The Bible draws our attention to our common human guilt:

‘All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one’ [Psalm 14:3].

‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …’ [Romans 3:22,23].

In Romans 1:18-3:18 the apostle Paul writes at length about the fact of universal guilt. His concluding indictment [3:9-18] includes both Gentiles, who have God’s self-revelation in nature, and the Jews who have in addition God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament scriptures.

If we plead against this assessment by pointing to our goodness, the Scripture denies our plea:

‘… all our righteous acts are like filthy rags …’ [Isaiah 64:6].

‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the Book of the Law’ [Galatians 3:10].

‘For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it’ [James 2:10].

The standard God sets for us is perfection: the perfect imaging of his perfection. He created us to image him, to reflect him in our thoughts, attitudes, words and actions: to glorify him. Expressed in real life choices this means loving him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves [Luke 10:25-27].

We are guilty of falling short of this standard of perfection. Sometimes we are guilty of doing things that do not express love for God or neighbour. These are called sins of commission. Sometimes we are guilty of not doing things that do express love for God and neighbour. These are called sins of omission. And in both of these sometimes we are guilty by our deliberate choice, and other times we are guilty by our thoughtlessness, carelessness, negligence or ignorance.

Jesus portrayed the extent of our guilt in his parable about a servant with an unpayable debt, a debt way beyond his means of ever repaying, a debt that in today’s economy would run into millions [Matthew 18:21-35]. The servant clearly had no concept of the size of his debt. He thought that given enough time he would be able to scrape up the money and repay his master. The master, however, knew this was impossible. The debt was too big.

Such is our guilt before God. It is such that we can never work it off by acts of penance. It is such that no amount of ‘good deeds’ can ever counter-balance it. Nor can unnumbered years in purgatory or any other place of punishment ever expunge it.

When we attempt to justify ourselves and explain away or minimize our guilt the Scripture tells us:

‘… men are without excuse’ [Romans 1:20].

‘You … have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things’ [Romans 2:1].

There is only one escape from this heavy burden of guilt: Jesus Christ bore the full burden of our guilt. He the perfect one, he the innocent one, took the place of us, the guilty ones. He bore our guilt and its penalty to the full. This incredible action of Jesus Christ enables us to stand guilt-free in the presence of God. For this reason the Scripture speaks of the ‘justification by faith’ given to those who believe in Christ. This word ‘justification’ [also translated ‘righteousness’] refers to a ‘not guilty’ declaration, a declaration of legal acquittal.

The reformers called this an ‘alien righteousness’ – a declaration of legal innocence that is given to the guilty on the basis of the perfect innocence and sin-bearing, substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. A ‘not guilty’ verdict announced to the guilty.

For this reason the apostles wrote:

‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ [Romans 5:1].

‘… and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith’ [Philippians 3:9].

‘How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences … ‘ [Hebrews 9:14].

‘… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience …’ [Hebrews 10:22].

Before God, the just Judge of all the earth, there is no other escape from our guilt.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2013, 2016