Guilt Feelings
(What should Christians do about guilt feelings for sin already forgiven?)

QUESTION: A Christian writes, "I have repeatedly gone back to my old ways of living two lives, and I have been a terrible hypocrite. I love Jesus, and God my Father, and I believe I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

As I enter my later years I have made a decision to avoid sinning in every way, but I live with the guilt of the years since Jesus opened my eyes to His truth. How do I handle this guilt?"

ANSWER: Thank you for your frank description of what's happening in your life. It's not easy to give a short answer to your question, but let me cover a few things.

1. Standing and State
It's important to distinguish between these two great realities. (See diagram.) When a person trusts in Christ for salvation, he is said to be "in Christ" as far as his legal standing is concerned (I Cor. 1:30). God sees him as participating in Christ's death and resurrection, "in Him."

He is clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Gal. 3:26-27), and has an eternally perfect standing before God (Heb. 10:14), because that standing is based on Christ's unchanging righteousness, not his own.

But the Bible also speaks of another reality, that Christ is dwelling within us, by His Holy Spirit. Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).  That has to do, not with our standing, but with our spiritual state.

We are to live out the life of Christ implanted within us. While our standing can never change, because Christ never changes, our state is quite different. It's to be hoped that we will continue to grow in our Christian lives. But we do stumble from time to time. Even as children disobey their parents, we disobey our heavenly Father.

We look forward to the day when what we are as to our legal standing will also be true of us eternally as to our state. He is "Christ in [us], the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). But meanwhile we have to deal with sin in our lives, when it rears its ugly head.

2. Dealing with Sin
We are assured that, "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (I Cor. 10:13).

The Lord can strengthen us against temptation as we regularly study His Word (Ps. 119:9, 11), and pray for His help (Matt. 6:13). He has also provided spiritual armour to help us (Eph. 6:10-18, see http://www.wordwise-bible-studies.com/christian-armour.html).

We also need to avoid, as much as possible, those situations that we know are particularly tempting to us, and choose friends that will not pull us back into those situations. Sometimes, the best thing to do when we are confronted with temptation is to run away. That is not cowardice, it's godly wisdom. Joseph did it (Gen. 39:7-12), and Paul urged Timothy to do so too (II Tim. 2:22).

It's to be hoped that we will grow stronger and more able to keep to the right path, over time, but we are weak and fallible creatures, after all. "If we say that we have no sin [no sinful nature], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us....If we say that we have not sinned [committed sinful acts], we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (I Jn. 1:8, 10).

Dealing with our tendency to sin, because of our fallen nature, has to do with recognizing the fact, and daily depending on the Spirit of God to do right.

We are to deal with the second problem by confessing our sins to God (I Jn. 1:9). To "confess" means to agree. We are to agree with God about our sin. This will include or imply several things: the admission that it is wrong, and that we have offended a holy God, plus the desire to forsake our sin and not repeat it.

We ought to keep what are sometimes called "short accounts" with God. That is, we need to confess our sins as the Spirit of God convicts us, and not put it off. Sometimes we need to seek the forgiveness of another person as well, and make restitution, depending on the particular sin. When we "confess" our sin, God's promise is that "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (vs. 9).

3. Remembering Our Sin
God promises "their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more" (Heb. 8:12). But how can an omniscient God actually forget? In one way, He can't. But it means the Lord is pledging never again to bring them up, never again to allow them to affect our fellowship with Him.

After we have sincerely confessed it, if we were to say, "Lord, I need to talk to you about that sin I committed," His response would be, "What sin?" We can move on with the assurance that our sin is gone, completely wiped off the record.

However, we likely remember it! What we have done in the past may continue to come to mind. That was true of Paul. He told the Galatian Christians, "I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it" (Gal. 1:13). He told the Corinthian believers the same thing (I Cor. 15:9), so it obviously bothered him.

In a way, this is not a bad thing. It helps to keep us humble! To realize how we have offended God, who loves us so much He sent His beloved Son to die for us, will also help us to think twice before we do so again.

In Psalm 51, where David confesses his great sin involving Bathsheba and her husband, He says "My sin is always before me" (vs. 3). Painful memories can have a positive effect. But, having said that, we do need to move on.

4. Recalling God's Promises
Paul talks about "forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead" (Phil. 3:13). Again, this "forgetting" is like God's, mentioned previously. It's not that we get some kind of amnesia. We know what we did! But we purposely do not allow it to dog our steps, and interfere with our lives.

It's the devil's work to cause us to do that. He's the "accuser" (Rev. 12:9-10), trying to cripple us with guilt. At such times we may feel guilty, but we're not, in any legal sense. God doesn't see us that way, and it's His view of us that counts.

What did the Lord promise to those who confessed their sin to Him? That "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (vs. 9). Another verse says, "You [God] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Mic. 7:19).

It is worthwhile for us to mark such verses in our Bibles, and commit them to memory. Then, when guilty feelings assail us from the accuser, we can remind ourselves of what God has said. "If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things" (I Jn. 3:20).

"As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Ps. 103:12). That's an interesting one. What if the Bible had said, "As far as the north is from the south." That wouldn't be very reassuring. If we travel north, we'll eventually come to the pole and begin traveling south. North meets south, at the poles. But you can travel east forever, and never come to the point where you are going west.

The One who said, "It is finished" (Jn. 19:30) meant it! "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace" (Eph. 1:7). "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses [purifies] us from all [from every] sin" (I Jn. 1:7).

And we have an Advocate (a counsel for the defense) seated at the right hand of the Father (I Jn. 2:1). The wounds He bears are sufficient testimony that our sin has been dealt with, and will never be brought up against us again. Amen!...