Shame and guilt are important concepts within Christian theology. In much of the literature, however, these two concepts are lumped together, offering little if any distinction between them. By contrast, evidence-based psychological research on the topics of shame and guilt has flourished over the past 30 years, offering a careful and important distinction between shame and guilt. Building on these insights, this essay will offer a clear theological distinction between guilt and shame, including definitions of both terms. It will argue that guilt is both an objective state and a painful but potentially beneficial emotion that opens the possibility for repentance, a vital practice in the life of faith. By contrast, it will show that shame is a destructive emotion that can hinder the possibility of repentance and a relationship with God. Mary VandenBerg is the Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Shame is a topic that gets scant attention in theology. In Reformed theology the topic of shame comes up most frequently in the context of original sin.1 Even in this context, however, the literature tends to brush over shame, using it in the same breath as guilt and making little distinction between the two concepts.

The early twentieth-century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck is something of an exception to this. Bavinck deals briefly with shame in the context of original sin. He traces shame to the Fall when the first couple’s “eyes were opened.” Bavinck sees a correlation between the couple’s nakedness and their shame, but goes beyond that correlation to relate shame with the breaking of the God’s command. He defines shame as “an unpleasant feeling that steals over us after we have done something wrong or improper and consists especially in the fear of disgrace.”2 For Bavinck, shame is primarily an emotion or affect much like feelings of guilt.3 It is unclear, however, what distinguishes guilt from shame for Bavinck.

Anthony Hoekema offers a similar description. He notes that after the first couple transgressed God’s command, “they were overwhelmed by a deep sense of shame.”4 Yet he never clearly distinguishes between shame and guilt. Contemporary theologian Michael Horton also notes the connection between guilt and shame. However he never offers any definition of shame apart from guilt. Several other contemporary theologies do not mention shame at all.5

Lewis Smedes is an exception to this neglect. Although Smedes is working from a primarily pastoral approach to shame rather than a strictly dogmatic one, he does offer helpful insights into the problem of shame in the Christian life as we will see a bit later.6 Unfortunately, because his considerations of this topic predate the bulk of the important empirical psychological research on the topics of guilt and shame, his conclusions, while useful, are incomplete. Even more recently, pastoral theologian Philip D. Jamieson examined the problem of guilt-based understandings of forgiveness in his book The Face of Forgiveness.7 Jamieson examines some of the empirical psychological studies and notes the important psychological distinctions between guilt and shame. His project helpfully focuses on the way the church’s emphasis on guilt in its consideration of atonement has left the question of human shame out of the picture. What it lacks, however, is an understanding of how the emotions of guilt and shame can impact the Christian’s ability to repent, and to seek restored relationship with God and with others.

In contrast to theology, psychological research dealing with the effects of shame on human relationships has proliferated over the past 30 years. In her recent book Daring Greatly, Dr. Bréné Brown brought the insights gained from this empirical research to a popular audience. Daring Greatly reached the number one position on the New York Times best seller list. Her work clearly struck a chord with many readers. The psychological research on which Brown’s book is based has not only offered a helpful understanding of the distinction between guilt and shame but has also demonstrated empirically the toxicity of shame on interpersonal relationships. By contrast, in some of the same studies, guilt turns out to have relatively positive effects in one’s life and relationships. Guilt it seems, at least in part, is good for you.

Building on the insights of both psychology and theology, this essay will offer a clear distinction between guilt and shame, including definitions of both terms. I will argue that guilt is both an objective state and a painful but potentially beneficial emotion that opens the possibility for repentance, a vital practice in the life of faith. By contrast I will show that shame is a destructive emotion that can hinder the possibility of repentance and a relationship with God.

This essay will begin with a brief review of a basic theological definition of sin. We will then examine the concepts of guilt and shame, examining the similarities and differences from a psychological perspective in order to offer clear theological definitions of these two concepts. I will then turn to repentance as understood and explained by John Calvin. I will consider his treatment of the movements of repentance in the Christian life, comparing his insights to the potential impact of shame and guilt on repentance. Finally, I will draw a few conclusions about shame and guilt, suggesting that taking care with our language about sin and repentance has the potential to help people respond positively to the Gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.


In order to understand what is meant, theologically, by guilt and shame, we need to begin by offering a description of sin. Biblically, sin includes ideas of missing the mark, transgressing a boundary, offending someone, and rebellion. The boundary or mark that the biblical authors have in mind is the law of God or Torah. Sin stands opposed to the righteousness or right order that YHWH requires. Because the boundaries that characterize this order are established by God, sin is always offense against God.8 Herman Bavinck writes that “In humans every sin is a turning away from God, disobedience, rebellion, anarchy, lawlessness, and at the same time, since sin is never self-sufficient, a turning toward a creature, idolatry, pride, self-seeking, sensuality.”9 In short, sin turns us away from our true source of life and toward the false promises of life found in ourselves and the culture around us. We look for life in all the wrong places.

Theologically, sin includes not only ongoing human actions that violate God’s law turning humans from God to themselves, but also the roots of these actions: original sin. The doctrine of original sin teaches that the first couple, although created righteous, lost that original righteousness by eating from the tree from which God had forbidden them to eat. Old Testament theologian Mark Biddle describes the effects of sin as recounted in Genesis 3 as “a nexus or system of predisposition, distorted options, lasting consequences and fateful impacts” on both the sinner and the sinner’s environment.10

While there is ongoing disagreement about what the lasting consequences of the original sin are, the Augustinian tradition views these consequences as twofold. First, original sin left humans with an inborn disability with regard to righteousness. We are unable to do any saving good apart from the enabling work of the Holy Spirit. Second, and related to the first consequence, is pollution. Origi-nal sin leaves humans with what Calvin calls an “inborn defect.”12

From this righteousness-disabled nature springs actual sins. Cornelius Plantinga offers this definition of actual sins: “a sin,” he writes, “is any act – thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed – or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame.”13 Sins are an offense against God because they challenge God’s rule. Sins spoil shalom, the right order of things, the way God intended life to be.14 If we think about shalom in terms of creational harmony, sins disrupt this God-intended harmony including and perhaps especially relational harmony between humans, God, and the world. Furthermore, humans are fully culpable for this disruption. We are guilty.


Psychology classifies guilt as an emotion, specifically a moral emotion.15 According to June Tangney and Rhonda Dearing16 moral emotions are classified as such because they “presumably play a key role in fostering moral behavior.”17 As an emotion, guilt is something that we feel as human persons given various circumstances. But emotions do not involve only affect (or feelings), they also involve cognition.18 So a moral emotion is an affective response to some objective state of affairs that impacts one’s sense of morality. In the case of a sinful action, one would cognitively appraise the action as sinful and experience an emotional response.

Interestingly, Tangney and Dearing note that moral emotions have been difficult to study quantitatively in part because of the difficulty of distinguishing one moral emotion from another. This problem has made measurement of these emotions in “consistent, theoretically meaningful ways” challenging.19 Nonetheless, they write that recently researchers have met this challenge, and that there is “now emerging a “critical mass” of scientifically based knowledge pertaining to the emotions of shame and guilt.”20

Taking this research into account, Brené Brown describes guilt as “a feeling that results from behaving in a flawed or bad way.”21 As Stephen Pattison writes, “Guilty people feel that they have done some specific thing that is wrong or bad.”22 Additionally, Ferguson, Eyre, and Ashbaker note, “a major elicitor of guilt is the perception that one’s acts of omission or commission are morally wrong by virtue of bringing disadvantage to a human or nonhuman entity.”23 Theologians would not necessarily disagree. In fact, the feeling of guilt is important biblically and theologically. But this is only half the story.

The problem with defining something like guilt only in terms of one’s emotion is that one’s emotions can be wrong. After all, a person can feel like she has done something wrong even when no violation of God’s law has occurred. For example, a young person could feel guilt for telling her friend’s parents about the friend’s alcohol abuse problem, a disclosure that landed her friend in rehab. But most people would argue that what this young person did was morally right, in keeping with the command to love one’s neighbor. Thus, the emotion that this person feels is real, but the state of affairs for which she feels the emotion is not sinful. Conversely, one could feel no guilt at all even though an action is in fact a violation of God’s law. An abusive parent, for example, may feel no guilt for abusing her child. She may even offer justification for her behavior. Nonetheless, her behavior is a violation of God’s law regardless of whether she recognizes it as such or not.

From a theological perspective, insofar as sin is defined as culpable wrongdoing, guilt at a very basic level is the result of sin. In other words, we are objectively guilty insofar as we have willfully rebelled against God by violating God’s law. It is a legal verdict of sorts, and has little to do with whether one actually feels guilty or not. The violation of God’s law could be intentional or unintentional, although intentionally transgressing God’s command is, from a Biblical perspective, the height of folly. This is nowhere more evident in the book of Proverbs and various wisdom Psalms.24 As Plantinga so colorfully writes, “To rebel against God is to saw off the branch that supports us.”25 Regardless of whether one has violated God’s law intentionally or unintentionally, from a Biblical perspective, when the law is violated one is objectively judged as guilty.

This objective judicial conception of guilt is not enough, however. As already noted, the emotion of guilt is also important. Neither the emotion of guilt nor the objective judicial understanding should stand in isolation. Both a theological definition that only understands guilt in terms of one’s judicial standing, and a psychological definition that focuses only on guilt as an emotion, are lacking.

Taking this discussion into account, therefore, I will define guilt as the objective status that results from violating God’s law, and the emotion one feels as result of recognizing that status. As noted in our description of guilt, there are two fairly obvious cases where guilt can be distorted. One is a person who is guilty but does not feel guilty. The other is a person who feels guilty but is not guilty. From a Christian perspective, healthy guilt will include both the objective reality of wrongdoing and the resulting emotion.


While there is a significant amount of theological reflection and writing about guilt, perhaps especially as it pertains to atonement, there is very little written about shame. As noted in the introduction, guilt and shame tend to be lumped together in theological discussions as two sides of the same coin. Like guilt, shame is theologically associated with sin, especially idolatry.26 The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, frequently references shame in conjunction with sin and disgrace.

While neither the Bible nor theology more generally offer much in the way of a clear definition or description of shame, Lewis Smedes offers a good starting point for understanding shame by contrasting it with guilt. He identifies the emotional aspect of both shame and guilt but notes that while guilt focuses on the offense, shame focuses on the offender. “We feel guilty for what we do,” he explains. “We feel shame for what we are.”27 In sum, while both emotions are responses to some moral failing, guilt focuses on a specific sin committed while shame focuses on one’s identity.

In contrast to theology, in recent years psychological research has offered considerable insight into the understanding of shame. Like guilt, shame is a moral emotion. From her research, Brown describes the emotion of shame as follows: “An intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”28 In other words, similar to Smedes description, Brown affirms that shame has to do with the self and how one perceives oneself. Likewise, Pattison writes that unlike those who experience guilt, persons experiencing shame “face an unbearable sense that their whole self is bad.”29 In other words, shame totalizes the feeling from a particular aspect or action of a person, to the entire person.

Before I go any further it might be helpful to point out that shame is not precisely the same as embarrassment, although the initial feelings might be similar. It can be the case that a social misstep of some sort can cause us to feel small or terribly uncomfortable. For example, perhaps I am asked to speak at a large gathering. The host offers a generous introduction. I make my way to the podium as applause fills the air…and I trip. Not just a little stumble, but a full-blown fall. I compose myself, gather my papers, and continue to the podium with a red face, feeling quite foolish. This is not shame. It is embarrassment. The key difference is that embarrassment is not caused by a moral failure but by “an awkward situation or by an awareness that one’s own or another’s words or actions are inappropriate or compromising, or that they reveal inadequacy or foolishness.”30 Embarrassment could be considered a cousin of shame, but the sources and the consequences of these emotions are different as will become clear.

Most of the modern psychological literature views shame as an emotion that is generally harmful in a variety of ways. Smedes, however, suggests that there is a type of shame that is healthy. He writes that there is a difference between what he calls our “true self” and our “actual self.” The recognition of the actual self is a recognition that at the core, humans are deeply flawed.31 In essence, this is an acknowledgment of original sin. The deeply flawed self stands in contrast to what Smedes calls our true self, or the self God intended us to be. The recognition that the true self is out of sync with the actual self can cause shame and according to Smedes, this type of shame is good because it points us back to who we were created to be.32

Like Smedes, Pattison also suggests that there is a type of shame that may not be unhealthy. He calls this “respect shame” or “discretion shame.” He is clear that this is very different from the sort of shame that psychologists are typically investigating. He writes that it is “more like a characterological virtue that affirms the social order and prevents its disruption.”33 It is related to giving honor to things that deserve honor. Unhealthy shame is what he refers to as “disgrace shame,” the sort of shame Brown might call “not-good-enough-ness.”34

While both Smedes and Pattison notice something that is generally true about humans, it seems to blur the lines between shame and something else. Both Pattison and Smedes seem to be describing shame as something like a state of being or cognitive state. But the definitions of shame, even simple dictionary definitions, describe shame as an emotion. While it is true that emotions are connected to cognition or knowledge of some state of affairs, recognizing one’s actual self in the light of one’s true self is not a sufficient condition for shame. In fact, insofar as the person is accurately assessing the relationship between herself and the other, this characteristic might be better described as something like the virtue of humility rather than the emotion of shame.

Nonetheless, both Smedes’ notion of healthy shame and Pattison’s idea of respect shame can offer theological enhancement to Brown’s psychological definition of the experience of shame. Both definitions viewed theologically recognize that humans are in fact not enough when measured by the standard of the Holy God. But while this knowledge may be redemptively helpful, the emotion of shame is likely not as helpful, as we will see in the next section. Thus, a theologically informed definition of shame could be formulated as follows: the human awareness that one is deeply flawed and the feeling or emotion that because of her flaws, she cannot receive love and acceptance by God and others. While it is objectively true that humans are deeply flawed and this awareness is an important part of proper self-knowledge, it is the emotion of feeling unworthy of acceptance or love that really qualifies as shame.

Guilt vs. Shame

It is worth mentioning that while guilt and shame are in fact distinct, they often occur together. One can, for example, feel guilt for having violated God’s law while also feeling that one is a bad person because of that violation. It is also the case that similar to guilt, one can feel shame where no transgression has taken place. For example, one can feel shame for one’s poverty, background, or physical or mental defects.35 The question is not whether this may in fact happen. The question is whether these are healthy reactions psychologically and fitting responses theologically. Comparing guilt and shame and their effect on persons will offer an initial answer to this question.

At times, shame has been considered to be primarily the result of a public experience of some sort while guilt is considered more private. It turns out that this is not the case. In fact, Tangney and Dearing emphasize that “there is little empirical support for the commonly held assumption that shame arises from public exposure of some failure or transgression whereas guilt arises from the more private pangs of one’s internalized conscience.”36 They go on to explain, “The fundamental difference between shame and guilt centers on the role of the self.”37 Specifically, shame focuses on a negative evaluation of the self, while guilt focuses on the negative behavior as noted in the discussions of shame and guilt above.

All of this is not to say, however, that shame and guilt are unrelated. For example, Tangney and Dearing write that both shame and guilt “are emotions of self-blame.”38 These two emotions are, according to Tangney and Dearing, “inextricably linked to internal attributions for negative events (events that are judged to be negative based on our own or others’ standards).”39 In addition, Tangney and Dearing offer a three-part model of causal attributions that helps identify the similarity and distinction between these two emotions.40

The three aspects or types of attributions include “locus of control (internal vs. external), globality (global vs. specific), and stability (stable vs. unstable).”41 With respect to locus of control, an internal attribution is one where the person attributes responsibility for an event to something inside herself versus something outside of herself (external). For example, if I lash out at my spouse in anger and belittle him or otherwise hurt him with my words, I rightly attribute his hurt to my inability to control my tongue. In other words, I take proper responsibility for what I have done rather than blaming him for whatever behavior made me angry.

Globality has to do with whether the event is reflective of the entire self or is limited to one particular event. In other words, was the behavior reflective of who I am or was it merely a single instance of some moral failure? In the example above, to globalize the event would be to take the recognition that I failed to control my tongue (internal attribution) and attribute it to my whole self. It would be to consider myself a mean person, unworthy of love and perhaps even generally bad because of this specific moral failure.

Stability is similar to globality but has to do with whether the circumstances surrounding the failure are seen as contributing factors to the failure. Simply put, is this the way I always behave when frustrated with my husband or were there mitigating factors? Looking once again at our example, I might wonder whether I am a person who in every aggravating circumstance loses control of her tongue (stable attribution), or whether if in this particular circumstance there were factors that influenced my reaction. Perhaps I did not sleep well last night, had an altercation with a co-worker, had to discipline a stubborn toddler, and realized when I got home from work on my night to cook, that the pasta I thought was in the pantry had gone missing. I could recognize that I am responsible for not controlling my tongue and hurting my husband (internal) while at the same time acknowledging that this event does not define who I am (specific) and furthermore, and that in different circumstances I likely would not have behaved in this way (unstable).42

Tangney and Dearing found that shame and guilt share the locus of being internal attributions. In both shame and guilt the person will recognize her responsibility for the morally impermissible action. However, shame and guilt diverge in the other two categories.43 Shame is a global attribution, attributing the negative behavior or moral failure to the whole person rather than recognizing that this failure is only one particular failure and not characteristic of who the person is as a whole. Hartling, Rosen, Walker, and Jordan write that “The [psychological] literature recognizes shame as an intense, enduring experience that affects the whole self.”44 In addition, shame is a stable attribution, suggesting that regardless of the circumstances or causes of this particular failure, the person involved is the sort of person who will fail regardless of those circumstances. With respect to our example, the person experiencing shame will be convinced that there are no mitigating circumstances. Her behavior is reflective of her general character.

Like the person experiencing shame, the guilty person will feel responsible and likely feel badly for what she has done. However, the person experiencing guilt will recognize that this instance of failure is not reflective of who she is as a person (specific), nor is it reflective of her general behavior in any and every circumstance (unstable). In a different set of circumstances or causes, she would most likely reflect her general good character rather than this particular bad behavior.

These basic contours of shame and guilt operate regardless of whether one has actually violated the moral law. As noted above, one can feel guilt for violating some societal standard and not actually be guilty of violating God’s law. One might also feel shame for some perceived violation of a standard, whether internal or external. However, it is important to remember that while guilt encompasses both a subjective feeling and an objective judgment about one’s status before God, shame is only a subjective feeling and carries no objective judgment.

The Effects of Shame and Guilt

These observations about the psychological distinctions between shame and guilt lead to a somewhat more sinister aspect of shame that psychologists have also observed, an aspect that has potential theological ramifications. In Tangney’s research on the situational determinants of shame and guilt in young people, she concluded that while shame and guilt both involve negative emotions or affect, “the focus of the negative affect differs, leading to distinct phenomenological experiences.”45 In other words, the placement or direction of the emotion is different for shame than it is for guilt. That placement distinguishes between the actual experience of each emotion.

In their research on the concerns of adults’ interpersonal relationships in the wake of self-described failures, misdeeds, and transgressions Tangney and Dearing noticed that the person feeling guilt tended to focus on the impermissible behavior rather than on the self.46 Because the focus was on the behavior and not the self, the person feeling guilt was able to consider how that behavior affected the other party involved. In short, the person feeling guilt also felt empathy toward the other. As they surveyed a number of other studies similar to their own, they observed that “proneness to guilt is positively correlated with empathic responsiveness.”47 Indeed, their findings “strongly support the hypothesized link between guilt and other-oriented empathy.”48 This is not to say that guilt is a comfortable feeling. Tangney, et al. affirm that “[t]he tension, remorse, and regret of guilt can be quite uncomfortable.”49 Nonetheless, feelings of guilt tended to turn one outward toward the offended party.50 The consequences of guilt therefore are largely positive, moving the person toward restoration of relationship.

In contrast to guilt, Tangney’s research on shame demonstrated exactly the opposite response. The experience of shame tended to turn the person’s emotional focus inward. Specifically, shame focused the person’s emotions on herself and other’s perceptions of herself rather than on the behavior.51 It is important to note that perceptions of self by others are assumed on the part of the person experiencing shame and not based in fact. As Tangney notes, “the self is both the source and the object of evaluation, as one imagines how one would look to the other.”52

This turn toward the self and away from the behavior in a shame experience has a number of negative consequences for the person herself and for those she interacts with. The person experiencing shame will perceive herself as a “bad self” in light of her behavior.53 In addition to this painful perception of herself as bad, the person experiencing shame is pained by the idea of how others perceive her. According to Pattison, the shamed person perceives herself as “being judged to be inferior, defective, incompetent, undesirable, or unlovable.”54 It is important to emphasize that the pain experienced by the shamed person is not primarily about the person’s assessment of damage or offense caused to another through her actions, although she is not unaware of that damage. Rather, the shamed person is stuck in feelings of worthlessness and self-pity. Tangney writes that “rather than promoting other-oriented empathic concern, the acute self-focus of shame is likely to foster self-oriented personal distress responses.”55 The mental movement, in other words, is away from the one who has been offended and toward the self.

The negative consequences for those she interacts with are clear. The shame response leaves the person relationally immobilized. Rather than moving positively forward toward empathy and a restoration of relationship or making things right, the shamed person is motivated “to hide – to sink into the floor and disappear.”56 The inward turn toward negative self-evaluation leaves the person stuck in a mental cycle of defeatism. Beyond these emotional and interpersonal consequences of shame, this turn towards self in shame has the potential to be spiritually destructive in the life of a Christian.

Shame, Guilt, and the Possibility of Repentance

The Christian practice of repentance asks believers to regularly examine themselves and confess their sins to God. While repentance can and often is practiced individually in some traditions, it has also been a regular element of corporate worship in the majority of Christian traditions for centuries. Biblically, prayers of confession are peppered throughout the Psalms as well as other places in Scripture.57 Given what we know about guilt and shame, however, how can we understand repentance in a way that acknowledges guilt thus allowing a turn towards the one offended, but avoids the more destructive emotion of shame, that tends to block such a turn? John Calvin’s discussion of repentance in the Institutes can offer some insights here.

Calvin’s examination of repentance follows his lengthy discussion of faith, the instrument by which we receive Christ and all his benefits. Repentance is one of the effects of faith “that we experience.”58 For Calvin, “The substance of the gospel is, not without reason, said to be comprised of repentance and remission of sins.”59 To put it in slightly different terms which Calvin uses a bit later, the gospel consists of the double grace of sanctification and justification.60

In his description of Calvin’s soteriology, Todd Billings explains that these gifts of grace are accessed by believers “through union with Christ by the Spirit, received through the instrument of faith.”61 Indeed, our participation in Christ by the Spirit is central to Calvin’s understanding of how believers come to receive the benefits of Christ. While justification and repentance62 are distinct, they are never separated for Calvin. He compares justification and repentance to the sun’s qualities of light and heat which are also distinct but not separate.63

Repentance, Calvin writes, “consists of two parts: the mortification of the flesh and the vivification of the Spirit.”64 It is a radical change from an old life to a new life and a new identity based on one’s union with Christ. While sometimes Calvin speaks of repentance in terms of our initial turning toward Christ, Calvin also makes clear that this dying and rising—putting off of the old and putting on the new self—is to be an ongoing, life-long practice. Calvin writes “this restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year.” Rather, God is at work in the elect “that they may employ their whole life in the exercise of repentance and know that this warfare [with the old self] will be terminated only by death.”65 Repentance, understood as the ongoing work of putting to death of the old self and coming to life of the new—dying and rising—is the basic rhythm of the Christian life and it is not easy.66 Calvin writes, “surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance.”67

So what does this practice of repentance as dying and rising look like? Calvin refers to 2 Cor. 7 to help unpack the concept of mortification. Mortification begins with the sinner being dissatisfied with herself, hating her sin, and grieving because of it.68 It includes fear of divine judgment. This sort of dissatisfaction is what Paul, in 2 Cor. 7 calls “godly sorrow” because, according to Calvin, we become aware that our sin displeases God.69 Calvin continues his description of godly sorrow, briefly describing each of the seven causes or effects of repentance that Paul notes in 2 Cor. 7. Calvin thinks that serious acknowledgement of sin will lead to any number of emotional responses, one of which is shame, although almost certainly not understood in exactly the same way that it is understood in modern psychology.70

Regardless of Calvin’s exact understanding of shame, he is clearly worried about the various emotions one might feel with the recognition of sin. In fact, he goes on to offer a caution. “But let us remember that some limit must be observed that we may not be overwhelmed in sorrow; for to nothing are terrified con-sciences more liable than to fall into despair.”71 Calvin is concerned that if we fall into despair we will turn from God. So Calvin offers a remedy, quoting Bernard:

Sorrow for sin is necessary if it not be perpetual. I advise you sometimes to quit the anxious and painful recollection of your ways, and to arise to an agreeable and serene remembrance of Divine blessings. Let us mingle honey with wormwood, that its salutary bitterness may restore our health, when it shall be drunk tempered with a mixture of sweetness; and if you reflect on your own meanness, reflect also on the goodness of the Lord.72

The remedy for despair over one’s sin, in other words, is to remember God’s goodness. This is exactly the move Paul himself makes in Romans. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”73

What Calvin is worried about here seems very closely related to what I described as a shame reaction. Indeed, the person who recognizes her sin will likely experience the sort of lively dissatisfaction with self that Calvin talks about. Unfortunately, if her response to this recognition of how she has offended God is the emotion of shame, she is likely to see herself as isolated from God, unworthy of relationship with God. Her shame response will turn her inward, ruminating on feelings of self-recrimination over what she has done. Instead of fleeing to God for comfort and tempering the bitterness of sin with the sweetness of God’s mercy as Calvin’s quote of Bernard suggests, the person experiencing shame may flee from God instead, assuming that God could not love a person like her.

In contrast to this, the person who feels guilt also recognizes her sin and is dissatisfied with herself because of it. She too is stricken with the knowledge that she has offended God. Rather than remaining focused on her own sinfulness, however, she moves past this self-focus, recognizing herself as a member of Christ. With that in mind, she turns toward Christ and embraces him “as the medicine for [her] wound, the consolation of [her] terrors, and [her] refuge from all misery.”74 In short, she dies to her sin and remembering God’s mercy toward her, comes to life in Christ by the Spirit.

The importance of the turn away from self-dissatisfaction and toward God in the movement of repentance cannot be over-emphasized. The person experiencing guilt no less than the person experiencing shame recognizes the gravity of her sin and the offense it is against God. David’s confession in Psalm 51 when confronted by the prophet Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba expresses this well: “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned and done evil in your sight” (v. 3-4). David does not remain stuck in this self-reflection, however. He turns toward God, the one he has offended, knowing that God has the power to cleanse and restore David to the joy of God’s salvation. (v.12) It is this turn toward God and the knowledge of God’s love for us in Christ that is crucial in the act of repentance.

Suggestions for Worship

The recognition of how shame and guilt operate in people should give us pause as we consider how best to teach about sin and repentance, as well as how we structure repentance in corporate worship. While it is the case that we are sinners, it may be wise to consider how to balance that knowledge with the knowledge that we are also, as members of Christ, loved and accepted by God. Of course this is also Calvin’s concern as he considers how to begin the Institutes. Throughout his work, his pastor’s heart walks the necessarily fine line of reminding his readers that they are sinful, but accepted and loved because of their union with Christ.

Two things are worth noting going forward. First, as has been the case for many years, speaking about sin and about people as sinners is not popular.75 Maybe it never was, but good pastors and theologians did it anyway, reflecting well the teachings of Scripture. There has also been a movement in worship to rid ourselves of practices of corporate confession and repentance.76 Reminding people of who they are apart from Christ, however, is central to the message of the Gospel. As Calvin writes in Book I of the Institutes, “Nor can we really aspire toward him, till we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.”77 Thus, to fail to discuss sin because of the fear that people will feel badly about themselves is to fail to offer the full message of the Gospel.

Second, if it is the case that the church should not only discuss sin but practice confession and repentance corporately as well as encourage these practices individually, how can we best do this in a way that allows people to feel appropriate guilt without pushing them toward shame? It may be helpful to recognize first of all that some people are prone to shame because of various circumstances in their lives. Because of this, it may be that shame is inevitable in some cases. However, even in those cases, are there ways to relieve the burden of shame while still recognizing guilt?

One practice could be to state simply that despite our sin, God has chosen us from before the foundation of the world to be his children, adopted in Christ by the Spirit and enabled to live a life pleasing to him.78 God does not love us because we are worthy; God loves us because we are in Christ who alone is worthy. Everything that is Christ’s is ours when we are in him.79 In addition, because we are in Christ and empowered by the Spirit, while sin will always plague us in this life, sin no longer reigns in us. Our hope of glory is Christ in us and the knowledge that nothing can separate us from him.

We could also intentionally shape our corporate confession in ways that do not fan the embers of shame into a destructive fire. Calvin’s quote of Bernard suggests remembering as a way out of despair. Indeed, remembering God’s mighty acts is one of the most prevalent commands in Scripture. As one pastor suggested to me, confession should always remind us of our baptism into Christ. It reminds us of both who we are and whose we are. Conviction, she reminded me, is the work of the Spirit; condemnation is not.80 The enemy is always pushing toward shame and separation from God as Calvin points out. The Spirit is always pointing us to our true identity in Christ. Thus, regular reminders in worship of the cleansing waters of baptism can also be a remedy for the potentially crushing weight of shame.

In addition, whether we are teaching or preaching, we are wise to always temper our theological explorations of sin with the balm of grace. We all know—but may be prone to forget—that we can no more talk about grace without talking about sin, than we can talk about sin without talking about grace. Nonetheless how we talk about sin could make all the difference in how well people are able to respond to the message of God’s grace available to them in Christ. As my former pastor reminded us in a sermon, “You are worse than you think you are, but also way more loved than you can ever imagine.”


In the beginning of the Institutes, Calvin emphasizes the importance of true knowledge of self, that is, the knowledge that one is a sinner. For the Christian who recognizes her life as lived out before the face of God, that knowledge will likely lead to an emotional response. Two common emotional responses to recognition of wrongdoing are guilt and shame.

This essay has offered theological definitions of guilt and shame that are informed by the research of modern psychology including an understanding of how the psychological responses of guilt and shame affect interpersonal relationships. Using Calvin’s ideas about the movements of repentance, I suggested that when one becomes aware of one’s wrongdoing and responds with shame, there is a potential for blocking the path of repentance and turning one away from God. But if one responds to awareness of wrongdoing with guilt, it is likely that the person will move through the full path of repentance, seeing oneself as she truly is: a dearly beloved child of God.

Cite this article
Mary VandenBerg, “Shame, Guilt, and the Practice of Repentance: An Intersection of Modern Psychology with the Wisdom of Calvin”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:3 , 297-313


  1. Pastoral theology includes fairly robust discussions of shame but generally either in the context of “shame cultures” or from the perspective of clinical and pastoral responses to shame. While these discussions are important in their own right, this paper will be dealing primarily with understanding the distinction between shame and guilt, and not pastoral responses to shame, as will become clear. It is also worth noting that while there are many modern conceptions of sin, including original sin, I will be working here with traditional notions of original sin.
  2. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, in Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 197.
  3. Psychology tends to use the word “affect” rather than “emotion.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines this psychological usage as follows:“A feeling or subjective experience accompanying a thought or action or occurring in response to a stimulus; an emotion, a mood.” Oxford English Dictionary ebook edition, s.v., “affect,” accessed 7-27-17, In this essay, I will generally use “emotion” since it is more familiar to my primarily theological audience.
  4. Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 133, emphasis his.
  5. See for example, James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, Evangelical, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), especially 510-523; Millard Erickson, Christian Theology,3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), especially 548-564; Thomas Oden, Clas-sic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: Harper One, 1992); Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, and Matthew D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). It is also the case that some of the more contemporary works in Theological Anthropology also neglect this important concept. See for example, Hans Schwarz, The Human Being: A Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013) and Veli-Matti Kärrkkäinen, Creation and Humanity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015). On original sin see especially Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle, New Testament Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997). Blocher mentions shame but only in passing.
  6. Lewis Smedes, Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve (San Francisco: Harp-erSanFrancisco, 1993).
  7. Philip D. Jamieson, The Face of Forgiveness: A Pastoral Theology of Shame and Redemption (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016).
  8. Alvin Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 123.
  9. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 152.
  10. Mark E. Biddle, “Sin, Shame, and Self-Esteem,” Review and Expositor 103 (Spring 2006): 360.
  11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen (Philadelphia: Hezekiah Howe, 1816), II.1.5, accessed Aug. 6, 2018, This “inborn defect” infects every part of human nature, our thoughts, words, and deeds, our faculties, talents and intellect, every facet is affected by this defect. No part of humanity is untouched. Just as a polluted stream pollutes everything it touches, so the pollution of original sin has touched every person and every characteristic of every person.11Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 173-76.
  12. Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 13.
  13. Ibid., 14.
  14. 5June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing, Shame and Guilt (New York: The Guilford Press, 2002), 2.

  15. While there has been a proliferation of studies on shame since the late 1990s, Tangney and Dearing’s definitions form the basis for many other studies. Indeed, the book cited in this essay, Shame and Guilt, has been cited more than 2,500 times in various studies on shame and guilt since its publication in 2002. Tangney and Dearing’s general understandings of the definitions and dynamics of shame and guilt have been and continue to be tested in a variety of situations including depression, PTSD, and studies on forgiveness, as well as the impact of these emotions on various groups like children and young people, and so on. For a short sample of the influence of their work, see the following: Sangmoon Kim, Randall S. Jorgensen, Ryan Thibodeau, “Shame, Guilt, and Depressive Symptoms: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychological Bulletin 137.1 (2011): 68-96; June Price Tangney, Jeff Stuewig, and Debra J. Mashek, “Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior,” Annu Rev Psychol 58 (2007): 345-372; Craig J. Bryan, Ericka Roberge, AnnaBelle O. Bryan, and Bobbie Ray-Sannerud, “Guilt as Mediator of the Relationship Between Depression and Posttraumatic Stress with Suicide Ideation in Two Samples of Military Personnel and Veterans,” International Journal of Cogni-tive Therapy 8.2 (2015):143-155; Jeffrey Stuewig, June P. Tagney, Stephanie Kendall, Johanna B. Folk, Candace Reinsmith Meyer, and Ronda L. Dearing, “Children’s Proneness to Shame and Guilt Predict Risky and Illegal Behaviors in Young Adulthood, Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 46.2 (2015): 217-227; Peter Muris and Cor Meesters, “Small or Big in the Eyes of the Other: On the Developmental Psychopathology of Self-Conscious Emotions as Shame, Guilt, and Pride,” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 17 (2013): 19-40. While it remains difficult to distinguish clearly what exactly constitutes a shame versus a guilt response, the basic theory they put forward in their work continues to influence the scholarship on the topics of shame and guilt. Because I am not a psychologist and because of the foundational nature of their work, I have chosen to focus primarily on their descriptions of shame and guilt along with a few other studies rather than try to survey the vast amount of work that has been done on this topic. It is also the case that there are differences of opinion among the various areas of psychology. For example, those working from a psychoanalytic basis have a somewhat different understanding of shame, guilt, and their impact on a person. See for example, H. B. Lewis, “The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation,” in Emotions and Psychopathology, eds. Manfred Klines and Jaak Panksep (New York: Springer Science and Business, 1988), 95-106; and G. Kaufmann, The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-based Syndromes (New York: Spring Pub. Co., 1989). Because these are older studies and generally not evidence based, I chose not to include them but have focused my reading on Evidence Based Practice. I want to thank Dr. Michelle Koster for her help with the literature.
  16. Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, 2.
  17. Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 23.
  18. Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, 3.
  19. Ibid., 3,11. As noted above, this critical mass of data has only continued to increase since the publication of their book.
  20. Brené Brown, “Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame,” Families in Society 87.1 (Jan-Mar 2006): 45, italics hers.
  21. Pattison, Shame, 44, italics mine.
  22. Tamara J. Ferguson, Heidi L. Eyre, and Michel Ashbaker, “Unwanted Identities: A Key Vari-able in Shame—Anger Links and Gender Differences in Shame,” Sex Roles 42.3-4 (2000): 150.
  23. Psalm 1 is perhaps the premier example and summary of this idea.
  24. Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 123.
  25. Jamieson, The Face of Forgiveness, 58.

  26. Lewis Smedes, Shame and Grace, 9.
  27. Brown, “Shame Resilience,” 45.
  28. Pattison, Shame, 44; emphasis mine.
  29. Oxford English Dictionary, ebook edition, s.v. “embarrassment,” accessed 7-27-17,
  30. Smedes, Shame and Grace, 32.
  31. Ibid., 32-33.
  32. Pattison, Shame, 83-86.
  33. Brown, Daring Greatly, 24-26, 66.
  34. Dorthea Baudy, Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion (Leiden: Brill, 2012), s.v. shame.

  35. Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, 24.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., 53.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Although Tangney and Dearing are working with a slightly more complex model, the underlying theory is called “attribution theory.” Bernard Weiner was one of the pioneers of this social psychological theory. This theory offers a way to explain the causes of an event or behavior with respect to oneself or others. Weiner notes that this theory “relates the structure of thinking to the dynamics of feeling and action.” Bernard Weiner, “An Attributional Theory of Achievement and Emotion,” Psychological Review 92.4 (1985): 548-573.
  40. Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, 53.
  41. Ibid.,53-55.
  42. Ibid., 53.
  43. Linda Hartling, Wendy Rosen, Maureen Walker, and Judith Jordan, “Shame and Humiliation: From Isolation to Relational Transformation,” Work in Progress 88 (Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, 2000): 1.
  44. June Price Tangney, “Situational Determinates of Shame and Guilt in Young Adulthood,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 18.2 (April 1999): 199, emphasis mine.
  45. Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, 82.
  46. Ibid., 86.
  47. Ibid., 87.
  48. Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, Gramzow, “Shamed Into Anger?”, 669-670.
  49. Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, 81.
  50. Tangney, “Situational Determinates,” 200, 204.
  51. Ibid., 200, emphasis hers.
  52. Ibid., 199.
  53. Pattison, Shame, 76; emphasis his.
  54. Tangney, Shame and Guilt, 84.
  55. Tangney, “Situational Determinates,” 199.
  56. Psalm 51 is perhaps one of the most well-known prayers of confession in the Bible but there are many other prayers of confession, calls to confession of sins, and acts of repentance. See for example, Ps. 32:5, 38, 73:21-22, Ps. 130, Prov. 28:13, Jonah 3:7-9, James 5:16, 1 John 1:9.
  57. Calvin, Institutes, III.3.1
  58. Ibid., III. 3.19, also III.3.1
  59. Ibid., III.11.1.
  60. 1J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology: On the Multifaceted ‘Sum’ of the Gospel,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11.4 (Oct. 2009): 428.

  61. Calvin frequently uses repentance and regeneration interchangeably in this section on repentance. What he describes here is the process of being made holy or sanctification, although he rarely uses that word in Chapter 3.
  62. Calvin, Institutes, III.11.6.
  63. Ibid., III.3.8.
  64. Ibid., III.3.9.

  65. Ibid., “It is a very hard and difficult thing to put off ourselves and to depart from our inborn disposition.” III.3.8.
  66. Ibid., III.3.1.
  67. Ibid., III.3.7.
  68. Ibid., III.3.7; John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Corinthians, vol. 2, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 274-5.
  69. Calvin, Institutes, III.3.
  70. Ibid., III.3.15.
  71. Ibid., III.3.15. This emphasis on hope is also prevalent in Calvin’s treatment of faith, espe-cially in the sections where he deals with doubt. See III.2.15-16.
  72. Rom. 7:24b-25a.
  73. Calvin, Institutes, III.3.4.
  74. For just a couple of examples see Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin (Lanham, MD: Crowley, 2000), 3-7; Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 101-104; Josef Pieper, The Concept of Sin (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 1.
  75. In my own work on worship committees at two different churches, the question came up from individuals in the congregation why confession was necessary. It is, after all, so depressing.

  76. Calvin, Institutes, I.1.1.

  77. Eph. 1.
  78. Calvin, Institutes, III.11.10.
  79. Thank you to Rev. Joy Bonnema for these insights.

Mary VandenBerg

Calvin Theological Seminary
Mary VandenBerg is the Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.