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THEOLOGY > Sin > Man's Disobedience > Guilt 


To be guilty is to be culpable before God and deserving of His punishment. It is to be blameworthy, because guilt involves accountability, accountability to God because of who He is, and accountability to God for what He has commanded in His Law. By sinning against God and His Law man rejects both God and His Word. Thus, guilt arises because of the rebellion against God’s authority in general and the specific disobedience of God’s expressed commands that have been revealed in the Law. Guilt is one of the consequences of sin and a consequence that is factual for every person.

Guilt is objective, that is, it is real—guilt is real because sin is real, because the Law is real, because Adam was real, and because each individual commits real sinful acts—guilt is real because God rules. Guilt is a true state before God that characterizes man because of his violation of God’s Law in and with Adam (see: The Principle of Identification) and his breaking of God’s Law during his own individual life.

There are two dimensions to personal guilt: guilt for what or who I am, and guilt for what I do. In other words, because of my sinful nature I am guilty; and because of my sinful acts I am guilty. Man is guilty because of his character and his conduct, his person and his practice

Guilty because of the Sin Nature

Guilt was determined by God to be true of all people because all sinned in and with Adam. Adam became guilty when he ate the fruit in Eden and since his act was our act we became guilty, even before our birth—we are born guilty because of our identification with him (see: The Principle of Identification and Representative). Each person is guilty for his own sin, but each person also sinned in the sin of Adam, sinned with Adam, sinned through Adam; one man’s act brought guilt to all the race (see: By One Man). Every man is guilty because every man was and is identified with Adam; therefore, his sin and his guilt became and becomes the sin and guilt of every man.

Guilt is a fact from the very beginning of life; to be conceived is to be conceived in guilt: “in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). No distinction can be allowed between the sin of Adam and each person’s sinful state; because of the one (Adam) there is the other (sinful state). And because of the state of sin there is the state of guilt.

A sense of nakedness was the result of guilt; it indicated the guilt they felt. They could not look at each other as before—they felt impure and self-conscious; they felt the need for privacy which was really an attempt to cover their sin; the fig leaves were intended to hide what they were, what they had become, from each other—they were experiencing the reality of guilt. Adam hid himself, hid because he felt guilty and did not want to face God in his new state.

The certainty of death from conception, the anytime possibility of death, is evidence of the guilt of all individuals from the very beginning of life. Because man is sinful from conception he can die at any time; therefore, he must also be guilty because he is sinful. If man is born with a sinful state then he is born guilty, with the guilt not being dependent upon any willful action on the part of the person. Apart from the question of whether infants should be baptized, the point is that those who are baptized are baptized because of a perceived state of sin that characterizes the infant.

Guilt is the objective standing of man before God, it is not an emotional feeling of some sort of responsibility nor is it sentimental remorse. Rather, guilt is the state in which one is accountable for wrongs committed; it is the condition of every child of Adam. The guilt cannot be ignored nor diminished; it must be dealt with—the guilt requires that the wrong be paid for. It must be addressed; man cannot accomplish this deed, therefore, if man is to be redeemed, God must redeem.

The objective state of guilt weighs heavily upon the one who is being exercised by the Holy Spirit because guilt is both judicial and experiential. Guilt is a terrible burden that every person carries, seeking to avoid or deny it, but no one can escape it—the conscience continually condemns.

Guilty because of Sinful Acts

The one who has not kept any part of God’s Law is guilty: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10; NIV: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it”). The Law can be viewed in its component parts or viewed in its totality, and it is the latter that James is referencing. Therefore, to break any part of the Law is to break all of the Law; that is, the breaking of a single aspect is the breaking of the sum. Since the Law is a reflection of God’s will and character, then, from this perspective, to break any part of the Law is to attack the rule of God, His right to be Sovereign. This is to say that you cannot partially break the Law any more than you can partially disobey God.

So a real guilt is attached to every person because of the Law, meaning that guilt must be viewed in terms of the Law. To break the Law is to be guilty, and all of the world is guilty before God because all individuals have broken the Law:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may become guilty before God (Rom. 3:19).

Guilt speaks of the relationship of personal sin to the justice of God; it is the state of deserving punishment, coupled with the penalty that is owed because of the sin. By attributing guilt to the individual, the individual is made liable for punishment, or deserving of punishment. The penalty associated with the guilt must be paid, either personally or vicariously by another, that is, for the guilt to be removed the punishment must be administered. Surely guilt motivated the following sentiments:

For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds sink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord [Adonai], all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off (Ps. 38:4-11);

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Ps. 32:3-4).

The manifestation of individual guilt takes numerous forms. Guilt causes one to experience anguish because of personal alienation from God; it is to be brought face to face with the estrangement that necessitates God’s wrath, and it is to know that the punishment that is deserved must be administered. Guilt expresses itself in shame and in a vain attempt to rectify the state of guilt (leaves for clothes; see: Initial Religion); it also expresses itself in fear of the Almighty (one hides from God among the trees; see: Shame); and expresses itself in the attempt to blame others for that which is the cause of one’s own personal guilt (see: Refused Responsibility).

The remedy for guilt is forgiveness, and the only remedy for guilt is forgiveness; it is a forgiveness based on the finished work of Christ (Eph. 4:32; Col. 2:13; I Jo. 2:12). And there is no other forgiveness.

Guilt was imputed and corruption was conveyed.
Gordon Clark, Doctrine of Man

He [man] knows that when he is not what he ought to be;
when he does what he ought not to do;
or omits what he ought to do,
he is chargeable with sin.
C. Hodge, Systematic Theology

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