Counselors are convinced that the overwhelming majority of troubled people who walk into their offices for help are suffering from some degree of guilt which has contributed significantly to their problem, be it a spiritual, emotional, or interpersonal problem. Guilt has a way of dominating our lives and disrupting our relationships. It preys on our minds, fills us with anxiety and fear, makes us defensive, irritable, and judgmental, drives us to punish ourselves in various ways, and may even make us physically sick. It is one of life’s most destructive emotions.
Not all guilt is true guilt. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish feelings of inferiority, failure, shame, or poor self-image from real guilt. They all register on our minds in much the same way and cause us to say much the same things, such as, “I never do anything right; I make a mess of everything I put my hand to; I can’t get along with anybody; I’ll never amount to anything; I’m just no good.”
Feelings like that usually find their roots in our upbringing, particularly our efforts to please a parent who was difficult to satisfy, one who seldom gave encouragement or commendation, but rather condemned, blamed, and accused excessively, and conditioned our acceptance and approval on our performance. That kind of environment produces false guilt, a feeling of blame over things that do not violate any principle in God’s Word and for which we may not even know the cause.
People with false guilt usually view God as a mean old man who will be nice to them if they measure up to His standards, but nasty to them if they don’t. They see His standards as impossibly high and the potential for pleasing Him practically hopeless, so they have resigned themselves to living in His disfavor. They do not like it, but they see no other way. Bible-centered counsel may help them learn to accept themselves and to relate positively to God.
But there is also real guilt. We may feel guilty because we are guilty. We have broken God’s laws and we know it. The Bible says that the whole world is guilty before Him (Romans 3:10-20). We have all fallen short of His standard (Romans 3:23), and because we are guilty we deserve to be punished (Romans 6:23). An infinitely holy God must express His wrath against sin. God’s critics will be quick to attack Him at this point. “See, God is a rigid, demanding, intolerant, perfectionist judge who refuses to accept us if we fail to live up to His expectations.” The critics are right to a degree. God cannot condone sin or allow it to enter His presence. He must judge it. But what they fail to see is that He is also loving, gracious, merciful, and kind, and that those traits motivate Him to forgive us.
The God which men have created in their own image is harsh, vindictive, and punitive. But the true God who has revealed Himself in His Word is forgiving and accepting. When He passed by Moses on the mount and made His glory known, He proclaimed it for all to understand: He is the God “who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exodus 34:7). David reiterated it plainly in a beautiful prayer of worship: “For Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive” (Psalm 86:5). God is forgiving by nature. Forgiveness is the essence of His being. That is about the best news we guilty human beings could ever hear. God is not set on punishing us. He wants to forgive us and accept us warmly and freely.
Forgiveness is a most misunderstood concept. Some people have the notion that forgiving means simply overlooking a wrong. They say, “Everybody does things they don’t mean in moments of stress. So I’ll just pretend that I didn’t see it, and act as if it didn’t happen.” Nothing could be further from true forgiveness, which is neither passive nor indifferent, but decisive and dynamic. We learn what it involves by watching our forgiving God in action. There are at least five essential elements to His forgiveness.
Nowhere do we see a more graphic picture of God’s forgiveness than on Israel’s day of atonement, the day God dealt with the nation’s sins for another year. After the high priest offered a sacrifice for his own sins, he secured two goats, one to be sacrificed as a sin offering and the other to be used as a scapegoat. Then he slaughtered the sin-offering goat, brought its blood inside the veil of the tabernacle and sprinkled it on and in front of the mercy seat to “make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel, and because of their transgressions” (Leviticus 16:16). The word translated “make atonement” is also translated “forgive” in the Old Testament (e.g. in Psalm 78:38). It means, basically, “to cover.” The blood of that goat was not actually the basis for the Israelites’ forgiveness, but it dramatically pictured the important fact that God would cover their sins.
Under the mercy seat, in the ark of the covenant, were the symbols of Israel’s sin—the manna about which they murmured and complained, the tables of the law which they broke, and Aaron’s rod that budded when they rebelled against their divinely appointed leaders. But all those sins were covered by the blood of the goat. In like manner, when God forgives our sins, He covers them with the blood of His Son; He hides them from view. Micah said, it is as though He casts them into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). What a relief to know that the sins which have haunted us, burdened us, and grieved us are permanently removed from view, perfectly covered. David expressed that relief when he exclaimed,
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered! (Psalm 82:1)
But that is not all God did on the day of atonement. When the high priest finished making an atonement in the holy place, he laid both of his hands on the head of the live goat and confessed over it the sins of the nation, then sent it away into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22). As he placed his hands on the goat’s head, it was as though he were lifting the sins of the people and placing those sins on a substitute. Then as he let the goat go into the wilderness, it was as though those sins were being removed far away. He lifted them up, then he let them go.
It is interesting that of the two major words translated “forgiveness” in the Old Testament, one means literally “to lift up” and the other “to let go.” The most common New Testament word for forgiveness likewise means “to let go” or “to send away.” When God forgives us, He lifts our sins from us and sends them far away. David said,
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).
He chose an analogy that describes a place infinitely beyond which anybody could ever find our sins. While we know where north stops and south begins, nobody can determine precisely where east stops and west begins. Why should we bear a burden of guilt any longer when God has taken the trouble to remove our sins that far from us and cover them so thoroughly? The first great blessing of knowing a God who forgives is the complete removal of our sin from us.
When somebody wrongs us, we usually consider him to be indebted to us. He owes it to us to right the wrong, or he owes us an apology. If we commit a crime and are apprehended, tried, and convicted, we must pay our debt to society. We understand that principle clearly; it permeates our culture—sin incurs a debt. When we sin against the God who made us and gave us life, we are indebted to Him. If He wants to forgive us, He must cancel that debt.
This facet of forgiveness is beautifully illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant, the man who owed his king ten thousand talents, the equivalent of approximately ten million dollars in our money (Matthew 18:21-35). It is inconceivable that a servant could accumulate a debt of that magnitude, but Jesus chose such an extraordinary figure to emphasize how much we owe God because of our sin. Furthermore, there was no way a servant could possibly repay such a debt on a meager salary of a few pennies a day, and that too is part of the point Jesus made. We can never repay the debt we owe God. An eternity of torment in hell will not even begin to satisfy the extent of His offended holiness.
Like the servant in the story, some of us think we can repay God what we owe Him. We say as he said, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything” (Matthew 18:26). We think that given enough time we can do enough good works and keep enough of His commandments to compensate God for all the debt of our sin. That attitude displays our gross failure to grasp the awesomeness of His holiness and the awfulness of our sin. God knows it can never be done. So in the story, the master took pity on his servant and canceled his debt for him. That is exactly what God does for us. He cancels the debt of our sin, and that is an essential element of forgiveness.
But how can God do that? His infinite holiness has been violated and His justice demands that the debt be paid. He cannot simply ignore it. Who will pay it? In infinite love and grace, He decided to pay it Himself. In the story, it cost the king ten million dollars that was rightfully his in order to forgive his servant. We often overlook the inescapable fact that forgiveness always costs somebody something. If an offense has been committed, somebody has to pay. When justice is served, the one who has committed the offense pays. When forgiveness is granted, the one who has been offended pays. Guilt cannot be transferred to a third party. The Psalmist said,
No man can by any means redeem his brother,
Or give to God a ransom for him (Psalm 49:7).
Sometimes we think we have forgiven a person who has wronged us, but yet we are subconsciously looking for some way to reclaim from him what we have lost, whether it be our reputation, our money, our pride, or whatever else he might have taken from us. We are looking for a way to make him pay; and that is not forgiveness. When we forgive him, we pay in full for his wrong. Since God is forgiving by nature, He pays in full for our sins. That is what Jesus Christ was doing on that cross. He was not a third party trying to get God and man together. He was the offended One, God in flesh, who came to earth to pay for man’s forgiveness. As the Apostle Paul put it, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). When He bowed His head and voluntarily dismissed His Spirit, He cried, “It is finished.” That statement is one word in the Greek text, a word that was used in business transactions meaning “paid in full.” The obligation which our sins incurred was paid in full at Calvary’s cross. God took our place and paid our debt as our substitute.
Did you ever have a debt canceled? What a happy experience it is! When I was a seminary student, my wife and I scraped and scrounged to get the money together for my tuition one semester. I approached the business office to pay my bill, but when the girl behind the counter found my record she happily announced, “We don’t need your money. Your bill has already been paid.” I have never found out who paid that money, but I am still grateful to that unknown person. We were able to continue eating for awhile, much to our delight. As wonderful as that experience was, it is still infinitely greater to know that the eternal debt of our sin has been canceled. When God forgives, He not only takes away our sin, He also cancels our debt. But there is still more to His forgiveness.
The debt of a broken law is called a penalty, so if the debt is canceled, it is obvious that the penalty must also be revoked. While the two are related, it is essential that we understand both aspects of forgiveness. As we have seen, on the day of atonement one of the goats was killed as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. It pictured the punishment of a substitute. The goat’s blood could not in itself pay for Israel’s sins (cf. Hebrews 10:4), but blood did have to be shed nevertheless. The penalty for sin is death, and only death could satisfy that requirement (cf. Hebrews 9:22). The death of that goat portrayed to the people of Israel that God Himself would suffer the penalty of their sin.
That is exactly what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross. Isaiah predicted that He would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, that the penalty of our sins would fall on Him (Isaiah 53:5-6). Peter described how it happened: “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). He died for our sins, “the just for the unjust” (1 Peter 3:18). The basis for our eternal forgiveness is the blood of Jesus Christ, and nothing could be clearer in Scripture (cf. Ephesians 1:7). Jesus Himself declared, “For this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
Believers never again need to fear punishment from God. The penalty for our sins has been assessed and fully satisfied by God’s Son. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). No punishment! No penalty! No eternal judgment! The penalty has been paid. The case is settled and will never come up for review. There is no possibility of appeal to any higher court. We as God’s children are free from sin’s penalty, free from all fear of punishment. He may lovingly discipline us to help us grow in Him and so experience greater satisfaction and joy in living, but we never need to fear His retribution.
Some professing Christians find that difficult to believe. They are still afraid that God is going to punish them. They live much like the child who has been promised a spanking after school. It ruins his whole day. He is tense and irritable, he does poorly in his school work, he feels a strain with his friends, he dreads coming home. When he finally does come home, there is no communication with his parents, no freedom to grow in his relationship with them, just apprehension and latent hostility—until the ordeal is over. He may decide to run away because he cannot face them, but that only compounds his problem. Some professing Christians are trying to hide from God because they are afraid that He has not really rescinded sin’s penalty, that eventually He is going to punish them. Believe it, Christian! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The penalty has been repealed.
Fear of punishment can be damaging to our emotional and spiritual well being, but our greatest danger probably comes from guilt. Guilt can be constructive, one of the tools God uses to help us see our need for forgiveness and acknowledge our sin. But after we have seen it and have received His forgiveness by faith, the guilt is gone forever. We never need to struggle with its venomous effect again.
“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD,
“Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
Guilt is viewed as a red stain. That would be most appropriate if the crime were murder, as Shakespeare’s character Macbeth could well attest. But it may also be a fitting description of any sin against God’s holiness. It is a blot, a blemish, a taint, a flaw, a stigma, a red stain that dirties our lives and contaminates our relationships. God’s forgiveness washes that ugly stain as white as snow. Before the days of air pollution, there was nothing purer or cleaner than fresh fallen snow. That is how clean we are when God forgives us. The blood of Jesus Christ washes us and cleanses us (1 John 1:7). It leaves us pure and blameless. What a relief! “Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him” (Psalm 32:2 NIV). His nagging guilt is gone.
We read that and we really may believe it. But somehow when our minds are occupied with our sins, we tend to forget it and we still feel guilty. Satan works very hard at making us feel guilty, accusing us, and condemning us, trying to convince us that God could never forgive the awful things we have done. He knows that when we wallow in guilt, we become discouraged and defeated and are of little use to God. We may begin to say things like, “I’m no good. I never will get victory over this sin, so I might as well go ahead and enjoy it.” And our spiritual power plummets to new lows.
Satan also knows that when we fail to accept God’s forgiveness, we will not be able to forgive ourselves. And when we do not forgive ourselves, we will not be able to forgive others. We will be harsh, demanding, overbearing, intolerant, and punitive in our relationships. Remember Christ’s parable of the unmerciful servant. Because the servant never grasped the reality of his forgiveness, he grabbed one of his fellow slaves by the throat and tried to choke him, demanding payment for the mere twenty dollars he was owed (Matthew 18:28-30). There have been some fierce battles precipitated by professing believers who have never learned to enjoy their freedom from guilt. Satan’s advantage is to hold us in that bondage to guilt. Do not let him do it. God has forgiven you. Accept His forgiveness, and then forgive yourself. It will help you forgive others who have wronged you and treat them with kindness, patience, and tolerance. People who know a forgiving God will forgive others. If you have been experiencing conflicts, your new attitude will help to bring peace to your relationships.
It is difficult to look people in the eye when we know that we have wronged them. We wonder if they know what we have done, whether or not they are holding it against us, or what they might try to do to get back at us. But if we are sure they have forgiven us, the barriers are gone and we are free to enjoy an open and cordial relationship with them once again.
In like manner, sin builds a barrier that hinders our fellowship with God. Isaiah said to the people of his day, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2). He likens those sins to a thick cloud that blocks the rays of the sun. But just as a cloud can be dispelled by the sun or the wind, so God dispels our cloud of sin when he forgives us.
I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud,
And your sins like a heavy mist.
Return to Me, for I have redeemed you (Isaiah 44:22).
With the cloud of sin removed, the debt canceled, the penalty satisfied, and the guilt gone, we are free to come boldly into His presence and enthusiastically enjoy His fellowship.
And it will ever be so. God assures us that when He forgives our sins, He remembers them no more (cf. Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17). He will never allow them to come between us again. Why then should we? The child of God stands forgiven for all time. Paul says we have been forgiven of all our trespasses, and that includes sins that are past, present, and future (Colossians 2:13; cf. also Psalm 103:3). When we believe that, we can come joyfully and confidently into His presence.
Remember that while our forgiving God has provided for our eternal forgiveness, He still reserves the right to establish the condition by which we may experience that forgiveness. Peter mentioned the condition as he preached in the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. He was speaking about the Lord Jesus when he said, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43). Belief in Christ—that is the condition. Forgiveness is offered to all, but it is only experienced by those who will turn from their sin and place their personal trust in Jesus Christ as the One who can deliver them from its guilt and penalty.
Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him;
And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7).
Abundant pardon is pardon that is multiplied over and over, pardon that has no limit. It is ours for the believing. If you have never done so before, avail yourself by faith of God’s offer.
If you have trusted Christ as your Saviour, thank God right now for your total forgiveness. Whenever Satan tries to make you feel guilty over some past sin, remind yourself that you have been fully forgiven.
Now think about someone who has wronged you and forgive him for what he has done; that is, decide that you will pay for his offenses in full. And remember to treat him as fully forgiven.