So many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and they live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises this question: What is the place of guilt, what is the place of shame, in the life of the Christian? I want to take a shot at answering that question today.
We need to begin by distinguishing between guilt and shame. Here is how I differentiate between them: Guilt is the objective reality that I have committed an offense or a crime; shame is the subjective experience of feeling humiliation or distress because of what I have done. God has made us in such a way that sin incurs guilt and guilt generates shame. But there is a catch and a caution: Guilt and shame come in helpful forms and in paralyzingly unhelpful forms. Guilt and shame can be a good gift of God or a curse of Satan.
When I sin against God I may find that my conscience accuses me, that it convicts me that I have done wrong. My guilt, the realization that I have sinned, brings a feeling of shame. This guilt and shame is a good gift of God when it motivates me to repent of my sin, to look again to the cross of Christ.
When I repent of sin, I am assured by God that Christ himself has already dealt with the guilt of it. At the cross the guilt of that offense was transferred to Christ. He took that sin—the full, objective, legal guilt of it—upon himself to such an extent that my sin became his sin. Jesus Christ took every hateful thought and adulterous glance and spiteful word and every other sin upon himself. He took that sin to the cross and suffered God’s wrath against it to the point that justice was satisfied. This means that the offense has been truly and fully paid for. It is gone. I am no longer guilty before God!
But Christ did more than that. Not only did he take away my guilt, but he also gave me his righteousness. This is the great exchange of the gospel, that my sin was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to me. I am not only not sinful, but I am actually righteous. Because the guilt of the offense is gone, the shame is gone as well. Because that sin is no longer my own, the shame is no longer my own.