The role of the third Person of the Triune Godhead is always misunderstood in the area of convicting. Many times, you will hear this cliché from many believers saying, “The Holy Spirit convicted me of my sins” or, “The Holy Spirit convicted me of the preaching message.” It seemed spiritual, but is it theologically sound? Does this phrase reflect the teachings of Christ about the relationship of the Holy Spirit with the believers?
For many years, we have been hearing this locution traditionally without knowing what it truly means. Unfortunately, this mistaken view of the word “convicted” led to guilt and legalistic condemnation in the lives of many believers, a reason why Joseph Prince, a preacher from Singapore rose up reinterpreting the theology of grace in what he now labels as “radical grace” in response to the stiff legalism happening in many churches today. This led Prince to write the following in his book Destined To Reign. He states,
“The reason many believers are living a life of defeat is that they believe the LIE that God is angry with them. The reason many are not able to reign in life and experience life of victory is that they carry around with them the guilt and condemnation that God is angry with them because something that they have done in the past. My friend, be careful when you fail to live up to His standard.” Joseph Prince, “Destined To Reign: The Secrets To Effortless Success, Wholeness, and Victorious Living,” (Singapore: 2007), 40. (emphasis his)
This observation was seen by Prince in the lives of many believers especially those who maintain their salvation through obedience and good works evolving towards legalism. While he is correct in his observation, Prince went doctrinally overboard when he taught that believers need not confess his sins in the nature of 1 John 1:9. He wrongly understood this portion of John’s epistle as referring to the Gnostics instead of the believers who were supposed to be his primary recipient. Obviously, respected and reputable Bible scholars disagree with Prince’s reinterpretation.
A careful study of the passage will reveal that John was not writing this letter to the Gnostics but to believers. It is understandable that Prince arrived at this unfortunate interpretation because many believers thought guilt and condemnation came from God leading them towards confession of personal sins. Without the believers knowing, this supposed to be “humble” response breed legalism that will eventually govern their spiritual lifestyle and discipline. Obviously, this is a flawed understanding of the theology of guilt and condemnation. A number of local churches had a growing number of “feel condemned” or “guilt laden” believers due to their own legalism caused by inaccurate understanding of the word “convicted” in the Scripture.
It will be good to define the term conviction before we move to understand the word convicted. The former refers to belief or doctrine. A sample statement would be, “My conviction (or belief) is not to drink any liquor or beverage laced with alcohol.” This is different from the word convicted. How then should we understand this word? The word convicted came from the root word convict which is defined by an English dictionary as “to declare someone to be guilty.” This is the idea behind the word conviction used by many translators in John 16:8 where it states, “he will convict the world (or declare the unbelievers in the world guilty) concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The word convict came from the original word ἐλέγξει which literally means to confute or prove to be wrong. The Lord Jesus Christ explains the Holy Spirit will make the world (unbelievers) guilty on account of sin, righteousness, and judgment. First, the unregenerated becomes guilty because they sinned by not believing Jesus Christ. Second, they will be conscience stricken due to their accusation regarding Jesus because His going to the Father reveals His righteousness. And third, their judgment of the Son of God does not make them realize that the ruler of this world had been judged. (See Jn. 16:9-11) If this is the case then the Holy Spirit truly convicts the unbelievers (world) but not the children of God. Dr. Walvoord and Rev. Graham clearly explains the works of the Holy Spirit to convict the unbelievers rather than the believers below,
“In view of the natural blindness of the human heart, and the inability of the natural man to understand the gospel sufficiently to believe, apart from the convicting work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11), it must be assumed that there is a continued work of the Holy Spirit in revealing to the lost the way of salvation.” John F. Walvoord, “Holy Spirit: A Comprehensive Study of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit,” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 229.
“One of the most devastating effects of sin is that it has blinded us to our own sin. ‘The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2 Cor. 4:4). Only the Holy Spirit can open our eyes. Only He can convict us of the depth of our sin, and only He can convince us of the truth of the gospel.” Billy Graham, “The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life,” (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 54.
A believer would probably ask, “So what is a theologically correct way of saying it instead of, ‘The Holy Spirit convicted me?'” The works of the Holy Spirit according to the Lord Jesus Christ is to teach and remind us of the word of God, guide us into all truth, and declare the things that are to come in relation to the truth but never to convict believers.
- He teaches and reminds the believer.
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. – John 14:26, ESV
- He guides every believer and declare the things to come.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. – John 16:13, ESV
Somebody might say, “It’s all semantics to me.” Probably yes, but this semantics brought confusion and division among the body of Christ when Joseph Prince came into the picture. It is like when Arius introduced the word homoiousios (like substance) in contrast with homoousios (same substance) to describe Christ’s nature that caused havoc and division in the body of Christ in the time of Emperor Constantine. Therefore, we have to start defining words accurately. Nowhere does it say in the Scripture that the Holy Spirit “convicts” a believer when he sins. Instead, the Holy Spirit reminds him gently of God’s word not to condemn but to bring him once more in fellowship and intimacy with God. Surely, the Spirit of God will even remind him to humbly confess his sins. The apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” 1 John 1:9. If a believer will not heed then the enemy of their souls will surely come into the picture to accuse, condemn, and make him guilty of his action. It is not God who condemns for He does not and never will condemn His children (See Rom. 8:1). Instead, it is Satan who daily accuses the brethren (See Rev. 12:10).
A story is told in the Old Testament about king David. While soldiers are going out to war, David opted to stay in the cloister of his own palace. He chose to relax and walk on the rooftop where he saw a very beautiful lady bathing leading him to be tempted. David, the man who defeated the champion of the Philistine army was himself defeated by temptation by committing an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, the wife of a loyal soldier named Uriah who was brutally murdered by the man himself. As a result, the king of Israel sinned against God because of his adulterous relationship with the woman and his murdering of Uriah (See 2 Sam. 11:2-5). Surprisingly, David tried to keep silent about it. But it affected him so much that his physical body was experiencing pain until he confessed his sins before God Himself.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah. – Psalm 32:3-5, ESV
To help illustrate this theology about condemnation, guilt, and forgiveness, here is a tale of two boys who went to their grandfather’s place. Once there were two young boys who went to visit their grandfather’s farm house. When the eldest arrived at the place, his eyes suddenly caught a lone wandering duck. His reflex led him to immediately get his slingshot then started aiming on his target. After he released the death blow, he went to check his victim. After checking there was no one around so he buried the dead duck. The next sunny morning, they were happily eating their breakfast. The grandfather asked the youngest if he could help get a pail of water to bring it inside the kitchen to wash the dishes. The youngest son immediately told his grandfather that his eldest brother is willing to do it. Upon hearing, the eldest complained saying, “Why me? It was you who was asked by grandfather.” Then the youngest craftily whispered saying, “Remember the duck?”
The eldest son developed a nervous chill all through his body and was too terrified. He thought nobody saw him. The next day, the grandfather once more requested the youngest to help him clean the house. But the same thing happened. He again volunteered his eldest brother while whispering, “Remember the duck?” This happened almost every day until the end of their one week vacation.
The eldest brother could not stand the manipulation, guilt, and condemnation of the youngest brother any longer that he decided to tell his grandfather about the truth. This time he is already prepared to acknowledge his sins before his grandfather then suffer the consequences. Before the end of their vacation day, he mustered his strength to tell his grandfather about the real incident that happened. He said with all humility, “Grandfather, I need to confess to you about something.” His grandfather was not prepared for this so he asked, “What is it my son?” He replied, “When I first came to your farm I saw this lone wandering duck walking innocently in your farm. I pulled out my slingshot, aimed and hit him on the head. Then I buried him where no one could see it. Will you forgive me for what I did?” The grandfather held the boy’s shoulders then moved him a bit close to him, looked him in the eyes, breathed deeply, and smiled saying, “I already forgave you the day I first saw you killed that duck. And I am just waiting for you to acknowledge your sins so you can be free from guilt, condemnation, and shame.” The eldest son have no idea that his grandfather saw everything he did a few meters away from the crime scene. The grandfather readily forgave his grandson that he embraced him tight. The next day, when they were about to leave, the grandfather asked the youngest son to get all their stuff to load it on the car. And the youngest blurted out, “My brother will surely do it!” And he again reminded him, “Remember the duck?” His brother responded saying, “You get it yourself because I am free from your condemnation, guilt, accusation, and shame. I acknowledged my sins to grandfather and he already forgave me.”
The grandfather is an analogy of God who forgives our sins and never condemns us. The eldest son is an analogy of a believer who sinned against God. While the youngest son is an analogy of Satan who accuses and condemns the believer day and night. Yes, God has already forgiven our sins past, present, and future. But unless a believer acknowledges his sins before the Lord, he will surely experience condemnation, guilt, and shame that will slowly drive him away from the Lord. In fact, when Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord, they tried their best not only to hide but to cover their nakedness (See Gen. 3:7, ESV). This happens when a believer sins against his Creator. Not only does his conscience and thoughts accuse him but the enemy as well. Remember, the Holy Spirit will never make a believer guilty about something he did against God but the enemy. Let me end this with a quote from the unknown Hebrew writer,
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. – Hebrews 4:16, NIV
The Greek word ἔλεγχος in the New Testament was used seventeen times in seventeen different verses. There are only two times where this Greek word can be translated in the English word as “convict” to mean “guilty” or “condemned” in context under Bauer’s Lexicon. One is found in John 8:46 where Jesus rightfully tells the Jews “Which one of you convicts (condemns) me of sin?” While the other is located in John 16:8 where it explains the works of the Holy Spirit who “convicts” (that is, condemns, make guilty) the unbelievers. Nowhere in any modern English version can we find the Greek word ἔλεγχος translated as “convict” or “convicts” except for these two passages (Jn. 8:46; 16:8).
In fact, even in Revelations 3:19 the translators carefully choose the English words “rebuke (NIV, CSB),” “correct” (NLT, CEV), “reprove” (ESV, NAS) but never the word “convict” since it has a connotation of being “condemned” or “guilty” which are true only for unbelievers but not believers. If we want to be faithful with the English meaning used by the translators in translating the Greek word ἔλεγχος then we should not say, “The Holy Spirit convicts us of righteousness” because “convict” means “to be guilty of something” and “be condemned” which the Holy Spirit will surely not do. His role is to gently remind us (Gk. υπομνησει, remind quietly) of the word of God which is His gentle way of correcting and leading us into repentance and righteousness. (see Jn. 14:26) I understand that traditionally, we are already used to saying, “The Holy Spirit convicts me of sin or unrighteousness” which probably in the mind of the believer is “corrects” or “reproves.” But this is not the meaning of the English word “convict” in any English dictionary. One respected bishop said to this effect, “I would rather be faithful with the Word than tradition.”
So does the Holy Spirit “convict” a believer of his sins? He do not because to do so would lead to condemnation, guilt, and shame on the part of the believer. But He gently reminds us of God’s word that we should confess our sins and bring us in a more closer intimacy with the Lord so Satan will have no hold on us. Remember, He is the sweet, sweet Holy Spirit who will never make us guilty nor condemn us.
Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet heavenly Dove,
Stay right here with us, filling us with Your love.
And for these blessings we lift our hearts in praise;
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.