If I Believe Jesus Has Forgiven My Sins, Why Do I Still Feel Guilty?

Past Sins

That thing we said, that thing we did—if only we could take it back. A memory of sharp words spoken in anger, the night we went along with the crowd, or maybe left the crowd and wish we hadn’t—the haunting of regret can be relentless. We’d love to erase certain things with a simple stroke of a life “undo” key, but we know all too well that words cannot be unsaid and past events cannot be undone. How can we live well today when we can’t shake the past—even the confessed and forgiven past? We trust that we’ve been forgiven because Christ paid for all our sins when he died on the cross, but the memory isn’t erased, and the effects on us and on those we hurt can linger long.

What can help any of us who live under a weight of self-condemnation?


Lydia Brownback

This book aims to free women from self-focus and replace it with truth from God’s word about the abundant life Jesus promises them in the gospel.

Some carry that weight not because of what they’ve said or done but because of what others have said and done to them. It’s revealed in the woman who regularly puts herself down:

“I’m such a failure!”

“I’m a terrible friend.”

“I could never get involved in church. I have nothing to offer.”

They’ve come to believe what they’ve been told about themselves, perhaps from a very young age.

I think it’s safe to assume that the majority of women in the sex trade, whether pornography or prostitution, live under an unbearable weight of self-condemnation. But for most of them, that weight began to press long before their bartering sex for money. No little girl says, “I want to be a prostitute when I grow up.” But if she’s sexually abused, she might come to believe that’s all she’s good for. Or if she’s abandoned by her father, the message she gets is that no man could ever really love her. Condemnation turned inward so often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We might also feel condemned when we can’t conquer a besetting sin, or when we fail to measure up to the standards we have set for ourselves. To that end, sometimes we fail to distinguish between real, biblically named sin and that which is selfdefined. In other words, we view our personal failures as sin, even when God’s word doesn’t.

Whether our struggle concerns real sin or the personal failures we define as sin, self-condemnation inhibits us from finding comfort in the gospel. Instead we berate ourselves and become critical and judgmental, not only toward ourselves but toward others too. Such misery is caused not primarily by anything we are doing or failing to do but by our inward curve.

Past sins can dominate our thoughts as we rehearse over and over what we did or said and the hurt we caused. Allowing such thoughts to dominate inhibits us from comprehending how thoroughly the gospel deals with sin and guilt. If we’d only look away from that—away from ourselves altogether—and direct our gaze to Christ in his word, we’d see that Christ’s sacrifice trumps our sin in every respect. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for any sin of his. He took on himself our sin—yours and mine—and bore the guilt of it so we don’t have to. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Quite frankly, if God has forgiven us, who are we to condemn ourselves? Christ died for all the sin—past, present, and future—of those who are united to him by faith.

In light of that reality, if we have put our faith in his sufficiency for us, why do we still feel condemned? Maybe we are measuring ourselves by a different standard, one not rooted in God’s word. Scripture is where we learn that failing to reach personal goals isn’t necessarily sinful, but having a perfectionist spirit that demands it is. “Come to me,” Jesus said, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).


Our sins and failures loom too large in our eyes when Christ seems too small, and he is sure to seem small if our view of ourselves obscures our view of him. So that’s the first thing we’ve got to consider if we’re weighed down by a sense of condemnation—Where are we looking?

Let’s analyze those sins and failures that hold our conscience hostage. First, are they actually sins, and who determines what is sin? As we’ve noted, the Lord alone has the authority to declare what is sinful, and he has done so clearly in his word. Therefore, Scripture is the only standard that matters. So, for example, being overweight isn’t a sin, even though the process by which we got there might be. Likewise, skipping the gym isn’t a sin, although the reason for skipping might be. In fact, sin is more likely to underlie rigidity to a workout routine than an inclination to skip it. Declining a request to help in the church nursery isn’t sinful, but the reason for saying no might be. Switching to a different church isn’t a sin, but the reason for switching might be. Whatever the issue, we don’t have the authority to declare something as sinful that Scripture does not. So sipping an alcoholic drink isn’t a sin. Viewing an R-rated movie isn’t a sin. Listening to pop music isn’t a sin. From a biblical standpoint, these things are neutral.

Even so, something neutral in general isn’t neutral for everyone all the time or to the same degree. The heart can manufacture sin out of anything. The activities of the eyes, the hands, the feet, the imagination, and every other body part are merely the outworking of what’s in the heart:

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone. (Matt. 15:18–20)

At times the Holy Spirit might put his finger on something that needs to be cut from our lives, a habit or activity that, over the course of time, has become sinful or brought forth other sin. If we ignore these Spirit-directed nudges, knowing them to be reinforced by Scripture, we are going to feel weighed down, just as David did:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent,
my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Ps. 32:1–4)

And as James writes, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Here is where the battle is waged. If we’re unwilling to give up some sin or something good that works to provoke us to sin, we will try to coast along unchanged or spin it to look like anything except real sin. And because God is faithful, he presses in with that heavy hand that David writes about. But Spirit-given conviction is very different from the self-condemnation we’re addressing here.

Guilty Feelings—or True Guilt?

The self-condemnation I have in mind is the unshakable sense of guilt that can bury us even when we’ve confessed our sin and turned our back on it. The root of the problem here is our focus. We are focusing too much on ourselves—our sins, our failures—rather than on the Lord and his provision for those sins. We forget (or maybe haven’t known) that only God has the authority to condemn and the authority to forgive. We have the authority for neither. And the truth is, we do deserve condemnation. We are guilty. That’s why minimizing our sin, telling ourselves it’s not that bad, doesn’t alleviate those guilty feelings.

Our sin is as bad—in fact, worse—than we know or ever admit to ourselves. I recently heard it said that if we were to see the reality of our sin, we would actually go insane. That’s why putting a positive spin on sin in order to feel better doesn’t get us anywhere. Our guilty feelings aren’t the problem—it’s that we are guilty. Fleeing to Christ and taking refuge in him is our only hope, and those who do are the only ones who experience freedom from guilt—both its reality and how it makes us feel. For that reason, listening to the message that we simply need to forgive ourselves is spiritually destructive.

The author of one such article recounts that she felt guilty for years following a childhood mishap, even though she’d expressed great remorse for the incident and begged forgiveness the very day it happened. After encountering the offended party years later, who made no mention of that long-ago infraction, the author was finally able to let go, and she writes: I had forgiven myself, and I felt free. You see, Jesus has already forgiven us for every wrong thing we have ever done. It’s when we aren’t willing to forgive ourselves that we put on the chains of guilt and shame.1

Certainly she is right in that Jesus has atoned for all the sins of those who put their trust in him, but she makes herself too big in her own eyes by mistakenly requiring self-forgiveness in order to experience freedom from guilt and shame. We do not have the authority to do that. Only God does, which means that our view of ourselves can be rightly defined only by his view of us. If he declares us guilty, we are condemned. If he declares us forgiven, we are free. How we feel about ourselves concerning a past sin—or even a present sin struggle—has no bearing on the actual reality. The author concludes the article on the right note by directing her readers to Jesus:

There is freedom in Christ from the shame we hold onto. There is Hope. Today, come to Jesus and give Him your guilt; give Him your sins. Let Him unlock the shackles that hold you back. I promise, He will take them from you, and you will be free.2

That good truth about help and hope in Christ can be easily lost, however, when it appears under the heading of selfforgiveness. The overall concept of self-forgiveness, even when Christ is held out as the answer, is more about freedom from guilty feelings than freedom from actual guilt.

What we focus on defines us, so if our focus is inward, on ourselves, we wind up defining for ourselves whether we are righteous or guilty. When we begin and end with us—with our self— we miss the heart of the gospel and never truly find the freedom for which we ache.

What we focus on defines us, so if our focus is inward, on ourselves, we wind up defining for ourselves whether we are righteous or guilty.

The Only Judge That Matters

The most vicious promoter of our self-condemning tendencies and inaccurate thinking about forgiveness is Satan himself. His very name points to this reality—Satan means “accuser” or “adversary.” Nowhere is his technique presented more clearly in Scripture than in the vision given to the prophet Zechariah concerning Joshua the high priest. The vision depicts a courtroom scene where Joshua is the defendant. He stands on trial before the angel of the Lord, who is the judge, and the prosecutor is none other than Satan. But Joshua has the best possible defense attorney—the Lord himself. Zechariah writes:

He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zech. 3:1–2)

Joshua needs a good attorney because he has come to court dressed in vile, dirty clothes. The filth covering him in the vision was actually excrement, and showing up to court in this attire was no mere breach of etiquette; the clothing defiled Joshua’s whole person, making him ritually unclean and unable to carry out his responsibilities as high priest. Joshua’s condition meant that God’s people had no one to intercede for them on the Day of Atonement. Right there in the courtroom Satan has all the evidence he needs to win his case, which he surely would have done had the Lord not intervened:

Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by. (Zech. 3:3–5)

The Lord intervened first by silencing Satan and then by providing Joshua with clean clothes. Finally, acting as judge, he declared Joshua not guilty. As is true of our legal system today, the not-guilty verdict didn’t mean Joshua, the defendant, was innocent. He actually was guilty, and on top of that, his defilement impacted so many of God’s people. So Zechariah’s vision points forward in time to Christ, the only undefiled high priest in the history of high priests. Joshua was declared not guilty because Christ took that verdict upon himself.

Sin makes us feel like Joshua did when he was covered in filthy clothes. We are clothed—covered—in sin, and it is filthy. And we aren’t capable of changing our spiritual wardrobe. Satan loves to point out our filth as he seeks to prosecute us, making accusations and pointing out our defilement before the Judge. But with Christ as our advocate, Satan can’t win his case. If we have been united to Christ by faith, we’ve already been given new clothes, and the filth of our guilt has been stripped away. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, or how bad it is. In Christ we have a whole new outfit:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isa. 61:10)

The Lord is our judge, but he is also our defender, and he declares us not guilty by reason of his sacrifice for our sin. So we can disregard Satan’s accusations. When he brings to mind our sins, when he points out our self-centeredness, our worldliness, and our failures to love, we can tune him out with God’s word:

Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. (Heb. 10:21–23)

If you think about it, the message we hear today about the need to forgive ourselves plays right into the hands of the evil prosecutor. If he can keep us fixated on ourselves, looking inward for a declaration of not guilty, we won’t be able to see our defender and advocate, Christ Jesus.


It’s clear that we have guilty feelings because we are guilty. Even so, our guilty feelings are unreliable. We flourish when we lean on Christ and, as we do, grow in our ability to distinguish true guilt from false. The accuser, Satan, is also a liar, and he will twist truth like a pretzel to trouble our conscience where it’s free and to free it where it should be troubled. But our helper, the Holy Spirit, works in our hearts to sort this out as we immerse ourselves in God’s word. Some of us struggle with self-condemnation because we have a weak conscience. Here’s how John MacArthur defines a weak conscience:

The weakened conscience usually is hypersensitive and overactive about issues that are not sins. Ironically, a weak conscience is more likely to accuse than a strong conscience. Scripture calls this a weak conscience because it is too easily wounded. People with weak consciences tend to fret about things that should provoke no guilt in a mature Christian who knows God’s truth.3

As we grow in Christ, our conscience matures. As it is divinely reshaped, we have a greater and more enduring experience of freedom as we live out our faith.


  1. Moriah Nelson, “Freedom in Forgiveness,” (in)courage website, September 30, 2014, accessed February 16, 2018, http://www.incourage.me/2014 /09/freedom-in-forgiveness.html.
  2. Nelson, “Freedom in Forgiveness.”
  3. John MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience (Dallas, TX: Word, 1994), 44

This article is adapted from Flourish: How the Love of Christ Sets Us Free from Self-Focus by Lydia Brownback.

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