Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

The conviction of sin is one of the first works of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. It is vital to salvation. There can be no coming to God, there can be no fellowship and communion with God, unless there is first of all conviction of sin. We need to pray for that work of the Holy Spirit in us.

The conviction of sin is also indispensable for our progress in the life of sanctification. We have our sinful nature with us until the day of our death. Deep within that sinful nature resides the potential for all kinds of sins. The potential for sin in our sinful nature is an awful power within us. It is possible for any and every child of God to fall into the most heinous of sins.

We know that from the fearful examples of the lives of the saints recorded in the Scriptures. We remember Noah, who became drunk shortly after God’s gracious salvation of Noah and his family in the ark. We think of David, the man after God’s own heart. Who would dare to compare himself with godly David? What deep and holy sentiments arose from his heart when he wrote the Psalms! Yet David could fall into the terrible sins of adultery and murder. After David committed these terrible sins he remained impenitent for almost a year. He was not convicted of sin and he lived before God’s people as a hypocrite. God had to come to David through the prophet Nathan, who pointed the accusing finger saying: “Thou art the man.” Only then was David humbled in his sin.

We must also remember the fearful fall of Peter. Peter was one of the greatest of the Lord’s disciples. It was Peter who made the mighty confession concerning Jesus: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yet Peter had a proud and sinful nature. He needed to be humbled under the mighty hand of God and through the sifting of Satan. In an hour of weakness Peter fell miserably. At the very time when the Lord was being tried and condemned by wicked men to be crucified, Peter was in the courtyard outside denying any knowledge of or association with the Lord. He was ashamed of the Lord, the very Lord who at the time was suffering in deep humility and being prepared to offer the great sacrifice for sin on the cross. After Peter committed this awful sin the Lord looked on him in deep sorrow, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.

We ought not to boast in ourselves, imagining that we are better than the great saints of God whose lives are recorded in the Scriptures. From their falls we ought to learn the power of sin and the shameful consequences of sin. The Canons of Dordt, in the very section in which they set forth the great truth of the preservation of the saints, speak of the real potential for the saints of God to fall grievously into sin, and of the dreadful consequences of such falls. Although the weakness of the flesh cannot prevail against the power of God, who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace, yet converts are not always so influenced and actuated by the Spirit of God, as not in some particular instances sinfully to deviate from the guidance of divine grace, so as to be seduced by, and comply with the lusts of the flesh; they must, therefore, be constant in watching and prayer, that they be not led into temptation. When these are neglected, they are not only liable to be drawn into great and heinous sins, by Satan, the world and the flesh, but sometimes by the righteous permission of God actually fall into these evils. This, the lamentable fall of David, Peter, and other saints described in Holy Scripture, demonstrates. By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their conscience, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor, for a time, until on their returning into the right way of repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them (Canons V, 4, 5). This is an excellent section of our Canons, packed with sound, practical, biblical advice. We do well to read this statement over many times, paying careful attention to every word.

True conviction of sin must be, distinguished from that which is merely superficial. Even the natural man can at times become fearful about his sin. God has given to every man a conscience which accuses him continually concerning the sins that he commits. The natural man knows God’s judgment of sin. There are times when he is terrified by the thought of this judgment. Such terror might even keep him from openly committing certain gross sins. Such a conviction of sin is not however according to the grace of God.

The natural man will not be convinced of the sinfulness of sin. His heart is hardened in sin. He does not regard sin as it is against the holy God. He has no true sorrow of sin in his heart. He seeks vainly to escape the judgment and consequences of sin. He might be terribly sorry over his sin because of the shame and misery that he suffers for it already in this life. This sorrow may even cause him to weep bitterly, as Esau did when he lost the birthright blessing. But such sorrow does not lead him to repentance. There is no love of God in his heart. He tries very hard to silence the condemnation of God in his conscience. He foolishly imagines that he can do his sin in secret and that there is no God of judgment. When he is found out in his sin he is only filled with hatred against God.

God sovereignly hardens the heart of the wicked man. As sin develops in his heart and life he becomes more and more brazen and open about his sin. He proudly imagines that he can sin as he pleases. The Bible tells us that in all of this process God gives the wicked man over to the wickedness of his own sin and the vile affections of his corrupt nature until God in righteous judgment brings the wicked man down to destruction and everlasting hell.

God in His great mercy has saved us from the terrible judgment of sin through the perfect sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on the cross. He has delivered us from the guilt of sin and imputed to us the perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus. He also by His Holy Spirit delivers us from the power and corruption of sin in our depraved nature and from the great power of the temptation of the devil and this wicked world. What a tremendous blessing this is! He saves us from the destruction and condemnation of our own dreadful sinful nature. He does this through the convicting work of His Holy Spirit.

Even as regenerated children of God we must be careful in regard to the conviction of sin. Our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked. We too often minimize the awfulness of sin in our life. We are terrified when we hear of the fall of a brother and when we see the shame and judgment that follows sin. We must think about our own sinful nature and the very real possibility of falling ourselves into great and shameful sin.

We need to realize however that conviction of sin must run deeper than that. Because of our deceitful heart we too can become accustomed to sin. We can come up with all kinds of reasons for justifying our own sin, and for minimizing our own sin in our minds even while we severely condemn the sin of others. Through repeatedly giving ourselves over to a certain sin in our life we can lose a sense of its terrible seriousness. We can easily imagine that, as long as our sin does not break forth in outward deeds of wickedness, we are not as bad as others. We can deceive ourselves into believing that as long as no one sees the evil thoughts of our heart we are pretty good. We can sometimes imagine that even God does not know the secrets of our hearts.

We need to be convinced again and again of the fearful truth that God judges our hearts. He that is content to allow sinful desires and thoughts to occupy his heart and mind must realize that God judges his heart. Such a man is living a very dangerous life as far as sin is concerned. When we allow such sins to continue in our hearts, it may become necessary for God to remove for a time His restraining grace from us and permit us to fall into open and gross sin. In this way the Lord must at times humble us and teach us the awfulness of our sinful nature. This can be a very fearful and painful experience, even though the Lord does this for our good.

True conviction of sin comes through the mighty and gracious operation of the Spirit of God in our hearts. It begins with a profound consciousness of the heinous character of sin. The chief reason why sin is so terrible is that it is an offense against the Holy majesty of God. We have not yet been truly convicted of the sinfulness of our sin until we have understood something of this. True conviction of sin is part of love for God. It involves deep sorrow over having offended the God who created us and redeemed us. We are truly sorry for our sin only when we realize how terribly we have grieved the Holy Spirit of God by our sin. Sin separates us from God and interrupts the consciousness of His love and covenant fellowship.

Genuine conviction of sin can come only through the knowledge of our total depravity. Conviction of sin must go much deeper than sorrow over a specific sinful deed that we have done. We are convinced of the awfulness of our sin only when we realize that every sin we commit comes forth from our depraved and sinful nature. We must have sorrow of heart, not only for sinful deeds which we have committed, but also for the sinful nature that is ours.

This is the meaning of David’s confession in the most beautiful of all penitential Psalms, Psalms 51. In acknowledging and confessing his great sin he is amazed by the sinful nature from which all his sins proceeded. Therefore he says in verse 5 of this Psalm: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

The apostle Paul expresses true conviction of sin when in Romans 7 he cries out, “Oh wretched man that I am!” Not merely does the apostle speak of some shortcomings in his life, some minor failings which he perhaps had before he became a Christian, but he speaks of the wretched sinful nature which, even as a child of God, he still possesses and which causes him great sorrow and grief.

True conviction of sin leads the child of God to true repentance. When the Word of God finds him out he does not become offended and angry with God. He does not seek to minimize the awfulness of his sin; nor does he make excuses for it. Rather he humbly agrees with the perfect judgment of God and acknowledges the justice of God’s condemnation. He hangs his head in shame and sorrow before God and earnestly pleads for mercy and forgiveness.

True conviction of sin is accompanied by a fervent desire to be delivered from sin, both from its dreadful guilt and also from its power in our life. True conviction of sin causes a child of God to desire to be thoroughly cleansed from all sin, not merely one particular sinful deed, but from all sin; not only from the deed of sin, but from the sinful and corrupt nature out of which that sin arose; not merely from outward sinful actions, but also from the impurity and depravity of heart and mind that produced it.

When we are truly convicted of our sin we will realize that our sins are many and that they are dreadful in the sight of God. With David we confess that “innumerable evils have compassed me about mine iniquities have taken hold on me, so that I am not able to lookup; they are more than the hairs of mine head: Therefore my heart faileth me” (Ps. 40:12).

There is in our modern church world much opposition and even hatred for the subject we have been discussing in this article. The reality of sin is denied, not only by the wicked world, but also by the apostate church. The philosophy propagated in most churches today is the notion that sin is something entirely of the past. We need not think about it anymore. To remind a Christian of his sin is only to make him morose and morbid. Sin must, at all cost, be entirely forgotten, since we have been made righteous in Christ. We must have positive thinking. Everyone must by all means be told how good and wonderful he is, how lovely and how beautiful, no matter how evil and sinful and abominable he in reality is, in Gods sight. To speak of the dreadful sin of man will only give people a psychological complex that will have serious evil consequences for his self concept and self esteem. This is not psychologically healthy and ought therefore by all means be avoided. Talk of the awfulness of sin will do irreparable damage to his soul.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth of Scripture than this whole line of reasoning. The child of God needs daily to be convinced of his sin and of how awful it really is in God’s sight. Only such conviction will lead to true repentance before God. Such conviction will by the grace and Spirit of God lead him to the cross of Christ for forgiveness and mercy. Daily conviction of sin is absolutely essential for communion with God, which is the heart of Christian living. Conviction of sin deeply moves the true child of God to see his great need of the mercy of God to blot out the dreadful sins of his past life. It causes the child of God more and more to know the seriousness of sin and the awful judgment it deserves. Conviction of sin causes the child of God to walk humbly with his God in the consciousness of his great dependence on God for strength to resist the temptations of sin in the world and to overcome the lusts of sin that reside in his sinful nature. Through constant conviction of sin we are kept from falling into gross sin and iniquity through all our days.

How great is the mercy of God that keeps us from sin and preserves us in holiness! It is in the way of holiness that we enjoy His favor and blessing and loving kindness in our daily life. This is our greatest joy and comfort.