Tough Questions with RC Sproul - Tuesday, July 9, 2013
In what way does God use guilt today?
When we talk about God's using guilt, it sounds strange to many people in our society because there's a widespread notion that guilt is something that is intrinsically destructive to human beings and that to impose guilt on anybody is wrong. The idea then emerges that God certainly would never use such a thing as guilt to bring about his will with human beings. If he did, that would be beneath the level of purity we would prefer in our deity.
In biblical terms, guilt is something that is real and is objective, and I think it's very important that we distinguish between guilt and guilt feelings. Guilt feelings are emotions that I experience subjectively. Guilt is an objective state of affairs. We see that in our law courts. When a person goes on trial for having broken the law, the question before the jury and before the judge is not, Does the accused feel guilty? but, Is there a real state of affairs that we call guilt? Has a law been transgressed? So it is with God. Guilt is objective in the eyes of God whenever his law is broken. When I break his law, I incur guilt, but I may or may not have guilt feelings about my guilt.
I suspect that behind your question is a concern about how God uses the guilt feelings as well as the actual guilt itself. One of the most important works of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is what the New Testament calls the conviction of sin. We can be guilty and not feel guilty. David, for example, when he got involved with Bathsheba and went even so far as arranging for her husband to get killed, felt no great remorse until Nathan, the prophet, came to him and told him a parable. The parable was about a man who took for himself a little lamb that belonged to a poor man. David was furious and wanted to know who this man was so that he could be punished. Finally Nathan pointed his finger at David and said, "You are the man." With the realization of the full import of his guilt, David was broken instantly and then wrote that magnificent song of penitence, Psalm 51, in which he cried out in his conviction of sin before God.
What God does with our guilt and guilt feelings is to bring us to that state in which we are convicted of sin and of the righteousness we've fallen short of; he uses those feelings to turn us from disobedience to obedience. In that regard, guilt and guilt feelings are healthy. Just as pain is a necessary sign of the presence of disease, so guilt feelings may often be the divine way of awakening us to our need for redemption.