All of the Sin, None of the Guilt
It’s utterly erroneous to assume that the gospel is failing in modern culture. The gospel is more pervasive than ever. The problem is that it’s a false gospel.
The Atlantic’s recent article “Lady Gaga’s Guilt-Free Gospel” raises the specter of Lady Gaga, apparently reared a “repressed” Catholic but whose musical lyrics now exalt sadomasochism and rape fantasies. Today this world icon pop artist preaches a gospel of self-expression and –exaltation. Above all, hers is a guiltless gospel:
Gaga … luxuriates in the absence of guilt. Again and again on Born This Way, she encourages her “Little Monsters” — these are her fans — to reject, defy, outwit, and ignore external judges of behavior: parents, boyfriends, kids at school. But internal shame — vestigial Catholic guilt, held over from Sunday School — for, say, premarital sex, dressing funny, hooking up with members of one’s own gender? For Gaga, such feelings are incomprehensible. She is certain of her own righteousness; her emotional enemy is not shame but insecurity.
The right Gospel — the Christian Gospel — depicts guilt in both its objective and subjective manifestations. We are objectively guilty before God, because we have broken his law. In short, we have sinned: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19).
This objective guilt before a holy God rightly induces subjective guilt, “guilt feelings,” as we say today: “‘And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise [his] eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:13).
People who are objectively guilty because of their sin should feel subjectively guilty: they have broken God’s holy law, and they incite his judgment. Subjective guilt prods them to appeal to God abolish their objective guilt.
This solution to both objective and subjective guilt is repentance and confession of our sin and utter reliance on the atoning work of Jesus Christ to save us (Rom. 3:21-26; 1 Jn. 1:9).
It’s possible because of false teaching and assumptions to suffer subjective guilt when there’s nothing to be guilty about. Fundamentalists are routinely accused of this error: defining (for example) tobacco and alcohol consumption and movie attendance as sin, thereby inducing feelings of guilt in those who violate these man-made moral codes, which are not, in fact, sin (1 Cor. 8:7).
In massive and lethal overreaction to this guilt-inducing moralism, the Lady Gagas of the world (and even some in the church) have abolished guilt from the pantheon of human existence.
Sinful humanity loves to get its way without divine interference (Gen. 3), and the guiltless gospel attempts to remove one of the final barriers to full human autonomy: God gave humanity a conscience to prick us when we break his law, in order to drive us to him for forgiveness and salvation (Jn. 8:9; Rom. 2:15; Heb. 10:22).
But when we purge guilt from our lives, we are actually saying that we don’t need salvation from sin, only from our own self-induced limitations and insecurities.
This is Gaga’s guiltless Gospel. It implicitly declares: “I am not a sinner before God. God exists to make me all I was intended to be. I am in charge of my life. I save myself by purging all my self-limitations.”
This is a false gospel that sends people like Lady Gaga to Hell — unless they acknowledge their guilt before God and repent.
Lady Gaga and her “Little Monsters” need more guilt, not less.
But theirs is a very prominent gospel in an age that prizes autonomy above all else.
This is the gospel — the gospel of damnation, not salvation.