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The Bible tells us that all humans have natural tendency to rebel against God, which is a path that leads to death (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:1). All humans also have a natural moral compass or inherent knowledge of right and wrong—which God "programmed" into us when He made us in His image (Genesis 1:27). But these are both traits that ALL humans are born with, regardless of their faith in God (or lack thereof). What's different in Christ followers is that we have the Holy Spirit (John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 3:16).
When Holy Spirit brings our rebellion to the forefront of our minds with startling clarity, this is called "conviction of sin" (John 16:8). No one can accept salvation without first experiencing the Holy Spirit's conviction. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). Part of that “draw” to Jesus is the conviction of sin.
Conviction of sin is not the same as having a "guilty conscience." The word "convict" is translated from the Greek word elencho, which means “to convince someone of the truth; to reprove; to accuse, refute, or cross-examine a witness.” The Holy Spirit exposes evil in our lives, rebukes us in our sin, and reminds us of our need to strive for Christlikeness (John 16:8). (Also See: What is the conscience?)
True conviction of sin in the heart is a devastating, loathsome understanding of our own sin. True conviction of sin is a recognition of how our sin dishonors God (Psalm 5:4). True conviction of sin is the experience of utter dread at how we have sinned. True conviction of sin intensely exposes the truth of how wretched our sin is before God (Romans 2:5). Our eyes are opened to the ugly truth of our sin: that it is despicable and destructive.
When Isaiah stood in the presence of God, he was immediately overwhelmed by his own sinfulness: “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips . . . and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). While resisting a great temptation, Joseph pleaded, “How could I do this great evil and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). When David was convicted by the Holy Spirit, he recognized the awfulness of his sin and cried out, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). When the Philippian jailer fell at the apostles’ feet and cried, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he was under conviction (Acts 16:30). He knew that, without a Savior, he would die.
When we feel true conviction of our sin, we recognize the righteous judgment of God (Hebrews 4:12) and make no excuses.
A "guilty conscience," which all humans are capable of having, regardless of their beliefs, brings with it merely feelings of fear, shame, and regret. But the Holy Spirit's conviction of sin will lead a believer to true repentance (Acts 17:30; Luke 13:5), shining light on the beauty and value of our relationship with God and making space in our humbled hearts for God's grace (Ephesians 2:8).
Conviction from the Holy Spirit isn't simply knowing we did something wrong, having anxiety over impending divine punishment, or pangs of guilt. Those are signs of a guilty conscience, yes, but understanding the consequences of sin does not necessarily lead to change (Psalm 9:17). When the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, we have taken the first step toward repentance, which can ultimately lead to continued soul transformation and heart renewal (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We can praise the Lord when He convicts us of our rebellious, sinful ways. Without that conviction, there could be no regeneration, no renewal, no growth, and no salvation. So thank God for allowing us to recognize our own sin through the Holy Spirit's conviction so that we can learn to become more like Christ every day.
True conviction of sin in the heart is a devastating, loathsome understanding of our own sin, recognition of how our sin dishonors God (Psalm 5:4), and an intense exposure to the truth of how wretched our sin is before God (Romans 2:5). While a "guilty conscience" merely brings feelings of fear, shame, and regret, the Holy Spirit's conviction of sin will lead a believer to true repentance (Acts 17:30; Luke 13:5), shining light on our precious relationship with God and making space in our humbled hearts for God's grace (Ephesians 2:8).
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.