Lessons from the Reformation: How Do We Deal With Guilt?
Guilt and assurance are the two basic experiences which all people share. We all experience guilt, and we all need some sort of assurance to get rid of those guilty feelings. Some try to rid themselves from guilt by doing away with God as our moral authority (as the atheists have done), others try by legislating a new morality that accepts and praises their actions which caused them guilt. However, the guilt still remains. We see this happening in the world around us today and it has modern cultural observers unsure of what to do with it, or where it comes from since everything that historically appeared to cause guilt has been, in one way or another, forgotten. What is it that will give us true assurance to counter our guilt?
Guilt differs from shame in that it is a deeply rooted feeling of transgression. Even if you haven't been caught in your wrongdoing (which is connected to shame), you know it is wrong, and you feel the weight of it. This also is characteristic of 'normal' things we do. When we think of the implications of our daily actions – whom they affect and so on – we are oftentimes left feeling guilty. Guilt is a basic human experience that we just can't shake.
If we were to travel back in time to the beginning of the 16th Century, we would find the same guilt plaguing the people of that time – even in the places you would least expect. If there ever was a place where peace and tranquility of the soul were expected to be found, it would have been the monastery. Free from the ills and trials of life, monks and nuns had an opportunity unlike anyone else to wholehearted pursue the things of God. In the monastic life, you would think a certain freedom would accompany you, seeing you are set free from the obligations of the world, or even the social constructs of the culture (to use a modern phrase) that would incur guilt on a person.
Martin Luther was one of those monks. With Luther, however, it was almost the opposite of what is expected. He would spend hours, sometimes half the day, in confession, wishing to have every sin – even the minutest – absolved by the priest. It became so time-consuming that the priest told Martin Luther to come back when he had actually committed a sin like murder. But guilt continued to plague the young monk. He could not find rest for his troubled soul.
The reason for Luther's unrest was the teaching he had received in his formative years about salvation. Catholic doctrine stated that justification was the process of God making us more lovely, and that was problematic for Luther because the question gnawed at him: When are we lovely enough to be accepted by God? If our right-standing with God is dependent on our loveliness, we must do everything in our power to become lovely, and that meant for Luther, confessing every little spot of unloveliness. He writes of his experience, "Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience." According to the standards of the Church, Luther should've been well on his way to justification, but his guilt would have none of it.
When the glorious truth that the justified live by faith and not works broke through to Luther, it was as though heaven came down and glory consumed him: "Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates." It was here that he found true assurance, it was here that he found freedom from guilt.
The guilt Luther experienced is the guilt we all experience. Guilt, in its most basic form, is the knowledge that one has transgressed the highest moral law. This law transcends all the laws of men, for as we have seen, even if we are to rid ourselves of all the things that make us feel guilty, guilt is still present. This was the law Luther could not shake from his conscience until he came upon the glorious truth of the gospel. Indeed, it is only the gospel that will properly give us the assurance we need to assuage the onslaught of guilt.
The Need for Assurance
The reason assurance is the second part of our basic human experience is that without it, we are crushed. Left only to our guilt, we are paralyzed. We need assurance to survive.
It does not take long to realize that everyone everywhere is clinging to some form of assurance. Maybe it is their good deeds, their benevolence to their neighbours, religious practice, the quest for knowledge, social status, or a number of other things. All these do not satisfy the cravings of assurance, for they are only finite and therefore do not come close to touching the eternal guilt of transgressing the moral law of God. We may deceive ourselves for a time by these things, but when we pursue them to their furthest end, they fall short of giving us true assurance.
What was Martin Luther doing all those hours in confession? He was seeking assurance, particularly the assurance that his sins were forgiven. What followed Paul's teaching on the death of Christ in his letter to the Romans? They were assuring words: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). He ends that chapter with this gold mine of assurance:
"For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39).
Scripture is packed with assuring statements such as these, and that assurance is what the Reformers brought to light that transformed the world. Following in their footsteps, many hymn writers ended their hymns with a stanza on the assurance and glory of heaven. Take note, the next time you open a hymnal, at the last stanzas of the hymns and you will find that many are filled with the language of assurance. This is no coincidence, God’s people find assurance in the gospel and cannot be quiet about it.
In my church, we do not have much of the teachings of those who have preceded our time in writing, and so we do not always know if the things being taught now are the same as previous generations. But we can listen to the elderly in our church explain what was taught them as they grew up. In one such instance, I learned that it wasn't until two generations prior to mine our pastors first taught that we could be assured we were saved. Before that, they taught that no one could be sure of salvation in order that the church members would be motivated to be as righteous as he or she could possibly be. It sounds a little like Luther's dilemma, right? How do I know I am righteous enough to be saved?
The ultimate test of assurance is someone lying on their deathbed. How do you teach a works-based salvation to them? How would the dying perform enough acts necessary to give them the assurance of heaven? All they can do is lay there. And so it is here where the truth Martin Luther discovered shines most bright and glorious: Your assurance is given to you by faith. Justification, the destroyer of guilt, comes to us through faith, not our ability, merits, or loveliness. Why don’t we preach the same assurance to ourselves today that we would give to those lying on their deathbed.
 Luther’s Works Vol. 34