There are some words we Christians use interchangeably, often incorrectly, that leads to confusion and sometimes misperceptions about our faith. If we’re not careful, they can also lead us to mislead our children. “Conviction,” “guilt,” and “responsibility” are three of those words.

In my former profession, practicing law, these three words have interrelated meaning, particularly in criminal law: one is responsible for a crime, he is found guilty, and he is convicted.  Spiritually, these words have separate meanings, and we have to keep them separate. If you hang with me for a minute, you’ll see how absolutely essential this is to living on mission as Christians and citizens in our culture.

When we were living in rebellion to God, dead in our sin, we stood condemned. Our sin made us guilty before a perfect God.  “Guilt” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the state of having committed an offense or crime,” which we certainly were through our own sin, as well as the sin imputed to us through Adam. Romans 6:23 tells us there is only one penalty for our crime: spiritual death, eternal separation from God.  Christ’s death and resurrection, which we’ll commemorate and celebrate in a couple of weeks, changed all that. As Christians, saved by the blood of Jesus, our Lord takes on the weight, the guilt of our sin, and bears the penalty for us. He covers us with His righteousness, so that God declares us clean and free. Once we “confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts God raised Him from the dead,” (Romans 10) this amazing reality becomes ours. As a result, we no longer bear guilt. Not only do we not bear guilt for our own sin, we no longer bear what’s known as “bloodguilt”- guilt for generational sin, the sin of our fathers and ancestors, the things they did in the past for which God holds us accountable. The curse of Adam is washed away at the foot of the Cross, as well, paid for by Christ.

We are now free to not sin. When we do sin, we are convicted– convicted by the Holy Spirit, who prompts us to repentance, to turn away from that sin and seek forgiveness. The eternal weight of that sin, the guilt, is never there any more-Christ already died for that. But, the Holy Spirit’s conviction is a gift, a reminder, to draw us back to walking closely with Him.

As a follower of Jesus, saved by His blood, we have responsibilities.  Some of these include filling the earth and subduing it (Gen. 1:28), loving the Lord with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37), as well as making disciples in Christ’s name (Matt. 28:19).  These responsibilities boil down to the fact that, as God’s children, His stewards on earth, we are responsible for seeing where things are not as they should be and working to make them as they should; in other words, we are to be what N.T. Wright calls “signposts of righteousness,” pointing the way to the Kingdom of God, merciful and just, not just in the future, but in the here and now.

So what does all this mean? Why is this important in our modern culture? Take race and the racism of the past. Or, economic disparity. There’s a lot of discourse today about past racism, about the horrible things that happened in the past because of racial injustice and economic disparity. Much of it continues today. There have been horrible, terrible injustices visited upon minorities by the majority culture in our society, as well as horrible injustices on the poor by the wealthy. Systems are broken, and generational poverty and racism exists. If you received a great education, or came from a relatively well-off family, or were white, or had an intact family growing up, or any host of other things, you had advantages in our culture that other people did not have. And, all of these things have been true of every culture that has existed since the dawn of man. It is not unique in any way, shape, or form to 21st century America.

As Christians, saved by the blood of Jesus, you are not guilty of any of that. You do not bear the guilt for the brokenness of those systems. If you bear prejudice or hatred in your heart for anyone else for any reason, the Holy Spirit will convict you of that, and God will work on your heart to cleanse you of that.  If you don’t, you will still be spared eternal separation with God, still be reconciled to Him, but may be held accountable by God somehow at the end of time. You are not guilty of it, however. You will not be condemned for it. It is not your fault, and you are not to blame for anything other than what is in your own heart, simply because you are a particular race or culture or economic group. This reality should be intensely freeing to you, and should release you from anger and hostility when people start talking about things like economic injustice, or race, or class differences, or white privilege, or the myriad other injustices of the world. You still have to deal with you, but there is no bloodguilt for generational sin.

You are, however, responsible. Because, responsibility comes not through our guilt, but because we have been set free in Jesus Christ.  Responsibility comes not because we are children of sin, but because we are children of God. Because you are brothers and sisters of Jesus, whatever your economic or cultural background, are no longer free to see injustice or racism or poverty, or the brokenness of the world, say “tsk, tsk,” shake your head, and walk away. You have not been freed from those ills, but been freed to engage with them.  You are responsible, accountable to use every gift, every tool, every advantage you have been given as a gift by God to help make it better. You are, in a very real way, your brother’s keeper. You are the builder of “signposts of righteousness,” meaning the question can be asked of you, “this is broken, what are you going to do about it?” Not out of anger, or guilt, but out of gratefulness and love.

Understanding the difference between conviction, guilt, and responsibility works in the depths of our own brokenness, too. You may be a victim of abuse, or rape, or some other harm at the hands of another human being. You are not guilty of any of those things. You did nothing to deserve that; it is not your fault. But, you are responsible: responsible for how you deal with it, responsible for how you let the Lord heal you of it, responsible for how you surrender it over to Him, using it to mold and shape you for your good and His glory, and to heal others who are broken, as well (I realize that there are cases of deep mental illness where this is really complicated, maybe even impossible, due to the world’s brokenness. Yet, it is generally true).

These are hard truths, but important ones. If our kids are going to be the hope of the world at all, they have to understand these truths, and we have to understand them so we can help them. We’re not free to simply mix words and terms together, to lump ideas and people and positions and stances into boxes and categorize and judge and dismiss and dismantle people. We’ve been called to be much better than that.  We’re called to love like Jesus. We’ve been called by the God who lifted us out of the desperation of death to be free, yet responsible.

Jay Ferguson, PhD writes regularly on his blog, The Head and The Heart.