Convicting Christians
(Does the Holy Spirit convict Christians when they sin?)

QUESTION: Does the Holy Spirit "convict" Christians of sin?

ANSWER: Thank you for the question. It's an interesting one. The convicting ministry of the Spirit of God is spoken of by Christ in John 16:7-11. In the context, "the [unsaved] world" is the special target of this work–those who "do not believe in Me."

After the death and resurrection of Christ, and His return to heaven, the apostles, and those who would follow them, were charged with the preaching of the gospel (Mk. 16:15). But the unsaved are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1 5). In themselves, they have no spiritual awareness that they have offended a holy God (I Cor. 2:14). How then would they know of their need of Christ? It's the work of the Holy Spirit to awaken them to their need.

As Christians, we have an entirely different relationship to the Spirit of God from what the unsaved do. We have been regenerated by the Spirit (Jn. 1:12-13), and He "bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:16). We are permanently indwelt by the Spirit (II Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13-14), and led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14). We are being transformed by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ (II Cor. 3:17-18; Gal. 5:22-23). We also have a new awareness and sensitivity to spiritual things, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:9-12).

When we pray, the Spirit of God is even more aware of our needs than we are, and interprets our prayers before the throne of God, according to His will (Rom. 8:26-27). When the believer sins by doing what is contrary to the Spirit's will and leading, he "grieves" the Spirit (Eph. 4:30). When the believer sins by not doing what the Spirit prompts him to do, he is said to "quench" the Spirit (I Thess. 5:19). What then?

It is a profoundly intimate relationship we have with the Spirit of God. It seems almost inconceivable that believers would not be aware of grieving or quenching God's Spirit. But it happens when we have grown cold and are not in fellowship with the Lord.

I do not believe the Bible teaches a truly saved person can lose his salvation, but he can certainly backslide, and start acting in a carnal and worldly way. It is the responsibility of those in the Christian community (the local church), when they see this happening, to be God's instrument in awaking conviction (Heb. 3:13; 10:24; cf. Gal. 6:1).

The word "convict" the Lord Jesus uses in John (in Greek, elencho) can also be translated "convince." Through the Spirit's ministry, it's one of the things that happens when the Word of God is preached (II Tim. 4:2; Tit. 1:9). In the context of these verses, this ministry does seem to be directed toward believers, ones who are in danger of straying (II Tim. 4:3-4), or who "contradict" when the truth is being taught (Tit. 1:9).

It is possible for Christians to start acting habitually almost as if they were unsaved. Paul speaks that way of those in the Corinthian church who were guilty of "envy, strife, and divisions" (I Cor. 3:1-4). He says they are spiritual babies, "behaving like mere men [i.e. unsaved individuals]" (vs. 3; cf. the "natural man" in 2:14).

In the advance instruction given by the Lord Jesus as to how to handle church discipline, we get a similar thing. If the individual firmly rejects discipline "let him be to you like a heathen" (Matt. 18:17)--treat him as one in need of salvation.

Clearly, the Holy Spirit can do His convicting/convincing work in the life of a backslidden Christian through the agency of other believers. The same word is used in instruction given to Timothy regarding how to deal with a sinning elder (church leader). "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke [elencho] in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear" (I Tim. 5:19-20; cf. Jas. 5:19-20).

To avoid the need of this, Christians are to "walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:16). The Amplified Bible is helpful with this text: "Walk and live [habitually] in the [Holy] Spirit [responsive to and controlled and guided by the Spirit]; then you will certainly not gratify the cravings and desires of the flesh [of human nature without God]."

And when we sin, it's important to deal with that as soon as possible, confessing our sin to God, and receiving His cleansing and forgiveness (I Jn. 1:9).

Bottom line: I believe the convicting/convincing work of the Holy Spirit applies to Christians too, though we are in quite a different relationship to God. It is as though, if our spiritual sensitivity is dulled to the inner workings of the Spirit, He adds the outward attentions of other believers as a witness against us.