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Conviction & Repentance

Guilty

by Dennis Pollock

Conviction is not talked about much in the church these days. There was a time when it was a highly prized phase of the process of conversion from sinner to Christian. The ungodly were “convicted” of their sins, brought to a place of repentance, and ultimately faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

Preachers sometimes went too far in attempts to bring about this conviction. The evils of lipstick, pool halls, and tobacco were preached with such vehemence that offenders either “went forward” at the end of the service in tears or never returned to church again. My mother told me that when she, as a twelve year old, attempted to try to encourage her father to receive Christ, he told her he could never give up his tobacco. He had heard enough sermons against tobacco to convince him that to receive Christ and to give up tobacco were pretty much one and the same.

Standards of holiness in those days were usually based upon dress and particular habits rather than conduct and love. If you could stay clean from cigarettes and alcohol, dress plainly and drably (covering as much flesh as possible), and attend church regularly you were holy.

Inevitably there was a reaction. In the late sixties and throughout the seventies the church began to move in a new direction. Preaching against sin was downplayed; lifting up Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit, praise and worship, and Bible teaching were emphasized. The result was a phenomenal surge of growth in the church, and segments of the population that had not previously been reached were now being brought into the family of God. 

Today 

What served as a positive correctional movement in the seventies has today reached a place where the correction needs a correction. In our efforts to stamp out legalism in the church we have often thrown out the very concept of conviction, and the church’s Biblical mandate to speak out on moral issues. Not only do many of today’s preachers refuse to condemn lipstick, pool halls, and tobacco – they remain silent on the far more serious issues of sexual immorality, homosexuality, abortion, lying, stealing, and any and every other sin. In their attempts to avoid legalism they indirectly endorse the extreme of antinomianism (the idea that because of God’s grace we can live as we please with no moral restrictions).

There has been an erroneous thought circulating through the body of Christ for many years that is behind this. It is that “it is not our job to convict men of their sins – that is the work of the Holy Spirit.” This thought is almost correct but not quite. It is true that without the Holy Spirit no genuine conviction of sin can occur. It does not follow that we have nothing to do with this process.  

God plus Man 

Throughout the Scriptures God has always used His servants to convict people of their sins. The classic Old Testament example of this is found in the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba. After committing adultery with her, having her husband killed, and then marrying her, David went for quite some time without any apparent conscious guilt. He carried on with his kingly duties as usual. His new love’s husband was dead, he was now legitimately married to her, and all was well with his world.

The prophet Nathan was sent to David with a story. He told the errant king about a man who had a precious little lamb he loved so much that the animal slept in his bed with him. One night his rich neighbor needed some meat for a meal. He refused to take one of his own livestock but instead stole the poor man’s little lamb and slaughtered it for his guests.

David was livid, declaring loudly that the rich man deserved to die. With steely eyes and fearless demeanor Nathan looked at the king and announced, “You are the man!” He went on to describe in detail David’s sins of adultery and murder, and predicted that the sword would never depart from David’s house. For such an audacious act most kings would have had such a messenger killed, but being the man of God he was, David said meekly, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Was this the convicting work of the Holy Spirit? Indeed it certainly was.And yet it was not the Holy Spirit alone doing the work. He employed the use of one of His favorite mouthpieces, Nathan the prophet. And the conviction was not a generalized conviction. Nathan did not tell David, “We are all sinners and are far from perfect.” David would readily have agreed with that, but would not have come to the deep and thorough repentance that he did. It was only when Nathan put his finger on David’s specific sins that real repentance took place. 

Lists of the Uninvited 

The Bible is filled with similar examples of specific and piercing pronouncements against sins. When you read Isaiah, Jeremiah, and their fellow prophets you find them railing out against the specific sins of Israel. They did not merely declare, “You must change your ways and attitudes…” They spoke out vehemently against the specific sins of Israel:

  1.  “The plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor…?” (Isaiah 3:14,15)
  2. "They have grown fat… They do not plead the cause, the cause of the fatherless… (Jeremiah 5:28)
  3. “Woe to the women who sew magic charms on their sleeves…” (Ezekiel 13:18)
  4. “Now they sin more and more, and have made for themselves molded images, idols of silver… (Hosea 13:2)

 If you are tempted to write this off to Old Testament harshness, keep in mind that throughout the New Testament, the apostles were not afraid to speak out against specific sins and to address their audience from a very forceful moral stance. On the day of Pentecost, the deep conviction that led to the conversion of three thousand souls was not due to Peter telling them that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives. In holy zeal Peter thundered out, “Him, being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” He further declares, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Spoken in the power of the Spirit, it is no wonder they cried out in desperation, “Men and brothers, what shall we do?”

Throughout the New Testament we read of lists of sins that will keep people out of heaven. Paul writes, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9,10). In Revelation John informs us that "the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Jesus Himself was not afraid to deal with specific sins, stating “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:21-23).

  mention this because there is a dearth of such preaching and teaching in the body of Christ today. Pastors seem fearful to ever mention sin except as a general principle, something we all share in.But it is impossible for man to be deeply convicted of sin in general. This he can easily write off as being part of the human condition and beyond his control. It is only when sin is made specific and personal that men and women are led to repentance.

 A Convicted Sinner 

When I was in the second grade I had an experience I will never forget. Most of the time I was a pretty good kid during my grade school years, but on one particular day I was naughty. While we were having a bathroom break I snuck up behind one of my classmates as he stood at the urinal and pulled his pants down to his ankles. Thinking I had been very clever I ran out of the bathroom laughing, quite proud of myself for this neat trick.

Shortly after we were all back in the classroom, the teacher called us together for story time. But before she read the story she went into a very stern lecture about proper bathroom behavior. She told of the terrible consequences we would receive for misbehaving in the bathroom. As she went on and on she seemed to be spelling out my crime in vivid colors even though she didn’t mention my name or even tell the full extent of my horrendous deed. Within seconds I was in sheer terror. Somehow she knew what I had done and how evil I was. My life was over. I was surely headed for expulsion or the electric paddling machine (rumored but never seen) or worse. My heart nearly beat out of my chest as I endured this lecture for what seemed an eternity (in reality probably about five minutes).

I never did get in trouble for my misdeed, but I surely got the message. That was the first and last time I ever did such a thing. If ever there was a convicted second grade sinner I was surely one. The conviction came because my teacher had made it absolutely clear she knew exactly what I had done. Her lecture was not about the fact that we had all fallen short of school standards; it was spelled out with enough specifics and details that I got the point painfully – she was talking straight at me! 

Truth is not Legalism 

When Christians speak against specific sins today, it is often called legalistic or judgmental. This would be true if we focus on disputable practices not clearly condemned by the Scriptures. If I go around telling Christians that their cigarettes will surely send them to hell, I am being both judgmental and legalistic. The Bible does not condemn cigarettes by name. Paul did not put Marlboros in the same list as adultery, fornication, thefts, and drunkenness. If we were to suggest that all practices that harm our health will send us to hell we would need to condemn Ding Dong eaters, fudge bakers, and all couch potatoes.

But when we tell people that they cannot live sexually immoral lives and have a hope of heaven, we are not being judgmental. When we insist that you cannot be a liar and a Christian at the same time, this is not legalism. This is simply acknowledging what the Bible plainly states. “All liars” shall have their part in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8).

Not only is it OK to say these things; it is necessary. Apart from a strong moral stance in the church, the world will soon lose all moral sensitivity (which is exactly what has happened in the last generation). They will hear no morals from Hollywood. They will find no moral boundaries in their trashy novels and sit-coms. They must hear them from the church.

And yet in our desire to be religiously correct we are so often silent. We are quick to announce God’s love and yet strangely timid to declare the refrain of the heavenly beings around the throne: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” It is in the context of God’s fearful and awesome holiness that the love of Christ at Calvary shines the brightest. In the midst of our conviction and shame we hear the good news that all is not lost. Our Holy Father loves us and has provided for our forgiveness and justification. At the cross of Jesus “mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

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