Science in Christian Perspective



The Biblical Psychology of Conviction

From: JASA 7 (June 1955): 13-16.

Is there any human nature involved in conviction, any of personal experience or behavior? If so, there is psychology involved. However, there are those who insist that conviction is solely the work of the Holy Spirit and that there are no natural elements in it whatever. Thus we arrive at one of these problems of the meanings of things, which are involved in what is commonly known as semantics. What do we mean by Conviction!

There are two differing entities that are commonly called Conviction, in Christian circles. The first is the reproval of a man by the Holy Spirit. Since the wordreprove" is used in the Authorized version (John 16: 8-11) we will continue to use "reproval" for this first category of meaning. This reproval, we accept on the authority of the Word of God, but since He works thus in the midst of His own natural creation, we 6annot observe His working through our sense perception, nor study it by means of the scientific method. We can, however, find convincing clues here and there that He is working and that man does not stand alone.

The second category may be referred to as the State of Conviction. This is the mental, emotional, physiological and social condition into which a convicted person is thrown as the result of the reproval by the Holy Spirit, Such a State of Conviction comes to our notice particularly if it is prolonged, due to the resistance of the person involved. It is not God's will that conviction be prolonged "but that all should come to repentance" (II Pet. 3: 9), which is the next step after, conviction, if such step is chosen. Serious psychological difficulty may supervene, if reproval is resisted.

We need here to sharpen some contrasts and to set up some definitions. There is a tendency to confuse conviction and repentance. The State of Conviction is the human response to the reproving work of the Holy Spirit. Repentance, on the other hand, is a turning away from natural sin and a turning back to God, a turning which is not natural, but which is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Since the word "convict" is used but once in the Authorized Version, we need to go back to the Greek word "elangcho" for the full meaning of conviction. This verb is translated as to "reprove", "convict", 49convince" etc. Certain passages help to round out our appreciation of the concept. "All things that are reproved are made manifest by the Light." (Eph.

Paper presented at the Ninth Annual Conventbo,n of the American Scientific Affiliation, Harrisonburg, Virginia, August 24-27, 1954.

5: 13). Reproof is given for correction when we forsake the Way. (Prov. 15: 10) Whoever receives the reproofs of life is wise. (Prov. 15: 31, 32) The child of God is advised to turn (repent) at God's reproof and then the fulness of the Spirit is promised. (Prov. 1: 23) There is an intellectual side of conviction. "Which of you (Pharisees) convinceth Me of sin?" (John 8: 46) In Jude 15, we are told that the time will come when the Lord will convince all that are ungodly of their ungodly deeds. In Heb. 12: 7-9, we find that chastening is a form of reproof and it should not be disliked by the believer. The words of Christ convicted the Pharisees through their own conscience (John 8: 9) thus showing that God can use a natural mental function in His reproval. The one who does evil avoids the Light, lest his deeds be reproved. (John 3: 20). The scorner is the one who does not like to be reproved. (Prov. 15: 12)

Rebuke is a stronger word than reproof, although there are places where the concept of "reprove" has been translated as rebuke. Rebuke is given by the Spirit for iniquity or lawlessness. (II Pet. 2: 16). It does not necessarily involve correction, but merely the fixing of a serious charge. Jesus rebuked the devil (Mat. 17: 18) and unclean spirits are to be rebuked. (Mark 9: 35) The Day of Jacob's Trouble is called a Day of Rebuke in Il Kings 10: 3. Jesus rebuked inanimate nature in the form of wind at Mark 4: 39. Men rebuke each other in various Scripture passages and elders are given authority to rebuke rebellious Christians. However, it would seem that rebuke is never to be used lightly, since the archangel in Jude 9 neglects to rebuke Satan, who was originally his equal, but said "The Lord rebuke thee". A rebuke may be viewed as a reproof in which the penalty is so heavy that correction in this life is impossible. It is for the brutish and for those who resist and rebel against reproval. The one who hates reproof shall die. (Prov. 12: 1). When a man hardens his neck against it, he will be destroyed. (Prov. 29: 11) A believer who thus rebels may even sin a sin unto death, not for his correction, but in order to stop his sinning.

The concept of "reproach" may be viewed as rebuke on a social plane. God does not seem to reproach any of his creatures, for reproach is a more serious blame than rebuke. However, He said that He gave Israel over to reproach, (Isa. 43: 28) but the reproach was to come from people. job complained that he had been reproached ten times. (job 19:2). We hear of the reproach of men (Ps. 22: 6; Isa. 51 : 7), re proach by the enemies is mentioned at Ps. 102: 8; Ps. 31: 11, while a reproach to the neighbors is found at Ps. 44: 34. "Sin is a reproach to any people" (Prov. 14: 34) takes on new meaning in the light of these passages. As a Man, Christ was reproached and even cursed by other men. In Hebrews and I Peter, believers are told that they must expect to bear likewise the reproach of Christ.

It is very necessary to clear up the confusion about the concept of "accusation". Accusation is a strong word, since it is not corrective but rather condemnatory. A railing accusation' amounts almost to cursing. God Himself does not accuse sinners (John 8: 11). Jesus did not even accuse the Pharisees (John 5: 45) and even at the judgment, it will be the Law of Moses that will accuse them. Even angels do not bring railing accusation against Satan. (Jude 9) Accusing people is really Satan's work and his particular target is the child of God. He accuses the brethren day and night. (Rev. 12: 10). His accusation is not redemptive, but is an attempt to bring them into his own lost estate. The devil's accusation is an evil parody on the work of the Holy Spirit. Even Jesus was accused, as we learn in Mat. 27: 37, and here we see that an accusation was also a legal term, used against the condemned criminal. An accusation may involve nothing but imagined or trumped up offenses and such an accusation may bring neither response nor assent to the accused. When men accuse others they are doing the work of Satan. Strangely enough, it is our inherent, God-given mental function of conscience that is used for an accusation. Rom. 2: 15 tells us that the conscience either accuses or excuses, not only others, but ourselves. Thus we see that Satan may use the con-

science to accuse us of sin. But God may use the conscience too, in order to bring His reproof. (John 8: 9). The mental consequence of Satan's accusation may be some form of fear or anxiety, not the fear of Gc~, but rather the fear of outward circumstances. Do these accusations and anxieties enter into the State of Conviction? If so, then Satan might be playing a part in it. But let us change for a moment from Bible terms to the psychological pattern of our day. Is there anything destructive involved in the State of Conviction? If so, then the Destroyer is doubtless present.

What about the fears and anxieties that may accompany the State of Conviction? They may be classified as follows:

  • II. Manifest Anxieties: in which the fear is conscious and the object may be known.
  • There are also two kinds of sorrow and either one may be present in the State of Conviction. The first is godly sorrow (II Cor. 7: 9, 10) which is the characteristic consequence of the reproval of the Holy Spirit. The second is the sorrow of the world that bringeth death. This latter is remorse and, as suggested, it may bring suicide. Judas is the Scriptural example.

    We are here considering the psychology involved in the State of Conviction. In considering the participants, let us first mention the convicted person. He is not a robot, being forced into Salvation, but the outcome of conviction depends upon his own free choice, however much this choice is a part of God's own sovereignty. We will not here enter into the theological problem about God's sovereignty.

    The Second Person involved in Conviction is the Lord the Spirit. All things are done under His supervision, whether it be mediated through natural mechanisms or not.

    There is a destructive factor working in all events where men are being led to the Lord. Read the sixteenth Chapter of Matthew and note how quickly the destroyer goes into action after Peter makes his own famous profession. Jonathan Edwards recognized this destructive factor so clearly that he gave its presence as one of the sure signs of true revival. Perhaps a hint of this destructive factor is given at the end of that key passage on conviction, John 16: 8-11. God permits Satan's work, we know not why, but He limits it, uses it for his own purposes, and gives Rom. 8: 28 to assure the believer.

    What are the things that happen in the convicted personality? The State of Conviction is "not a universal phenomenon" in human nature. It may occur and recur in the life of a Christian. It must occur before and it may occur after conversion. The Holy Spirit works through the agency of the Word, which must be heard by the person who is to be convicted. The person realizes consciously the manifest presence of God. This is an unpleasant experience. "Woe is me" mourned Isaiah. He felt undone (Isa. 6: 5). In other words, he feels not only insecure in his environment, but inadequate in himself. The same passage shows that he also recognizes his sin as a whole, and not as an isolated act. In Acts 2: 37, the first Christian converts were "Pricked in their heart." This sounds as though the conscience were used to mediate conviction, as is also suggested in Rom. 9:1. The convicted person tends deeply to blame the self as Job did in Job 42:6.

    The State of Conviction is an individual experience. A sinner nearby may not be convicted at all. It was the righteous job who experienced conviction and not his would-be friends. Conviction involves the intellect, the emotions, the will, the consciousness, and in case of resistance, the reproval may be repressed into the Unconscious and cause trouble there. This may explain what happened in people who experienced the "jerks" in the Cumberland Revival. The choice of the convicted person may be expressed in two alternatives, either failure to turn at His reproof or turning to God, which terminates the State of Conviction through repentance.

    The convicted man who refuses to face God with his sin is thus made susceptible to all kinds of destructive influence. This may be viewed as a form of intra-aggression: man working against his own best welfare and unconsciously bringing punishment upon himself. The destructive forces within the personality involve the emergency emotions of fear and anger. Some form of fear is the primary of the two and conviction seems commonly to begin with fear. One may wonder whether this initial fear and anxiety may be occasioned by Satan's accusation, "for God hath not given us the spirit of fear" and we have seen how the effective work of reproval in conviction brings "godly sorrow" rather than fear. Wherever the fear came from, we know that God is able to use it effectively in bringing souls to Himself.

    If the convicted person runs away from God's reproof, he may encounter a number of maladjustments. Since it is natural to avoid the reproof, the State of Conviction commonly begins with anxiety which is guilt-tinged. At any point he may return to normal by seeking Christ. However if anxiety is prolonged there may occur a number of tension-reducing devices, which may be in the nature of adjustment mechanisms, neurosis or psychoses. The person thus has less tension, but his adjustment is inadequate. The type of maladjustment he acquires depends upon his underlying personality. Extroverts tend to acquire one form and introverts another. The secular profession recognizes these sequences, but it says that the original anxiety arises from frustration, due to the thwarting of inner urges. That the frustration may be ethical and spiritual has not occurred to them.

    The popular belief that "religion will drive you crazy" has its basis in these unfavorable results of man's resistance to reproval of God. However, the people who acquire such maladjustments have merely been convicted and have never come through to repent ance or conversion. A true experience with Christ does not maladjust.

    The one who is ordained to Salvation or repentance, turns resolutely and faces Christ with his guilt. When he does so, the fear element melts away and is replaced with godly sorrow with its deer, distress. It is at this point that the person needs spiritual and Scriptural help, so that the joy of Salvation returns. Frequently one encounters two opposite types of trouble here: the one who refuses to forgive himself for what God has forgiven, and the one who denies all guilt and projects it upon others.

    In the other days, a man named M. was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital in the wee small hours of a Monday morning. There were a number of signs that the inner organs of his body were not working rightly' but his complaints far outweighed his pathology. The doctors couldn't pin an exact diagnosis upon him. So they gave him phenobarbital, a nerve quieter, and looked into their books to figure it out. If they bad but noticed, all his trouble could have been summed up as a disturbance of the sympathetic nervous system, an event which could have been the result of an emotional upset. These things were known at that time, but they were not accepted by the average practicing physician. To them, the symptoms were either physical or they were all imagination. In fact, the new word "psychosomatic" was not even coined until the following year.

    In the meantime, a Bible-believing pastor came to me and thus I learned the, cause. Mr. M. had listened to his Gospel message that Sunday evening before his midnight ride in the ambulance. He had left the church much convicted, but still resisting all entreaties to accept Christ. The preacher had the theory that Mr. M's disease was nothing but the physical effects of the inward disturbance of conviction. I agreed that his theory could be correct. He asked about the ethics of going to hospital to minister to his parishioner his spiritual need. He was told that he had a right to visit a parishioner in a hospital, when he knew of his spiritual need. The pastor went to the hospital, led the patient to Christ, and his symptoms promptly disappeared. His physicians never knew what happened. One of them complained, "It beats me how you can give a patient phenobarbital and he gets well before you can diagnose him."

    A student in a missionary training school was struggling against the lust of the flesh, although he seemed to be deeply spiritual. Suddenly he committed an act of exhibitionism, of which he had thought himself incapable. Sudden fear swept over him, he knew enough of Christian things to turn immediately to the Lord in repentance, and then made restitution to the injured party. Within minutes after his sin (which was also a crime that could carry a jail sentence) he was seeking the Lord more sincerely than ever before in his life. His fear left him and he was only filled with deep distress and godly sorrow that he should have thus offended the Lord. The distress could even be traced in his facial expression. All he needed then was the spiritual help to be found in I John 1: 9 and related texts. This human help was given in the hope that the Lord the Spirit would use His written Word to guide him. Indeed that is what actually happened, and before long a grateful smile curled over his lips and the joy of Salvation was restored. From that moment he began praising the Lord and living on a higher plane of Christian experience than ever before. Ever since then the testimony, not only of his words but of his life has been supreme. Fortunately, and by the Lord's own mercy, there were only three people who knew of his deed, and they are marveling over the power that has come into his life. The, Word describes what happened to him in Prov. 1: 23:

    "Turn you at My reproof: behold, I will pour out My Spirit unto you, 1 will make known My words unto you."

    Thus we see that there is such an entity as the State of Conviction, which is produced in the personalities of men who are reproved by the Holy Spirit. This State of Conviction is characterized by an inner disturbance of a psycliologic nature and it may lead to serious maladjustment in the case of those who resist His reproof. Prolonged conviction is occasioned by resisting Him. This is neither a normal state, nor is it the will of God, since He wishes that all should be brought to repentance, but He forces repentance upon no one. Not all who resist are brought into a state of psychosis, but they cannot then be spiritually normal, even though they be adjusted to their environment in the secular sense. Repentance or conversion bring joy, not psychosis nor any maladjustment.

    Godly sorrow is the open door from conviction into repentance, but full repentance has not arrived until the convicted one has turned to God from sin.