Definition. The meaning usually given to the word "guilt" in Christian circles today bears little relation to the biblical meaning. Recent Christian interest in the subject focuses on its psychological dimension, analyzing the causes (and cures) of the sense of guilt, which is deep-seated in all of us and paralyzes the lives of some. It would seem to be easy to distinguish between this subjective sense of debt, which may be fed by groundless fears, and the objective guilt of sinners before God, with which the Bible is concerned.
The distinction is valid but there is more overlap than first appears. The Bible is alive to the psychological effects of guilt, as can be seen, for instance, in characters like Jephthah and David: Jephthah in his horrifying violence against fellow Israelites after his daughter's death, and David in his supine attitude toward the sins of his sons. A deep feeling of guilt, even if caused by oppressive parenting, can yet have a positive effect in deepening our appreciation of our failures before God and the debt of obedience that we owe.
The Old Testament has a semitechnical term foundational for the biblical concept of guilt, and which teaches us that guilt is fundamentally a relational idea.
Guilt and Guilt Offering in the Old Testament. The Hebrew noun asam [v'a] means both "guilt" (e.g., Jer 51:5 ) and "guilt offering" (the term used in Lev 5:14-19 ; 7:1-10 , etc.). The difference between "guilt" and "sin" is important here. Whereas the words for "sin" focus on its quality as an act or as personal failure, asam [v'a] points to the breach in relationships that sin causes, and in particular to the indebtedness that results. When Isaac tries to pass off Rebekah as his sister, Abimelech accuses him of nearly bringing asam [v'a] upon him ( Gen 26:10 ) the kind of asam [v'a] he had already incurred with Abraham, when he had to make expensive amends for taking Sarah into his household ( Gen 20:14-16 ), even though God prevented him from actually committing sin ( Gen 20:6 ).
The legislation in Leviticus 5:14-6:7 and Numbers 5:5-10 makes this special quality of asam [v'a] clear. When someone incurs "guilt" toward a neighbor, full restitution must be made, plus an extra fifth. And then, in addition, a "guilt offering" must be made to the Lord, because when we sin against others and incur "indebtedness" to them, we violate the order that God prescribes for his world and his people, and have thus incurred a debt toward him also.
Liability and Forgiveness in the New Testament. The New Testament has no word equivalent to asam [v'a], but this idea of indebtedness is clearly still crucial. Sins are called "debts" in the Matthean version of the Lord's Prayer (6:12, 14). But the idea of making restitution has vanished: the debts that others owe us must simply be written off. And this is modeled on God's action toward us: we must forgive, as he forgives us. The lost son returns to his father with an asam [v'a] in his hands his readiness to make amends by being a servant rather than a son ( Luke 15:18-19 ). But he is accepted unconditionally. In the parable of the unmerciful servant Jesus shows that we owe God an enormous debt, far greater than we could possibly repay ( Matt 18:21-35 ). By the smallest words of hostility we make ourselves "liable for" the fires of hell ( Matt 5:21-22 ), a debt we can never pay and remain alive (cf. Matt 5:26 ; James 2:10 ).
Bibliography. L. Aden and D. Benner, eds., Counseling and the Human Predicament: A Study of Sin, Guilt, and Forgiveness; M. France, The Paradox of Guilt: A Christian Study of the Relief of Self-Hatred; P. Tournier, Guilt and Grace.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Guilt'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".