Question: Christians frequently say things like, “I feel convicted by the Holy Spirit.” Does the Holy Spirit convict Christians, or is conviction the same as condemnation and judgment, and only done by God as Judge?
It would certainly be terrific in an ideal world if people always used perfectly precise words to express themselves—words such as “convict,” for example. I expect that in heaven all the communication confusion we experience in the fallen world will be clear up. Until then…
The word “convict” is sometimes taught to be a legal term of judgment and condemnation exclusively, and therefore not to be used to describe how the Holy Spirit interacts with believers. It is usually claimed in these circles that the word “convict” is never used in the Bible of the Holy Spirit’s interaction with believers.
“Convict” in the Bible
Speaking of the Holy Spirit, Jesus said:
John. 16:8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:… (ESV)
The NT Greek word behind the English translation is elegcho (pronounced, el-eng-ko). Its specific meaning is broad, depending upon the context. The Mounce Greek Dictionary defines elegcho and gives scriptural examples of its various uses:
“…to put to proof, to test; to convict, Jn. 8:46; Jas. 2:9; to refute, confute,
1 Cor. 14:24; Tit. 1:9; to detect, lay bare, expose, Jn. 3:20; Eph. 5:11, 13; to reprove, rebuke, Mt. 18:15; Lk. 3:19; 1 Tim. 5:20; to discipline, chastise, Heb. 12:5; Rev. 3:19; pass. to experience conviction, Jn. 3:20; 1 Cor. 14:24 ˘ rebuke; refute” —(Underlining is mine).
As the definition and variety of uses shows, it is incorrect to say that “convict” is strictly a legal term of condemnation and judgment. In fact, the apostle Paul uses the word elegcho (“conviction”) to describe how God can expose the secrets of an unbeliever’s heart who participates in a worship service:
1Cor. 14:24-25 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted (elegcho) by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you (ESV).
He is “convicted by all”—meaning the Holy Spirit working through the believers present in worship. This is not judgment; it is spiritual surgery!
For Christians to use “convict” in describing the corrective ministry of the Holy Spirit is neither incorrect nor unbiblical, unless it is used in the sense of condemnation.
Words do mean things, and improperly used words can lead to confusion. But we all “get it” when a believer says he is convicted by the Holy Spirit. Such “conviction” is how the Lord rebukes His children in love:
Heb. 12:5-6 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you (i.e., “convicts”; Gk.: elegcho), because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”