I’ve spent three years of my legal career as a criminal prosecutor, a job that usually has one goal when it comes to wrongdoers: conviction. Once the defendant has pleaded guilty or has been found guilty by a jury, it’s all over. He has been convicted, and the only thing left to do is sentence him.
Early in my legal career, it struck me how often the word “conviction” gets used in the Christian community. In Christianese, the word is used anytime somebody feels guilty about something and wants to explain that the Holy Spirit was the source of their guilt (for example, “I felt convicted about speaking in anger”). But in Scripture, “conviction” is a legal term – not a word used to describe a feeling.
The Bible certainly uses a courtroom analogy when it talks about Christians; but for believers, Satan is the prosecutor, God is the judge, Jesus is our defense attorney, and we’re declared innocent of all charges (Ephesians 1:7, 1 John 2:1, Revelation 12:10). However, the word “convict” or “conviction” is never once used to describe the day-to-day interactions of the Holy Spirit and believers. Instead, “conviction” basically describes (1) how the Holy Spirit interacts with people who don’t believe in Jesus; and (2) what happens to Christians who try to follow rules instead of the Spirit (John 8:9, 16:8; 1 Corinthians 14:24; James 2:8-10; Jude 15).
So if the Holy Spirit doesn’t convict us, condemn us, or otherwise put us on guilt trips, what does He do? If we look at Scripture, it turns out He’s actually very involved with us in a number of ways. For example, He helps us in our weakness, teaches us, and reminds us of the words of Jesus (John 14:26; Romans 8:26; 1 Corinthians 2:13). He gives us words to speak when we don’t know what to say; and He provides supernatural power that we need to walk out our calling (Mark 13:11, Acts 1:8). He fills us with Himself and with God’s joy, peace, and love (Acts 2:4, 8:17; Romans 5:5, 14:17). And He opens our eyes to see God’s glory and fervently prays for us in our weaknesses (Acts 7:55; Romans 8:26). But He does not convict us.
Jesus was already convicted for our sins, once and for all, when He became those sins on the cross and endured God’s wrath in our place (Isaiah 53:10, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 3:18). He’s the “convict” who took our shameful death sentence so that we would never have to be “convicted” of anything (Hebrews 12:2).
Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf said, “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” If this is true, then we have a special obligation to watch the words we use to describe God – especially if our portray Him doing something that is fundamentally at odds with His character.
So the next time you’re feeling “convicted” in the truest sense of the word, know this: you are not hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit. Yes, He will correct us and discipline us like any good parent, but that’s evidence of His love, which ought to be the most reassuring thing in the world (2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 12:6).