Guilt might be the most notorious five-letter word in our culture. Declarations of guilt are minimized — he’s not “guilty,” he’s just “struggling” or he “made a mistake.” And feelings of guilt are suppressed and denied. A New York Times article I found this week captures the cultural attitude towards guilt perfectly:
A friend of mine made a resolution once: No more guilty pleasures. I assumed at first that he meant he would no longer indulge in, you know, the usual cultural indulgences: those movies, books, TV shows, albums, et cetera, that are unabashedly enjoyable…but that also confer a patina of guilt to the self-conscious cultural consumer even as he’s enjoying them….
But I was wrong. My friend didn’t mean that at all. What he meant was simpler and, I have since realized, more radical and ultimately more inspiring. He’d still enjoy all those cultural indulgences, he said. He would just no longer classify them as indulgences. In other words, no more guilty pleasures for him meant: All of the pleasure. None of the guilt.
So even when there are feelings of guilt, we are now encouraged to suppress the feelings of guilt and then embrace and indulge ourselves even more in the guilt-giving activities.
However, the problem with this attempt to rid ourselves of these feelings of guilt is that we’re guilty. All of us. The feeling of guilt is a product of our consciences condemning us of our culpability in some action (Rom. 2:14-15): we sinfully did something prohibited by God and His moral standards or we sinfully did not do something commanded by God. In a word, we feel guilty because we are guilty.
So are we just condemned to live with feelings of guilt with no relief? May it never be! Rather, God in His grace has granted us genuine liberty from both our culpability for sin and for the feelings emanating from our guilt. And that is the very thing Paul reminds his readers of in Romans 4:6-8. In the preceding verses he reminded them of the provision of justification through faith (vv. 1-5). And in these verses he quotes from David in Psalm 32 to demonstrate four of the blessings that come from justification.
First, there is genuine, imputed righteousness (v. 6). Through faith in Christ, God accounts (grants or imputes) the righteousness of Christ to the believer. The identity of the believer is then Christ, as Paul makes clear later (6:4-7, 8-11, 20-22). And if the identity of the believer is Christ’s perfect righteousness, then he cannot be guilty.
Secondly, Paul reminds the readers that there is forgiveness for rebellion (v. 7a). That sinners commit lawless deeds denotes that they have lived in willful rebellion against God — they have hated Him, suppressed His truth, and sought sovereignty over Him. And when those sinners repent in faith, God forgives that rebellion. He forgives all the rebellion. And forgiveness doesn’t just mean that He ignores its presence or forgets about it. No, forgiveness means that God removes the sin from the sinner as far as the east from the west (Ps. 103:12) and He cleanses the sinner of all the stain and guilt of that sin (1 Jn. 1:7, 9). The guilty sinner is guilty no more.
And Paul also notes that the sins have been covered (v. 7b). The idea of covering is an allusion to the sacrifices of the day of atonement. Paul and David do not mean by this that something has been thrown over the sins to hide them from view; they do mean that the blood of sacrifice (animals that anticipated Christ in the OT and Christ in the NT) has paid the penalty of the sin. Again, the sins — all the sins — and guilt are forgiven. God no longer holds the sin against the sinner. The sinner is no longer guilty and God no longer treats him as guilty.
And finally, Paul says that the guilty deeds that the sinner has done are not imputed to him. He really has done the deeds and he really has been guilty, but because Christ’s righteousness has been credited to him, his sinful deeds are no longer credited to him. He was guilty, but he is no longer guilty. The guilt is gone!
There is only one way to be absolved of the guilt of our sin — it’s not through more indulgence of sin or through moral self-efforts or through pretense of innocence. The only way out of guilt is through Christ. It is to openly acknowledge our guilt and then repent of it and in faith trust that Christ’s death on the cross is the only adequate payment for our sin that God will accept. And by faith in Christ the guilt is surely removed.
The glory of this truth was highlighted by Martin Luther who was writing to encourage a young friend struggling with his guilt and failures:
“When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we out to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.’”
This is every believer’s confidence: surely we have been guilty and we daily still commit real sin that is guilt against us, but through our faith in Christ the genuine guilt has been removed and we are free. Our new identity is in Christ and His perfect righteousness and no longer can the accuser rightly condemn us. The guilt really is gone.