Guilt is a central aspect of the modern evangelical gospel. The first stage of sharing the gospel is to persuade the hearers of their guilt before God. Some preachers are very good at doing this. They believe that repentance is not possible until the people listening to the gospel message feel guilty.
Guilt is the feeling.
Guilty is the verdict.
In the evangelical gospel, repentance is thinking about your sins and feeling guilty and remorseful. For repentance to be real, guilt must proceed to sorrow and regret and a choice to stop being bad.
The gospel message starts with guilt. Once the listeners to the gospel feel guilty, the consequences are reinforced by explaining that their guilt deserves death or punishment in hell. Once this is understood by the people listening, the preacher can introduce Jesus as the remedy for the problem of guilt and hell. He explains that Jesus died in the listeners’ place, taking the punishment they deserved. If the listeners accept the offer, they are freed from the threat of punishment, but their guilt remains. The evangelical gospel also ends with guilt.
Given that guilt is so central to the western evangelical gospel, I was surprised when I studied the New Testament and found that it is only rarely used in the New Testament. When I did a search for “guilt/guilty” in a bible tool, it threw up only five references in Mathew, one in Mark, and one in Luke and five in John. All the references in John and three of those in Matthew were incidents where Jesus was confronting the Jewish leaders. Jesus did not use the word guilt when challenging ordinary people.
Three of the five occurrences of the word guilt in the book of Acts were references to Paul not being guilty of breaking Roman law.
My search threw up five occurrences in Romans, but four of the references were to headings, and only one was in the actual text. This result shows the bias of the editors of the various English translations. They came to Romans expecting to find guilt, so they put guilt in the headings, even though the word guilt was not used in the text of their translation.
Most of the other half-dozen references in English versions of the epistles were translations of Greek words for debt or liability for making a payment, so “guilt” or “guilty” might not have been the best English word. Some translations used the word “liable”.
I was surprised by the results of my online search. Given that guilt plays such an important role in the western evangelical gospel, it is odd that the concept of guilt, as we understand it, is not mentioned much in the New Testament. The New Testament cannot be wrong, so the problem must be with our interpretation of Jesus’ gospel.
When Jesus was preaching to the ordinary people, he did not accuse them of guilt. Rather, he described them as harassed and beaten.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36).
There is a big difference between being guilty and being “harassed and helpless”, and the remedy will be different. Preaching the good news of Jesus should be quite different when speaking to people who are harassed and helpless than what it would be if it was shared with people who are guilty.
Paul gave a similar message in his letters.
I am of the flesh, sold as a slave under sin (Rom 7:14).
Before he came to faith in Jesus, Paul was sold as a slave under sin. Given that he was in bondage to forces from which he could not escape, his real problem was not guilt, but bondage. He did not need a solution for guilt. He needed to be delivered from bondage.
We were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world (Gal 3:4).
Paul explained to the Galatians that before they came to faith in Jesus, they were slaves to the spiritual powers of evil.
Their problem was slavery, not guilt. They needed a way to escape from slavery, not a remedy for guilt. They needed a messiah who would deliver them from spiritual bondage.
We must not confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with the work of Satan. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, who leads people into truth, and the truth sets them free (John 8:36). Satan is accuser (that is his name), who tries to convict people of sin and entrap them in guilt. ("Everyone doing sin is Sin's slave" - John 8:34).
The forensic presentation of Jesus’ gospel that is preached by the evangelical church is no longer effective in reaching people’s hearts. I presume the reason is that modern people are not riddled with guilt like Martin Luther. Luther preached during a time when the church had become legalistic. Most of the teachings of the church focussed on demands for people to behave better. People were constantly urged to live better. The consequence was that people constantly felt guilty. It seemed to be impossible to comply with the standards required by the church.
People like Martin Luther urgently needed a solution for the guilt that crippled them. For him, the good news that he was forgiven by God was a huge relief. The truth that the cross provided freedom from guilt was a very welcome message. Following the reformation, preachers continued to set high demands for the people of God. However, they were not so effective in teaching people how to walk in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Their failure to live according to Jesus’ standards left people feeling guilty. A gospel that absolved guilt continued to be well received.
Modern people are not wracked by guilt in the same way as previous generations. Instead, they see themselves as victims of circumstances that they can’t control. They have tried to live well, but life has not worked out as they expected. Many were let down by their parents. Others were let down by their teachers at school. Many have been hurt by people they trusted. They feel trapped in troubles that have been caused by other people. They don’t feel guilty, because they don’t believe that they are responsible for the situation they have found themselves in. They see them as victims.
I presume that the root of this feeling that they are harassed and victimised is spiritual, although people often don’t see it. However, if they are aware that their problems are spiritual, they feel like they have been entrapped in a bad spiritual place by events beyond their control and the actions of other people. They will acknowledge that they have made mistakes that harmed them, but they would also claim that they did not know what they were doing. This is probably true.
I am sure that many modern people would identify with Paul’s statement that he was in slavery to the elemental spiritual forces of the world. The people do not need a solution for guilt. A gospel that promises release from guilt does not stir their hearts. I sense that modern people need a gospel of deliverance/rescue from the forces of evil that have swamped them and transfer into the healing life of the body. In the gospels and Paul’s letters, this seems to be the good news that was proclaimed.
The book of Hebrews explains that the cross provides a solution for guilt and shame (Heb 9:16; 10:22). Some people feel guilty about their behaviour before they came to know Jesus. Some believe that they have offended God. The cross is the solution that these people need. Dealing with guilt is one aspect of what Jesus achieved, but we should be careful about making it the centre of the gospel. We don’t need to force people who don’t feel guilty to begin to feel guilty, as the first step to hearing the gospel. Jesus met people where they were. Our proclamation of the gospel should do the same.
The problem with the word “salvation” is that it has taken on a religious meaning. We tend to assume that we are saved from the guilt of sin. The forensic gospel that is preached by most evangelists, assumes that we are guilty of disobeying God and deserve to die as the penalty for our sin. In that context, “salvation” sounds like rescue from death or release from hell. The problem is that the Greek word “sozo”, translated as salvation has a broader meaning. It is not a religious word. It refers to deliverance/ rescue from troubles.
I have been reading Scot McKnight’s translation of the New Testament called the Second Testament. In his translation, he has deliberately eschewed the use of words that have a religious meaning. He does this to shock readers into thinking more deeply about the meaning of the gospels and the message of the New Testament. For example, McKnight uses the word “deliverance” for the “sozo” related Greek words instead of the usual religious translation “salvation”. He uses the word “released” for “aphiemi” related words instead of the religious term forgive”.
While reading through the Acts of the Apostles, I was amazed at how this simple change re-shapes the message of the gospel.
Everyone who trusts in him receives release from sins through his name (Acts 10:43).
We are delivered through the Lord Yesous Christos’s grace(Acts 15:11).
Release from sins is proclaimed to you (Acts 13:38).
The path of deliverance (Acts 16:17).
Believe in the Lord Yesous, and you and your house will be delivered (Acts 16:31).
The gospel preached by the Apostles promised release from bondage. This gospel promised deliverance from slavery to the spiritual powers of evil. Not surprisingly, this is the gospel that the modern world needs to hear, and probably wants to hear.
Resurrection and Deliverance
I am intrigued by the way that Paul presented the gospel of Jesus in the book of Acts.
It is necessary for the Christos to suffer and to be raised up from among the dead ones (Acts 17:3 Second Testament).
Two things stand out to me.
Jesus had to suffer.
He has to be raised up from among people who had died.
Modern preachers tend to claim that Jesus died. They often say that he shed his blood. The emphasis is on dying and bleeding. Paul focuses on Jesus' suffering.
This way of presenting Jesus' achievement raises an important question. Why did Jesus have to suffer? I am sure that God did not need Jesus to suffer before he could forgive our failures, as that would make him an ugly father. I presume that it was the spiritual powers of evil who demanded Jesus’ suffering, because they love inflicting harm. They demanded his suffering as a ransom that had to be paid before they would let the people under their control free.
Modern preachers declare that Jesus rose again after being dead. Paul says that he rose up from amongst the people who were dead. That implies that part of his suffering was dying and finding himself in the same place as other people who had died. He suffered by going down with people in bondage to sin and death. When God raised him up, he delivered from the power of death.
Jesus allowed himself to be handed over to the Romans and then into the hands of the spiritual powers of evil. When God raised him up, he delivered him from their power. This was a massive victory over the spiritual powers of evil. This is why he is the anointed Messiah/Rescuer.
The modern evangelical church has confused remorse with repentance. Remorse is defined as a “deep sense of regret, sadness or shame about a past action.” Remorse is the natural response to guilt. Many Christians assume that repentance requires remorse.
Repentance has a different meaning. The Greek word usually translated as repent is “metanoeo”. It means “to think differently”. “meta” means “after or with”. “noieo” means “to exercise the mind, think or consider”. Consequently, repentance means a complete change in thinking about life and the world. It is not remorse for past actions.
Paul is a great example of real repentance. He was a hard-core Pharisee. He persecuted Christians and tried to kill them because he believed they were undermining God’s purposes for Israel. Given what he believed about the Jewish relationship with God, killing Christians was a logical thing to do. Other Jewish leaders were not doing the same, because they were not as serious in their faith as Paul.
On the Damascus Road, Paul had an encounter with Jesus. He realised that his understanding of God and his relationship with the Jews and the world were totally wrong. In an instant, he had to change his world view and his way of thinking about God and what he was doing.
Paul did not wallow in remorse for his treatment of Christians before his encounter with Jesus. He acknowledged that it was wrong, but he understood that it was his understanding of God and the world that was the real wrong. His killing of Christians was the logical consequence of his beliefs about the world. It showed that he was serious about serving God, as he knew him and his ways.
When writing to the Philippians and describing the bad thinking that he had to repent from, he spoke of his circumcision, membership of the tribe of Benjamin, being a Hebrew of the Hebrews, being zealous Pharisee and confidence in his righteousness based on the Law (Phil 3:4-6). His persecution of the church was the action that naturally flowed out of his thinking about God and the world. I am sure he felt remorse about the Christians he had killed, but that remorse would not be enough to change him into a new man. It was his repentance/change of thinking about God, the world and his role in it that enabled him to become a new man. Once he had changed his thinking about God and Jesus, it was logical to give up killing Christians.
When we preach the good news of Jesus, we should be explaining to people that they need to change their thinking about God and the world. Getting them to feel guilty/remorseful about the things they have done in the past is a poor substitute for true repentance. Wrong behaviour is the logical outcome of wrong thinking and the bondage to evil spiritual powers that it produces.
The evangelical gospel that begins with guilt, continues with guilt. Over the holidays, I have listened to some sermons by one of our nation’s best preachers. The theme of his messages is interesting.
We need to pray more, if we want to see revival.
We need to read the Bible more.
We need to worship better. If we do, revival will come.
These words are probably true and no doubt the preacher intended to encourage his listeners to do more of these things.
However, the problem with these messages is that they put a guilt trip on the people listening. The preacher’s message implies that they are not praying enough, not worshipping as seriously as they could, and not reading the bible sufficiently. They are guilty of missing the preacher’s standards. The listeners are probably some of the best Christians in his church. They are probably working hard for their families, occupations and their communities. Most are really committed to following Jesus, but the preacher’s message is that these busy people should be doing more. Although the cross has dealt with their guilt, they are still guilty of not doing enough.
As I reflected on all the sermons that I have heard over years of following Jesus, I realised that many of them have the same effect. The preachers probably intended to encourage their listeners to serve Jesus better, but the ultimate effect is to leave their listeners feeling guilty. Guilt is not a good motivator. Its might make people strive harder, but that is not how we walk in the Spirit and grow in faith.
The Western evangelical gospel begins with guilt, and it continues with guilt as those who accept this gospel attempt to walk in faith.