The problem with "Not Guilty"

We are creatures who are driven by guilt.  Our societies, be they primitive, or refined, all have guilt as their governing principle.  Our laws, be they derived from scripture or not, all find their power in guilt.  A speed limit only finds its effectiveness in the reality of the guilt it creates.  Our parental rules for our children only find their effectiveness if they create a consequence for guilt.  We are punished for not completing assignments, not performing as we are expected to perform in the work place, not being the spouse we are supposed to be, and so on.  Guilt is foundational to everything we do.  I do not venture to launch out on a tirade against guilt, or even to say guilt is a bad thing, or an improper emotion or reality.  My purpose here is to say that guilt is the very fabric of society, it drives everything.

The strange thing to realize is that this is actually the way we like it.  We get very uncomfortable when something begins to tear at the fabric of guilt.  For instance if an employee no longer feels guilty for not doing the job they are paid to do we have no choice but to remove that employee from our company.  If a student no longer feels guilty for not doing their work we no longer have a means to make them learn.  If we remove guilt from our legal system we no longer have a legal system.  If a man has no sense of guilt for mistreating his wife or children he becomes a very dangerous man.  Anything, or anyone, that would seek to remove guilt from a conscience of someone who has done wrong is making a horrific affront against all that is humane.  We cannot understate the importance of guilt to our life, and when we see someone who feels no guilt we are frightened.  A person unresponsive to guilt is, in our eyes, an incredibly dangerous or incredibly useless person.

When we look at texts like Romans 2:12-16 and we get the idea that the Law is written on everyone’s heart, this is exactly what we are getting at.  Let’s not make the mistake of oversimplifying here.  Paul is not writing that everyone universally knows, understands, and affirms the Law of God.  That really is not the case at all.  Moral law is relative from society to society.  The universal truth is that everyone is driven by Law, and that the guilty vs. not guilty paradigm is intrinsic to everyone.  In that sense the Law is written on everyone’s, without exception, heart.  If the concept of ‘law’ was not written on everyone’s heart, there would be no sense of guilt, and without the sense of guilt society would not function.  We would be mere animals.

Enter the Gospel.  The Gospel is an absolutely terrifying message when taken at face value precisely because it tears away this fabric of guilt upon which our society rests.  Make no mistake, the Gospel, really does undermine and redefine society as we know it.  I can recall disciplining my child when his actions caused him to be guilty of violating our family’s laws, and my little man reminded me that on the cross Jesus already paid for his sin (true story).  In one sense I was very proud of my son for realizing that glorious truth, and applying it to his situation, but as a parent it was terrifying.  It was terrifying because if Christ really took away his guilt, and he really believed that to be true, then maybe all of my family ‘law’ was in jeopardy of being rendered useless.  At the very least the family ‘law’ had been rendered useless in the way that I was applying it to him as a believer in Christ.  Take the situation of my son, and expand it to our entire society and you can see how the Gospel message of ‘not guilty’ undercuts everything.  If a person believes themselves to not be guilty then they are truly free… free from me and my laws… free from society and its laws… free from God’s Law.  Maybe the Gospel isn’t such Good News after all?  Maybe we’d be better off to never speak of this Gospel again for fear that people might actually believe it, and actually believe themselves “not guilty.”

Of course the Gospel is by definition “Good News” and should not be seen as anything but Good News, but it is terrifying news.  The Gospel creates a New Kingdom that is driven by a completely different paradigm than the one which our society operates under.  The Gospel creates a Kingdom where obedience to the law is driven by gratitude for what has been done for us, not by fear of guilt for not upholding the Law.  The Gospel has created a people who cannot be driven by society’s most effective driving mechanism, which is guilt.

Don’t underestimate how much people really fear the Gospel, even believers who know it is true (myself included) are terrified to realize the relief from guilt which Christ has given to us and the world.  The charge of Antimonianism which often gets leveled at true preachers of the Gospel is a frightening charge.  If I am going to proclaim righteousness apart from the Law it feels like stepping off of a cliff and expecting ground to somehow appear under my feet.  There is a very real fear about what could possibly happen if people decide to believe the Gospel we proclaim.  I ask myself the questions; “What if someone really does believe themselves to not be guilty, but then they are not filled with gratitude for what Christ has done? Will these people just do whatever they think is right and become lawless creatures that are bound to no sense of right and wrong?”  Or this; “If a person can no longer be driven by guilt, do they have any reason to serve people in need?  Do they have any reason to seek the forgiveness of people they have wronged?”

We must be willing to believe that the Gospel really is the power of God unto salvation, and that the effects of the Gospel really will be a society that lives in gratitude to God and willingly obeys the Law which he prescribed, without fear of condemnation from that Law.  In this light we can see that the Gospel is not quite as easy to believe as we initially think.  The Gospel upholds, and is not in any way at tension with the Law.  Yet the Gospel removes the guilt which is society’s only reason for upholding that Law.


KSweeney said...

I have thought about this exactly quite a bit too. And my conclusion is a matter of repentance. I was taught that I would be forgiven as long as I was truly sorry (or guilty) for my unlawful actions. Feeling the "ground under the cliff" is an excuse to not feel guilty and is not truly forgiven unless we feel guilty at some point about it...wanting to repent. Jesus sacrificed so that we have this opportunity of going to heaven at all. That doesn't mean he sacrificed so that we could act in whatever way we wanted and still go to heaven after asking forgiveness. How can you truly ask forgiveness and be heavenly again without feeling true guilt for your wrong doing?

Jay D. Miklovic said...

Hey KSweeney!

You have hit the crux of the discussion! Any your last question exposes the anxiety that we all have towards a 'guiltless' Christianity.

Let me say that I put regret and guilt into different categories. I regret that I did not send my wife flowers for our anniversary, I do not feel guilty for not doing that. My regret stems from not showing the love I could have shown. I sense regret when I sin because I have not enacted the gratitude that I have for my savior. I am not condemned when I sin, but I still driven toward obedience by gratitude. Does that make sense?

We have a very Catholic idea of repentance, and that is mistake. What I mean is that we sense that we must feel guilty and enact penance in order that our forgiveness would be complete. The reality is that our forgiveness was already completed FOR US on the cross. We now approach the Law not with fear of the guilt it brings, but instead recognizing that it prescribes us with the best way to live out the gratitude we have for the one who has already forgiven us. Remember that the greek word for repentance means literally 'to have a fundamental change of mind'. That is to believe ourselves forgiven and have our mind changed toward actually desiring righteousness as opposed to being coerced into it.

Hope that makes sense, or maybe clears the air a little.

Jay D. Miklovic said...

One more quick thing for KSweeney... check out the April 29th sermon in the side bar of the blog. I haven't checked the audio, but I figure it streams just fine. Anyway, I dealt extensively with this subject in that sermon.