Guilt [N]

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.

So an asam [v'a] is a debt for which we must make amends. The Old Testament points to a coming figure whose life will be an asam [v'a] for others ( Isa 53:10 ).

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 ).

The New Testament has no need for a word equivalent to asam [v'a] because we do not need to pay. The Son of Man gives his life as a "ransom for many" ( Mark 10:45 ), paying our indebtedness for us.

Stephen Motyer

See also Forgiveness; Sin

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.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Guilt'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.



The Christian idea of guilt involves three elements: responsibility (Greek aitia, "cause," depending upon a man's real freedom), blameworthiness (Latin reatus culpae, depending upon a man's knowledge and purpose) and the obligation to make good through punishment or compensation (Latin reatus poenae; compare Greek opheilema, "debt," Matthew 6:12). In other words, in thinking of guilt we ask the questions of cause, motive and consequence, the central idea being that of the personal blameworthiness of the sinner.

I. In the Old Testament.

1. The Ritualistic and Legalistic Conception:

Not all of this is found at once in the Old Testament. The idea of guilt corresponds to that of righteousness or holiness. When these are ritual and legal, instead of ethical and spiritual, they will determine similarly the idea of guilt. This legalistic and ritualistic conception of guilt may first be noted. Personal blameworthiness does not need to be present. "If any one sin, and do any of the things which Yahweh hath commanded not to be done; though he knew it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity" (Leviticus 5:17). The man is guilty, not because he might or should have known; he may merely have touched unwittingly the body of an unclean beast (Leviticus 5:2,3). The guilt is here because the law has been transgressed and must be made good (compare Leviticus 5:15,16; 4:2,3,13,12,27; see also 5:2,3,4,17).

Moreover, the element of personal responsibility is sometimes lacking where guilt is assigned. The priest may sin "so as to bring guilt on the people" (Leviticus 4:3). One man's wrongdoing may "cause the land to sin" (Deuteronomy 24:4). Israel has sinned in Achan's greed and therefore suffers. Even when the guilty man is found, his children and his very cattle must bear the guilt and punishment with him, though there is no suggestion of their participation or even knowledge (Joshua 7; compare 2 Samuel 24). Here the full moral idea of sin and guilt is wanting because the idea of personality and personal responsibility has not come to its own. The individual is still merged here in the clan or nation.

The central idea in all this is not that of the individual, his responsibility, his motive, his blame. It is that of a rule and the transgression of it, which must be made good. For this reason we see the ? ideas of sin and guilt and punishment constantly passing over into each other. This may be seen by noting the use of the words whose common root is '-sh-m, the distinctive Hebrew term for guilt. In Leviticus 5 to 7 in the adjective form it is rendered "guilty," in the noun as "trespass offering." In Hosea 5:15 it seems to mean punishment (see margin, "have borne their guilt," and compare Ezekiel 6:6), while in Numbers 5:7,8 the idea is that of compensation (rendered "restitution for guilt").

2. Prophetic Teaching:

With the prophets, the ideas of sin and righteousness come out more clearly as ethical and personal, and so we mark a similar advance in the conception of guilt. It is not ritual correctness that counts with God, incense and sacrifices and new moons and Sabbaths, but to cease to do evil, to learn to do well (Isaiah 1). Thus the motive and the inner spirit come in (Micah 6:8; Isaiah 57:15; 58:1-12), and guilt gains a new depth and quality. At the same time the idea of personal responsibility comes. A man is to bear his own sins. The children's teeth are not to be set on edge because the fathers have eaten sour grapes (Jeremiah 31:29,30; Ezekiel 18:29-32; 2 Kings 14:6; compare 2 Samuel 24:17).

II. In the New Testament.

1. With Jesus:

Here as elsewhere Jesus came to fulfill. With Him it is the inner attitude of the soul that decides. It is the penitent publican who goes down justified, not the Pharisee with his long credit account (Luke 18:9-14). That is why His attitude is so kindly toward some notorious sinners and so stern toward some religious leaders. The Pharisees are outwardly correct, but their spirit of bigotry and pride prevents their entering the kingdom of heaven, while the penitent harlots and publicans take it by storm.

Because it is not primarily a matter of the outward deed but of the inner spirit, Jesus marks different degrees of guilt as depending upon a man's knowledge and motive (Luke 11:29-32; 12:47,48; 23:34). And yet Jesus does not lighten the sense of guilt but rather deepens it. The strength of the Old Testament thought lay in this, that it viewed all transgression as a sin against God, since all law came from Him. This religious emphasis remains with Jesus (Luke 15:21; compare Psalms 51:4). But with Jesus God is far more than a giver of rules. He gives Himself. And so the guilt is the deeper because the sin is against this love and mercy and fellowship which God offers us. Jesus shows us the final depth of evil in sin. Here comes the New Testament interpretation of the cross, which shows it on the one hand as the measure of God's love in the free gift of His Son, and on the other as the measure of man's guilt whose sin wrought this and made it necessary.

2. With Paul:

Paul also recognizes differences of degree in guilt, the quality of blameworthiness which is not simply determined by looking at the outward transgression (Acts 17:30; Ephesians 4:18; Romans 2:9; 3:26; 5:13; 7:13). He, too, looks within to decide the question of guilt (Romans 14:23). But sin is not a matter of single acts or choices with Paul. He sees it as a power that comes to rule a man's life and that rules in the race. The question therefore arises, Does Paul think of guilt also as native, as belonging to man because man is a part of the race? Here it can merely be pointed out that Romans 5:12-21 does not necessarily involve this. Paul is not discussing whether all men committed sin in Adam's fall, or whether all are guilty by virtue of their very place in a race that is sinful. It is not the question of guilt in fact or degree, but merely the fact that through one man men are now made righteous as before through one sin came upon them all. This no more involves native guilt as a non-ethical conception than it does the idea that the righteousness through Christ is merely forensic and non-ethical. Paul is simply passing over the other elements to assert one fact. Romans 1 suggests how Paul looked at universal sin as involving guilt because universal knowledge and choice entered in.

See also SIN.


Mueller, Christian Doctrine of Sin, I, 193-267; Schultz, Old Testament Theology; Kaehler, article "Schuld," Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.

Harris Franklin Rall

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'GUILT'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.  

California - Do Not Sell My Personal Information  California - CCPA Notice