Sunday, March 25, 2007

a guilty conscience?

Firstly sorry for such a long gap - assuming anyone is out there to read this by now ;o)

OK currently writing a book (part of reason for long gap!) a thought that came to me in this I wanted to share here....

The preaching of the gospel in much evangelism centers on forgiveness. It offers a model of salvation geared to God in Jesus paying the penalty we are due because of the things for which we are rightly judged guilty. OK there is a whole debate to be had surrounding that understanding. But at this point I am just reflecting on why in the modernist period it has become the predominant model of salvation, even this is shown by it being the model to reject. I think this has a lot to do with the place of the conscience.

As the medieval world moved into the modern, via the renaissance and then the enlightenment, society moved its centre from and ordered and re-ordained hierarchy to the autonomous individual. Morality in the old order was something ordained from above, taught by the church, socialized by your community and enforced by divinely appointed rulers. In modernity morality became a matter of personal decision, and a humanly appointed state became an enforcer of a legal but not necessarily moral order. Rationality ruled the public sphere but could only pronounce on benefit, and a utilitarian common good. It was up to you to supply from within yourself what was right and good. Hence the rising importance of the individual conscience.

The humanist could affirm the conscience because it sprang from within the person and with an optimistic view of humanity would be a sure guide. The Christian could affirm this by seeing the conscience as a 'divine spark' God convicting us of sin. Sin would thus lead to a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience needed someone to remove the guilt and pronounce pardon, to assure us of forgiveness where we knew judgment was due. This is exactly what the evangelistic preaching of the gospel of penal substitution offered.

But what might have been happening? The problem is that the idea of conversion as an individual decision based on a personal guilty conscience as a true guide is deeply dependent on a modernist view of humanity. this view both views me as an individual and secondly as a positive individual who is, if I can truly connect with myself , an individual whose reason and reaction will indeed be true. What if actually my conscience is false? What if I feel no guilt for that which God might condemn me, or feel guilt for that of which I should feel none? what if taking that into account, and in today's world both those seem to be true, my guilt was not a product of a divinely guided conscience but a product of a lapsed Christendom in which me guilt was induced by past church experience and thus able to be revived by contemporary church preaching?

If this were the real situation of the guilty conscience, then the gospel portrayed as freedom from the penalty we deserved as guilty would only be good news to those raised in Christendom. And such seems to be the case. further to this Bonhoeffer is surely correct to suggest so much preaching is about 'sniffing around in other peoples dustbins hoping to catch them out' indeed the evangelist must induce guilt if not found in order to preach its relief. OK most people do suffer feelings of guilt, but they are both often different from what Christianity suggests we ought to feel guilty about, and increasingly assuaged by the sentiment 'well I’m only human' which in modernity and especially post modernity is a perfectly good justification (I don't think it is as a Christian by the way). further to this, as the power of Christendom guilt wears off, the preaching of a gospel geared to it leads to a rejection of the gospel, either as a crutch for the weak and guilty, that is people worse than me, or as something that is moralizing and guilt inducing when no guilt is due. The gospel becomes either at best good news for the truly bad (i.e. only a few) or bad news full stop.

now none of this as I see it is to suggest, as indeed many do faced with such a gospel, that people do not need saving from what Paul would call 'the power of sin and death'. I believe we do, and need to proclaim such a gospel. My point is that this was given a peculiar modernist form in the concept of the guilty conscience that is now increasingly unhelpful. A gospel based on it is increasingly no 'good news' at all.

However, if this is so, it does not seem that people don’t dream of being 'better'. One of the interesting things to come out of the 'beyond the fringe' research was that peoples personal aspirations, not surprisingly, where for happiness, family, relationships and success. however more surprisingly people on the whole didn’t chose those who had achieved this as those hey admired, rather they chose, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and yes Jesus. Might they secretly wish they could be like that too? Might the gospel that frees us from sin and death be the gospel that says, actually you can be like Jesus? Might preaching what we could become, rather than seeking to make us feel guilty for what we are, be not only 'good news' for today?


Solidus said...

Still here, Steve :-) (The joy of feed aggregators!)

Good post, too!

pax et bonum

diana said...

Hi Steve

Certainly I wrestle with the whole guilt and forgiveness thing in an environment where people find it easier to suspend a moral code. However it is a hard balance to strike that allows us to both present a gospel that doesn't major on guilt in a post-modern culture but on the other hand avoids the other major pitfall which is to cheap the costly grace that we can only know when we understand ourselves as unworthy sinners.

Steve said...


thanks for your comment. i think your dilema is very really and important. a couple of comments in return.

firstly the issue of individual sin and God's grace seem to me to be an indispensible part of Christian faith, but there are not the only part. i think anyone who is on a journey of faith with Christ will sooner or later find this is an issue they need to deal with, but i think people can get to this place by different roots. to speak personally i was attracted to the vision of humanity and the kingdom of God jesus portrayed and if you like reponded to his call to 'coem and follow him'. it took me a couple of years i think to realise the issue of my own sin was a barrier to that calling. did i know God's grace during that time, yes but i hadn't discovered it's full scope. i find other people can only come at this issue from the direction of feeling there is stuff wrong with human society, and then beeing lead to reflect on what they do as a aprt of that society. most people recognise they are at least partly repsonsible for the things they don't like.

further to this though i just want to ask a provocative question. is the greatest part of God's grace that he forgives my sin? is it that he is prepared to work with me even though i don't deserve it? is it that he is able to conquer the power of sin and death in my life and tranform into his likeness? i'd personally go for the last one of these as the most important. to be forgiven but not transformed would look me in a palce of continuous frustration, feeling the pain of my sin, knowing forgiveness yet never seeing the sin being overcome in my life.

now that's not to say the forgiveness is unimportant, nor that God will work in my life, but i wonder if the power of the idea of the guilty conscience might lead to us playing these up at the expense of the issue of a transformed life?

D J Booker said...

Nice to have you back Steve!

Just a quick thought in response...while i muse over the rest of the post

"The problem is that the idea of conversion as an individual decision based on a personal guilty conscience as a true guide is deeply dependent on a modernist view of humanity." That may be true, but it seems to me there is a strong case for saying that the modernist veiw of humanity wasn't simply something that crept up on us. Rather it was something that the worldview of the church helped create, at least as far back as Wydcliff and the need to read the bible personally in your own tounge.

it seems to me that the modernist outlook was at least partly formed by the church...maybe the difference now is that we have lost the ablity and/or confidence to shape our culture?

...and while of think of it, selling an easy way out of guilt is so much easier that living a transformed life...if we did seem more transformed (like those you list at the end of your post) we might be a bit more atractive...hum lots to think about!

Andii said...

I think this is exactly the kind of thinking we should be engaging in -but then I've been saying that for 20 years! See
for further comment.

Steve said...

Andii has more on his blog at (hope the link works in this it doesn't seem to in his comment. trying to correct that and so far failing!) anyway the blog is worth looking at as a whole so no harm in the link again!

Dave's comment is interesting. needless to say the church and christians are part of the culture formation process regardless, so i am sure the church did play some part in the formation of modernity.

however i think it interesting that he takes us back to Wycliff on this but not futher. my reading would be that the renaissance is the source of these ideas and the church is responding to them in the reformation. indeed i think we needed to repond. the church was at that time very influential, so will have helped shape thinking by it's input, but i think the remaissanc markded the begining of a time when the churcn has not been the prime culutral mover.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it seems as if you know quite a bit about the emerging church/post modernism.

Let me ask you this. If the word of God has worked & been understood for thousands of years... why are we now changing our doctrine & services to fit a culture who adopts sin as part of everyday life?

Don't you think that the post modern church might be adopting this sin also? Or do you find truth is beginning to disappear?

Steve said...


thanks for the post.

firstly you put some powerful points, and i am about to respond wanting to know more, so please tell me more about why you posted as you did, which will help me respond better.

so some provisional ideas. you talk of "the word of God has worked & been understood for thousands of years... why are we now changing our doctrine & services to fit a culture who adopts sin as part of everyday life?" OK the way the church has expressed the word of God has changed many times over those thousands of years. in every age it has had to grapple with staying faithful to the tradition of jesus, and the situation it encounters. this goes back to the important recognition that God was incarnate in Jesus, the eternal God alive in a particualr time and place and culture. and what Jesus does is blesses some things in culture, indeed draws out the idden reality of God in some things, but also challenges others. we are called as those following Christ to incarnate the Word in our time and place. we too must affirm the good and challenge that which of not of God.

OK now my reading of the church in and beyond scripture is that it has always sort to do both but has often failed to do it perfectly. there are many things that the church has done that in hindsight we may rightly see as over accomodation to the age. inspite of this God has worked, God's grace is so much bigger than our service! so in our age we are called to the same challenge. we too may get this wrong (indeed will get this wrong) but God will work! this is no excuse to get it wrong, indeed we must strive to hear God in our time and place and witness faithfully to him.

OK so why is this age especially sinful? sin is an eternal problem. is there any particular issue you are raising? we do indeed need to be vigilant against the sin that would drag us down to quote Paul. but i don't get why now is any more a time of challenge than the past, though that is not to diminsish the real challenge! i for one do not see that being a postmodern church entails succumbing to sin, though it does for any pursuing that path offer the real challenge of not soing so! but waht of a non postmodern church? might that not already be guilty of embracing the sins of former ages? and might it having been the true body of Christ in past ages not be the true body of christ in our age?

Hammertime said...

I would challenge your premise that penal substitution (what you seem to be describing) is a "modernist" idea.

When we look at church history, I agree that the substitutionary atonement was not a focus of many church fathers when discussing Christ's work. While it is clearly a central theme of Paul and seen in Augustine, it does not become a central theme until Anselm. While we may consider that "late", it is certainly not "modern".

We may honestly debate and consider why it was not more of a focus in the post-Augustine fathers, whether it was simply a given or themes such as the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness were more popular. What I do not think we can do is call it "modernist".

Steve said...


i totally agree with you, penal substitution is not a modernist idea, and sorry if i gave the impression i thought it so. rather i was claiming the guilty conscience (not guilt for sin also not modernist) was a modernist idea and this had led to the much older understanding of the atonement as penal substitution becoming predominant after the reformation in a way it wasn't earlier. you rightly cite Augustien and Anselm and these where of course big influences on the reformation theologians. i actually don't think this model of the atonement is strong in the bible, Paul included. it is there but i think it's very marginal, i suspect we misread Paul through Luther and Augustine who both emphasis this. i read most of Paul as expounding the idea of Christ as conquereor of the powers of Sin, Death and the Devil.

i would add that another modernist trait is to look for a defintive understanding of the atonement, which i think puts different metaphors at odds with each other, and turns them into formulas. i think often the biblical and patristic writers knew the atonement worked and offered a vareity of ways of speaking of what it achieved, rather than sought to explain the exact mechanism.

Hammertime said...

Excellent clarification for me - thank you!

Two questions:

1) Acknowledging that there are things of God we cannot understand, does that demand that we must not understand at last some of the mechanism of the atonement?

2) If Christus Victor is the model you prefer, what was the mechanism for that? Or, does your implication that we can't understand the mechanism flow from a failure of any observable mechanism for Christus Victor?

Steve said...


OK granted that we don't always fully grasp the things of God, does not for me mean we shouldn't try to grasp them, or indeed that we won't in part succeed. i just think that the atonement works is a lot more important than how it works, and i have my doubts about the capability of anyone to fully understand how it works.

secondly scripture seeks to talk of the atonement through different images, some refer back to the Jewish scriptures, so Christ is thE Passover sacrifice who sets us free from captivity, or sacrificial Lamb on the Day of Atonement, or perhaps the scapegoat on that day, as well being the high priest on that day entering into the true temple (Hebrews). now already we can see that at one level this doesn't make any sense, we not only have Jesus atonement 'explained' in terms of two totally different festivals with very different meanings, but as several mutilly exclusive participants in the same festival, even being at the same time the sacrificial victim and the one performing the sacrifice.
the New Testament offers further pictures, the image of Christ paying the price to redeem us from slavery drawing on the imagery of the slave market, as you refer to a 'christus victor' model in which he is the conqueror of the cosmic powers that enslave creation, and image also with a Jewish history, but also alluding to the mythology of other religions, and of course also the image of the Law court in which we stand guilty but the punishment is taken by Jesus. again these too do not make sense at one level, also each image has problems if you take it as an accurate explanation. carry the slave market image on to it's logocal conclusiona nd jesus pays the devil, or death to set us free, not i think what was in the minds of the scriptural authors. christus victor can almost do without the cross, though i think if one views it as a variation on the jewish apocalyptic understanding of the Day of Atonemnt, there is a way, but already one has had to combine models. the Penal model asks us to beleive that a good judge would allow an innocent person to suffer the death penalty and not the guilty party beacuse in the end it doesn't matter who is punnished as long as someone is. not one model of the atonemtn really works as an explanation of how it works, all fall short, and we shouldn't be surprised, as i said i doubt any model that we could grasp would explain it in a watertight way, and secondly the very fact that the authors fo scripture are clealry quite happy to offer conflicting and limited pictures to speak of the atonemnt should alert us to the idea that we should accept all of them (hence i don't favour the christus victor model, i just note it is probably the most common one in the NT), expect all of them to work in tension with each other to open up our understanding of the atonemnt, and finally accept that we don't need to fully understand it to proclaim it and for it to trasnform us.

on another level these all tells the truth, Christ sets us free, from the power of sin, and the penalty of sin, we are redeemed from the control of the devil, set free from the power of death, the way to God is opened for us, reconcilliation is achieved between men and women, humans and creation, and creation and God. no one metaphor says it all, but all is true of the atonement through Christ.

Gabi said...

Hi Steve,
shame on me, but wouldn't even add anything to the post, but get straight to the point. As a young believer I spent a semester studying at the University of Derby where I met Anne as the chaplain at that time and at your house only for some short minutes you, too... that was back in the first half of 2001. Some years down the road I have this urge to connect (again) especially that your heart and passion is very much like the people's who are my tribe. I think we have at least one common friend, Alexander in Bath. Don't want to write a novel here, could we skype? Or if you give me a phone number would love to call Anne/you. You get every info from many blessings and warm greetings from Budapest, Hungary

Anonymous said...

Steve, what if, instead of focusing on original guilt, we focussed on original foolishness instead?

Anthropologists have sometimes classified cultures into three broad types: guilt-innocence, honour-shame and power-fear. Now few would dispute that western society fell into the guilt-innocence category during modernity, but that category depends heavily on people having an internalized sense of universal ethics. In post September world of might is right politics is that as true in the west today?

Particularly since we live in a pluralistic society when cultures mix? Now, some have said the power-fear type is more typical of animist societies than western ones ... but what about within neoanimist and neopagan subcultures? What is more dominant there? Missiologists have found the CHristus Victor model works better amongst animists than substitutionary atonement. Is it any surprise such models are being re-examined in the west today. I certainly find it resonates more.

Steve said...


very interesting.
to map some of this, modernity, guilt innocence, judaisim in C1st also? or rather i think pharisaic Judaisim but Apoclayptic more power fear? hence the move in Romans from all are guilty to all can be set free from the powers of Sin Death and the Devil culminating in the cosmic redemption of Romans 8 in very apocalyptic style.
Ancient Greece power fear? hence the predominance of Christos Victor in patristic church.
Asian cultures largely shame-honour? and what's the gospel message for that? the fact that it doesn't instantly spring to mind might be an indication of why christianity has struggled in Asian cultures?

Hammertime said...

I appreciate the time and thoughtfulness you have put into your post and comments. It has been very helpful.

Two further questions:

"the very fact that the authors of scripture are clearly quite happy to offer conflicting and limited pictures to speak of the atonement."

What do you mean by "conflicting"? I see multiple intentions, but not conflict.

"on another level these all tells the truth, Christ sets us free, from the power of sin, and the penalty of sin, we are redeemed from the control of the devil, set free from the power of death, the way to God is opened for us, reconcilliation is achieved between men and women, humans and creation, and creation and God. no one metaphor says it all, but all is true of the atonement through Christ.

I agree completely - I just don't see that agreement means that a primary, basic, or required element of the atonement is not possible or even likely.

Steve said...


conflicting, i mean if for instance you take the day of atonment metaphor, Jesus ia simultaneously the sacrificed goat 'for God' the scapegoat sent away 'for Azazael' and the high proest who sacrifices them. if oen is looking for an explanation fo the atonment in which 'jesus does X', then this one approach offeres conflciting readings. each of thre other metaphors also offers an alternative understanding that in this sense 'conflicts' with others. eiden this to include oher models of the stonemnt and we got more such 'colicts'. howeve as far as the meaning and effect of the cross these are not ocflicts they are instead compliments, they add togerher to build up our understanding

so of you are looking for an explanation of the atnement from which you can say this is hwo it worked, you'll find conflicting reprts. if you wan to speak of the atonemnt you'll find a seriosu of images that whilst they 'conflict' if taken as explanatons of how the atonemnt worked, they do not conflict at all but instead add meaning to each other as ways of showing the effects of the atonment.