Guilt is not just a feeling. It is not just a psychological condition, although it can become one. It is a legal standing.
When the foreman of the jury in a trial speaks the word Guilty, he is not commenting on the feelings of the accused. He is pronouncing a verdict. He is saying that the accused has been judged to have committed the crimes with which he was charged. The accused is guilty and will be treated accordingly—no matter what he or she may “feel.”
Whether people feel guilty is not really the issue. My feelings, or lack of them, neither increase nor lessen my guilt. It is first and foremost a personal standing before a holy God, not a psychological condition.
The marvel of the gospel is that it deals with our objective guilt. Then we begin to appreciate our new standing before God. At that point, God begins to transform our feelings.
The stories of how individuals are converted vary enormously, but there is one strand that features constantly. They may have begun with no obvious awareness of guilt and no special sense of need for God. When probed a little, they might have been self-defensive, even self-justifying, but nevertheless they felt secure, safe.
But nobody can protect himself or herself fully and finally from God’s invasions.
God often creates a sense of unease in people, which then leads them to a consciousness of sin, and then a deeper sense that they are guilty before God. Then He brings them beyond mere “feelings” of guilt to confess, “I am guilty before God.” As the psalmist says, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).
Then God’s Spirit brings us to faith in Christ. We see that He has taken the penalty for our sin. Our guilt is removed. We are pardoned. As we begin to understand the gospel better, the knowledge that we are no longer guilty begins to pervade our spirits and to influence our feelings. We are set free from both the guilt of sin and the guiltiness we feel in our consciences because of it. We can now begin to live in the presence of God. More than that, He welcomes us as His sons and His daughters.
Do you see what true spiritual therapy this is? The divine Counselor does not say to the person who feels guilt for sin, “You don’t need to worry about this.” That would be a counsel of despair. Such words have no power.
But when you say to someone who feels guilty, “You are guilty; you really are guilty,” then you also can say, “But there is a way in which your guilt can be dealt with.”
No therapist, no psychiatrist can relieve you of guilt. He or she may help you to resolve feelings of false guilt that can arise for a variety of reasons. Prescription drugs may provide certain kinds of ease. But no therapy, no course of drugs, can deliver you from real guilt. Why? Because being guilty is not a medical condition or a chemical disorder. It is a spiritual reality. It concerns your standing before God. The psychiatrist cannot forgive you; the therapist cannot absolve you; the counselor cannot pardon you.
But the message of the gospel is this: God can forgive you, and He is willing to do so.
First, however, you need to be brought to the place where you say, “I am guilty.”
Is your response one of self-justification, even of anger? “How dare anybody say to me, ‘You are guilty’!”
Does that apply even if the one saying so is God?
Until we acknowledge our sin and guilt, we will never come to discover that it can be forgiven. But when we do, actual forgiveness begins to give rise to an awareness of forgiveness psychologically, spiritually, mentally, inwardly. With that comes an increasing sense that the bondage of guilt has been broken. At last, we are set free. Wonder of wonders, we discover that at the very heart of the gospel is this fact: God has taken our guilt upon Himself in His Son Jesus Christ.
This excerpt is taken from By Grace Alone by Sinclair Ferguson.