Grace, Guilt and America’s Sins

A few months ago I was having a conversation with someone about the depths of America’s guilt in mistreating marginalized people groups. We discussed this country’s abuse of Natives, African slaves, Japanese people kept in internment camps, etc. I was the one pointing out that our nation has a lot of embarrassing parts of its history. As the discussion went on, this individual responded by saying, “I thought you were all about grace though? Why are you talking so much about our guilt?”

I realized that this is a sincere question. How can someone who constantly feasts on the message of grace also get so serious in talking about our failures and weaknesses?

If we see the doctrine of grace clearly, I believe it will actually only encourage us to take responsibility for how our actions are affecting others around us (personally or as a society). Let me explain.

I understand the Gospel of Grace to be the solution to the problem of shame. Shame says we are defined by our failures. Grace says we have an identity in Christ that transcends our performance altogether.

Shame says we are defined by our failures. Grace says we have an identity in Christ that transcends our performance altogether.

Grace also nullifies the fear of punishment. As a redeemed child of God I get the dignity and blessings that Jesus earned for me, rather than what I have earned through my own lifestyle choices.

Further, my very real sins have all been cleared. In a sense it is as if they never occurred. The Lord declares, “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).

All of this tells me that I don’t have to live in a fear of negative karma coming to haunt me all my life. I join with the writer of Psalm 5 in saying, 

But let all who take refuge in You rejoice;
    let them ever sing for joy,
and spread Your protection over them,
    that those who love Your name may exult in You.
For You bless the righteous, O Lord;
    You cover him with favor as with a shield.

As grateful as I am for grace, I also believe in acknowledging guilt. I still recognize that I have messed up – and at times continue to do so. Sometimes I may even screw up in massive ways! Having a confidence in God’s continual covering of grace actually enables me to see my fault without feeling condemned about it. 

If you know that your actions do not define you or your future, it’s much easier to swallow the fact that your actions are not always good. Or maybe even that they are sometimes terrible ones. Your conscience can grow more sensitive to correction, precisely because you are no longer afraid of being a failure anymore. You’re not trying to hide from admitting your own potential for error. You know that Christ is your only righteousness anyway.

All that said, a sincere trust in God’s grace will sometimes call us to take inventory of our actions and to rise to a higher standard in how we treat one another. We can’t always ignore the repercussions our choices have had on our neighbors and justify that attitude in the name of not wanting to be “sin-conscious.” Grace moves us to be conscious of others… even if it is uncomfortable or painful to realize just how unkind we have been toward them beforehand.

We cannot undo our failures. To try that would be self-righteous of us. But as believers we can admit our responsibility in creating very real problems in this world, and — by the grace of God — we can work together to create a better future.

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