I find it interesting that the gospel message presented in the Western world emphasizes the forgiveness salvation brings to guilty sinners yet in biblical times, people in Israel and surrounding lands lived in cultures that seemed just as concerned about alleviating shame with honor and fear with power (Psalm 44:13–15; Isaiah 54:4).
Consider these three verses of Scripture that address guilt, shame and fear:
He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
Having grown up in Western culture, the first of these three Scriptures (and ones like it) had the most impact on me when I first heard the gospel and started reading the Bible. We live in an individualistic culture where lawbreakers are guilty and wrongs are rectified either by administration of justice or forgiveness.
In my fallen nature, my first instinct is to seek justice for others and mercy for myself. I’m probably not alone. We can relate to a God who judges sin. Once we understand our guilt before God, we desire what we perceive we need most—forgiveness. That may be why the major focus in our gospel presentations is the forgiveness of sins.
My initial exposure to the gospel of grace came in the form of antinomianism. This belief system, meaning “against the law”, placed so much emphasis on grace that its teachers did not expect Christians to necessarily change once they believed in Christ. In contrast, A. W. Tozer wrote that salvation from the consequences of sin without salvation from sin and evil conduct does not satisfy.
He was right. The gospel offers much more.
Guilt, Shame and Fear
After The Fall, Adam and Eve experienced more than guilt. They felt shame so they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. They felt fear so they hid from God. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that our redemption through Jesus Christ addresses our shame and fear as well as our guilt.
Because our individualistic culture operates within a guilt/innocence construct in which our actions comprise our core problem, we see our greatest need as forgiveness. In honor/shame cultures, honor is associated with belonging to a group in right relationship. Sinful actions may result in expulsion of that person from the group to remove the shame. Thus, the sinner’s greatest felt need is restoration. In fear/power cultures the greatest felt need is power to protect them from evil spirits.
Take a look at these verses that invite belief in Jesus while appealing to three different felt needs resulting from sin:
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe…
—1 Peter 2:6–7a
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.
This last verse is in the context of Jesus telling his disciples he would soon leave them (John 13:33). Jesus comforted them, promising them power to do even greater miracles (John 14:12–14). They would be given the Holy Spirit (John 14:16); they would not be left as orphans, vulnerable to spiritual powers (John 14:18); they would be given peace and told not to be afraid (John 14:27). They would need to remember all of Jesus’ comforting words as the events of the crucifixion unfolded and it seemed Satan had gained the upper hand.
Though our culture may influence how we first perceive our need of a savior, Jesus redeems every Christian fully from all of sin’s effects.
Forgiveness, Honor and Power
Many of the stories in the Bible appeal to our desire for forgiveness, honor or power.
Joseph forgave his brothers who sold him into slavery even though they intended to harm him. Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who crucified him for they did not know what they were doing.
The Prodigal Son was restored from shame to a position of honor.
Jesus restored honor to the outcasts of society, be they lepers, the blind or Gentiles. His miraculous healing and release for the demon-possessed demonstrated his power over demonic forces.
These stories shout to all of humanity—there is hope for you!
Sometimes the solution to guilt, shame and fear (forgiveness, a place of honor, and the power of God) are all addressed in a single verse:
I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.
Tozer was right. Only the richness and fullness of our redemption truly satisfies our soul. When we embrace the shame aspect of the gospel, we acknowledge our lost relationship with God and recognize that not only do our actions need forgiveness, but that our brokenness needs restoration to wholeness. Thus the need for sanctification. When we embrace the fear aspect of the gospel, we acknowledge our vulnerability, leading us to a dependence on God’s power.
We are a new creation—declared not guilty with our debt paid; unashamed and given a place of honor in God’s family; empowered to please God instead of appeasing the gods of this world that we fear.
This article just skims the surface of these wonderful truths. For an in-depth treatment of the subject, I recommend The 3D Gospel by Jason Georges.