We Must Understand Both Guilt and Shame to Understand Atonement

Scripture presents the cross of Christ as a penal, substitutionary atonement and also the answer to human shame.

Sin wreaks havoc on God’s orderly world, disordering and disorienting everything in creation, except, of course, for the sinless Son of God who took on created humanity to rescue it.

In fact, in every way that sin disorders and disorients, Christ’s atoning work is effective and restorative.

For theologians, this means that everything the Bible highlights as disordered by the fall needs to be accounted for in Christ’s reordering work of atonement. For missionaries, this means that people and cultures might be predisposed to seeing and sensing certain effects of the fall more acutely than others. Communicating Christ cross-culturally, then, often involves beginning with the effects of sin of which a person is already most aware to investigate how Christ’s work provides God’s salvation.

The task of explaining and appreciating the atonement, however, is not finished when a person or a community has grasped one or two aspects of Christ’s atoning work. The task is finished when the depths of the biblical testimony have been plumbed regarding what Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension have accomplished. As you may have guessed, the richness of the biblical testimony of Christ’s atonement will never be exhausted.

There are multiple effects of sin that need to be addressed in our treatment of its undoing—fear, estrangement, death, and others. I want to focus on just two results of sin that are both pertinent to a biblical doctrine of atonement and that are often unnecessarily pitted against one another in missions discussions: shame and guilt. I propose that a robust biblical understanding of the atonement will not allow us to speak exclusively in terms of guilt or shame. Instead, the biblical testimony will awe us with the extensive and all-encompassing remedy for sin that we find in Christ’s atoning work. To begin, let’s look briefly at what the text says about the fall and its effects.

Biblical Effects of Sin

A careful reading of the first three chapters of Genesis highlights the effects of sin in devastating ways. Genesis 2:17 and 3:6 are key texts for understanding sin as the creaturely refusal to abide by the instructions of the creator. Violations of these instructions resulted in creatures bearing the guilt of their transgression. This sin-induced state of guilt is confirmed in myriad places throughout Scripture, with one clear example being found in Numbers 5:5-6:

The LORD spoke to Moses: “Tell the Israelites: When a man or a woman commits any sin against another, that person acts unfaithfully toward the LORD and is guilty.”

Sin—whether against another human or against divine law—is an offense against God and a failure of faithfulness to function as a creature before their creator. This renders the sinner guilty.

While some may be satisfied to see this guilt-inducing reality of sin as sufficient to describe the biblical effects, Genesis 3 does not limit the effects to guilt. In addition, the first chapter identifies both fear and shame as immediate consequences of sin. There is a direct parallel between the closing verse of chapter 2 and the results experienced by Adam and Eve following their transgression.

Genesis 2:25 states, “Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.” However, following their sin, Genesis 3:7 reports, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” The condition of their nakedness does not change between chapter 2 and 3. Yet while their nakedness was not connected to shame prior to the fall, their attempts to cover their nakedness following their transgression indicate that they now experienced nakedness as shameful.

If, then, the very first sin is textually linked with these two effects of guilt and shame, the promised remedy that will unfold in the rest of Scripture must be sufficient to deal with these two effects. In other words, the whole solution to the problem must be able to deal with all the effects of the problem. In the sovereign wisdom of God, we see the gospel doing exactly that.

The Biblical Solution of Atonement

As the Bible unveils God’s plan for and accomplishment of salvation for his people, there are multiple perspectives the biblical authors use to illustrate and unpack just how all-encompassing his salvation is. From law-court imagery to marketplace analogy, the Bible presents atonement as accomplishing redemption, restoration, adoption, and the provision of an alien righteousness for those formerly condemned by sin.

One clear affirmation that the gospel is a means by which God’s wrath is propitiated by Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice is found in Romans 4:25: “[Jesus our Lord] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Further, Romans 5:17-18 reminds us,

Since by the one man’s trespass death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive the overflow of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone.

The guilt occurring from the creature’s trespass has always required the creator’s forgiveness. God has decreed that such forgiveness will not occur without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death has obtained righteousness for trespassers and exhausted God’s righteous wrath against sin.           

But that is not all. The Bible also speaks of the undoing of shame in and through Christ’s ministry. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us that we are to fix our eyes on Christ who scorned the shame of the cross and has been vindicated in his resurrection and elevated via his ascension to the place of honor at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2). Likewise, Paul in Romans describes the effect of Christ’s atonement in terms of proximity and access to God and the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1-5). These texts combine nearness to God and his glory with the reversal of our shame-inducing estrangement from the one whose image we bear. Only through Christ, then, does our shame of separation transform into honor of reconciliation. Only through Christ, then, is our sin-guilt justly propitiated so we can be mercifully declared righteous.

The Biblical Gospel

If all of the above is true of sin, its effects, and its remedy, then we should find ourselves glad to enter into discussions of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension from a variety of different angles. If our conversation partner is more acutely aware of the fact that they are estranged from their creator and sensitive to the shame that such an alienation produces, let us speak of the restorative and adoptive beauty of the gospel with them. But as they come to see the beauty of this facet of atonement, let us not fail to go on to describe the additional realities of our guilt and the righteousness that has been imputed to us by Christ.

If, on the other hand, we are more inclined to sense our violations of a divine standard of expectation, it might be most appropriate for us to begin with the guilt-reversing accomplishment of Christ’s atonement whereby he absorbs the righteous wrath of God against our sin and extends to us his righteousness in its place. For us to realize that the accomplishment and application of redemption also brings us into a living relationship characterized by adoption as sons and daughters—that we are given the honor and responsibility of bearing the family name—is to deepen our appreciation and understanding of this beautiful reality in Christ.

In all of this, then, let us be sensitive to where the biblical message already speaks to our neighbor’s experience in the world. Let us be so deeply immersed in the beauty of the gospel that we can naturally explore multiple facets of it in conversations with people as they express their felt needs. But let us never be satisfied to simply see the atonement from our preferred vantage point. Let us be thoroughly biblical so that we can more deeply and fully appreciate the awesome gift of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. Let’s not settle for a thin reading of the atonement. Let us immerse ourselves in the multifaceted realities that Christ has effected through his exemplary life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and eternal session as our ascended high priest.

Related listening:

Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement? Aubrey Sequeira Answers

Saving God’s Face? A Dialogue With Brad Vaughn on Honor and Shame

The Cross in Context? Exploring Atonement and Contextualization with Brad Vaughn