabulary word which matches the Hebrew word for guilt. However, enochos (ἔνοχος) is the closest match. It means “guilty, answerable, or liable.” It is used throughout the New Testament in a similar way to the Old Testament use of the guilt language of asham (אשׁם). It communicates an objective status of guilt without regard to feeling remorse (Matt 5:21-22; Mark 3:29; 1 Cor 11:27; James 2:10). Interestingly, the accusers of Jesus use this word to say that Jesus bears the guilt deserving of death (Matt 26:66).

In sum, both OT and NT define guilt as an objective status that occurs when one transgresses God’s law.

How Does the Conscience Relate to Guilt?

The conscience is a tool given by God that acts as an assistant in prodding us to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. The only problem is that the conscience is not inerrant. In fact, the conscience can be programmed to respond differently by different individuals. For example, Paul warns Timothy of unbelievers who have seared and defiled consciences (1 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:15). A seared conscience apparently is one without sensitivity.

The conscience can be sharpened or it can be dulled down. It can be taught to be sensitive to certain things, and to completely ignore other things. For example, I remember my conscience being tormented when I was younger over things I said which my brother could have taken offense to (not that I intended offense, nor did my brother actually take offense). For some reason my conscience convicted me that it was a possibility that my brother could have taken offense and so I should be sorry. There was no objective reality to my feeling bad, it was just my young, immature conscience.

The maturing Christian aligns his or her conscience with the objective realities of truth found in God’s Word (cf. John 17:17). Scripture often stresses the need to operate with a clean and biblically informed conscience (cf. 1 Tim 1:5; 1 Tim 1:19; 1 Tim 3:9; 1 Pet 2:19; 1 Pet 3:16). When the believer’s conscience is biblically informed and in line with reality, it becomes a great asset in living a God-honoring life and assisting the believer in assessing one’s guilt.

Application to Every Day Living

So what should we take away from this biblical distinction between guilt and conscience? First, just because we feel bad about something does not necessarily mean we have sinned (or have guilt). This is why we have the Holy Spirit and God’s Word to guide us. Without a constant input of God’s Word, there is no way we can trust our conscience. So, the first major application is to read God’s Word and allow the Holy Spirit to work through the sanctifying process (John 17:17).

Secondly, just because we don’t feel our guilt does not mean we are innocent. If our conscience is uninformed, it may not be able to point out certain sins. For example, I have talked to believers who did not know being drunk was a sin, but when they found out they were submissive to God’s Word and their consciences were informed. So, the second application is actually the same as the first—to read God’s Word and allow the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the Word inform our consciences and convict of us sin. Whether we struggle with feeling guilt we shouldn’t, or we don’t feel the guilt we should; the solution is to inundate your life with God’s Word to inform the conscience.

Although believers should be careful not to act contrary to their conscience (cf. Rom 14:23 ), we need to remember that there is an objective reality of right and wrong, guilt and innocence. Only the Word of God has the power and ability to show us God’s standard for right and wrong.

photo credit: Wendy Longo photography via photopin cc

Note: This post originally appeared on Sept 27, 2014. It has been edited and reposted.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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