The conviction of the Spirit

I remembered that I needed to take the dictophone with me to church yesterday morning, right up until the point when I forgot to pick it up as I walked out the door.  Oops!  So, instead of presenting you with a recording of yesterday’s sermon, I am going to give you a written summary instead.

We have been following a series on the work of the Holy Spirit.  We began by contrasting the way he worked in Old Testament believers with the way he works now.  Then we looked at his work as Comforter in the lives of Christians.  After a couple of weeks’ break, we returned to the subject yesterday to spend some time looking at his work convicting people of sin and leading them into truth.

I have been used, over many years, to using the word ‘convicting’ with regard to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.  I am very familiar with the sentiment ‘The Devil condemns, but the Spirit convicts’, words often used by Christians to encourage each other, quite rightly seeking to encourage and reassure each other that the Spirit’s aim is to relieve us of the awful burden of sin, not to seek to beat us round the head with us and keep us in a pit of depression.

But when I came to prepare my talk on this subject, I was struck by the fact that the word ‘convict’ is used only once in the entire New Testament to describe directly the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is John 16:8, in which Jesus promises that when the Spirit comes, he will “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement.” (NIV).  The Spirit’s work of conviction, in proving that someone is in the wrong about something, is what he does in the hearts of people who are first hearing the gospel.  He shows them that they really are sinners.

There is a great example of this in action in Acts chapter 2, at the conclusion of Peter’s first sermon.  Verses 36-37 read:

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (NIV)

Peter’s response is that they should repent and be baptised, and then they will receive the gift of the Spirit (v.38).  These people had not yet received the Spirit, yet they were clearly on the receiving end of the promise Jesus had made.  The Spirit comes into the hearts of believers (Jn 16:7), and when he does, he begins to convict the world (Jn 16:8) of sin.

I have sat through many sermons where the aim of the preacher seemed to be to play Bible word games.  I hope that’s not what I’m doing right now, even thought what I really want to stress is that in the language of the Bible, conviction is a work of the Spirit that occurs in the unsaved people that he is calling out to, not a work that he does in the lives of believers.  I think this is important because the Christian life is a journey; it has a beginning, but after the beginning we are on the road.  It’s not snakes and ladders; you don’t get dropped back to square one if you put a foot wrong.

Someone is convicted in a courtroom when all the facts are presented and a decision about those facts is made.  Once that conviction is made, it is made.  It is not repeated.  There’s no need to repeat it.  It has become an established fact.  The sentence then quickly follows – the guilty person is condemned to one form of punishment or another.

When the Spirit comes into the lives of believers, he convicts the world of sin.  Not of individual sins, like lying on a job application, cheating on your wife or stealing from a supermarket, but of the whole concept of sin.  For sure this may bring with it a consciousness of specific sins in the life of an individual, but the really important thing is the conviction and acceptance that a person is a sinner.  Someone whose life is not the way God wants it to be.  That is the first and most critical thing any human being needs to understand in relation to God.

Someone who takes the next step, repents, is baptised and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit in their own life, then comes to a different place altogether.  This person knows he’s a sinner but he doesn’t know the true extent of the sinfulness in his life.  He will spend the rest of his entire life discovering that as the Holy Spirit shines a bright light on it.  But the Bible does not call this ongoing process ‘conviction’, so neither should we.  The moment of conviction is in the past for every believer.  What we deal with now is the consequences of accepting that conviction to be true and accepting Jesus’ remedy for it.

If we continually think of ourselves as ‘coming under conviction’ each time we become aware of some aspect of sinfulness in our lives we are in danger of taking that snakes and ladders approach, of feeling as if we’ve slipped back to square one and are destined never to make any real progress in our lives.  That is where accepting a new conviction can quickly lead to our accepting the condemnation of the devil.

As a believer, you have no new convictions.  The full extent of your sinfulness was exposed and dealt with before you were even born, right there on the Cross with Jesus.  You recognised that for yourself the day you first believed.  You accepted that you were a convict, even though you didn’t understand the full extent of it.   Where you and I are now is in a life where the Spirit guides us into truth (John 16:13).  It’s a life in which we walk in the light, which causes our sins to be revealed – but that’s a good thing, because we are then able to confess them and be purified (1 John 1:9).

The more we travel this journey, the more is revealed and dealt with and the more Christlike we become.  But paradoxically, the more Christlike we become, the more aware we are of sinful tendencies in our lives that need that confession, forgiveness and purification.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit in every believer and it is a good thing.  When we are especially conscious of it in our lives, we need not think in terms of conviction, of being sent back to the start or being dumped back at the beginning of the process of having our sinful state exposed.  We should instead think of it in terms of another step forward in life’s journey; a life led by the Spirit, which we life as children of God (Rom 8:14).

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