Anyone who reads thoughtfully knows that words often change their meaning with time and context. Christians are a “peculiar people,” the KJV tells us, only “peculiar” did not mean in 1611 what it means today. Sometimes an older meaning of a word continues in a restricted sector of the culture, even though most people use it in quite a different way: e.g., for most readers today, God’s gift is not “unspeakable” but “indescribable” (2 Cor. 9:15), even though a conservative fringe of the populace confuse the two words. Sometimes a difference in meaning or overtone is triggered not by the passage of time, but by a different context. “Redemption” in the arcane legal terminology of a mortgage document does not conjure up exactly the same images as the use of the word in the New Testament.
All of this is common knowledge. These examples are innocuous precisely because the change in meaning is widely recognized. Far more inimical to careful conversation are those expressions whose meanings, or whose associations, are frequently unrecognized. Here are a few of them.
For many decades now, “guilt” has sometimes referred to culpability, but very commonly referred to what might better be thought of as feelings of guilt. Our judicial systems try to establish the guilt or innocence of accused parties, regardless of whether those parties feel guilty; by contrast, our counselors often focus their attention on the guilt feelings of their clients, taking relatively little notice of the extent to which guilt feelings may be grounded in guilt. All of this, as I indicated, has been understood for a long time. When preachers talk about “penal substitutionary atonement,” they understand that the punishment is merited: before God the party is guilty and deserves the penalty which, in the case of substitutionary atonement, is discharged by another. This does not mean that wise pastors overlook the terrible burden of guilt feelings. Guilt feelings may be the psychological result of real guilt. Sometimes, however, people feel terribly guilty over things that have no valid tie to real guilt (as, for example, when a woman is sexually assaulted as she walks home from work, yet labors for years under guilt feelings [or shame? See further below.]). The careful application of passages about the cross of Christ rightly addresses both our guilt and our feelings of guilt. Efforts to expunge the latter without addressing the former may leave a sinner feeling better about themselves, but still unreconciled to God; and exclusive emphasis on addressing the real guilt before God may generate a cerebral grasp of the nature of penal substitution without providing much comfort.