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“Should a Christian ever feel guilty?” That’s the question I asked an older Christian woman just a few months after I became a Christian. In the months leading up to my conversion to Christ, I’d experienced deep conviction of sin and terrifying guilt. I knew that I had sinned against God for years and that God was going to justly punish me for it—maybe in this life, certainly in the life to come. Like any guilty person, I was ashamed, anxious, and fearful. I tried to stop my sins, be more religious, and do better, but no amount of effort or penance bought me peace with God. My guilt shouted all the louder: “You have broken God’s law and offended Him. God is going to punish you in hell forever.”

But when, by God’s grace, I put my faith in Christ, my guilt was fully covered by Christ’s blood, my condemnation was removed, and I enjoyed peace with God. When I thought of God, I no longer saw a stern Judge but the smiling face of a loving Father. My appetite for sin diminished, and saying no to most temptation was surprisingly easy.

After a few weeks of enjoying a sweet sense of God’s friendship, however, I noticed that I was gradually losing it. Feelings of guilt distanced me from God, and I knew why. While I had broken with most of my old sins, there was one sin I kept falling back into—losing my temper on the soccer field. With each game I played and with each angry outburst, the sense of God’s smile faded, and the dark shadow of God’s frown grew. I felt guilty but thought that I shouldn’t feel guilty. I was confused.

Hence my question to the older Christian lady: “Should a Christian ever feel guilty?”

“Of course not!” she replied. “All your sins have been forgiven. Why should you feel guilty ever again?”

It seemed to make sense to me. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not shake my guilt for my ongoing sin, and I could not get any assurance of God’s smile. I was not satisfied with the Christian lady’s answer because it did not quiet my guilty conscience.

Thankfully, over the next several months, God led me to the right answer through His Word. I hadn’t read the Bible for years, and therefore started with the Gospels. When I got to Romans, I was relieved to hear that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). I believed that my sins, my guilt, and my condemnation were fully and forever removed by faith in Christ.

While the Corinthians’ objective guilt was fully removed by way of their faith in Christ, Paul still expected them to experience subjective guilt and repentance over ongoing sin as a help in turning from sin and pursuing holiness.

But then I got to 1 and 2 Corinthians and realized that Paul frequently addressed the sins of the Corinthian believers, convicting them and calling them to repentance. I saw that while the Corinthians’ objective guilt (their sin and liability to condemnation) was fully removed by way of their faith in Christ, Paul still expected them to experience subjective guilt and repentance over ongoing sin as a help in turning from sin and pursuing holiness, as we see in 2 Corinthians 7:8–13.

good guilt produces repentance

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian believers, he had charged them with tolerating another church member’s gross sexual sin and called them to repentance (1 Cor. 5:1–5). Although this letter made the Corinthian Christians sad, Paul was glad: “For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while” (2 Cor. 7:8).

As someone who loved them, Paul hated having to make his Corinthian friends sad by showing them their sin. He grieved over their grief. He felt the pain of their guilt and, for a short time, even wished that he hadn’t written the letter. But Paul’s regret didn’t last because he saw that their brief grief resulted in lasting repentance. He did not want to hurt them, but hurting them briefly with guilt was better than giving false comfort briefly and real hurt in the long run.

Paul’s sadness didn’t last, though: “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance” (vv. 9–10). Paul’s regret turned to rejoicing when he heard that their guilt had turned to repentance. He called this “godly grief” because it was grief toward God, grief that brought them to God, and grief that God approved of. Although they lost some days of happiness and comfort because of guilt, they gained more than they lost because the guilt led them to repentance. Short sadness but long gladness. When the pain and sadness of guilt turn us from sin to God, God is glad, our pastors are glad, and we’ll be glad too before long.

good guilt leads to salvation

One of the ways that we know that we are dealing with guilt rightly is that our guilt leads not just to repentance but to salvation: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (v. 10). This statement was addressed to those who were already believers, so the salvation spoken of here is not the salvation that a Christian receives upon conversion. Rather, it’s deliverance from postconversion sin—the guilt of it and the practice of it. The Christian life is a regular cycle of sin, guilt, grief, repentance, forgiveness, and deliverance. Although painful for a time, godly guilt eventually results in unmixed joy and zero regret. No one has ever regretted repenting.

Although painful for a time, godly guilt eventually results in unmixed joy and zero regret. No one has ever regretted repenting.

J.I. Packer explained this kind of saving repentance: “Discern the sin, desire forgiveness, decide to ask for help, deal with God, demonstrate change.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it like this:

Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience. (Q&A 87)

Paul then contrasts this good guilt and grief with bad guilt and grief: “Worldly grief produces death” (v. 10). Worldly grief is not from God or toward God. It’s simply remorse that ends in blaming self, others, or God and has no hope of mercy in it. It turns us against ourselves, others, and God, and results in anger, bitterness, despair, hopelessness, and continued sinning. Repentance saves; mere regret and remorse kill. If the Shorter Catechism had a question about remorse, it might say: “Regret and remorse unto death are of the devil, whereby a sinner out of a fear of consequences, and with no interest in mercy, reluctantly tries to stop sinning enough to get God off his back, with the barely concealed intention of returning to the sin he loves when the guilt fades enough.” Worldly grief produces death, but godly grief produces life.

good guilt results in transformation

Paul then encouraged the Corinthians by noticing the fruits of repentance in their lives (vv. 11–12). “For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you” (v. 11). Instead of being indifferent to sin, they attacked it with seriousness and speed. Paul also saw their eagerness to clear themselves of the sin. They were angry with themselves for their complacency and afraid that God would judge them. They longed for God’s smile again and zealously pursued it by bringing church discipline where appropriate. Paul therefore assured them that their consciences could now be at peace because “at every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” Guilt is such a blessing when its pain and discomfort drives such repentance and transformation. No wonder Paul was no longer depressed but encouraged (vv. 12–13).


So if I were to ask the Apostle Paul, “Should a Christian ever feel guilty?”, his answer would probably be something like this: “The Christian’s objective guilt before God has been fully and forever removed by Christ’s cross, and therefore the Christian should never feel that guilt but rather should thank Jesus for taking it away. But whenever a Christian sins, he should feel guilt in his conscience. This is not because he fears God’s judgment but because he knows that he’s displeased his heavenly Father, he wants to enjoy His smile again rather than His frown, and he wants to make chastisement unnecessary. That kind of guilt leads to repentance and transformation, and it’s the beautiful fruit of a transformed life.”

A few weeks after my question to the older Christian lady, I lost my temper yet again in a soccer match. I played the next few minutes halfheartedly because I felt so guilty and ashamed, not only because of the damage to my Christian witness but also because I had offended and disappointed God. For the next few minutes, I was praying more than playing, asking God for forgiveness yet again. I got back into playing mode, only to suffer a terrible injury toward the end of the game.

Lying in the ER an hour later, I reflected on how, although God forgave me for my sinful anger, there could still be consequences for sin in the Christian life. I saw my injury not as God’s angry judgment but as my heavenly Father’s loving discipline. I decided then and there that because of my personal weakness in this area, I would never play in a competitive soccer match again. A good conscience and God’s smile were far more important to me than soccer. It was how I learned with the Apostle Paul to “take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16).

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