But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
~ 1 Corinthians 14:24, John 8:9
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
~ Luke 18:13
Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?
~ Acts 16:29-30
The Conviction of Sin, by Robert Murray M’Cheyne. 1837.
And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
~ John xvi. 8
When friends are about to part from one another, they are far kinder than ever they have been before. It was so with Jesus. He was going to part from His disciples, and never till now did His heart flow out toward them in so many streams of heavenly tenderness. Sorrow had filled their heart, and therefore divinest compassion filled His heart. “I tell you the truth, it is expedient for you that I go away.”
Surely it was expedient for Himself that He should go away. He had lived a life of weariness and painfulness, not having where to lay His head, and surely it was pleasant in His eyes that He was about to enter into His rest. He had lived in obscurity and poverty—He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; and now, surely, He might well look forward with joy to His return to that glory which He had with the Father before ever the world was, when all the angels of God worshipped Him; and yet He does not say: It is expedient for me that I go away. Surely that would have been comfort enough to His disciples. But no; He says: “It is expedient for you.” He forgets Himself altogether, and He thinks only of His little flock which He was leaving behind Him: “It is expedient for you that I go away.” 0 most generous of Saviours! He looked not on His own things, but on the things of others also. He knew that it is far more blessed to give than it is to receive.
The gift of the Spirit is the great argument by which He here persuades them that His going away would be expedient for them. Now, it is curious to remark that He had promised them the Spirit before, in the beginning of His discourse. In chapter 14:16-18, He says: “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” And again: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (Verse 26) In that passage He promises the Spirit for their own peculiar comfort and joy. He promises Him as a treasure which they, and they only, could receive: “For the world cannot receive Him, because it neither sees nor knows Him:” and yet, saith He, “He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” But in the passage before us the promise is quite different. He promises the Spirit here, not for themselves, but for the world—not as a peculiar treasure, to be locked up in their own bosoms, which they might brood over with a selfish joy, but as a blessed power to work, through their preaching, on the wicked world around them—not as a well springing up within their own bosoms unto everlasting life, but as rivers of living water flowing through them to water this dry and perishing world. He does not say: “When He is come He will fill your hearts with peace and joy to overflowing: but: “When He is come, He will convince the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” But a little before He had told them that the world would hate and persecute them: “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” (John 15:19) This was but poor comfort, when that very world was to be the field of their labours; but now He shows them what a blessed gift the Spirit would be; for He would work, through their preaching, upon the very hearts that hated and persecuted them: “He shall convince the world of sin. ” This has always been the case. In Acts 2 we are told that when the Spirit came on the apostles the crowd mocked them saying: “These men are full of new wine;” and yet, when Peter preached, the Spirit wrought through his preaching on the hearts of these very scoffers. They were pricked in their hearts, and cried: “Men and brethren, what must we do?” and the same day three thousand souls were converted. Again, the jailer at Philippi was evidently a hard, cruel man towards the apostles; for he thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks; and yet the Spirit opens his hard heart, and he is brought to Christ by the very apostles whom he hated. Just so it is, brethren, to this day. The world do not love the true ministers of Christ a whit better than they did. The world is the same world that it was in Christ’s day. That word has never yet been scored out of the Bible; “Whosoever will live godly in the world, must suffer persecution.” We expect, as Paul did, to be hated by the most who listen to us. We are quite sure, as Paul was, that the more abundantly we love you, most of you will love us the less; and yet, brethren, none of these things move us. Though cast down, we are not in despair; for we know that the Spirit is sent to convince the world; and we do not fear but some of you who are counting us an enemy, because we tell you the truth, may even this day, in the midst of all your hatred and cold indifference, be convinced of sin by the Spirit, and made to cry out: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
I. The first work of the Spirit is to convince of sin.
1. Who it is that convinces of sin: “He shall convince the world of sin, because they believe not in Me.” It is curious to remark, that wherever the Holy Ghost is spoken of in the Bible, He is spoken of in terms of gentleness and love. We often read of the wrath of God the Father, as in Romans 1: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” And we often read of the wrath of God the Son: “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way;” or, “Revealed from heaven taking vengeance.” But we nowhere read of the wrath of God the Holy Ghost.” He is compared to a dove, the gentlest of all creatures. He is warm and gentle as the breath: “Jesus breathed on them, and said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” He is gentle as the falling dew: “I will be as the dew unto Israel.” He is soft and gentle as oil; for He is called “The oil of gladness.” The fine oil wherewith the high priest was anointed was a type of the Spirit. He is gentle and refreshing as the springing well: “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life.” He is called “The Spirit of grace and of supplications.” He is nowhere called the Spirit of wrath. He is called the “Holy Ghost, which is the Comforter.” Nowhere is He called the Avenger. We are told that He groans within the heart of a believer, “helping his infirmities;” so that He greatly helps the believer in prayer. We are told also of the love of the Spirit—nowhere of the wrath of the Spirit. We are told of His being grieved: “Grieve not the Holy Spirit;” of His being resisted: “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost;” of His being quenched: “Quench not the Spirit.” But these are all marks of gentleness and love. Nowhere will you find one mark of anger or of vengeance attributed to Him; and yet, brethren, when this blessed Spirit begins His work of love, mark how He begins—He convinces of sin. Even He, all-wise, almighty, all-gentle and loving though He be, cannot persuade a poor sinful heart to embrace the Saviour, without first opening up His wounds, and convincing Him that He is lost.
Now brethren, I ask of you, Should not the faithful minister of Christ just do the very same? Ah! brethren, if the Spirit, whose very breath is all gentleness and love—whom Jesus hath sent into the world to bring men to eternal life—if He begins His work in every soul that is to be saved by convincing of sin, why should you blame the minister of Christ if he begins in the very same way? Why should you say that we are harsh, and cruel, and severe, when we begin to deal with your souls by convincing you of sin? “Am I become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” When the surgeon comes to cure a corrupted wound—when he tears off the vile bandages which unskillful hands had wrapped around it—when he lays open the deepest recesses of your wound, and shows you all its venom and its virulence—do you call him cruel? May not his hands be all the time the hands of gentleness and love? Or, when a house is all on fire—when the flames are bursting out from every window—when some courageous man ventures to alarm the sleeping inmates—bursts through the barred door tears aside the close-drawn curtains, and with eager hand shakes the sleeper—bids him awake and flee—a moment longer, and you may be lost—do you call him cruel? or do you say this messenger of mercy spoke too loud—too plain? Ah, no. “Skin for skin, all that a man hath will he give for his life. ” Why, then, brethren, will you blame the minister of Christ when he begins by convincing you of sin? Think you that the wound of sin is less venomous or deadly than a wound in the flesh? Think you the flames of hell are less hard to bear than the flames of earth? The very Spirit of love begins by convincing you of sin; and are we less the messengers of love because we begin by doing the same thing? Oh, then, do not say that we are become your enemy because we tell you the truth?
II. What is this conviction of sin? I would begin to show this by showing you what it is not.
1. It is not the mere smiting of the natural conscience. Although man be utterly fallen, yet God has left natural conscience behind in every heart, to speak for Him. Some men, by continual sinning, sear even the conscience as with a hot iron, so that it becomes dead and past feeling; but most men have so much natural conscience remaining, that they cannot commit open sin without their conscience smiting them. When a man commits murder or theft, no eye may have seen him, and yet conscience makes a coward of him. He trembles and is afraid—he feels that he has sinned, and he fears that God will take vengeance. Now, brethren, that is not the conviction of sin here spoken of—that is a natural work which takes place in every heart; but conviction of sin is a supernatural work of the Spirit of God. if you have had nothing more than the ordinary smiting of conscience, then you have never been convinced of sin.
2. It is not any impression upon the imagination. Sometimes, when men have committed great sin, they have awful impressions of God’s vengeance made upon their imaginations. In the nighttime they almost fancy they see the flames of hell burning beneath them; or they seem to hear doleful cries in their ears telling of coming woe; or they fancy they see the face of Jesus all clouded with anger; or they have terrible dreams, when they sleep, of coming vengeance. Now, this is not the conviction of sin which the Spirit gives. This is altogether a natural work upon the natural faculties, and not at all a supernatural work of the Spirit. If you have had nothing more than these imaginary terrors, you have had no work of the Spirit.
3. It is not a mere head knowledge of what the Bible says against sin. Many unconverted men read their Bibles, and have a clear knowledge that their case is laid down there. They are sensible men. They know very well that they are in sin, and they know just as well that the wages of sin is death. One man lives a swearer, and he reads the words, and understands them perfectly: “Swear not at all”—”The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.” Another man lives in the lusts of the flesh, and he reads the Bible, and understands these words perfectly: “No unclean person hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” Another man lives in habitual forgetfulness of God—never thinks of God from sunrise to sunset, and yet he reads: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God.” Now, in this way most unconverted men have a head knowledge of their sin, and of the wages of sin; yet, brethren, this is far from conviction of sin. This is a mere natural work in the head. Conviction of sin is a work upon the heart. If you have had nothing more than this head knowledge that you are Sinners, then you have never been convinced of sin.
4. Conviction of sin is not to feel the loathsomeness of sin. This is what a child of God feels. A child of God has seen the beauty and excellency of God, and therefore sin is loathsome in his eyes. But no unsaved person has seen the beauty and excellency of God; therefore, even the Spirit cannot make him feel the loathsomeness of sin. Just as when you leave a room that is brilliantly lighted, and go out into the darkness of the open air, the night looks very dark; so when a child of God has been within the veil—in the presence of his reconciled God—in full view of the Father of lights, dwelling in light inaccessible and full of glory—then, when he turns his eye inwards upon his own sinful bosom, sin appears very dark, very vile, and very loathsome. But an unconverted soul never has been in the presence of the reconciled God; and therefore, sin cannot appear dark and loathsome in his eyes. Just as when you have tasted something very sweet and pleasant, when you come to taste other things, they appear very insipid and disagreeable; so when a child of God has tasted and seen that God is gracious, the taste of sin in his own heart becomes very nauseous and loathsome to him. But an unconverted soul never tasted the sweetness of God’s love; he cannot, therefore, feel the vileness and loathsomeness of sin. This, then, is not the conviction of sin here spoken of.
What, then, is this conviction of sin? Ans. It is a just sense of the dreadfulness of sin. It is not a mere knowledge that we have many sins, and that God’s anger is revealed against them all; but it is a heartfeeling that we are under sin. Again: it is not a feeling of the loathsomesness of sin—that is felt only by the children of God; but it is a feeling of the dreadfulness of sin—of the dishonour it does to God, and of the wrath to which it exposes the soul. Oh, brethren! conviction of sin is no slight natural work upon the heart. There is a great difference between knowing that vinegar is sour, and actually tasting and feeling that it is sour. There is a great difference between knowing that fire will burn us, and actually feeling the pain of being burned. Just in the same way, there is all the difference in the world between knowing the dreadfulness of your sins and feeling the dreadfulness of your sins. It is all in vain that you read your Bibles and hear us preach, unless the Spirit use the words to give sense and feeling to your dead hearts. The plainest words will not awaken you as long as you are in a natural condition. If we could prove to you, with the plainness of arithmetic, that the wrath of God is abiding on you and your children, still you would sit unmoved—you would go away and forget it before you reached your own door. Ah, brethren! He that made your heart can alone impress your heart. It is the Spirit that convinceth of sin.
1. Learn the true power of the read and preached Word. It is but an instrument in the hand of God. It has no power of itself, except to produce natural impressions. It is a hammer—but God must break your hearts with it. It is a fire—but God must kindle up your bosoms with it. Without Him we may give you a knowledge of the dreadfulness of your condition, but He only can give you a just sense and feeling of the dreadfulness of your condition. The most powerful sermon in the world can make nothing more than a natural impression; but when God works through it, the feeblest word makes a supernatural impression. Many a poor sermon has been the means by which God hath converted a soul. Children of God, 0 that you would pray night and day for the lifting up of the arm of God!
2. Learn that conversion is not in your own power. It is the Spirit alone who convinces of sin, and He is a free agent. He is a sovereign Spirit, and has nowhere promised to work at the bidding of unconverted men. He hath many on whom He will have mercy; and whom He will He hardeneth. Perhaps you think you may take your fill of sin just now, and then come and repent, and be saved; but remember the Spirit is not at your bidding. He is not your servant. Many hope to be converted on their death-bed; and yet are not converted. If the Spirit be working with you now, do not grieve Him—do not resist Him—do not quench Him; for He may never come back to you again.
III. I come to the argument which the Spirit uses. There are two arguments by which the Spirit usually gives men a sense of the dreadfulness of sin.
1. The Law: “The law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ”—”Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” The sinner reads the law of the great God who made heaven and earth. The Spirit of God arouses his conscience to see that the law condemns every part of his life. The law bids him love God. His heart tells him he never loved God—never had a thought of regard toward God. The Spirit convinces him that God is a jealous God—that His honour is concerned to uphold the law, and destroy the sinner. The Spirit convinces him that God is a just God—that He can by no means clear the guilty. The Spirit convinces him that He is a true God—that He must fulfill all His threatenings: “Have I said it, and shall I not do it?” The sinner’s mouth is stopped, and he stands guilty before God.
2. The second argument is the Gospel: “Because they believe not on Jesus.” This is the strongest of all arguments, and therefore is chosen by Christ here. The sinner reads in the Word that “he that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life;” and the Spirit convinces him that he never believed on the Son of God—indeed, he does not know what it means. For the first time the conviction comes upon his heart: “He that believeth not the Son, shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” The more glorious and divine that Saviour is, the more is the Christless soul convinced that he is lost; for he feels that he is out of that Saviour. He sees plainly that Christ is an almighty ark riding over the deluge of God’s wrath—he sees how safe and happy the little company are that are gathered within; but this just makes him gnash his teeth in agony, for he is not within the ark, and the waves and billows are coming over him. He hears that Christ hath been stretching out the hands all the day to the chief of sinners, not willing that any should perish; but then he never cast himself into these arms, and now he feels that Christ may be laughing at his calamity, and mocking when his fear cometh. 0 yes, my friends! how often on the death-bed, when the natural fears of conscience are aided by the Spirit of God—how often, when we speak of Christ—His love- His atoning blood—the refuge to be found in Him—how safe and happy all are in Him—how often does the dying sinner turn it all away with the awful question: But am I in Christ? The more we tell of the Saviour, the more their agony increased; for they feel that that is the Saviour they have refused. Ah! what a meaning does that give to these words: “The Spirit convinceth of sin, because they believe not on Me.”
1. Now, my friends, there are many of you who know that you never believed on Jesus, and yet you are quite unmoved. You sit without any emotion—you eat your meals with appetite, and doubtless sleep sound at night. Do you wish to know the reason? You have never been convinced of sin. The Spirit hath never begun His work in your heart. Oh! if the Spirit of Jesus would come on your hearts like a mighty rushing wind, what a dreadful thought it would be to you this night, that you are lying out of Christ! You would lose your appetite for this world’s food—you would not be able to rest in your bed—you would not dare to live on in your sins. All your past sins would rise behind you like apparitions of evil. Wherever you went you would meet the word: “Without Christ, without hope, and without God in the world:” and if your worldly friends should try to hush your fears, and tell you of your decencies, and that you were not so bad as your neighbours, and that many might fear if you feared, ah! how you would thrust them away, and stop your ears, and cry: There is a city of refuge, to which I have never fled; therefore there must be a blood-avenger. There is an ark; therefore there must be a coming deluge. There is a Christ; therefore there must be a hell f or the Christless.
2. Some of you may be under conviction of sin—you feel the dreadfulness of being out of Christ, and you are very miserable. Now, (1) Be thankful for this work of the Spirit: “Flesh and blood hat not revealed it unto thee, but My Father.” God hath brought you into the wilderness just that He might allure you, and speak to your heart about Christ. This is the way He begins the work in every soul He saves. Nobody ever came to Christ but they were first convinced of sin. AU that are now in heaven began this way. Be thankful you are not dead like those around you. (2) Do not lose these convictions. Remember they are easily lost. Involve yourself over head and ears in business, and work ever on the Sabbath-day, and you will soon drive all away. Indulge a little in sensual pleasure—take a tittle diversion with companions, and you will soon be as happy and careless as they. If you love your soul, flee these things—do not stay—flee away from them. Read the books that keep up your anxiety—wait on the ministers that keep up that anxiety. Above all, cry to the Spirit, who alone was the author of it, that He would keep it up. Cry night and day that He may never let you rest out of Christ. Oh! would you sleep over hell? (3) Do not rest in these convictions. You are not saved yet. Many have come thus far and perished after all—many have been convinced, not converted—many lose their convictions, and wallow in sin again. “Remember Lot’s wife.” You are never safe till you are within the fold. Christ is the door. “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many shall seek to enter in and shall not be able.”