The Convicting Work of the Spirit -- Part One

The convicting and revealing ministry of the Spirit


Christ is God’s mystery. No man could have conceived of a plan whereby the Creator of the universe should restore man and the universe by coming to earth as a human baby; by being born and growing through the stages of childhood to manhood – and ultimately being put to death and then rising in three days to return to glory as the eternal God-man. The entire divine plan is amystery that had to be revealed in order for it to be comprehended. Without this revealing, there is no understanding and no benefit.

When we speak of ‘Christ revealed,’ there are four revelations described in Scripture: First, is therevelation of Christ on earth as the Son of God; God incarnate. Scripture says the Son of God was revealed in the flesh (1 Tim 3:16; Rom 1:3-4). Second, is the revelation of God’s eternal mystery; His plan of salvation through Messiah described above. Christ brought this plan to light; by His Person and work and message, He revealed God’s mysterious plan – namely that by Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, God would save the elect and indwell them by His Spirit (Rom 16:25-26; 2 Tim 1:8-10). Third, Christ will be revealed at His second coming as the Lord of Glory. The last view the world had of Christ was a crucified man perishing in humiliation and abject weakness. The next view the world will have of Christ is when He is revealed in His majesty; it will be so shocking as to instill maximum terror; for Christ will return as Judge (Rev 6:15-17; 2 Thess 1:7-10). Fourth, there is a final kind of revelation of Christ which personal, intimate, and salvific. This is the revelation of Christ to the soul of man by means of the Holy Spirit’s illuminating power. Though personal, it is a revelation none the less. Scripture states that the power necessary to produce saving faith in the dead sinner is of the same order of magnitude as the power exerted when Christ was raised from the dead! (Eph 1:19). The Holy Spirit grants the power to believe in accordance with the revelation of Christ to the soul (Gal 1:16; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Jn 6:44).

Man’s heart and understanding are as black as a starless night. Thus the word revelation is appropriate to describe God’s saving activity. The doctrines of God’s sovereign grace make sense only when man’s helpless soul-darkened condition is set forth.

Regarding divine initiative in man’s salvation, God carefully chose three metaphors for salvation. Each describes activity from outside the individual. They are creation, birth, and resurrection. In each case the action takes place by initiative from the outside without the ability of the individual to initiate the act or to cooperate.

If the above were not true, salvation would not be all of grace. If the above were not true, salvation would not be of God but would be under man’s command. If the above were not true, salvation would be a cooperative act between God and man deserving of shared credit. But God stresses that that way in which He saves eliminates any possibility of human boasting (1 Cor 1:26-31).

Every genuine believer can testify -- God sought me when I was helpless, spiritually dead, blind, self-willed, morally defiled, and naked before Him.

God’s grace does not cancel out human responsibility; but human responsibility is not a measure of ability. We preach that the sinner is “dead” by reason of sin, and at the same time we plead with him to come to Christ. We do so knowing that he will only come to Christ when the Spirit convicts him of sin and reveals Christ to him.

Our study is vital – for WHO God is – is necessarily joined to HOW He saves. The Holy Spirit’s role in man’s salvation focuses upon how the work of the Redeemer is applied to the soul of the sinner.

Whenever the Church has wandered from the Scriptural doctrines of sovereign grace there has always been a form of humanism that rushes in to fill the vacuum – man having a hand in saving himself is the result of God’s grace perverted or neglected.

The purity of the Gospel is of extreme importance because it alone is the power of God unto salvation, and the true basis of Christian unity. As Charles Hodge points out: No more soul-destroying doctrine could well be devised than the doctrine that sinners can regenerate themselves, and repent and believe just when they please. . . As it is a truth both of Scripture and of experience that the un-renewed man can do nothing of himself to secure his salvation, it is essential that he should be brought to a practical conviction of that truth. When thus convicted, and not before, he seeks help from the only source whence it can be obtained” (Charles Hodge,Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids 1970, Vol. 2, p. 277).

I. The Convicting Work of the Holy Spirit

The Father and the Son send the Spirit

The Lord sends His Holy Spirit to awaken sinners to their sinful condition and desperate need of Christ. The awakening begins with the Spirit convicting the sinner of transgression of God’s law, and of unbelief in Christ.

John 16:8-11 – “convict is a legal term. The Holy Spirit is sent out to gain a conviction – a verdict of guilty. (EX. In the recent Bay area trial 1000’s of hours were expended and millions of dollars spent to gain a verdict in the Scott Peterson murder case – buy a guilty verdict was finally gained.)

In the instance of the unbelieving sinner, the Holy Spirit accuses of sin and brings the individual to the point of inescapable guilt before God. With that consciousness of guilt comes a sense of shame and helplessness.

The Spirit is a “prosecuting attorney” who presents God’s testimony and case against humanity. His convicting work fixes in the sinner’s mind an inescapable awareness of sin without excuse, blame, alibi, or possibility of dismissal. (The essence of sin is unbelief; thus sin is the repudiation of Christ’s message and mission.)

The Holy Spirit sets forth God’s absolute standard of righteousness in such a way that the gulf, ormoral gap, between God and sinful man is enforced. This is the first step necessary in preparing the sinner for salvation – he must be convinced that a divine Mediator is absolutely necessary tobridge the gap between a holy God and sinful man.

When human sin is confronted by divine righteousness judgment is the result. Mankind’s satanically inspired rebellion was judged at the cross of Christ (NIV Commentary).


The Spirit uses God’s law as a ‘tutor’

We need a tutor especially for lessons we are slow to learn. The law goes to work showing the sinner that his best efforts, resolve, and religious activities cannot commend him to God. (EX. Heaven will not receive your works any more than Walmart will take monopoly money; for God is NOT like us.)

The law tutors the sinner – it shows the sinner that life cannot come by means of the law; life must come by Another; for the law came with a curse. Those who are of the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10; James 2:10-11). The whole human race is shut up under disobedience (Gal 3:23; Rom 11:32).

We need the law to tutor us because its lessons go against our natural logic and reason (Rom 10:1-4). The law is God’s ‘star witness’ which shows man the humanly unbridgeable gap between God’s character and the sinner’s character (Rom 3:10-18).

Thus the law teaches that by reason of transgressions and real legal guilt before God, the natural man is separated and alienated from the life of God. The law teaches that the sinner iscondemned before God and liable to His wrath and judgment. The law teaches the sinner that he is helpless to save himself or do anything to commend himself to God; and that he deserves to be eternally miserable in a state of damnation.

We must remember all along the way that it is the grace of God to make the sinner feel his burden of sin! In our ‘feel good’ culture it’s easy to forget that God loves people by first making them sensible of their ruin by sin.

The Spirit’s uses God’s Law to gain a conviction

The Spirit knows precisely how to secure a guilty verdict. He prepares the sinner by the testimony of God’s law. The Word of God is like a sword in the Spirit’s hand. He pokes it into the recesses of the soul where stubborn unbelief, self-will, pride, and love of sin are lodged. It’s all to conquer the sinner and make him or her willing to embrace the glorious offer of God’s covenant of grace in Christ. Only then will the sinner be translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Beauties of Boston, Christian Focus Pub., pp. 575-576).

So the law in the hands of the Spirit pronounces the sinner guilty. When the prepared sinnerbelieves the testimony of the law in his own case, there is an echo of the voice of the law in his own heart – it is the guilty verdict of Romans 3:19 that is applied to self.

Under the Spirit’s conviction, the awakened sinner discovers for the first time who he is in God’s sight – thus he believes that his heart and life are sinful and displeasing to God; hateful in God’s sight according to the testimony of Scripture. And that his heart is filled with mischief and iniquity and that all his ‘righteousness’ is as filthy rags -- Jer 17:9 (ibid., pp. 588-589).

The Spirit removes trust in self-righteousness 

Every sinner trusts something to protect himself from God. In order to be saved, a man must be totally divested of his false hope. When the Holy Spirit convicts, He unravels the sinner’s imagined covering. He does something the sinner cannot stand – the Spirit strips the sinner of all righteousness.

This distressing procedure taken by the Spirit is vital; for small conviction of sin produces but slight views of Christ’s blood and merits. Christ is willing to forgive, but it can never be in combination with the sinner’s works.

Not one speck of self-improvement is acceptable to heaven. Grace cannot be mixed with works. You see no one really believes until he is an undone sinner. The hardest thing in the world is to take Christ alone for righteousness.

“Be merciful to me the sinner” is the hardest prayer in the world. To confess Christ from the heart is beyond the power of flesh and blood. Men would rather do anything than be justified by Christ’s blood and righteousness alone and owe all to Him (Wilcox, Christ is All, pp. 14-20; 23-26).

The Gospel is commonly misunderstood as a divine scheme to make up for man’s deficiencies; but that is still to make man a partner with God in salvation. No, the Gospel is addressed to those who are far from righteousness. It is aimed at the poor, miserable, blind, naked; those with nothing to offer God but their sin.

Christ came to call sinners to repentance; this is why the true Gospel offends so many hearers. It is because the Gospel levels all mankind before the law and the cross. It puts all on the level of society’s outcasts. Thus the Gospel is not a bargain God proposes upon certain terms of acceptance; the Gospel is the message of reconciliation indiscriminately given to ruined mankind (Haldane, Revelation of God’s Righteousness,

pp. 23-24).

The Spirit brings the sinner to a place of being ‘undone’ 

The law shines in and exposes his lust and corruptions, and a nature dead in transgressions and sin (Eph 2:1). The convicted sinner owns the verdict of the law in his own case. He regards himself as in bondage, unable to change himself. “Who can bring clean out of unclean?” (Job 14:4).

When the tutor has done his work, the sinner comes face to face with his utter inability to recover himself. What resolutions and personal reformations he trusted before are now seen as worthless chaff blowing in the wind. He sees he cannot work his way out of condemnation or commend himself to God or rid himself of guilt any more than he can drain the ocean.

No exertion, suffering, or remorse can remove the curse of the law. (EX. There is no ‘work-probation’ program to offset the sentence). He can’t change his own heart. He is helpless (Rom 5:6); he is legally, and morally dead in the sight of God – Jer 13:23. He can’t plant his feet and walk against the current of his nature – doing what God requires – Romans 8:5-8 (ibid., p. 590).

He despairs of salvation coming from his own activity or decision. He lives with terror and fear of God’s wrath. The Spirit has used the law to strike a final death blow to any hope of salvation through self-help.

Now this awakened condition or ‘spirit of bondage’ produced by the tutoring work of God’s law is not a condition God requires for salvation. But is a necessary (in one degree or another) as the preparatory step taken by the Spirit without which men will simply not run to the privilege of free access in Christ (ibid.).

Without full conviction by the Spirit, men will trust religious effort instead of Christ alone. 

If the sinner returns to a place of false confidence in something he can do – it will temporarily or permanently stand in the way of trusting Christ’s blood alone.

Some of the most common things trusted that come short of saving faith are:

1.) an outward profession of faith, “I have accepted Jesus,” 2.) personal reformation of one’s life, “I don’t do this sin anymore,” 3.) a confession of Christian orthodoxy, “I believe the Bible.” But if a person builds his faith on any of these three instead of Christ’s blood and righteousness he is not yet savingly united to Christ.

When the Spirit is bringing His convicting work to completion, He will cut off any attempts of the person to consider himself a ‘good Christian’ before he has been condemned by the law and made to feel his utter need to lay hold of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

So many today rest in convictions; “this is what I believe. . .” But they do not give evidence in their wills and in their affections of marveling in God’s distinguishing love – they have come short of saving faith.

One must have a “deadly wound” so to speak. Without that wound the sinner won’t understand the following: he must be damned unless covered by the righteousness of Christ; Christ’s nature must be worked in him in obedience and ongoing repentance. There is a huge danger of resting in convictions without spiritual life, love, fellowship with God in Christ and growth in the knowledge of self and Christ.

Only the saved have had their eyes enlightened to understand the full and complete satisfaction made by the Son of God satisfying divine justice for all who believe. They are enabled to applythe work of Christ to their own hearts – they have the personal testimony of the blood of Christ and the washing of the Spirit (Morgan, The Life and Times of Howell Harris, pp. 43; 74-78).

There is a great danger of coming short of saving faith by resting upon any superficial idea or impression of religion (and concluding by such that one is saved). A radical change of heart is needed that can only be produced by the Spirit of God. It is known as regeneration, or the new birth. Only regeneration can grant saving faith whereby the sinner is united to Christ; becoming one spirit with Him. By this union the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection become the possession of the believer and from that moment on he is able to enjoy God forever (ibid., pp. 257-258).

(See Part Two for the Spirit’s work of revelation.)