When we think of shame, we often think of guilt or conviction. The three are related but not the same. It’s helpful to know the difference so that we can be free of the shame that so often weighs us down.
Guilt is a fact. It means that one has committed an offense. We know from Scripture that we are all guilty. Romans 3:23 says we have all sinned. All of us bear the guilt of sin in two ways: by nature and in practice. We are born with a sin nature, inclined to sin, but we also choose to sin daily (let’s admit it, often hourly). We have committed offenses against other humans and against God Himself. We are guilty.
When the Holy Spirit points out our sinfulness—whether through Scripture, a sermon, prayer, or a friend—that is conviction. Jesus said in John 16:8 that the Holy Spirit would bring conviction of sin. By definition, conviction means to find a person guilty of a crime. When we talk about conviction of sin, typically we are talking about internal conviction. We are speaking of our realization that we are guilty of sin.
Guilt and conviction both point to who we are without Christ—we are guilty, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we know we are guilty. However, the wonderful and miraculous news for those of us who believe is that we are no longer without Christ. In both John 16 and Romans 3, the good news follows the bad. Yes, we are all sinners. Yes, the Holy Spirit will convict us of our unrighteousness. But He also convicts us of righteousness. He shows us the standard—Jesus Christ.
Romans 3 explains that the “righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 22) and that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). When we confess our guilt over our sin and place our faith in Jesus Christ, we are made righteous and no longer seen by God as sinners. We are seen through the lens of grace, through the lens of Christ. We take on His righteousness!
Therefore, our guilt becomes past tense in some ways. We do still sin; we still disobey. But those sins are already forgiven. We don’t have to live in a place of guilt any longer. Conviction still happens, because, although our relationship with God through Christ is secure, our fellowship with Him has been disrupted. We should humbly ask forgiveness of God and of any people we sinned against. But our conviction no longer leads to death.
So, how does this affect our shame? Shame is the feeling we get when we are burdened with our guilt. Shame often looks like embarrassment or anxiety or hopelessness. When we feel ashamed about our sin, we often feel like we need to just do better, sin less, become different. God’s Word tells us that not only is it impossible for us to earn guiltlessness but that work has already been done for us by Christ. When we experience shame, we are still living in the guilt of our sins. We are still living as if Jesus’s righteousness is not good enough to cover us.
When Jesus died on the cross, He died for all our sins. All of them. There is nothing we have done or will do that wasn’t covered on the cross. And the guilt from those sins died with them. Then, Jesus overcame death and rose again. So, we don’t have to die as a result of our sin. We simply have to believe that Jesus took care of it. We have to trust what we read in God’s Word—that Jesus’s righteousness justifies us.
When we do that, shame can be in the past tense for us always. We don’t have to be embarrassed or anxious or hopeless about our guilt and all the long lists of things we do wrong on an hourly basis. Instead, we can live in the freedom of Christ’s righteousness, trusting His death and resurrection are enough. We can live in the abundance of life Jesus talks about in John 10:10. The world will notice women who live like that. And we can share the hope of living unashamed.
Dive deeper into the topic of shame and how to fight it with the Word of God with Ashamed, a 6-session Bible study by Scarlet Hiltibidal.
ABOUT ELIZABETH HYNDMAN
Elizabeth reads, writes, and argues about the nuances of punctuation. Officially, she’s an Editorial Project Leader at Lifeway. She managed to find a job where she uses both her English undergraduate and her seminary graduate degrees every day. Elizabeth grew up in Nashville, sips chai lattes every chance she can get, and believes everyone should have a “funny picture” pose at the ready. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.