Witnessing without seeing results can bring despondency, but conviction is the work of the Spirit. If we witness to the complete Christ – sin, righteousness, and judgement – the Spirit will always be present and accomplish His purpose, whether we see it or not.
And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (John 16:8)
Every believer knows the frustration of testimony or witness for Christ which isn’t received. We also know the heartache of those we love turning away from the truth, and the sadness that comes with knowing that these may well perish. The natural response is to keep at it, even to push sometimes, because we so desperately want them to enter the kingdom. We want to know that, at the end, they will be with Christ in eternity. The alternative is to terrible to contemplate. Today’s verse is both an encouragement and a caution. It is the Holy Spirit’s role to bring conviction, not ours. Hard as it is to accept, His timing is God’s timing. I speak from experience here. Three beloved members of my family only received Christ at the very end, despite my prayers, witness, and exhortation. Many times, I wondered what I did wrong along the way.
Conviction is a supernatural experience.
I hesitate to use the work experience because we use it so often in a natural human sense. An experience is essentially a recognisable occurrence which impacts our lives in some ways, so we cannot discount spiritual experience because so many around us reduce the things of God to fleshly experience. That aside, conviction through the work of the Spirit is a supernatural spiritual experience that is transformational. It represents the place of ultimate choice. The truth is that nothing we do or say can either ensure or affect it. Once again, this is a lesson my own experience has taught me. Each time one of those precious family members came to the Lord – literally at the eleventh hour, fifty-ninth minute – it was through the witness of someone else. As obstinate and stubborn as we are in my family, they wouldn’t listen to the witness of one of their own.
As frustrating as this may be, it highlights the truth that prayer is as important as what we say or do. I don’t doubt that a lifetime of witness made an impact of some kind. Nothing we do in Christ has no eternal value. But it was conviction through the Spirit using the perfect person and the perfect time that accomplished what I could not. Looking back, I realise that my prayers that He would bring someone – anyone – across their path likely had a lot to do with it. When I let go of the responsibility I had somehow assumed for their salvation, it enabled Him to work according to what was needed in their particular situation. It still took years to reach them, but today, they are with Jesus. My prayers were answered, and God supernaturally accomplished what was impossible in the natural.
There is no conviction without the Spirit.
Whenever we witness, there are always only two responses. The first is conviction and the second is rejection. Some might include indifference as a third, but in essence, indifference is rejection. It’s simply passive rather than active or aggressive. I firmly believe, however, that when we witness, the Holy Spirit is always present. Without Him, we would have neither the impetus nor the boldness to bring the message of Christ. This poses a question that many believers struggle with. Why, if the Holy Spirit is present when we witness, does conviction not follow? If it is the Spirit’s role to convict and He is present, why doesn’t it happen? The simple answer is that conviction is an experience, not spiritual manipulation. God has given mankind free will and will always respect that. Anything less is manipulation, which is basically witchcraft. Believing cannot be the result of spiritual blackmail.
God answered this question for me by reminding me that the Grand Canyon started with a single drip of water. This means that conviction can be both an instantaneous experience or a series of small experiences. Because we don’t always see the immediate results does not mean that conviction has not taken place. Sometimes, it happens by degrees, one drip at a time, slowly wearing away at the seemingly immovable rock face. That first drip is replaced by another, and then another. God may use countless people and situations to witness, but the Holy Spirit is present in each one. Conviction is constant, but it’s built slowly over time until rejection shifts to acceptance. This is an encouragement to us. If we’re prompted to speak, the Holy Spirit is present. We may not see the results right then, but our testimony is always part of the Spirit’s work of conviction.
The three parts to conviction.
I’ve had many years to ponder this, because I still have loved ones who’ve dug their heels in as only my family can. One of the things that has stood out for me has been hearing believers pray for or talk about others as needing to be ‘convicted of their sin’ – which, of course, is true. All of us need that, even born again and Spirit-filled believers. It’s part of our natural fleshly condition. But my instinctive response to this is always to want to add ‘and?’ to the statement. That’s because sin is only one of three parts that make up conviction by the Spirit. The other two are righteousness and justice. For conviction that leads to conversion, all three of these must be present. Sin obviously comes first, because this is the spiritual reality that leads to death and destruction. But righteousness and justice must follow.
If we only speak sin, we bring condemnation, not conviction. Jesus Himself said He came not to condemn the world but to save it. Righteousness is to bring in Jesus – our righteousness, our answer to the sin we must accept as ours. It’s a very sad reality that I have encountered resistance from non-believers who have been left, through the witness of others, with absolute condemnation. Their sin sent Jesus to the cross. While there is no denying the truth of this, it’s a universal truth. The sin of all mankind sent Jesus to the cross. But because they have received an incomplete Gospel, many lash out against the sense that they are solely responsible for the death of Christ. Guilt is a strange and insidious human emotion. We may reject it, but it has a tendency to gnaw away inside us, engendering an even greater resistance.
The role of righteousness in conviction.
It seems ludicrous to even think that people respond in this way, but if there has been any degree of conviction of sin, the spirit accepts a measure of guilt accordingly. If left there unfinished or unqualified, it festers and becomes a force for condemnation. The Bible is clear. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. This is the role righteousness plays in conviction through the Spirit. Salvation does not come simply by acknowledging sin. Repent and believe is the way to salvation. Believe what? That we have sinned? Yes, that’s the first step. But then we need to believe in Christ, our hope of righteousness. If our messages stops at sin, we’re essentially teaching the Old Testament law. That, of course, only shows us how impossible it is for us to ever be righteous. That’s the place of condemnation – where we all were before the cross.
The Gospel message is that God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to become sin for us so we would know His righteousness. It’s insufficient to provide a diagnosis. We must also offer the treatment. Righteousness, in simple terms, is the absence of sin. It’s the opposite of sin. The importance of righteousness in conviction lies in the fact that it introduces a vital component of God’s love – His mercy. It’s technically true that our sin sent Jesus to the cross. If we hadn’t sinned, the cross would not have been necessary. But the awesome reality is that Jesus chose to go to the cross. We can never leave this out of our witness. Christ was not taken by force. He gave Himself over. He agreed with God at the very foundation of the world that He would go for our sake to purchase righteousness, not condemnation.
Conviction by the Spirit and judgement.
This is why justice is so crucial to the process of conviction. Every single human being has an inherent understanding of justice. Even the criminal recognises it, though he may seek to avoid it. Many may ignore it, choosing injustice, but they still know their actions violate a fundamental principle. Sinners are no different. We all have an inner expectation that God and justice are synonymous. But there is a misconception that justice is the same as judgement when it’s really very different. Judgment is tried, condemned, and punished. It’s only one part of justice. The other part is mercy. A judge has as much of a responsibility to exercise mercy as they do to exercise judgement. God Himself taught us that in Christ. But mercy does not cancel out judgement. Jesus came to fulfil the law, not do away with it.
We could define mercy as the application of righteousness to judgement. To meet the full requirements of justice – which even sinners know is inevitable – judgment must take place. That’s the consequence of sin. Absolute righteousness is what God requires, but it’s also impossible for us to achieve. Mercy enables God to execute perfect justice by substitution. He accepts the absolute righteousness of Christ as perfect fulfilment for judgment. It’s not that judgment doesn’t happen. Our sins are judged, condemned, and punished in Jesus. That’s mercy, the perfect balance to judgment in God’s scales of justice. This is a critical truth in conviction through the Spirit. Even sinners will not believe a God who denies His own requirement of perfect justice. The power of conviction lies in the truth that God Himself was willing to assume the punishment for our sins so we could be righteous.
Self and conviction through the Spirit.
I know that there have been times where I have spoken more in my own strength than in the Spirit. There have been times when I’ve missed the leading and spoken from emotion and need. I’m thankful that I can learn from this and for the reminder that conviction is solely the work of the Spirit. But it’s so important to be sure that our witness always points to the complete Jesus. When we witness or pray, it must always be for conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgement. We must be sure to have the full Jesus in us so we can reveal the full Jesus through us. The Spirit uses what we speak to bring conviction. He will always point to Jesus – perfect and complete. The purpose is conviction, not condemnation. If we do our part faithfully, we have full assurance that the Holy Spirit will accomplish His purpose.
Lord, we thank You for the work of the Holy Spirit. We are mindful that without Him, none of us would be in Your kingdom. Just as we have been given the great blessing of conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgement, help us to share it. Grant us the grace to see the full message of the Gospel and to share it in love, trusting in You to do the work in Your perfect time, way, and place. We pray for all those who do not know You and ask that even now, You work in their lives. We know, Lord, that You desire that all should come to You. It’s not by might or power, but by Your Spirit. Help us to do our part as You lead, rather than as we desire or think fit.