Guilt as feeling vs. guilt as verdict

More from Prof. Pless at our church’s Good Shepherd Seminar. . . .He pointed out that it was Schleiermacher, the 19th century Romantic theologian considered the father of liberal theology, who first defined guilt as a feeling experienced by the doer of the deed. Before that, guilt was considered as a forensic judgment on both the doer and the deed. The judge says, “guilty,” and you face punishment, no matter how you feel.

We are guilty, regardless of whether we feel guilty or not, because we are under God’s judgment. But under the Gospel, whether we feel guilty or not, we are pronounced “not guilty” for Christ’s sake.

In pastoral care, if the problem is that people feel guilty, the pastor must reassure them that they are not, that they don’t need to feel that way, that they are really OK. But if the problem is that they ARE guilty because of their sin, what the pastor has to do is deliver God’s new verdict in light of the Cross and Christ’s imputation, the verdict that they are pardoned.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Manxman

    When Christians sin, they are still “guilty” for what they have done and they will still, if God doesn’t intervene, experience consequences of their transgression. God is not mocked, even by Christians. I think a better way to put it would be that when Christians sin, they are guilty of the sin but because of what Jesus Christ has done for them they avoid the ultimate CONDEMNATION of separation of God for eternity that comes from sin.

  • Manxman

    When Christians sin, they are still “guilty” for what they have done and they will still, if God doesn’t intervene, experience consequences of their transgression. God is not mocked, even by Christians. I think a better way to put it would be that when Christians sin, they are guilty of the sin but because of what Jesus Christ has done for them they avoid the ultimate CONDEMNATION of separation of God for eternity that comes from sin.

  • FW

    Excellent!

    My former pastor made a related point:

    the opposite of evil is not goodness, it is faith.

    My application of that in this case:

    un-faith seeks to overcome feelings of guilt by getting busy, by trying to do or be something that allows self-justification. Guilt overcome with goodness.

    faith sees both guilt and it´s solution now nailed to a cross, and in response it gets busy BEing goodness! Guilt overcome by joy and freedom to play. The schoolmaster calls recess: time to play!

    “go! you are free!”

    This is God´s last word in response to confession of sin and absolution.

  • FW

    Excellent!

    My former pastor made a related point:

    the opposite of evil is not goodness, it is faith.

    My application of that in this case:

    un-faith seeks to overcome feelings of guilt by getting busy, by trying to do or be something that allows self-justification. Guilt overcome with goodness.

    faith sees both guilt and it´s solution now nailed to a cross, and in response it gets busy BEing goodness! Guilt overcome by joy and freedom to play. The schoolmaster calls recess: time to play!

    “go! you are free!”

    This is God´s last word in response to confession of sin and absolution.

  • http://blog.higherthings.org/wcwirla/ wcwirla

    I’m not so sure about the Schleiermacher association. Subjective guilt (as opposed to objective, forensic guilt) is the work of the conscience monitoring the law written upon man’s heart (Rom 2:14-15). The objective, external judgment of the Law serves to sharpen and refine the conscience as it accuses or excuses.

    Pastorally speaking, when people “feel guilty,” I advice them to examine themselves in the mirror of the Law. If they don’t “feel guilty,” I advise them to do the same.

  • http://blog.higherthings.org/wcwirla/ wcwirla

    I’m not so sure about the Schleiermacher association. Subjective guilt (as opposed to objective, forensic guilt) is the work of the conscience monitoring the law written upon man’s heart (Rom 2:14-15). The objective, external judgment of the Law serves to sharpen and refine the conscience as it accuses or excuses.

    Pastorally speaking, when people “feel guilty,” I advice them to examine themselves in the mirror of the Law. If they don’t “feel guilty,” I advise them to do the same.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Reinhold Niebuhr explains that we are equally sinners, though unequal in guilt. The reality is that, for example, the person who beats up his wife is more guilty than one who unfairly gets involved in an argument.

    Prof. Pless is right that we are all guilty of assorted sins, though the degree of guilt is considerable. God’s moral law is real and , except for the odd sociopath, the feeling of guilt is real, though with proper atonement and understanding of the Cross, the feeling may be mitigated. The notion of a complete feeling of guiltlessness is a pleasant romantic illusion.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Reinhold Niebuhr explains that we are equally sinners, though unequal in guilt. The reality is that, for example, the person who beats up his wife is more guilty than one who unfairly gets involved in an argument.

    Prof. Pless is right that we are all guilty of assorted sins, though the degree of guilt is considerable. God’s moral law is real and , except for the odd sociopath, the feeling of guilt is real, though with proper atonement and understanding of the Cross, the feeling may be mitigated. The notion of a complete feeling of guiltlessness is a pleasant romantic illusion.

  • FW

    #4 professor pless would disagree with your assertion that guilt is unequal. But let´s assume for a moment, for the sake of argument Peter, that you are correct:

    The bible says that the just wages of even the smallest sin is temporal and eternal punishment. Hell.

    If the bible is right, and the slightest infraction merits hell, pondering “degree of guilt” sorta looks like rearranging the deck chairs on the titannic.

    Trust Jesus Peter regardless of your level of guilt dear brother! Be certain that he HAS atoned for your sins completely even if, like the blessed apostle Paul you can call yourself sincerely the chief of sinners. With that feel free to center attention on your brother´s needs rather than center attention on measuring level of guilt.

  • FW

    #4 professor pless would disagree with your assertion that guilt is unequal. But let´s assume for a moment, for the sake of argument Peter, that you are correct:

    The bible says that the just wages of even the smallest sin is temporal and eternal punishment. Hell.

    If the bible is right, and the slightest infraction merits hell, pondering “degree of guilt” sorta looks like rearranging the deck chairs on the titannic.

    Trust Jesus Peter regardless of your level of guilt dear brother! Be certain that he HAS atoned for your sins completely even if, like the blessed apostle Paul you can call yourself sincerely the chief of sinners. With that feel free to center attention on your brother´s needs rather than center attention on measuring level of guilt.

  • CRB

    #3wcwirla,

    “Pastorally speaking, when people “feel guilty,” I advice them to examine themselves in the mirror of the Law. If they don’t “feel guilty,” I advise them to do the same.”

    I think I know what you’re getting at here, but could you please elaborate with some examples? Thanks!

  • CRB

    #3wcwirla,

    “Pastorally speaking, when people “feel guilty,” I advice them to examine themselves in the mirror of the Law. If they don’t “feel guilty,” I advise them to do the same.”

    I think I know what you’re getting at here, but could you please elaborate with some examples? Thanks!

  • FW

    i might also note that there is a distinction between shame and guilt. adam and eve felt shame. shame looks like that. it is sort of an ontological/existential feeling. it is not brought on by application of the law written in stone or men´s hearts. shame makes us hide from God and so evade God´s judgement and so also his mercy. His word calls us out of hiding,removes our sef-justifying fig leaves, indentifies our guilt, but does not leave us standing, naked-as-object-lesson but then clothes us in soft bloodstained coverings of the Holy Gospel.

    guilt is what your conscience tells you when you have done something you ought not to have done. it intensifies when it find that it needs to also agree with the written law. you can often make restitution for what caused your guilt. you cannot for things that make you ashamed.

    I hope that helps CRB.

  • FW

    i might also note that there is a distinction between shame and guilt. adam and eve felt shame. shame looks like that. it is sort of an ontological/existential feeling. it is not brought on by application of the law written in stone or men´s hearts. shame makes us hide from God and so evade God´s judgement and so also his mercy. His word calls us out of hiding,removes our sef-justifying fig leaves, indentifies our guilt, but does not leave us standing, naked-as-object-lesson but then clothes us in soft bloodstained coverings of the Holy Gospel.

    guilt is what your conscience tells you when you have done something you ought not to have done. it intensifies when it find that it needs to also agree with the written law. you can often make restitution for what caused your guilt. you cannot for things that make you ashamed.

    I hope that helps CRB.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Excellent distinction, FW! And your point that shame can make us flee from God’s mercy as well as His judgment is especially profound.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Excellent distinction, FW! And your point that shame can make us flee from God’s mercy as well as His judgment is especially profound.

  • CRB

    Thanks! That reminds me of Romans 9:33!

  • CRB

    Thanks! That reminds me of Romans 9:33!


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