GUILT. The deserving of punishment because of the violation of a law or a breach of conduct. In the OT, the concept of guilt is largely ritualistic and legalistic. A person could be guiltless before both God and the nation (Num.32.22); on the other hand, one could be guilty because of unwitting sin (Lev.5.17). Israel, moreover, was viewed as an organic whole: what one does affects all. There is collective responsibility for sin; when Achan sinned, all Israel suffered. The prophets stressed the ethical and personal aspects of sin and of guilt. God is less interested in ritual correctness than in moral obedience.

In the NT, Jesus stressed the importance of right heart attitude over against outwardly correct acts and taught that there are degrees of guilt, depending on a person’s knowledge and motive (Luke.11.29-Luke.11.32; Luke.12.47-Luke.12.48; Luke.23.34). Paul likewise recognized differences of degree in guilt (Acts.17.30; Eph.4.18), though also stating that the law makes everyone guilty before God (Rom.3.19). Theologians differ as to what Paul taught in Rom.5.12-Rom.5.21, both as to whether Adam’s guilt was imputed to all his posterity and, if it was, as to just how it was done.

Old Testament concept.

New Testament concept.

Paul deepens the understanding of guilt by universalizing and internalizing the debt to God which results from sin. He thinks of the actual removal of sin by Christ’s death as well as payment of the debt through the justification which God through faith grants the repentant sinner (Rom 3:24f.; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; etc.). To be ἐν Χριστῳ̂ means to be free from condemnation and guilt (Rom 8:1ff.); it means that the verdict of “guilty” is reversed.

Guilt is also seen in a Hebraic way as the consequence of sin by other NT writers; see John 9:41 (ἔνοχος, G1944); James 2:10 (ἔνοχος, G1944); and 1 John 3:4 for important examples.


J. G. Simpson, “Guilt,” HDCG, 1 (1906), 696-698; J. R. Willis, “Guilt,” HDB, 1 vol. ed. (1909), 320-322; F. R. Tennant The Concept of Sin (1912); H. F. Hall, “Guilt,” ISBE, 2 (1915), 1309, 1310; H. R. Mackintosh, “Sin (Christian),” HERE, 11 (1921), 538-544; C. A. Beckwith, “Guilt,” SHERK, 5 (1950), 95, 96; L. Morris, “’Asham,” EQ, 30 (1958), 196-210; J. Hempel, “Ethics in the OT,” IDB, 2 (1962), 153-161; S. J. De Vries, “Sin, sinners,” IDB, 4 (1962), 361-376; J. Barr, “Guilt,” HDB rev. (1963), 354, 355; J. Heuschen and B. Vawter, “Guilt,” Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (1963), 912-918; G. Quell, G. Bertram, G. Stählim and W. Grundmann, “ἁμαρτάνω, ἁμάρτημα, ἁμαρτία,” TDNT, 1 (1964), 276-316, esp. sections on Guilt; J. Lachowski, “Sin (in the Bible),” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 6 (1967), 850-852; P. Schoonenberg, “Sin,” Sacramentum Mundi, 6 (1970), 87-92.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

gilt: The Christian idea of guilt involves three elements: responsibility (Greek aitia, "cause," depending upon a man’s real freedom), blameworthiness (Latin reatus culpae, depending upon a man’s knowledge and purpose) and the obligation to make good through punishment or compensation (Latin reatus poenae; compare Greek opheilema, "debt," Mt 6:12). In other words, in thinking of guilt we ask the questions of cause, motive and consequence, the central idea being that of the personal blameworthiness of the sinner.

I. In the Old Testament.

1. The Ritualistic and Legalistic Conception:

Moreover, the element of personal responsibility is sometimes lacking where guilt is assigned. The priest may sin "so as to bring guilt on the people" (Le 4:3). One man’s wrongdoing may "cause the land to sin" (De 24:4). Israel has sinned in Achan’s greed and therefore suffers. Even when the guilty man is found, his children and his very cattle must bear the guilt and punishment with him, though there is no suggestion of their participation or even knowledge (Jos 7; compare 2Sa 24). Here the full moral idea of sin and guilt is wanting because the idea of personality and personal responsibility has not come to its own. The individual is still merged here in the clan or nation.

The central idea in all this is not that of the individual, his responsibility, his motive, his blame. It is that of a rule and the transgression of it, which must be made good. For this reason we see the ú ideas of sin and guilt and punishment constantly passing over into each other. This may be seen by noting the use of the words whose common root is ’-sh-m, the distinctive Hebrew term for guilt. In Le 5 to 7 in the adjective form it is rendered "guilty," in the noun as "trespass offering." In Ho 5:15 it seems to mean punishment (see margin, "have borne their guilt," and compare Eze 6:6), while in Nu 5:7,8 the idea is that of compensation (rendered "restitution for guilt").

2. Prophetic Teaching:

II. In the New Testament.

1. With Jesus:

Here as elsewhere Jesus came to fulfill. With Him it is the inner attitude of the soul that decides. It is the penitent publican who goes down justified, not the Pharisee with his long credit account (Lu 18:9-14). That is why His attitude is so kindly toward some notorious sinners and so stern toward some religious leaders. The Pharisees are outwardly correct, but their spirit of bigotry and pride prevents their entering the kingdom of heaven, while the penitent harlots and publicans take it by storm.

Because it is not primarily a matter of the outward deed but of the inner spirit, Jesus marks different degrees of guilt as depending upon a man’s knowledge and motive (Lu 11:29-32; 12:47,48; 23:34). And yet Jesus does not lighten the sense of guilt but rather deepens it. The strength of the Old Testament thought lay in this, that it viewed all transgression as a sin against God, since all law came from Him. This religious emphasis remains with Jesus (Lu 15:21; compare Ps 51:4). But with Jesus God is far more than a giver of rules. He gives Himself. And so the guilt is the deeper because the sin is against this love and mercy and fellowship which God offers us. Jesus shows us the final depth of evil in sin. Here comes the New Testament interpretation of the cross, which shows it on the one hand as the measure of God’s love in the free gift of His Son, and on the other as the measure of man’s guilt whose sin wrought this and made it necessary.

2. With Paul:

See also SIN.


Mueller, Christian Doctrine of Sin, I, 193-267; Schultz, Old Testament Theology; Kaehler, article "Schuld," Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.