We rarely think of conviction as grace. We think of conviction as truth telling and grace as mercy giving. We act as though truth and grace are two different things. I rather think that any truth that is not full of grace is not truth at all. God is truth, and God is love. They exist in eternal interpenetrating unity in the Godhead and in each person of the Trinity. There is no separation, no dichotomy between truth and grace. Jesus came full of grace and truth. He can be full of both at one and the same time in only one way, they are the same thing.
Think of the traveling husband who is convicted of his desire to cheat on his spouse. That’s an act of grace meant to reveal the truth that his actions will not only displease God, but be in direct conflict with himself. That desire is beneath him. Conviction then, when received, is an elevation as much as a humiliation. It is an elevation of the human spirit above lowly desires to a plane of better being. We are more ourselves once we have been convicted than we were before.
God convicts. The Spirit in particular is pointed to in scripture as the active convicting voice. John 16:8 tells us the Spirit convicts the world of sin. Not just the believer, the world. This conviction removes us from the world of self-delusion according to 1 John 1:8-10. It is grace to be lifted out of self delusion. As C.H. Spurgeon put it “There can be no grace where there is no guilt.” The apostles did not shy from conviction either. Perhaps the clearest example is Paul’s lack of apology for conviction in 2 Cor 7:8-11:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it–I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while–yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you…
God intended it, Paul celebrated the result but did not revel in the process. Conviction. He regretted it at first, since his intention was never to harm, never to hurt, never to anger on purpose. Yet once he realized that the conviction did its work, he rejoiced in the repentance that it brought.
A few insights into the character of God from convicting grace:
- God sees conviction as an act of loving grace
- God is willing to cause sorrow through conviction for the sake of repentance
- God’s conviction is not a foil for grace, it is grace
How then should we preach? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Avoid both graceless truth and truth-less grace
When a sermon is all grace and leaves no space for conviction or admission of a discrepancy between God and the person in the pew it is not half right, it is all wrong. Even the statement “God is love” requires admission from the most honest of us that this is saying something unique. We are not love. We might occasionally love partially, but we are not love. God is. The person of God becomes the revealing mirror for our spiritual reality. Bonhoeffer called truthless grace “cheap grace.” Grace that costs us nothing is not truly grace. Remember the merciful moment in Les Miserables when the priest says, “with this silver I have bought your soul. Remember you have promised to be a new man.” That moment of grace was also a moment of truth. His soul needed bought. Jean Valjean stole to escape prison, the priest showed him stealing was prison–the prison of the old man. It was grace, but it was truth. It was grace that required repentance. There was no other right response.
When a sermon is all truth and in tone, word choice, illustrations, or content gives no significant space for the gracious love of God it is not true. It is actually false. Truth always has grace. Or it is not God’s truth. The pharisees traveled across the seas to make a convert, and turned him into “twice the son of hell” as a result of graceless theology. Son of hell language doesn’t sound like their gospel was a true gospel. Paul has a similar reaction to the thorns in his flesh. He felt they were preaching “some other gospel” not half of Christ’s gospel.
The angry preacher really has not received conviction as grace yet. The judgmental pastor has not received their own conviction as grace yet and sprays their self judgment on the pew. This is not just about what we preach, but how we preach. Do not yell conviction. Do not pound judgment. Ramp down when you speak convicting truths not up. Ramp up when you preach joyful celebration instead. We often get this backward as if our yelling does the convicting. No, the spirit does the convicting and often in a still small voice.
2. Be willing to preach toward grief
We need to see the costs of our sins, recognize the consequences of our actions, and be fully faced with the losses we are creating. When we sin, we always lose something. When we sin, someone else always loses something as well. Always. Even the most private and hidden sin has used energy, attention, and psychological resources that could have otherwise been redirected toward love. Help people see the fullest results of their sin. You are not judging, rather you are more likely speaking from experience. Seeing the consequences of sin is an act of grace. Without clearer recognition of the cost, we will not give up the practice.
Do not be overly troubled by angry or sorrowful responses. Remember in your seminary training when they taught you that one of the phases of grief’s recurring cycles is anger? Anger is often like the heavy manhole cover over the underlying sewer of emotions. What is underground cannot be dealt with while the cover lies heavily on top. But you cannot pretend the cover is not there. It is. If people respond with anger, recognize it for what it is. If you truly were not judgmental, but gracious, then an anger response may be a defense mechanism against the pain of grief or a defense against recognizing responsibility.
If people are deeply sorrowed do not feel you have done wrong. Deep sorrow may even endure for a time. Rather than pressing people too quickly past sorrow for sins, let them grieve them. It is not a sign of unwillingness to receive grace. It actually is grace. The memory of that sorrow may very well keep them from future sin.
Further, preach toward these things. Help people reach a moment of disorienting anger and name it for what it is. “You may be angry right now. I can understand that. I neither have a right to judge nor a desire to.” You may even encourage people to register their griefs. A journal of all the costs caused by a particular pattern of sin can help people reach the repentance they need.
Evangelistically, do not be duped into thinking people come to Christ without any recognition of their own failings. Without confession and repentance there is no “wiping out of sins” that Peter speaks of in Acts. From Leviticus to Revelation confession and repentance are the antidote to sin by the grace of God. If no one comes to Christ, you may not be telling them the truth. You might be offering them grace and thinking that is the truth.
3. Start preaching about the grace of conviction gracefully
I was teaching a masters class of spiritual formation a couple of years ago and realized the pastors under my care were struggling with turning toward listening prayer. Over and over in their journals I was reading of anxiety about God, fear of prayer, and a restless almost twitching desire to avoid listening prayer. iPads, emails, text messages, video games, compulsive eating–anything other than listening prayer sounded better. I finally decided to ask what this fear was connected to in class and discuss it openly. After all, it was nearly universal.
“I am afraid of what God will say” was the immediate response from one of the best students in the class. Around the room every pastor added their own version of an Amen to that statement. They were afraid of what God would say. We all fear God’s word I think. It is natural to fear the pain required for growth, to fear the sorrow caused by loss, to fear facing ourselves as we truly are.
If only we could fully believe that conviction was grace. If only we could fully grasp the idea that conviction for the sake of better character actually led to a better life not a worse one. As in all things it required faith. And as Wesley was told, we should preach faith until we have it, then preach it because we do. Do not wait to preach conviction as grace until you fully believe it. Preach your way into it. Take a small step toward believing it each time you articulate it. Admit your own struggle with it. But press toward it for the love of God.
If you fully believe conviction is a grace gift, your tone will change. Your gestures will change, your facial expressions will soften, and you will offer truth not as a hammer to drive home a point, but an open hand to extend a gift of love.
© 2013 David B Ward