“Guilt, Grace & Gratitude”
Part 1: Guilt
By S. M. Baugh
You do not have to hang around Reformed teachers and pastors very long before hearing about “guilt, grace, and gratitude.” We like it because it is a handy summary for the structure of the Christian religion. And it is a way to focus upon the gospel of Christ and to make careful distinctions in relation to it. Like any summary phrase, though, it has to be explained and expanded upon. And it must be biblical. The Reformed are adamant on this. Our theology and practice must be biblical.
It is a way to focus upon the gospel of Christ and to make careful distinctions in relation to it.S.M. Baugh
In essence, the first of the 3Gs—guilt, grace, and gratitude—is the core issue facing humans after the fall: we are guilty. We may feel that our real problem is that we are under duress from the stresses of life or that we are depressed at our circumstances or at any number of other emotionally devastating things. And these are real and heartbreaking; I am not making light of them. But they are symptoms, not the cause. Such feelings are alarms triggered by a bad conscience alerting us—if we are separated from Christ Jesus and the redemption found only in him—that we are guilty before an absolutely just and impartial Judge who is coming to judge the world in equity: “[B]ehold, the Judge is standing at the door” (Jas. 5:9). And when he comes there will be no more holding back of his wrath and fury against our sins and lawless deeds which include our words: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36); and even our thoughts: “[E]veryone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt. 5:22).
We may feel that our real problem is that we are under duress from the stresses of life or that we are depressed at our circumstances or at any number of other emotionally devastating things. And these are real and heartbreaking; I am not making light of them. But they are symptoms, not the cause.S.M. Baugh
If this sounds too severe for the posing that marks our age, the most devastating sermon ever preached was not by some fiery Presbyterian but by Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41). His audiences then were people who had personally cried out for the heinous crucifixion of their sinless Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36) in exchange for the release of a man who was undoubtedly a ruthless, heartless thug. But even Pontius Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent (Luke 23:13). But they were implacable: “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:13). “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (John 18:40). “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas” (Luke 23:18). “[T]hey shouted out all the more, ‘Crucify him!’” (Mark 15:15). “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25). Peter’s sermon reminding these same people of their treacherous guilt cut them to the heart, so that for their part in the murder of Jesus “by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23) they cried out in stark anguish: “Brothers! What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
And what did Peter say when the people finally looked at their blood-stained hands? “You meant well”? “Your good deeds outweigh your bad”? “You deserve a break”? No! Like Lady Macbeth (“Out damned spot! Out I say!”), guilt before a holy God cannot be washed off with the severest hand-wringing or imagined good intentions.
But are those people alone guilty? Were we not created upright (Eccl. 7:29)? Yes, created that way but not now after all the self-deceived lies (1 John 2:8, 10), which flow out from the heart and contaminate us (Matt. 15:18). And every intention and thoughts of our hearts are “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Where is the exceptional self-made saint? There is “none . . . no, not one . . . together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 2:10, 12). We can not escape our guilt and sin because we are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) and there is no escaping nature—it is what we are. “If you, who are evil . . .” (Matt. 7:11; emphasis added) is the verdict of the God-man whom God has appointed to be the Judge of the world (Acts 17:31).
So what does Peter tell the guilty crowd attending his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2? If it were still the Old Testament epoch, he would have had few options. There was no ransom or sacrifice under Moses for murderous bloodguilt; they could only flee to a city of refuge, but that only protected them from relatives bent on revenge (Num. 35:6, 9-34), not from God “for he avenges the blood of his children, and takes vengeance on his adversaries” (Deut. 32:43).
But Peter was standing at the threshold of the new creation, the “last days” (Acts 2:17). So here’s what he tells guilty sinners:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).
Here begins the amazing grace in our 3Gs, which will be Part 2 of this series.
Pastor Steve Baugh is Professor Emeritus of NT Westminster Seminary CA and an ordained minister of the OPC.