Convicted. The word sounds stark, cold, final, abrasive, maybe harsh. In legal terms, it refers to a person who has been convicted of a crime by a judge or jury. In Christian terms, it refers to someone who has been convicted of a sin by the Holy Spirit. This latter kind of conviction may happen through various channels: reading scripture, hearing a sermon, having a conversation, during prayer, or any number of other ways, in which the Holy Spirit is always the agent.
Conviction. It’s that moment of awareness when I come to terms with what I’ve done wrong. It’s that feeling of guilt when I begin to understand the wrongness of my actions and their negative effect on others. When convicted, we come to a fork in the road: two directions lie before us: one is repentance, which leads to life; the other is rejection, which leads to death.
Let’s consider an example of the latter. Mark 12:1-11 records Jesus’ parable about the wicked tenants. A man planted a vineyard, cultivated it, and then leased it out to tenants while he went out of the country. At harvest time, he sent a servant to bring his portion of the profits. However the tenants, greedy for more gain, killed the man. This happened again and again: “and so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed” (v 5).
Finally the man resolved to send his “beloved son” with the belief that “they will respect my son” (v 6). Sadly for him, the tenants also killed his son with the hope of gaining what would have been his inheritance. Jesus then moves to the future tense to consider what the owner will do next: “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (v 9). Then he quotes from Psalm 118 about the stone that had been rejected becoming the cornerstone, a reference that NT writers applied to Jesus (Acts 4:11, 1 Pet. 2:7).
Verse 12 isn’t part of the parable itself, but records the reaction of Jesus’ audience (which 11:27 tells us was comprised of chief priests, scribes, and other Jewish religious leaders). They wanted to arrest him. They wanted Jesus stopped, silenced, because “they perceived that he had told the parable against them.” As it were, because they were afraid of the crowds, they just left, sullen and with hate in their hearts.
They were convicted. They understood that Jesus was speaking to them, about them, and it was too hard for them to hear. This parable wasn’t just a story to discuss, a teaching to dissect, a lesson to teach others; it was a missile of truth sent to destroy the hard exterior of their hearts. Unfortunately for them, they hardened their hearts harder still. They wouldn’t receive the message, but became angry at the messenger. They fought it, refusing to acknowledge their own sins and turn in the direction of the truth.
We do this too. The Holy Spirit speaks the truth to us and we know it is about us and for us. But we don’t want to hear it, don’t want to do it. So we find a way out: we accuse the pastor who preached the sermon of not faithfully handling the scriptures. We tell ourselves that the person talking through whom we’ve been convicted doesn’t really know what they’re talking about; after all, they aren’t even Christian. Or we just leave. We go to another church where we can hear “positive, uplifting, encouraging” messages. We don’t hang around that person who seems to have been reading our mail, who somehow knows our hearts. We leave the scene.
That path only leads to greater pain, frustration, and ultimately death and destruction if we continue on it. When we reject the truth after convicted by it, we cannot grow in the right direction and we in fact regress into resentment and make the walls of our hearts harder and harder. The more you resist conviction, the more difficult it becomes to ever accept it.
But there’s another path we can choose. Let’s consider 2 Cor. 7:8-11. If you are familiar at all with 1 Corinthians, you know it’s a very convicting letter. Paul doesn’t hold back from speaking to the rampant sinfulness infecting the congregation. He calls their sins to the carpet (I’ve never been sure what that saying really means, but it sounded good here) and invites them to turn back to God with genuine love and obedient faith. Now in his second letter, he references the first:
“For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us” (2 Cor. 7:8–9).
His first letter had convicted them (“that letter grieved you”). And while it hurt Paul for a while to know that they wrestled with this painful awareness of their own sinfulness, it blessed him later to know that this conviction led them to repentance (“you were grieved into repenting”). The Corinthians chose a better response to conviction than did the religious leaders referenced earlier. They let the truth have its way with them. They responded with honesty: Paul is right; we’ve been wrong; Lord Jesus, we’re sorry for our sins, for the pain they have caused you and others, and we will change our ways by your gracious Spirit. That’s an example of conviction leading us to healing and newness of life.
So the next time the Holy Spirit convicts you, consider it a good thing. Everyone gets convicted because everyone sins. It’s not bad or shameful to feel conviction; what is grievous is when we ignore or reject that conviction because then we further blind ourselves to and separate ourselves from the truth and from the freedom and life it would bring us. Respond to conviction with repentance: a change of heart and a change of life, which the same Spirit who convicted you will also make possible for you.