On gospel and guilt

Do we need to make people feel guilty to proclaim the gospel?

Guilt was an important message of the Medieval church. The church declared people’s guilt. You had to confess your sins to the church, and the church had the power to give absolution. The church would determine the penance you needed to perform as an expression of your repentance. The church decided your eternal destiny (heaven or hell) because it held the keys to kingdom. Paying money to the church may even shorten the after-life purification needed before a relative could be accepted into heaven (via purgatory). A cynic could describe the church was a large corporate entity that traded in guilt.

In October 1517, a priest named Martin Luther challenged the authority to the church to determine people’s guilt. That was central to his 95 Theses, e.g.:

#6 The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission …

#36 Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

#76 … the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.

Reading Romans in the original Greek language, Luther rediscovered that it is God who forgives sins, through the Christ-event (the cross). It is God who declares you right (justifies). The gospel addresses the problem of the human conscience, i.e. awareness of guilt.

It’s hard to overemphasize the significance of conscience for Luther. His Commentary on Galatians runs to some 300 pages, and the word conscience appears on nearly every page (around 300 times). For Luther, the guilty conscience is the problem the gospel solves. But I suggest Luther did something we all do: bringing his concern to the text, rather than exegeting it from the text. Do you know how many times the word conscience appears in the Book of Galatians? Not at all.

Luther and the Reformers made a huge difference by emphasizing that justification comes from God through the cross of Christ, not from or through the power of the Church. It’s wonderful, liberating truth that has resounded throughout history ever since. But what they did not do was to question the underlying issue of whether the church should have been trading in guilt in the first place. Is that a correction that still needs to be made?

Luther read Paul as if Paul’s main problem was his guilty conscience. But Paul had no such problem (unless you read Romans 7:24 in a particularly wooden and individualistic manner). In fact, Paul could say:

Acts 23:1 (ESV)
Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.

Even before his conversion, Paul’s conscience wasn’t a problem:

Philippians 3:4, 6 (ESV)
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:
… as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Paul was not converted because he had a revelation of his guilt. He was converted because he had a revelation of the resurrected Messiah (Acts 9:3-6). After this encounter with Jesus, as he reflected on his previous life, he realized he was misguided in his zeal to protect the faith of his fathers by persecuting Jesus’ followers. Then — after conversion — he saw his guilt, and could describe himself as the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

We’re not saying sin doesn’t matter. It does: it killed Jesus. What we’re saying (in kingdom terms) is that condemnation is not the path to repatriation.

So what do you think? Does this mean that the style of evangelism used by Jonathan Edwards in his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is misguided? Is evangelism about proving people’s guilt? Is stirring up a bad conscience the path to conversion?

Are we called to announce a revelation of people’s moral failure, or a revelation of Jesus as Lord? Which awareness must come first?

What others are saying

William R. Stegner, “The Jew, Paul” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne et al, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 504:

A further point should be made in reference to Paul’s statement “as to righteousness under the Law blameless” (Phil 3:6). The uneasy, guilt-ridden conscience of the West, as seen particularly in Martin Luther and his age, should not be read back into Paul’s psyche (see Stendahl).

Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos, 1997), 22-23:

Whoso doth not understand or apprehend this righteousness in afflictions and terrors of conscience, must needs be overthrown. …
Satan abusing the infirmity of our nature, doth increase and aggravate these cogitations in us. Then can it not be but that the poor conscience must be more grievously troubled, terrified and confounded. …
Wherefore the afflicted and troubled conscience hath no remedy against desperation and eternal death, unless it take hold of the promise of grace freely offered in Christ.

See also: John 3:16 — a kingdom perspective.

[previous: When did Jesus label people “sinners”?]

[next: Meditating on mercy]

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean
View all posts by Allen Browne

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