guilt shame doubt disapproval self-loathing
apathy unconcern happiness acceptance
From early on in our lives, we all have a sense of a need for approval and a feeling of disapproval when we mess up. Sometimes the feeling of disapproval is verbalized to us, “I am disappointed in you.” Other times it is given as a direct attack against our personality, “You’re a failure who can’t do anything right.” In the face of this ingrained sense of disapproval, some look at their faults with acceptance and approval. “That’s just who I am.” or “God [or whoever—fill in the blank] loves me unconditionally no matter what.”
As Christians, we know that sin is our “messing up”—sin is our failure to keep God’s commands and a failure to believe in him. In Christ, we also know God has forgiven our sin. These two realities still leave us with the question: how should we feel when we sin?
Let us consider a few things…
First, God in his love has completely paid for, removed, and forgiven our sins through Christ on the cross. As a pastor, I have run across two fairly common ideas in some people’s minds when it comes to sin. One is that even as Christians when we stand before God we will have to give an account of our sins, as if just before entering the joy of eternity we must feel one last sting of all the wrong we have ever done. The other is a description of God the Father as an angry judge glaring at us, going over that list, and demanding to know why he should let us into his heaven. Only then does Jesus, acting as our lawyer, stand up and say, “Because I have paid for their sins.” Neither of these are biblical truths and both produce unwarranted guilt in the lives of people who believe them.
If we have repented, and turned to Jesus in faith our sins are forgiven. Every. Single. Last. One. Of. Them. Period.
Colossians 2:13-14 says that God forgave us and canceled the record of debt (that list of sins) which stood against us, and he did so by nailing it to the cross. Romans 8:31-34 says that God is for us. He is the one who justifies, therefore no one can bring a charge against us. Christ is the one who died, was raised, and sits by the Father, so no one can condemn us. Jeremiah 31:34 says that in the new covenant, God forgives and no longer remembers the sin of those who know him. And Psalm 103:11-12 says as far as the heavens are above the earth, so how great is God’s love for his people; and as far as the east is from the west, so has he removed our sin from us.
Our Father is not an angry judge still looking for a reason to condemn us. Our Father is not a grudge-bearer looking to rehash all the wrongs we have done. In love, our Father saved us through Jesus, forgave us, and removed our sins from us.
Some say, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us anymore, nor to make God love us any less.” And through Christ that requires a hearty, “Yes and Amen!” If we trust in Jesus, our sins are completely paid for, removed, and forgiven on the cross.
Second, God has given us the righteousness of Christ. Quoting Genesis, Paul wrote in Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Then in Philippians 3:8-9, “For [the sake of Christ] I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” And in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And Peter also wrote, “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
Historically, this has been called the “Great Exchange.” Jesus, on the cross—our sins given to him, his righteousness given to us. This is the full beauty of the grace of God. We do not, indeed cannot, earn a right standing before God. We cannot cover over our sin. But God, by his own desire and love, showed us mercy by making Jesus become our sin and making us become Jesus’ perfect righteousness.
Again, if we are in Christ, no matter what we do, we cannot be any more righteous before God and we cannot be any less righteous before God.
These two things are inexpressibly wonderful truths. God loves us so completely that he sent his only Son, Jesus to remove every bit of our sin (past, present, future) and give us every bit of his own righteousness. And with this…
Third, God has adopted us as his children. We do not find it much more clearly stated than Romans 8:14-16. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
In sin, we were the enemies of Christ, dead, hopeless, and separated. When our sin fell upon Christ and the righteousness of Jesus fell upon us, we became sons and daughters, alive, hope-filled, and adopted. We belong to a family from which we can never be separated (8:38-39).
But even as God’s children, forgiven and perfectly righteous before him, we still sin so long as we live in this life. As Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained [the resurrection from the dead] or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). We are not already perfect, we are not already there. We belong to Jesus fully and completely, so we can press on towards perfection and the resurrection (where we will fully meet our perfection). But we are not already there.
God has empowered us with the ability to escape temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), but as we battle against the decaying remains of our old sinful self there are plenty of times where we will fail to see God’s way of escape and still fall into sin. And…
Fourth, our sin still grieves God. In Ephesians 4:30 we find this command, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” In context, Paul gave this command in the midst of examples of habits of the old life we need to put off and habits of the new life in Christ we need to put on. Those old habits—those sins, are what grieve the Holy Spirit. God fully accepts us through Christ and looks upon us in the righteousness of Christ, but God does not blindly approve of the sin we commit after we come to Christ. It grieves him because it remains an offense to him and it is contrary to the new nature he has graciously bestowed upon us.
But as God’s children, God will not judge us or condemn us for such sin. Instead, fifth, God in love disciplines us for our sin. Hebrews 12:6-8 states, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline. If you are left without discipline…then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” A few verses later, we read how discipline seems painful not pleasant, but “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Discipline can come in many forms—a rebuke from the Bible, a rebuke from a brother or sister in Christ, a feeling of guilt, a sickness, etc. God disciplines us, though, not to look at us and say, “You’re a failure there is no hope.” Rather, he says, “You are my child, I love you, and I want you to live in the fullness of righteousness.” After all, in his love, our Father wants what is best for us, and what is best for us is to be righteous and removed from our sin.
So then…back to the question: How should we feel when we sin?
1. We should remember that it is not sin which defines us, but our relationship to God in Christ. We are the righteous and forgiven children of God. Therefore we should not feel a great sense of shame, failure, or doubt. God still loves us, he still accepts us, and he has already removed the guilt for that sin.
2. We should feel grief as our sin grieves God, but it should not be a lingering grief. Knowing he had grieved the saints at Corinth, Paul wrote, “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” (2 Corinthians 7:9). Godly grief produces repentance. The grief we feel over sin should cause us to confess it to God and then realize his cleansing forgiveness of it (1 John 1:9). We repent, or turn from it, and turn back to living in the fullness of God’s grace.
3. Once we’ve repented, we should press on without looking back. Repentance may also require our confessing the sin to others (James 5:16) and seeking to reconcile any way we have wronged others (Matthew 5:23-24). But the sin was long ago nailed to the cross along with every other sin we have committed and will commit. Therefore, we should have no lingering focus on such sin.
Our focus should be on our identity in Christ, and growing to live that out more and more. That means, as Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). The forgetting what is behind and pressing on towards what is ahead separates us from lingering guilt and leads us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4).