Guilt Grace and Forgiveness (Part 1) “Why do we need to talk about guilt?”

I‘ve found, when I’m preaching, that when I touch upon the subject of guilt, something resonates. I pick up on it subjectively as I sense people’s attention being grabbed and as I watch body language and facial expressions. I pick up on it objectively as the level of feedback picks up!

So guilt seems to be something we need to talk about, even though we don’t always want to and not everyone wants us to. In fact, that’s the odd thing isn’t it? Whilst the reaction to me talking about guilt is there, if I told you that I was going to talk a lot about guilt then you probably would have second thoughts about attending church for a while. Even mentioning “guilt” in the title here will put some people off reading!

Why we need to talk about guilt


What is the Gospel?

Not everybody thinks we should be talking about guilt. In fact some people think we talk about it too much. So there is a theological issue at stake (in fact there are 2 theological issues at stake, more of which below). The argument goes that western people don’t want to talk about guilt anymore. It sounds negative. It makes God look vindictive and angry.  Also, people coming from a non-western background are more likely to think in terms of honour/shame.

It’s this line of thought that underpins the sort of thinking seen in The Lost Message of Jesus (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann). One of the reasons Penal Substitution is rejected by them is because it is seen as to do with guilt and punishment.

So for example, Chalke writes:

“A friend of mine was invited to attend an Easter service at a large church. Hundreds of people had gathered, including many young people who attended their children’s club. As part of the service, the club’s very enthusiastic leader was invited to speak. He talked for a few minutes, focusing on the fact that all the kids who pass their doors had learned ‘the four most important things in the world.’ By the time he had finished speaking, everyone was obviously keen to discover what these vital truths were. But rather than tell the congregation himself, he invited an eight year old girl to the stage. She introduced herself and then, with as bold a voice as she could muster declared, ‘The four most important things in the world are:

  1. God created me
  2. I am a sinner
  3. Jesus came to die for me
  4. Until I accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour I cannot receive the abundant life God has for me.’

My friend sat in her seat stunned. Was the second most important thing in the world that eight year olds need to know really that they are sinners? Is this what we have reduced the majestic message of Jesus to? Surely a child would be better knowing:

  1. Jesus explained that God loves them unconditionally.
  2. God longs for them to be part of his plan for creation.
  3. Jesus teaches that no-one can keep them from this destiny except their own decision.
  4. Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead prove that he was telling the truth so we can trust him.”[1]

Earlier in the same book, Chalke talks unfavourably about Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” This sort of “hell fire preaching” is presented as gloomy and presented a false image of God.  Fascinatingly, Chalke fails to tell us that this sermon fits into a wider picture of Edwards’ teaching and writing that presents a wonderful, gracious, joy filled God. He doesn’t mention that Edwards’ preaching was used to prompt a great awakening of faith that included an intense experience of God’s presence.  He also misses the point that in the sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” That God’s hand is presented as restraining the sinner from falling into hell not dangling them there to torture them, ready to hold them in.

Chalke and Mann are probably two of the strongest and, in the UK most prominent critics of traditional, conservative Evangelical approaches to the Gospel.[2] However, they are not alone.  This argument underpins the approach of people like Rob Bell. Senior academic theologians including Tom Wright, Joel Green and Scott McKnight are often quoted in support of the thesis.[3]

So if we shouldn’t talk about guilt and punishment, then what should we talk about? In this view, guilt, punishment and penal substitution provides just one model of the atonement, a presentation of why Christ died which is discardable and interchangeable with other atonement models. These models include

Christ as the victor over evil

Christ as the example we are to follow

Christ as the one who demonstrates God’s love to us

Picking up these models enables us to present a different Gospel message more in tune with our hearers. The focus should be much more on confronting evil in the world around us. This will help people to get on board with a cause. Jesus’s life, death and resurrection become more about his victory over evil, demonstration of God’s love and example to his followers.

The problem here is twofold.  First of all, this approach leaves a big gap in our reading of the Bible’s presentation of the Gospel. It is right to see that a rich presentation of the Gospel will include talk of how Jesus demonstrates God’s love to us.[4]  As we present the Gospel, people should pick up on the sense that Christ has won, that evil has been defeated.[5]And proper discipleship must include teaching believers to follow Christ’s example.[6]

However, if we lose the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty of sin on himself them we lose the heart of the Gospel. In fact without this at its heart, all those other aspects become meaningless. It is right, when we talk about the cross that we ask the question “Why was it necessary for Jesus to die?”

If evil is just something out there, then surely the right answer would be for God to send out his angel hosts to vanquish Satan in battle. If we simply need an example of godly obedience, then Jesus modelled that in his life. If we need a demonstration of God’s love then a bloody sacrifice seems a strange way to do it, a manipulative and ugly way of catching our attention. In fact if the Cross is simply about demonstrating love or winning some kind of victory then it begins to look exactly like the sort of cosmic abuse that Chalke and Mann were so adamant that they were trying to avoid.

The Cross was necessary because evil isn’t just something out here to be defeated. Evil exists in this world because we, humans are sinners. We deserve death as the punishment for sin.  We need forgiveness. The Bible tells us that Jesus bore our punishment. He took our place. It is exactly because he did this that death, evil and the devil are defeated. This is how he demonstrates love, he takes our place, he bears our guilt and shame.  This then is the example he offers. It’s an example of how to face unjust accusation and to bear the burdens of others.   The Gospel is beautiful because it means freedom from guilt and sin. The Gospel is wonderful because it gives us the hope of eternal life.

This is at the heart of Paul’s presentation in the letter to the Romans. For Paul the problem is as follows.

God has clearly revealed who he is to us but we have rejected him, we have been deaf to his voice and blind to his revelation of himself.

We are objectively guilty and without excuse –all have sinned.

God’s Law is powerless to rescue. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot justify ourselves.

And so the solution is presented in terms of

  1. Jesus has taken the penalty of sin on himself. He has been punished where we stood guilty
  2. We are justified by faith –this means we are declared righteous/innocent. We are given Christ’s righteousness
  3. We have new life, we have died to our old self and risen to new life with Christ
  4. We are no longer condemned. The high point in Romans 8 surely makes it clear that this is a guilt-punishment-forgiveness issue

The other problem is that their analysis of modern society is just plain wrong and out of sync with the analysis of popular culture. The   early 21st Century TV drama “Shameless” probably better captures the prevailing zeitgeist.  A drive down Broad Street on a Friday night suggests that shame is not the prevailing mood.  Reality TV (Big Brother, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent) tend to rely on the assumption that we have low shame thresholds. Trisha and Jeremy Kyle built their shows on the premise that people have very little shame and are prepared to go through public humiliation for cash but a lot of guilt and blame and therefore also willing to attempt public atonement.

The problem is that whilst the Church is deserting the one Gospel that offers hope of atonement and forgiveness, the world is offering its solutions (drugs, therapy, ritual humiliation) for the very same guilt epidemic we have been conditioned into denying exists.

(Coming soon -part two “Who is the Gospel for?)

[1] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2003), 172-173.

[2] See also Alan Mann, Atonement for a Sinless Society (2nd Ed. Eugene, Oregon. Cascade Books, 2015). In this book he expands on the thesis that guilt does not resonate with people but shame does.

[3] The extent to which they buy into the argument will vary from theologian to theologian and some may be less happy than others to be identified with the argument.

[4] 1 John 4:9

[5] Colossians 2:15.

[6] 1 Peter 2:21