Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

8.4.1 Introduction

Moral action cannot be a way to salvation. Whoever attempts it takes on too much and even sins in the attempt. Christ is the end of the law. The law, however, shows us how infinitely far away we are from what we are supposed to be. Sadly, we are not what we should be, even if we try very hard. The fault is ours. 

Guilt is the difference between what we are and what we should be. 

“For I do not do the good that I want to do, but the evil that I do not want to do 0 this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19). 

The following is modeled on various presentations by Reinhold Ruthe, Wuppertal) 

The word “fault” (“schuld” in German) is related to the English “should.” 

Whether consciously or subconsciously, life is a constant confrontation with one’s own guilt. 

e.g. blushing, sweating, blaming/accusing, frequent hand washing compulsions 

e.g. interactions between older spouses often consist of thinly veiled accusations and justifications – “but you said you would do…. “ “I never meant…..”

There are three types of guilt

  1. Hidden guilt
  2. Open guilt
  3. Neurotic guilt


Feelings of guilt or blame are an expression of a disrupted relationship

  1. To oneself
  2. To others
  3. To God


Guilt and a Sense of Guilt

It is important to differentiate between 

  1. Guilt in the realm of ethics
  2. Feelings of Guilt in the realm of psychology

Guilt and the sense of it can differ greatly between people. Some people have a conscience like a gold-scale and others have a conscience like a cattle-scale. (R.Ruthe)

Very sensitive people suffer greatly under even minor failings while tougher folks might not experience any sense of guilt, even if they are decidedly in the wrong. “The conscience is a whore. It’ll run after anyone.” (Luther)


Repression of Guilt

In Germany in 1986 there was a massive debate about whether criminal justice is actually a legitimate institution, following the realization that prisons often harden criminals rather than re-socializing them. The idea was floated that there is no “fault” only “deviance.” A criminal lawyer at a convention stated: “The guilt of the criminal is due to the failures of society. Society reconstructs its own failures as the guilt of the offender so that it has a clean conscience in administering its punishments.” 

Less left-leaning and therefore more palatable is the assertion – ”I am okay. You are okay” – which grew out of humanistic anthropology and has found itself into many self-help books. Stated another way, it asserts that everyone is blameless. 

With its realism, the Christian perspective on humanity quickly un-cloaks such unbelievable naivete as an idealism and a displacement mechanism (Romans 1-3). How can society even be blamed if it consists of people who are all blameless? Of course, in many instances, society does carry some of the blame but not all of it. Guilt is almost always a web of built and does not have a monocausal explanation. 

e.g. Before the introduction of computers, every police precinct had a map of all traffic accidents. A thumbtack was added to the map for every accident. While it is true that society also carried the responsibility to minimize accident foci, this did not mean that the drivers who caused individual accidents bore no responsibility for their role in the incidents. 

Every person is responsible for their actions. That is part of human dignity. If I do not consider them responsible and therefore not culpable, I ultimately strip they of their dignity. I rate them, in their insight and maturity, as a small child or someone with dementia, who are deemed not to be responsible for their actions in the eyes of the law. 

Dealing with Guilt:

John 8: Jesus and the adulteress: “….that one may throw the first stone.”

As a new pastor I visited a person in prison who had shot his wife in the previous day. On the way to the prison, Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery and the Pharisees became my guiding light. Even me, as a pastor, do not sit in front of the prisoner as guiltless. Rather we both sit in front of God as poor sinners, even though I have not committed that kind of crime. Then I do not have to show the other person how big their sin is (they know this already) but how much bigger Jesus’ forgiveness is! 


What is wonderful about Christian ethics is that Christians know exactly where they can surrender their guilt. The cross brings the freedom to admit to your guilt without judging oneself. Confession and repentance are God’s gifts to Christianity and, in this form, exist only in Christianity. Even if both were abused as an exercise of power by the church for hundreds of years. As Christians, we can be encouraged to encounter guilt with open eyes. We don’t need to repress our guilt or work it off with another. Forgiveness of all sins at the cross of Golgotha: a wonderful, unique point of Christianity. Confession ends in joy: joy about forgiveness.

That is why Christian ethics must always lead to “the wonderful freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Augustine, the church father: “ama – et fac quot vis”: love – and do what you will. In this recognition, they can (according to Luther’s pecca fortiter!) “stout-heartedly sin.” This should give Christian ethics an easiness which, despite all the heavy problems that must be addressed, separates it from the bitter seriousness of any ethic that does not know this freedom. At the end, everything becomes easy. But only if one has recognized and worked through the complication of the problems one faces. It is a “second naivete” in which the highest commandment of faith and the categorical imperative of Christian action become united into the double commandment of love “you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)