What does it mean to be convicted by God? Christians today apply this word mainly in 2 ways, and one of them isn’t biblical.
“So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!”
Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:36-38)
When Christians today say they feel convicted by God, it is mainly being stated in 1 of 2 contexts. The conviction of sin or the conviction to do (or not do) something.
However, only one of these is being used in a correct manner. If it were a question of simple semantics, it would be harmless. But it does go deeper than that. Because if we see the second type of conviction as biblical conviction, we will use it as a defense for disobedience. Therefore, we need to understand what it truly means to be convicted by God.
True Biblical Conviction
To truly understand what it means to be convicted by God, as in all things, we need to base our understanding in the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). There we learn where biblical conviction comes from, its purpose, and examples of what it is to be convicted by God.
The Source of Being Convicted by God
As today’s verse tells us, when we repent of our sins and turn to God, we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He enters our hearts and resides with us. As we surrender to ministry of the Holy Spirit, He will empower us to holy living.
Jesus Himself tells us that the work of conviction belongs to the Holy Spirit (John 16:5-11). The Holy Spirit convicts “the world” towards repentance and faith in Christ. God’s call is for anyone who will repent (Ezekiel 18:23).
Christ is primarily talking about the conviction that leads to conversion by faith. Most of the descriptions of conviction in the Bible refer to this type of conviction. In a few examples, it refers to a conviction regarding the sins committed by followers of Christ.
Jesus describes (and then expounds on) what the conviction from the Holy Spirit looks like in this passage from John.
The Purpose in God’s Conviction
To be convicted by God through the work of the Holy Spirit looks like this according to Jesus in this passage:
First, there is a conviction of sin, specifically the sin of not believing in Christ. It is telling that Jesus focuses on this as a specific sin. Without faith in Christ, we stand condemned already with no hope in ourselves for salvation (John 3:18).
Second, there is a conviction of God’s righteousness, which has become available to us all through Christ’s work on the cross. When we repent and accept Christ for who He is and what He did, God counts that as righteousness for us (Romans 5:17).
Third, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of coming judgement, which is inevitable. In fact, the passage in John states that the ruler of this world has already been judged. However, our judgement does not come until we die (Hebrews 9:27-28), for God is giving us every opportunity in this lifetime to follow Christ (2 Peter 3:9).
Biblical Examples of Being Convicted by God
The Bible recounts – both in specific and general terms – what it is to be convicted by God. Here are just a few examples.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to “that severe letter” that he sent, which He was glad for because it produced godly sorrow, followed by the fruits of repentance in them (2 Corinthians 7:5-13).
Peter learns what it is to be convicted by God in one of his earliest encounters with Christ. He becomes overwhelmed by the miracle of the fish, when Jesus tells him to cast out his nets another time. Peter begs Christ to leave him for being “such a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).
The jailer keeping guard over Paul and Silas found out what it was to be convicted by God. Awakened by an earthquake that threw open all the doors in the prison, the jailer was about to kill himself when Paul called out to him.
The jailer immediately went to Paul and Silas asking how he could be saved. We know he wasn’t referring to being saved from Roman punishment, because the account goes on to tell us that he and his household were baptized (Acts 16:25-34).
And there is the example of today’s verse. The crowds to whom Peter was preaching wanted to know how to respond to God’s conviction. Peter responded by telling them to repent and turn from their sins.
These are all examples of biblical conviction. But as we said earlier, Christians today are using the term conviction in another way. And we should examine this to understand why it is unbiblical, and how it can actually be dangerous for our faith.
Where We Misuse Biblical Conviction
To be convicted by God, resulting in repentance, and turning to Christ for forgiveness of sins, is the biblical understanding for why we are convicted and its desired result.
But the other way we use the word conviction as believers is as it comes to certain actions.
When accepting our responsibilities as followers of Christ, this is ok; this is simply a semantic difference. In this way, we are using the word conviction to convey a meaning that we understand and accept God’s direction in a certain area.
You might hear a believer say that they felt convicted to begin a prayer journal, or to provide groceries to family going through hardship. This is simply following Christ in obedience to the two greatest commands.
The unbiblical use of the word conviction is when we refer to shirking a certain action. Specifically, when we say that we “don’t feel convicted” to do something.
Biblical Conviction vs. Personal Appeasement
When we see something that we know fits within the commands of Christ to His followers, for us to recognize that and decide that we won’t do it, is not about conviction. It’s actually about sin.
When we say this, it is a form of personal appeasement. It’s a way to comfort ourselves when we are denying Christ. For after all, if He didn’t convict us to do it, it must not be “our ministry”.
This isn’t to ignore that some believers are gifted in certain ways. But just because we have gifts God wishes us to apply, doesn’t mean we can focus only on certain things at the expense of dismissing other commands we don’t feel so comfortable obeying.
Think of it this way; if you say you don’t feel convicted, that says that you felt something. And if you felt something, you likely recognized that it was something that aligns with loving God or loving others.
Don’t wait on God to confirm what He has already told us all to do. To know the right thing to do and then not do it is sin. That’s not a clever attempt to convince; that comes straight from the Bible (James 4:8). Obedience to Christ is how we recognize true disciples.
The Cost of Personal Appeasement
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we have people who claim to follow Christ who don’t read the Bible. Because you can’t do what you don’t know. For those people, understand that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” isn’t just a jurisprudence concept. One day, we will all be held accountable for how we lived this life whether believer (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) or unbeliever (Revelation 20:11-15).
So the question becomes, if we are finding reasons not to do as Christ commanded, which camp do we fall in? This should be a sobering thought for any of us who have claimed to “not feel convicted” about taking a clearly biblical action towards loving God or loving others.
Christ Himself tells us that not everyone who claims to follow Him will enter His kingdom, but only those who actually do His will (Matthew 7:21).
Solving the Problem of Personal Appeasement
There are a few things I believe followers of Christ can do to avoid falling into the trap of personal appeasement that comes from saying they don’t feel convicted regarding a particular command of Christ.
For starters, if you’re having a true problem “feeling convicted” about obeying Christ’s commands, then it is serious business. It is worth asking yourself if you understand what following Christ really means and requires. If you suspect this is you in any way, I would recommend reading our entire Foundations series. These 5 articles are the basis for all the messages in our website. They are intended to answer foundational questions to our walk of faith in Jesus Christ.
If you feel confident that you are a follower of Christ, then address needs that align with Christ’s commands.
That does not mean if you see a need for more missionaries to Budapest, that constitutes a personal call to the mission field. There are many ways to address that need. The question is, how does God want you to address that need?
If you feel a specific pull in your heart towards a certain area, then lean into it. Pray about how God would have you respond. Search the scriptures to see where the Holy Spirit might lead. Lean on the trusted counsel of fellow believers. These are all examples of abiding with Christ. As you do them, Christ will reveal Himself to you and empower you to His ends, because you can’t do it without Him anyway (John 15:5).
More Bible verses illustrating what it means to be convicted by God:
Psalm 51:1-6; Hosea 6:1; Acts 26:15-18; Romans 2:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6; Hebrews 4:12; 1 John 1:9