[I'm re-posting this because the original was corrupted by spammers]
I've been thinking lately about the difference between guilt and conviction, and the importance of distinguishing between them for Christianity. A quick dictionary search comes up with the following definitions:
Guilt (n): a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc.
Convict (v): To make aware of one's sinfulness or guilt.
Now, at first there doesn't seem to be much difference between these two terms. Guilt is the feeling that you've done something wrong, and conviction is what causes that feeling. But, for Christians, it is important to make a further distinction, one that will prove vital, I think, for a proper understanding of God's love and our response to God.
That difference is directly related to who does the convicting. Here's what I mean. There are multiple sources that can convict: a judge, society, your parents, your self, God... But in Christianity, the divine source of conviction, God the Holy Spirit, operates differently from any other source we face.
How so? The Spirit convicts us of sin (John 16:8). Moreover, the Spirit is what enables us to live as Christ has called us to live (Rom. 8:11, Galatians 5). But, even more important for the issue at hand, the Spirit assures us of our salvation (Rom. 8:11-16, 1 Cor. 12:3, 2 Cor. 5:5, Gal. 5:5, Eph. 1:13).
So, we have a source of conviction who also assures us of our salvation: The Holy Spirit. This is a great source of hope! And it shows us the important distinction between guilt and conviction in Christianity.
Guilt fills us with a sense of dread, fear, or despair. We feel guilty because we have done something wrong, and we are either afraid of punishment, or of rejection, or embarrassment, or loss. Guilt is a powerful motivator because it reminds us of the horrible results our actions may bring about, and drives us to avoid those actions, or at least to cover them up.
But guilt is also extremely difficult to get rid of, once it's taken root in our lives. Guilt follows us and haunts us and torments us. And, unfortunately, many Christians have been initiated into a life of guilt, due to the sort of "merit-based" Christianity that has erroneously been handed down for centuries.
Conviction from the Spirit is different. This is not because there is no guilt in conviction; of course, we have all done things that are wrong, things that we should do or should not do. We have all failed. But, if the one that points out our guilt is also the one who reminds us of our treasured status as beloved children of God, the outcome should be quite different.
Instead of feelings of fear or dread, a more proper response would be remorse. There is no condemnation, as Paul says, but there is a reminder of the fact that we haven't lived up to our calling. This reminder should cause us to say, "Yes, I'm sorry, I know I should have acted differently" -- at which point the Spirit assures us that we are still loved, and are blessed with God's gifts of grace, mercy, and forgiveness... and the strength to try again!
Even more, because of the grace of God that reminds us of our salvation, there is no need for guilt to remain: it has nothing to cling to, nowhere to hide. Often we forget this and let guilt hang around in our lives, because we find it difficult to believe that God really loves us that much - enough to forgive and forget in a way that seems foreign to us. But when we believe it, we find that our guilt is no longer necessary.
And so, guilt becomes a mere trifle for the Christian, a minor bump in the road, as the Spirit gently uses our stumbling to remind us of our need to repent, and then helps us back to our feet and leads us on our way, so that we can forget about that obstacle and look forward, rather than backward.
If we, as Christians, can learn how to separate guilt and conviction, and recognize that guilt is the piece we can safely eliminate, while recognizing the value of allowing the Spirit's conviction to direct our lives, I believe that the overall health of the Church would vastly improve.