Guilt - Bible Definition and Scripture References (2024)



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 2Samuel 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; 2Kings 14:6; compare 2Samuel 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

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

I am an expert on the topic of guilt and its theological and philosophical implications. I can provide a comprehensive overview of the concepts related to guilt discussed in the article you provided:

  1. Christian Idea of Guilt:

    • Responsibility: The Christian concept of guilt involves the idea of responsibility. It is associated with a person's real freedom, meaning that individuals are accountable for their actions and choices.

    • Blameworthiness: Guilt is also connected to blameworthiness. This aspect of guilt is based on a person's knowledge and purpose. It implies that individuals are held accountable for their intentions and actions, especially when they knowingly do wrong.

    • Obligation to Make Good: Guilt is further characterized by the obligation to make amends through punishment or compensation. When someone is guilty, they are expected to rectify their wrongdoing, either by facing punishment or by compensating for their actions.

  2. In the Old Testament:

    • Ritualistic and Legalistic Conception: In the Old Testament, the concept of guilt is not solely focused on personal blameworthiness. Instead, it is often tied to ritual and legalistic elements. Guilt can arise from the transgression of specific laws and rules, even if the individual was unaware of their violation.

    • Lack of Personal Responsibility: In some instances, personal responsibility is absent when assigning guilt. For example, a priest's actions could bring guilt upon the entire community or nation, and the guilt would extend to others, including children and cattle, without their participation or knowledge.

    • Transgression of Rules: The central idea in the Old Testament is the transgression of rules and laws, which must be rectified. Sin and guilt are often interrelated concepts, and the emphasis is on following the law rather than personal moral responsibility.

  3. Prophetic Teaching:

    • Ethical and Personal: With the prophets, the concepts of sin and righteousness become more ethical and personal. Guilt gains depth and quality as it becomes associated with inner motives and the spirit of a person.

    • Personal Responsibility: The prophets emphasize personal responsibility for one's sins, rejecting the idea that children should suffer for the sins of their fathers. Each individual is responsible for their own actions.

  4. In the New Testament:

    • Jesus: Jesus brings a new perspective to guilt. He emphasizes the importance of the inner attitude of the soul, considering a person's knowledge and motive as key factors in determining guilt. Jesus' teachings highlight that guilt is not solely based on outward deeds but on the condition of the heart.

    • Paul: Paul also recognizes varying degrees of guilt and blameworthiness. He looks within to assess guilt and acknowledges that sin can become a ruling power in a person's life. Paul's theology raises questions about whether guilt is inherent to human nature due to the sinful condition of humanity.

In summary, the Christian concept of guilt encompasses responsibility, blameworthiness, and the obligation to make amends. In the Old Testament, guilt is often tied to the transgression of rules, while in the New Testament, it becomes more focused on inner motives and personal responsibility, with Jesus and Paul offering unique perspectives on the concept of guilt.

Guilt - Bible Definition and Scripture References (2024)
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