Guilt has two distinct aspects: legal and emotional. Legal guilt is the outcome of a legal or a moral violation. If a break the law or a moral code, I am “guilty” of breaking it. Put another way, the breaking of law or code imparts guilt to the law breaker. Emotional guilt is the outcome of the conscience that God has given us. It is the spiritual organ that causes us to feel pain when we do wrong. Rightly tuned, it is a good thing to have. As Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
Legal and emotional guilt may be paired in any one of four ways:
1. No legal guilt with no guilt feelings. This, of course, is where we would like to be all the time. I have neither broken a law nor do have any sense of conviction.
2. No legal guilt with guilt feelings. This can come about by a misunderstanding of the intent of a law, or it can be a sign of an overly sensitive conscience. A girl, raised with the teaching that make-up is of the devil, who tries a little blush, may feel guilty.
3. Legal guilt with no guilt feelings. On the good side, this comes from convicting an innocent person. On the serious side, this comes from the reprobate who feels bad for being caught in his or her law breaking, but has no sense of wrongdoing. As Proverbs 30:20 says, “This is the way of an adulterous woman: She eats and wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’”
4. Legal guilt with guilt feelings. Not the best place to be but it certainly presents cause for hope. It’s the stuff from which repentance comes.
The story of Stephen in the Book of Acts gives us an example of wrong legal guilt for which the legally guilty person has no guilt feelings. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, for being one of Jesus’ followers. They found him guilty of blasphemy and stoned him. Stephen was legally guilty as far as the Jewish criminal justice system was concerned. He had incurred a legal debt that demanded his death. From the standpoint of a higher truth, however, he was not guilty, and in fact, his conscience was not inflamed at all.
The men who stoned Stephen took Stephen’s clothes and placed them at the feet of a man named Saul. Saul did not feel guilty either; in fact, Scripture says he approved of the stoning of Stephen. Saul was quite innocent before the Sanhedrin, yet he was morally guilty before a higher Truth.
It’s clear that guilt is a complex subject that affects all of us. We are, of course, in the best of situations when code and conscience, at the level of highest truth, are in agreement. Note again Hebrews 5:14” But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” A proper functioning conscience is a mark of maturity.
Guilt is universal. We have all felt guilty and have been guilty. If we examine the philosophies of the world, we find that, whereas many of them do not recognize the biblical concept of sin, they will invariably recognize the concept of guilt and try to deal with it. This includes not only many religions but also the fields of psychology and psychiatry. This demonstrates the degree to which guilt and guilt feelings trouble the human race.
Some religious groups stir up guilt as a means of control. They seek to expand the scope of guilt.
Conversely, Humanistic philosophies try to narrow the scope of guilt. They do not affirm valid guilt except in regard to violating the space, privacy, or short-term welfare of another person.
Psychiatry often takes the blame-shifting approach to guilt feelings. The comedian Anna Russell wrote a poem that pokes fun at this.
I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat and blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find
And here’s what he dredged up from my subconscious mind.
When I was one my mommy hid my dolly in a trunk
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
And when I was two I saw my father kiss the maid one day
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomaniae.
At three I had the feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy now I’ve learned a lesson this has taught
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.58
Although true Christianity offers a solution to guilt, there is a charicature of Christianity that portrys it as a producer of guilt feelings instead. This has led some to attack Christianity as being harmful to good mental health, as the following quote from The Humanist magazine demonstrates. The article it comes from is called “The Fundamentalist Anonymous Movement.”
At long last, the best kept secret in America is being revealed to the public: the fundamentalist experience can be a serious mental health hazard to perhaps millions of people. … At this time, more than ten thousand people, hardly a significant number compared to the population from which it claims to come, have called or written us. Even though they come from all fifty states and constitute a cross-section of American society, there is a common list of complaints that we hear again and again: years of overwhelming guilt, fear, and anxiety after leaving the fundamentalist fold, loneliness, chronic depression, low self-esteem, years in therapy, and sometimes even attempts at suicide.59
They are saying that fundamentalists are really pouring on the guilt. Although there are some religious groups, Christian and otherwise, that use guilt to manipulate their members, we still have to realize that guilt feelings are God-given, just like our emotions of fear and anger. All emotions, however, have been warped by sin. Just as there are those who develop sinful anger patterns or are too fearful, there are those who have destructive guilt. Then again, there are others who do not feel guilty enough. What seems clear is that a proper balance must be the goal to which we strive for our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Leviticus chapters 4 through 7 present the Sin and Guilt offerings. The two themes intermingle throughout. Thus, the Bible, contrary to our modern culture, closely ties sin and guilt together. Look at how both relate to each other in the following texts.
Leviticus 5:5-6 When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.
Leviticus 5:15 When a person commits a violation and sins unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, he is to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering.
Notice the two passages! On the one hand, if a person is guilty he may need to bring a sin offering. On the other hand, if a person sins, he may need to bring a guilt offering. The two concepts are seemingly inseparable.
The Bible describes a number of occasions when guilt offerings were made. A guilt offering was part of the ceremonial cleansing of a leper. A guilt offering was required when a man or woman, under a Nazarite vow, came in contact with a dead animal or person and unintentionally broke their vow.
The most interesting illustration is told in 1 Samuel 6. The Philistines had captured the ark of God. Their excitement turned to dismay as problems mounted from their having the ark in their possession. In particular, their god Dagon kept falling over and the people suffered from tumors. Their recourse was to “invent” a guilt offering, presumably for sinning against the Lord’s holy things.
1 Samuel 6:1-5 Now the ark of the Lord had been in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we shall send it to its place.” And they said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but you shall surely return to Him a guilt offering. Then you shall be healed and it shall be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.” Then they said, “What shall be the guilt offering which we shall return to Him?” And they said, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for one plague was on all of you and on your lords. So you shall make likenesses of your tumors and likenesses of your mice that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land.
Another example is related at the end of the Book of Ezra. The exiles had returned from their captivity, and guilt and sin offerings had been made. Afterwards, the leaders came to Ezra and told him that the priests, Levites, and others had married foreign wives. Ezra 9:2 says, “They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” Ezra was so distraught at the marring of the racial purity of Israel that he literally pulled his own hair out. He asked the Levites to repent and put away their foreign wives. Many offered guilt offerings. They perhaps had sinned without knowledge or had violated the holy things of God, i.e. “the holy race.”
The passages in Leviticus that concern the guilt offering have the following structure:
1. Leviticus 5:14-16 The Guilt Offering is required for violating the Lord’s holy things.
2. Leviticus 5:17-19 The Guilt Offering is required when one sins without knowing it.
3. Leviticus 6:1-7 The Guilt Offering is required for extortion or robbery.
4. Leviticus 7:1-6 The details of the Guilt Offering.
Leviticus 5:14-16 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “If a person acts unfaithfully and sins unintentionally against the LORD'S holy things, then he shall bring his guilt offering to the LORD: a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation in silver by shekels, in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him.”
What are the Lord’s holy things?
1. The Lord’s name is holy. We are commanded to not misuse it or take it in vain. Swearing falsely by the name of the Lord violates and brings dishonor to the Lord. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray for the sanctity of the Lord’s name.
2. The Sabbath was to be kept holy. An unintentional Sabbath violation would be one of the things that required a guilt offering.
3. The offerings and the temple rites were holy. Much of the temple ceremony dealt with maintaining its holy character. An improperly trained priest could violate any part of the ordinance and be guilty. Leviticus 19 directs that any remains of the peace offering was to be burned on the third day. Leviticus 19:7,8 says, “So if it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an offense; it will not be accepted. And anyone who eats it will bear his iniquity, for he has profaned the holy thing of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from his people
4. National purity was holy. The Israelites were to be holy just as their Lord God was holy. Not maintaining purity in their worship of the one true God and by their inter-marrying, they violated the Lord’s holy things.
What are some of the Lord’s holy things for Christians?
1. The Lord’s Name. As stated above, Jesus taught us to pray “Hallowed be Thy name.”
2. The Gospel. Paul says in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!”
3. Our Bodies. As Paul says again in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or, do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body”
4. The Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 10:14f, Paul associates the table of the Lord and partaking of it with the “most holy” offerings in Leviticus:
Therefore, my dear friends flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of one loaf. Consider the people of Israel: do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?
There is more to be said about the holiness of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:27, Paul writes:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Many would say that this means we are not to partake of the Lord’s table with unconfessed sin, but I do not think that is true. Paul says, whoever eats or drinks in an “unworthy manner.” If we take both this passage and what we see in Leviticus, the Lord’s table is one of the most holy things of the Lord. We are to regard it as holy.
I am certainly not saying there is a transubstantiation of the elements when we serve the Lord’s table. But it is “most holy” for us. Paul clearly associates this with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. Paul says it is a “participation” in the body and blood of Christ, and through the one loaf, it is a communion among us with fellow believers. I think we recognize it is emblematic of the Lord’s death and resurrection; we recognize it as one of the symbols of our salvation, but we sometimes lose sight of the fact it is also holy.
All of us are believer priests and may eat—both men and women. The Levitical priests would violate the Lord’s holy things if they ate anything with blood in it. Yet we freely participate in both the body and the blood of Christ. Here’s why: when the priest ate the guilt offering, he was ingesting the sin of the offerer to make atonement for him. The blood was excluded because the life was in the blood, and the life had to be shed because of guilt. For us, Christ has made the perfect atonement. We partake of His sinless body and drink His life, which is in His blood.
Leviticus 5:17-19 Now if a person sins and does any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, still he is guilty and shall bear his punishment. He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him. It is a guilt offering; he was certainly guilty before the LORD.
Unknown sin is a class of unintentional sin. A sin can be unknown because you didn’t know that an action violated the Lord’s command. It could also be because circumstances hid from you the sinful nature of your actions. Here is an example:
When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. So Abimelech summoned Isaac and said, “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac answered him, “Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.” Then Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the men might have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us” (Genesis 26:8-10).
One debate in our modern age is between situational ethics and absolute morals. Between Abimelech and Isaac, there was no such debate. A Philistine would have been guilty of adultery if he had slept with Rebekah, even though the situation suggested differently. Incidentally, this is the first occurrence of the word “guilt” in the Scriptures.
Another incident that combines elements of unknown sin and the Lord’s holy things occurs in Joshua chapter 9. The Gibeonites, marked by the Lord for destruction by the Israelites, dressed up and pretended to be from a distant land. They asked Joshua to make a treaty with them. Though Joshua asked some probing questions, he did not inquire before the Lord before making the treaty, and he swore by the Lord to make the treaty. When the truth became known, Joshua stood by the treaty he had made by swearing on the Lord’s name, but obviously he was guilty of an unknown violation of the Lord’s commands. In this case, the guilt was incurred in ignorance. Ignorance, however, is no excuse. The guilt exists and must be dealt with.
Will any of us ever know the Scriptures in such a way, or be so led by the Spirit, as to never commit an unknown sin and thus incur guilt in our lives? Probably not. Anyone who says we can live sinlessly before our resurrection has a shallow view of the human heart and no understanding of God’s righteous character. This offering demonstrates God’s grace to the Israelite by making a provision for not knowing it all, not understanding it all, and feeling a sense of God’s righteousness and of falling short, yet not knowing why.
In a study on Proverbs that Dr. Bruce Waltke taught many years ago, he described four Hebrew words translated “fool” in Proverbs. They are: (a) pethi: Naive, simple one, not committed; (b) kesil: Dull insensitive, foolish; (c) evil: A hater of wisdom; (d) qalas: The scoffer. These words suggest a continuum between the ignorant and uncommitted, and the premeditated sinner. Everything we do falls somewhere within this continuum.
Intentional sin is brash, bold, direct, premeditated, and consuming. There are many descriptions of those who plan the next day’s evil when they go to sleep at night. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah 5:18-23:
Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes, to those who say, “Let God hurry, let Him hasten His work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it.” Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the LORD, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering. Then he shall bring to the priest his guilt offering to the LORD, a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt” (Leviticus 6:1-7)
According to Leviticus, if you cheat your neighbor, you need to bring a guilt offering. If you find property and do not return it, you need to bring a guilt offering. Along with the guilt offering, you also return what was stolen, plus 20 percent.
I am immediately reminded of the words of Jesus: “Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23, 24). The gift Jesus is referring to may be a peace offering or a tithe. Regardless, it is made worthless by the offense someone has received from you.
Guilt is legal and/or moral debt. Both the Levitical offerings and Christianity claim to resolve guilt in our lives. But the enemies of the church are able to accuse us of generating huge amounts of guilt. What gives? Are we innocent of the charge? Mostly so, but partly not. The emotion of guilt, like anger and fear, can be distorted by sin. An overactive conscience is one of the liabilities of spiritual warfare, especially as we draw nearer and nearer to God. Neither do Christianity’s detractors understand that a deadened conscience is also damaging to the person.
How do we handle guilt biblically? For true guilt—whether against the Lord or man, whether known or unknown—the Levitical combination of restitution and the guilt offering absolved the offender of all legal and moral debt. For the Christian, restitution and the death of Jesus Christ, our guilt offering (Isaiah 53:10) also absolves us of legal and moral debt. This statement is important because one of the reasons we carry our guilt is that we refuse to recognize that the debt has been paid.
When I was a teenager, I was hired as a lifeguard, but did not take my position as seriously as I should have. One day I was sitting on the sidelines of the pool talking with some girls (rather than up in the chair). Suddenly I saw a man running along the edge of the pool, in violation of the rules. I blew my whistle, but he didn’t quit running. Instead, he dove into the pool and brought up a young boy out of the water. His face was very blue. The Lord was good to me; the boy revived quickly and no permanent harm came to him. This is an illustration of the kind of guilt that can be damaging to us if we don’t leave it behind. I can’t bring up the memory of this incident without reliving it very vividly. I repented right away, and after that time became a conscientious lifeguard. But it would be pointless to condemn myself each time I remembered the situation. I sinned, incurred guilt, and repented. Jesus, my guilt offering, paid my debt to God. Therefore, I can let the past be the past and move on with a clear conscience.
Here are some concrete ideas for handling guilt:
1. Our conscience must be correctly trained. It must alert us when we have failed to do, as we ought. This requires faithful teaching:
1 Timothy 1:3, 5 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer … The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Hebrews 5:11-12, 14 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk not solid food! … But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
2. Not all of our sin will be known to us. This is really an extension of the first point, but it also covers those times when we just feel unworthy. The sin nature is a deep, festering pool. Now that we know the Lord instituted an offering for this, we may have confidence that this is normal and covered by the cross.
3. Confession is better than denial. First John 1:9 validates the role confession has in the life of the believer. It contains the promise of cleansing, and by faith, we know that our known failings will eventually be behind us, and our unknown failings brought to light and cleansed. Confessing unknown sinfulness is appropriate.
4. When restitution is possible, make it. When restitution is offered, accept it. Restitution is what uniquely distinguishes the guilt offering from the sin offering. Restitution brings healing, and cancels the legal and moral debt on the horizontal level between men.
5. Learn the lesson, and leave it behind you. I suspect that it is here that we drop the ball. But consider the Israelite who appears before the priest with the property of his neighbor, plus 20 percent of its value in grain, plus the ram. When all has been offered, what else is there to do? The moral and legal debt is paid. What more can he do? Nothing. Continuing to carry it around as baggage is not faith and may violate the holiness of the guilt offering and the atonement of the priest.
For the believer, our guilt offering is Jesus Christ. Restitution is our responsibility, and confession and cleansing are offered to us. Even if it is a recurring sin, we need to confess it and leave the guilt behind us.
We are guilty of violating the Lord’s holy things. We are guilty of unknown sins, and we have wronged our neighbors. The good news comes from the prophet Isaiah who wrote:
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many and he will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:10-11).
Messiah was prophesied to be our guilt offering. The word “justify” means to declare “not guilty.” The moral and legal debt is canceled, but there is more. The author of Hebrews wrote:
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts; and I will write them on their minds.” Then He adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:10-18).
Jesus Christ, our sin offering, is the eternal solution to our guilt. He offered Himself for your guilt, but you must acknowledge your guilt and accept this guilt offering He made for you. Then you can rejoice in the knowledge that you will be made holy.
57 This message was preached by Don Curtis (email) an excellent student of the Scriptures, teacher, and good friend. Don graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1974 with a degree in Philosophy. He has since become a Senior Computer Programmer with the IBM Corporation. For a number of years, Don and his family attended Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas, until his job took him to Atlanta, Georgia. Partly from Bob Deffinbaugh’s influence, biblical studies and teaching have become a passion in his Christian life. Don is currently an elder and teacher at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, GA.
58 Adams, Jay E., Competent to Counsel, 1971, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, p. 8.
59 Luce, James J. D., “The Fundamentalists Anonymous Movement,” The Humanist, January/February 1986, pp. 11, 12.