It happened again. It’s amazing what you’ll learn when you read the Bible. Something has just occurred to me that, in part, has changed my life.
I’ve been told all my life by religious teachers and preachers and fellow Christians that one of the chief functions of the Holy Spirit is conviction. I've taught this for years. The narrative goes something like this:
“Once you repent of your sins and decide to commit yourself to the teachings of Jesus, placing your whole trust and love in Him, then the Holy Spirit will come in you. It will ‘fill’ you up. It will convict you when you do something wrong. So, be sure to listen to Him or keep attuned to that inner compunction or feeling of guilt you have. You’ll know it—the Spirit will let you know when it happens. And throughout your entire Christian life, you’ll need to keep begging the Spirit to ‘fill you’ again. Over and over again, you’ll have to ask the Spirit to ‘fill you up.’ And watch out: it’s possible to get numb or rebellious or back-slidden toward the Spirit and ignore His voice. So, if you ever find yourself not feeling convicted, it’s probably a sign that you've become hard-hearted or a weak Christian. If that happens, you'll probably need another Christian to point out your sin.”
Then I examined the New Testament. What I discovered shocked me.
Almost every word in that common narrative I just said concerning the Spirit’s role in the believer’s life is completely false.
What does the Spirit do according to the New Testament? That is, what exactly is the role or function of the Spirit? I’ve examined such questions before but have never made a list; I filled in the gaps with what I’ve heard in church and in school. Not this time. I looked up every reference to the Spirit in the New Testament. (The role of the Spirit is different in the New Testament than in the Old, so the key is to understand the Spirit’s role in the New Testament. The Spirit is never given nor promised to Jesus’s disciples during His lifetime. It’s always talked about as a future event (e.g., Mark 13:11; John 7:39). In any case, as my friend, Stephen Mackey pointed out, it was the prophets who "convicted" people, not God's Spirit.)
I began to list all the functions of the Spirit. Then I came across a similar list by another scholar. So, I’ll just repeat John R. Levison here:
“The spirit teaches (e.g., Lk 12:12; Jn 14:25-26), speaks (e.g., Jn 16:13; Acts 8:29), testifies (Acts 20:23 [through prophets]; Jn 15:26 [along with the disciples]; Heb 10:15 [through scripture]), leads (Gal 5:18; Rom 8:14), reveals (e.g., Lk 2:27; 1 Cor 2:6-16), forbids (Acts 16:6-7), predicts (1 Tim 4:1), searches God’s depths (1 Cor 2:11), and participates in prayer by crying Abba (Gal 4:6), and interceding with wrenching sighs for those in a state of weakness (Rom 8:26-27). The spirit also functions as a leader by sending out apostles (Acts 13:2-4), appointing overseers (Acts 20:28), and distributing spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:11).”
He omitted “exposes/convicts” (e.g., nonbelievers in Jn 16:8). So, the list is exposes/convicts, teaches, speaks, testifies, leads, reveals, forbids, predicts, helps in prayer, and giving wisdom in various church decisions. What is blatantly absent from this list is “convicting” believers. (Moreover, never are Christians told to keep asking to be “filled” with the Holy Spirit! Never are Christians ever said to get "numb"!)
This fact is simple: the Holy Spirit does not convict believers of sin. Conviction of sin in Christians is not a function or role of the Holy Spirit.
Let that sink in for a bit. Think about it. The Holy Spirit does not convict believers of sin.
But where does this idea come from?
My only guess is in a misapplication of one passage. Jesus told His disciples that when the Paraclete (= Holy Spirit) will come after Jesus has died and been raised, to perform a few functions:
And when he comes, he will convict/expose/bring to light the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (Joh 16:8-11 ESV)
If you stop in 16:8—which you shouldn’t—then you can make “convict” of sin, righteousness, and judgment mean anything. However, in context you can’t do this at all. John clearly explicates in the next phrase that there is only one sin that the Spirit will “convict/expose” people of: the sin of not believing in Jesus (which is the only sin in the Fourth Gospel). That’s it. The Spirit will “convict” nonbelievers of not believing in Jesus (similarly to what the Spirit of prophecy will do to nonbelievers in 1Co 14:24-25). This has nothing to do whatsoever with what the Spirit does in the believer.
The Holy Spirit does not convict believers of sin.
What difference does this make? How has this partly changed my life? In at least three ways.
First, understanding this fact means I can have an accurate understanding of where Christians are to receive conviction. If the Spirit doesn’t convict believers, how will we know when we’ve done something wrong? The answer’s been staring at me for twenty years and I've never taken it that seriously: (1) orthodox doctrine and (2) other Christians.
This is exactly why the early church leaders put such heavy emphasis upon these two things: (1) knowing proper doctrine (in part, so that you can help correct/convict/expose people) and (2) mutual accountability from fellow Christians. Here, I’ll prove it to you by giving evidence for both:
(1) Knowing and preaching/teaching proper doctrine is often linked with “reproving, rebuking, convicting” believers. For example:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, . . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2Ti 4:1-2 ESV)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness . . . (2Ti 3:16 ESV)
He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. . . . This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith . . . (Tit 1:9-14 ESV)
What’s the point? Believers are supposed to learn proper Christian doctrine so that they will know what proper Christian theology and behavior is. The doctrine holds them accountable, not the Spirit. This is why the New Testament assumes that baby Christians can be spotted by their behavior with this assumption: if they knew better they wouldn’t act that way (this is the precise point in 1 Cor. 3:2-3 and Heb. 5:12-14). Doctrine “convicts” believers, not the Spirit.
(2) Believers hold other believers accountable. This is precisely what Jesus and the early church taught. For example:
. . . First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (Mat 7:5 NET)
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. (Mat 18:15-17 NET)
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, . . . (Luk 17:3 ESV)
Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a
person in a spirit of gentleness. (Gal 6:1 NET)
It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father's wife. . . Shouldn't you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? . . . And I have already judged the one who did this, just as though I were present. . . . When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, . . . . turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1Co 5:1-5 NET)
As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1Ti 5:20 ESV)
Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Tit 2:15 ESV)
Over and over again! What’s the point? I’ve always read these texts as last resorts. “Whew, these Christians must be ignoring the inner conviction of the Spirit—they are so hardened and numb! Now believers have to finally come in and be heavy-handed.” How stupid. These texts are abundantly clear: we are not sitting around waiting on the Spirit to convict people, but believers are to expose/convict believers. It would have been so easy for Jesus to have said, “If your brother sins, ask the Spirit to really turn up His conviction and guilt. If that doesn’t work, then I’d send some believer over to talk with the person.” Nope. How simple and straight-forward this has been and I’ve been misreading it all my life. Believers “convict” believers, not the Spirit.
Boy, has the American church gotten a million miles off of this one. It will be miraculous to get modern Christians to ever—in our “tolerance induced,” “non-judging neurosis”—rebuke another Christian for immorality. Church "discipline" is the only kind of discipline.
Second, understanding this fact means that Christians can’t “get numb” to the Spirit. So, we must stop saying it. Stop believing it. Stop judging Christians as being “hard-hearted” or “numb” or “immune” or “back-slidden” to the Spirit. It can’t happen. This is nonsense. They might be ignorant of proper doctrine; they might be baby Christians; they might not be Christians at all. If a Christian shows no respect for what they do know about proper Christian doctrine, then they’re not Christian. Of course we’re not God; of course we don’t a person’s ultimate destiny. But why in the world have we come to some sort of pathological fear of thinking that another “so-called” Christian probably isn’t even Christian? Listen to how the author of Hebrews says it:
For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God's enemies. (Heb 10:26-27 NET)
See? Someone who ignores the teaching they've received is characterized as an "enemy of God." They're not "numb" or "back-slidden." They're "enemies."
Third, understanding this fact means that Christians cannot use “conviction by the Spirit” as a criterion for morality. I’ve heard this all my life from various people, including out of my own mouth! Since we’re all sitting around waiting on the Spirit to act like a Divine Policeman, giving people guilt citations every time we do something immoral, we can make excuses for behavior that is clearly against orthodox doctrine. Here’s one huge example: homosexuality. How many times have I heard that “homosexuality can’t be immoral because I don’t feel any conviction at all in my lifestyle. This means that God accepts my lifestyle. Otherwise, why would I feel so comfortable and accepted?” With all respect, this is sheer nonsense. Pedophiles can feel the same deep contentment and “non-conviction.” So can rapists and murderers and gossips and the greedy and narcissists. We can all feel comfortable in sin.
Several years ago I had a friend (John Essick) once attempt to point out something in my behavior that he questioned. I appreciated what he was saying, but responded, “Hmm. I appreciate that, but I don’t feel any conviction at all about that.” He graciously let it go. I had pulled out the Ace of Spades—“I’m innocent! Otherwise, why wouldn’t I feel convicted?” Phew. God, please have mercy on me! Sorry John—thanks for having the courage to lovingly help me. I’m sorry my ignorance blocked that grace gift.
I’ve also wondered why my son, Hayden, does some things he does even though he’s a Christian now. “Doesn’t he feel convicted when he does that to his sister?” Again, that’s nonsense. Now I know. He has to grow up. As we continue to teach him right doctrine, he’ll mature and learn. And when he has a sinful pattern, we’ll rebuke that behavior as we’re supposed to (as his parents and as fellow Christians).
Well, I’m not done. There are some other epiphanies I’ve had. I’ll write about those later. But for now, reflect on the facts of the New Testament with me. Maybe I’m all alone in this epiphany. What about you?
Even if this isn't news to you, I have absolutely committed to stop assuming the Spirit is in the conviction business with Christians. Instead, I want to focus on the functions He really has. I've committed to really embracing these three main points. And by God's mercy, be truly "led by the Spirit" (Rom 8:14) each day.