Distinguishing Between Guilt and Guilt

July 18, 2017

Skilled cardiologists make sharp distinctions in diagnosing a possible wide spectrum of heart problems. Skilled counselors as soul physicians must do the same. Let’s consider three biblical distinctions concerning guilt.

Distinction #1 – Guilt Concerning Intentional Sins and Unintentional Sins

While all sin is sin, all sin incurs guilt, and all guilt needs forgiveness from God, the Bible distinguishes intentional sins and unintentional sins (Lev. 4; Num. 15).

Allison, a Christian woman, chose to marry a non-Christian man. She knew that God’s Word prohibits believers from marrying unbelievers (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14). But she married him anyway despite the objections of her conscience, her pastor, and Christian friends. She felt guilty at the time and continued to do so until a biblical counselor helped Allison to confess her sins and receive God’s forgiveness in Christ.

Beth, also a Christian, also married a non-Christian man and thereby also violated God’s Law. But she did so unknowingly, ignorant of God’s Word. Beth felt no guilt. It was only when her biblical counselor taught her God’s Word that Beth immediately felt guilty. She too repented and found God’s forgiveness in Christ.

While Allison’s willful sin and Beth’s unknowing sin were both sinful and incurred true guilt before God, we would minister to each of them differently.

Distinction #2 – Objective Guilt and Subjective Guilt

We should also distinguish between objective guilt before God and subjective guilt. Objective guilt involves our actions of violating God’s Law. Whenever we act (or think, desire, speak, respond, etc.) contrary to God’s Word, we are guilty before God. Whenever we do what God forbids (sins of commission, 1 John 3:4) or fail to do what God requires (sins of omission, James 4:17), we are guilty before God.

Subjective guilt involves our subjective feelings of guilt that result from concluding that we have disobeyed God, whether or not we have actually done so. It is a function of our conscience—an inner sense of guilt. A healthy conscience is biblically instructed; it rightly lines up with God’s Word. We rightly feel guilty when we violate God’s Word. In this sense, guilty feelings are our friends. They warn us that our behavior needs focused inspection to determine in what way we are guilty.

In summary, marrying a non-Christian incurs true guilt—objective guilt before God—whether one subjectively feels that guilt (as Allison) or not (as Beth, at least not initially).

False Guilt?

Secular therapists who deny God’s Law, however, sometimes dismiss the notion of guilt altogether. For them, all guilt is “false guilt.” Objective guilt does not exist because there is no God who imposes any Law upon us. And subjective guilt feelings are problematic disorders that must be therapeutically removed. As biblical counselors, however, we must reject any approach that denies the reality of guilt. True guilt is never false.

But there is a more common way that some Christians speak of “false guilt.”

Consider Callie, another Christian woman, who married a Christian man named Thomas. Both of them love and follow Jesus and are “equally yoked” in terms of the Bible verses above. Yet Callie felt guilty. Why? Because Callie is white, Thomas is black, and her Christian grandparents (wrongly) taught her that God opposes interracial marriage. She entered the marriage with a weak conscience and vague feelings of guilt. She now wonders if she has sinned in marrying an African American man.

At this point, some Christian counselors might label Callie’s sense of guilt as “false guilt” and plead with her, “Callie, stop feeling guilty. You did nothing wrong. Your marriage choice was biblically fine. That’s false guilt that you are feeling.”

There are, however, two problems with calling Callie’s inner struggle “false guilt.” First, the word false might convey to Callie that we are minimizing her feelings and denying her internal struggles. The last impression we want to give those we counsel is a dismissal of their feelings, however confused those feelings are (and the moral judgments undergirding them).

Second, calling it “false guilt” misses the component of objective guilt that is indeed present. Unlike Allison and Beth, Callie did not disobey God’s standards about whom Christians can marry. The Bible nowhere forbids interracial marriage.

In what sense, then, is Callie actually guilty?

Distinction #3 – Clear Guilt and Confused Guilt

While the Bible does not use the phrases “clear guilt” and “confused guilt,” these terms can help us capture distinctions the Bible does make and can help us more wisely view and counsel Allison, Beth, and Callie.

Clear guilt comes when we violate God’s Law in the Bible, whether intentionally (Allison) or unintentionally (Beth), per Distinction #1 above. And if our conscience is functioning biblically, we will experience subjective guilt, per Distinction #2.

On the other hand, confused guilt comes when we allow some standard other than God’s Law to rule our conscience. The standard could be a misinterpreted or misapplied Bible passage (e.g., some Levitical law now fulfilled in Christ) or a human-made “law” (e.g., prohibiting interracial marriages). When we violate our own law, we are objectively guilty before God because we allowed our conscience to submit to a standard other than God’s Law and because we then selfishly violated what we thought would have pleased God. (See Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8–10 where Paul describes true believers with weak consciences—men and women whose consciences were ruled by laws that were not God’s Law.)

Callie’s marital actions violated her conscience. She did what she (inaccurately) believed to be wrong. When we violate these pseudo-laws, we not only will feel guilty but we should feel guilty. Paul tells us that “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” and that “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:14, 23). Callie did not seek to please God but wrongly did something she believed God did not want her to do. Change will mean placing herself under God’s Law found in Scripture, not her own law.

Consider another example of confused guilt: If Allison’s (or Beth’s or Callie’s) husband abandons her, and if she feels responsible for his decision, then Allison will likely face a crippling form of confused guilt. This confused guilt comes from placing herself under a law (e.g., “I must keep my husband faithful; I must make him love me.”) that is not God’s Law. God’s Law requires her to faithfully keep her marital commitments and to love him, but she is not responsible before God to unilaterally save their marriage (see Rom. 12:18).

Thankfully, whether our guilt and any accompanying guilt feelings are intentional or unintentional, or clear or confused guilt, the one remedy remains: the cross of Jesus Christ, the Savior who “will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Question for Reflection

How have you as a biblical counselor sought to deal with cases involving the need to distinguish between intentional and unintentional sin, objective and subjective guilt, and clear and confused guilt?


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