This issue of conviction of sins is fast becoming an unnecessary shibboleth among Christians. Sincere believers are dividing themselves along one of two lines:
1. “God never convicts us and if you think he does you are sin-conscious and need to become Christ-conscious.”
2. “God convicts me in a positive way as a loving father and if you say otherwise you need to read your Bible.”
This is a most unfortunate and unnecessary division! It is the result of two truths hammering the same nail – namely, how does God deal with our present sins and shortcomings? Does he convict us? Does he correct us? Is there a difference?
My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; (Heb 12:5 NKJV)
God both chastens and rebukes us but in this post I want to focus on the word rebuke. (Chastening simply means training. God trains us as a Father; he does not chastise us with punishment, sickness and definitely not scourging (see v.6). God trains us primarily through scripture and the revelation of his Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16-17, John 16:13).)
The word for “rebuke” in Hebrews 12:5, elegchō, is the same word which is translated “convict” in John 16:8.
And (the Helper), when he comes, will convict (elegchō) the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. (John 16:8-11, NASB)
It is also closely related to word Jude uses when he quotes Enoch:
See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict (exelegchō) all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him. (Jud 1:14-15)
Put it altogether and you have a recipe for confusion: The ungodly are convicted and the sons of God are convicted! But the confusion may be all in our English-reading heads.
Lost in translation
Consider the meaning of the English word “convict”:
Verb: Declare someone to be guilty of a criminal offense by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in a court of law.
Noun: A person found guilty of a criminal offense and serving a sentence of imprisonment.
Does the Holy Spirit ever declare the righteous guilty? Of course not. If he did, it would be like saying Christ’s redemptive work was an insufficient remedy for your sin. Since you have been justified by his grace (Rom 3:24), you cannot be convicted for your sin. Not now, not ever.
“But Paul, I’ve got some serious sin.” That may be, but he has some serious grace and his grace is greater than your sin (Rom 5:20).
When I talk like that, I am accused of diminishing sin. I am not. Sin is destructive. It has consequences. I am not diminishing sin. I am emphasizing the only thing that can deliver you from the power of sin: his grace.
What’s wrong with a little conviction?
The word convict has become so churchified that we sound like fools when we talk to outsiders.
I used to do prison ministry. If I told the inmates that the Holy Spirit had convicted me of sin they would think, “He busted you! You were caught red-handed you bad, bad sinner.” What a slanderous portrayal of the Holy Spirit’s life-giving ministry. I have made out that he is like the Law or worse, the Accuser. The Holy Spirit is nothing like that!
But it certainly doesn’t help when we have translations like the NIV adding words to scripture:
Joh 16:8 When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin… (NIV)
The word guilt is not in the original Greek. (Check it out in a literal translation.) It was added in the 1970s by translators working for the International Bible Society. Their other Bible, the 20-year old NIrV, is even worse:
Joh 16:8 When he comes, he will prove that the world’s people are guilty. (NIrV)
Sheesh. It makes you wonder why God wasted 14 centuries with the law-keeping covenant. If his plan was to condemn us with the Holy Spirit, what purpose does the law serve?
I hope you can see that “convict” and “guilt” are terrible words to associate with the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit and guilt go together like the devil and love. He’s the Spirit of grace, not the spirit of guilt (Heb 10:29).
As long as you’re rewriting the Bible, why not go the whole way and call Jesus the Condemner of the world?
What a dis-grace.
Conviction vs. correction
I hope you can see the Holy Spirit never, ever convicts (assigns guilt) you of your sin. In fact, he has gone on record saying, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Heb 10:17). How can he declare you guilty of sins he chooses not to remembers?
“But Paul, you are speaking of conviction in a negative sense. There is also such a thing as positive conviction and I have experienced it.”
No, you are confused about the meaning of words. There is no such thing as positive guilt or positive condemnation. That old line about the devil condemning and the Holy Spirit convicting is a big fat lie. Say it often enough and people will believe it but it’s not found anywhere in the Bible.
What you have actually experienced is a life-giving correction. And as we shall see in the next post, that is altogether a different thing.
Acknowledgement: This post was inspired by a question raised by Dustin Horstmann in the comments section of this recent post, namely, are we who preach grace creating an unnecessary schism by insisting God doesn’t see our sin? I want to thank Dustin for framing the issue in such a clear and sensitive way. I also want to thank Felix, Jennie, John S. and Colleen G for their thoughtful responses to Dustin, some of which I have incorporated here.