Guilt, Conviction, and the Danger of Confusing the Two

Things that appear similar can sometimes be diametrically opposed to another.  Potassium Cyanide is known to be one of the deadliest poisons known to man whereas table sugar is the ingredient of pleasure for every boy and girl with a sweet tooth.  These two very natural products are a world of difference apart in terms of how they affect those who consume them but amazingly you would be hard pressed to differentiate one from another if you saw them.  Potassium Cyanide looks nearly identical to table sugar but if you put a teaspoon of the wrong one in your morning coffee you have made a deadly mistake.  Guilt and conviction are two moral attitudes that have a great deal in common and can often be confused for one another but I fear if we don’t properly distinguish them we might be flavoring our cereal with cyanide.

A few years ago I found out the church where an old friend of mine served as a deacon had failed to properly understand guilt and conviction.  This friend in a moment of weakness committed a sin that is sometimes seen as particularly egregious among Christians today.  My friend’s sin was a private one but he recognized he had sinned and informed the church’s leadership of his sin while asking for help to fight this in the future.  Instead of thanking the Lord for my friend’s quick repentance, his church’s leadership decided to fill him with guilt instead.  They forced him to drive hours out of the way to meet regularly with a special teacher who would fix him of his filthiness even if it cost him his job to do so and they aggressively removed him from all areas of service in the church.  If he didn’t comply he would be put before the church to be removed from membership and his secret sins would be told to everyone.  This church and as a result of their actions my friend has mistaken guilt for conviction.  It’s necessary now to define what we mean when we as Christians talk negatively about guilt.  Guilt can sometimes be a very objective and helpful term like in a court of law or understanding where we stand before the Father in our sinful state, but this is not the kind of guilt we are talking about.  Guilt as in guilt tripping is essentially a kind of shame that is cast upon us by others or ourselves.  Guilt can be a shunning or assigning lesser worth for failing to adhere to some pharisaical unbiblical rules but can also be treating someone who has repented of a very real sin in that same kind of way.  Guilt or shame embraces a woe is me (or perhaps woe is them) attitude that despairs and sulks rather than producing any kind of true repentance.  Guilt doesn’t understand Christ’s substation for Christians as it treats Christians who have sinned as being guilty and under wrath even if they repent rather than understanding Christ has taken our sin and given us His perfect righteousness no matter what we do.

Another friend of mine confused guilt and conviction in the exact opposite way but his mistake may prove to have even longer lasting consequences.  This friend battled the same temptation as the previous friend and he had a great church that wanted to encourage him as he repented and provide help as he continued to fight against the sin.  At some point this friend began to distance himself from his Christian friends and came to believe that his church helping people understand their sin and its dangers was unloving and lacked grace. This friend for many years had been overcome with shame because of what sin he struggled with but he thought the church that helped him battle shame and sin was causing shame by calling sin sin.  I fear if this friend doesn’t repent of apathy to sin he will prove himself to be outside of Christ’s grace on judgment day.  This friend thinks the Biblical conviction he found at his church is actually guilt tripping.  How then can we define true conviction?  The Apostle Paul defines conviction for us in 2 Corinthians 7:8-10,

“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. 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 that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to point out all the dangerous sins and callousness towards in the Corinthians church.  Paul acknowledges pointing these things out grieved them but it was a good grieving, it was conviction.  This conviction wasn’t pointing out sins to hate them but was pointing out sins because he loved them and wanted them to grow.  Conviction then is realizing one’s sin and being brought to the practical steps of repentance and Christian growth.  For the Corinthians this conviction didn’t make them commit suicide like the guilt that overcame Judas, their conviction was actually their joy as it helped them see God’s grace to both forgive their sins and to help them fight it.  Conviction might seem uncomfortable but it is a very good thing and we must commend those with the courage to convict us of sin.

I fear many modern Christians have forgotten the difference between conviction and guilt even if in less extreme forms than my examples above.  Some pastors avoid talking about sin at all because they don’t want to guilt trip people or drive unbelievers away.  On the other side some hypocritical pastors preach against sin with the fiery indignation of guilt and especially attack the sins of the lost.  In the pew this danger is just as apparent.  Some Christians hear messages about the dangers of sin and go away thinking they are a hopeless sap that might as well give up.  More often today church members who may not truly be converted become enraged when sermons reveal the inadequacies we all have and slander others for supposedly guilt tripping them when they are merely being faithful to the Word.  Unless we properly understand guilt and conviction from the top down our churches will never be healthy nor will our Christian walks be fruitful.

A healthy understanding of guilt and conviction will lead to our thriving just as it led to a clear revival of the church in Corinth.  I have been part of small groups where we talked openly about our sin and we were willing to confront one another in a healthy brotherly way.  Harvest USA in Philadelphia has firm convictions about sexual sins but spends much of their effort rescuing brothers and sisters in Christ from overwhelming shame or guilt through our hope in Jesus.  18th century pastor Jonathon Edwards was known for preaching passionately against sin but the comfort he offered to sinners was every bit as passionate.  Christian communities where sin is talked about openly, loving confrontation is normal, and grace is showered on the repentant are beautiful sights to see.  This kind of community is not a far off hope but can be the reality for a spiritually growing church.

poisonToo many of us have failed to distinguish spiritual cyanide and spiritual sugar.  This confusion is dangerous.  For those Christians given guilt over conviction the confusion will tie them in bondage and could even kill them.  For the professing Christian who sees conviction of sin as guilt, this will at best cripple their growth but at worst this will result in eternal damnation.  Maybe I have mixed the metaphors, perhaps confusing cyanide and sugar is like the far worse mistake of confusing conviction and guilt.


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