Answer: The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin (John 16:8). To help us understand what the conviction of sin is, we can look at what it is not. First, it is not simply a guilty conscience or even shame over sin. Such feelings are naturally experienced by almost everyone. But this is not true conviction of sin.
Second, conviction of sin is not a sense of trepidation or a foreboding of divine punishment. These feelings, too, are commonly experienced in the hearts and minds of sinners. But, again, true conviction of sin is something different.
Third, conviction of sin is not merely knowledge of right and wrong; it is not an assent to Scripture’s teaching about sin. Many people read the Bible and are fully aware that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). They may know that “no immoral, impure or greedy person . . . has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:5). They may even agree that “the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:17). Yet, for all their knowledge, they continue to live in sin. They understand the consequences, but they’re far from being convicted of their sins.
The truth is, if we experience nothing more than a pang of conscience, anxiety at the thought of judgment, or an academic awareness of hell, then we have never truly known the conviction of sin. So, what is real conviction, the kind the Bible speaks of?
The word convict is a translation of 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 acts as a prosecuting attorney who exposes evil, reproves evildoers, and convinces people that they need a Savior.
To be convicted is to feel the sheer loathsomeness of sin. This happens when we’ve seen God’s beauty, His purity and holiness, and when we recognize that sin cannot dwell with Him (Psalm 5:4). 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).
To be convicted is to experience an utter dreadfulness of sin. Our attitude toward sin becomes that of Joseph who fled temptation, crying out, “How could I do this great evil and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9).
We are convicted when we become mindful of how much our sin dishonors God. When David was convicted by the Holy Spirit, he cried out, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). David saw his sin primarily as an affront to a holy God.
We are convicted when we become intensely aware of the wrath it exposes to our souls (Romans 1:18; Romans 2:5). When the Philippian jailer fell at the apostles’ feet and cried, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he was under conviction. He was certain that, without a Savior, he would die.
When the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sin, He represents the righteous judgment of God (Hebrews 4:12). There is no appeal of this verdict. The Holy Spirit not only convicts people of sin, but He also brings them to repentance (Acts 17:30; Luke 13:5). The Holy Spirit brings to light our relationship to God. The convicting power of the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to our sin and opens our hearts to receive His grace (Ephesians 2:8).
We praise the Lord for the conviction of sin. Without it, there could be no salvation. No one is saved apart from the Spirit’s convicting and regenerating work in the heart. The Bible teaches that all people are by nature rebels against God and hostile to Jesus Christ. They are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). 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.