Question: "How should a Christian deal with feelings of guilt regarding past sins, whether pre- or post-salvation?"
Answer: Everyone has sinned, and one of the results of sin is guilt. We can be thankful for guilty feelings because they drive us to seek forgiveness. The moment a person turns from sin to Jesus Christ in faith, his sin is forgiven. Repentance is part of the faith that leads to salvation (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Acts 3:19).
In Christ, even the most heinous sins are blotted out (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 for a list of some unrighteous acts that can be forgiven). Salvation is by grace, and grace forgives. After a person is saved, he will still sin, and when he does, God still promises forgiveness. “But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1).
Freedom from sin, however, does not always mean freedom from guilty feelings. Even when our sins are forgiven, we still remember them. Also, we have a spiritual enemy, called “the accuser of our brothers” (Revelation 12:10) who relentlessly reminds us of our failures, faults, and sins. When a Christian experiences feelings of guilt, he or she should do the following things:
1) Confess all known, previously unconfessed sin. In some cases, feelings of guilt are appropriate because confession is needed. Many times, we feel guilty because we are guilty! (See David’s description of guilt and its solution in Psalm 32:3-5.)
2) Ask the Lord to reveal any other sin that may need confessing. Have the courage to be completely open and honest before the Lord. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
3) Trust the promise of God that He will forgive sin and remove guilt, based on the blood of Christ (1 John 1:9; Psalm 85:2; 86:5; Romans 8:1).
4) On occasions when guilty feelings arise over sins already confessed and forsaken, reject such feelings as false guilt. The Lord has been true to His promise to forgive. Read and meditate on Psalm 103:8-12.
5) Ask the Lord to rebuke Satan, your accuser, and ask the Lord to restore the joy that comes with freedom from guilt (Psalm 51:12).
Psalm 32 is a very profitable study. Although David had sinned terribly, he found freedom from both sin and guilty feelings. He dealt with the cause of guilt and the reality of forgiveness. Psalm 51 is another good passage to investigate. The emphasis here is confession of sin, as David pleads with God from a heart full of guilt and sorrow. Restoration and joy are the results.
Finally, if sin has been confessed, repented of, and forgiven, it is time to move on. Remember that we who have come to Christ have been made new creatures in Him. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Part of the “old” which has gone is the remembrance of past sins and the guilt they produced. Sadly, some Christians are prone to wallowing in memories of their former sinful lives, memories which should have been dead and buried long ago. This is pointless and runs counter to the victorious Christian life God wants for us. A wise saying is “If God has saved you out of a sewer, don’t dive back in and swim around.”