Holman Bible Dictionary
Guilt may be either a fact or a feeling. For example, a direct violation of law would make one guilty of violating that law. The guilt in this case would be present whether or not the person feels guilty. The condemnation may come from oneself, others, or from God. Or the condemnation might not occur at all. Nevertheless, the person is guilty because a real violation has taken place.
The Bible frequently contrasts those who are guilty with expressions that signify righteousness or just behavior. For example, Job insisted on his righteousness before the Lord (Job 27:1-6 ). His friends inisisted that he was wicked and therefore guilty (Job 22:5 ; Job 35:1-8 ). To be guilty can mean the same thing as to be wicked. In Psalm 1:1 it is assumed that the wicked, sinners, and scoffers are guilty of sin and that they will ultimately perish. When Pilate said that he found no guilt in Jesus, he meant that He was innocent of the charges brought against Him ( Luke 23:14 ; John 19:4 ,John 19:4,19:6 ). There was no basis on which to charge Him.
Guilt is connected with sin in the Bible. Sin is basically against God or against God's law. It can mean rebellion against God, or a willful transgression. Sin can also mean to miss the mark. The Hebrew writers generally did not distinguish between the act of sin and the guilt that came from the act. The various words used for sin in the Old Testament also expressed the idea of guilt. To sin, therefore, is to become guilty. Leviticus 5:1 lists a number of forbidden actions. It is assumed that a person committing any of these prohibited acts is guilty ( Leviticus 5:1-5 ). Hosea, also, spoke of the various sins of the nation Israel. Even though the people did not acknowledge their sins, the Lord pronounced them guilty (Hosea 5:15 ; Hosea 10:2 ). Jeremiah noted that those who sinned against Israel became guilty before the Lord and would be punished (Jeremiah 2:3 ). These illustrations show that guilt is a companion of sin. The sin may be that of omission or commission, but it puts one in a state of guilt.
To connect sin and guilt is a way of saying that human beings are responsible before God for their actions. Paul, in the Book of Romans went to great lengths to show that all mankind is guilty before God (Romans 1:18-20 ). If all have sinned (Romans 3:23 ), then all are guilty and cut off from God. Something must be done to remove the guilt.
The Old Testament describes several things that could be done to remove guilt. Sinners could confess their sins and make restitution for the wrongs they had committed (Numbers 5:6-10 ). Various sacrifices could be brought to the priests for a guilt offering (Leviticus 5:6-7:38 ). Restitution, sacrifice, or ritual penalty had to be made for sin and guilt.
A new idea presents itself in passages like Isaiah 53:1 : it is the idea that a righteous one can suffer for the guilt of others. One can bear the sin of many and intercede for their transgressions (Isaiah 53:12 ). In the New Testament, Jesus fulfilled the role of the one suffering for the sins of many; “Christ died for the ungodly,” and we are reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-11 ; compare Ephesians 1:7 ; Colossians 1:19-20 ).
The idea of a sacrifice or offering for sin and guilt is picked up by other New Testament writers. Jesus was made a merciful High Priest to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. (Colossians 2:17 ). Twice 1John says that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2 ; 1 John 4:10 ). This emphasis shows how seriously the Bible takes sin and guilt. Guilt has to be dealt with in an objective way. Guilt, according to these New Testament writers, requires the sacrifice of the Son of God. See Expiation and Propitiation.
Guilt is both corporate and individual in the Bible. The corporate aspect can be seen in 2 Chronicles 24:18 . The king and officials of the nation abandoned God, and their guilt brought wrath on the nation. Ezra lamented the guilt that had come upon the people for their sins (Ezra 9:3-6 ). The individual nature of guilt can be seen in passages like Psalm 32:1 . There the psalmist acknowledged his own transgression and asked for forgiveness from guilt (Psalm 32:5 ). Jeremiah in speaking of the New Covenant declared that all people would be held responsible for their own sins (Jeremiah 31:30 ).
As a feeling, “guilt” refers to the emotional aspects of a person's experience. An individual may feel himself or herself to be condemned or to have sinned. The feeling may bear little or no apparent relationship to the fact with which it is associated. In other words, one may feel guilty when there is no evidence to suggest a reason for guilt.
However, feeling is often a legitimate expression of guilt. The bitter lament Psalm 51:1 carries both an awareness of sin and deep feelings of remorse and repentance. Psalm 38:1 paints a picture of a suffering sinner weighed down with sin and guilt. Guilt is a burden ( Psalm 38:4 ) that creates anxiety (Psalm 38:18 ).
Because human beings are so complex, it is often difficult to separate guilt feelings from real guilt. These guilt feelings must be taken seriously. If a person cannot resolve these guilt feelings before God, it may be wise to seek a counselor to help determine where the guilt feelings originate. Unresolved guilt can have a paralyzing effect on a person. Asking for and receiving forgiveness is one of the major ways that we can be absolved from guilt. God in His faithfulness has promised to forgive us from all iniquity (1 John 1:9 ) See Atonement ; Christ; Forgiveness ; Reconciliation; Sin .
D. Glenn Saul
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Guilt'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/g/guilt.html. 1991.