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Chime In: Conviction vs. Condemnation

I had another early morning Bible study with some men from church today. We went over chapter 12 of CJ Mahaney’s excellent little book Living the Cross Centered Life, a chapter entitled “Unloading Condemnation.” The friend leading the study (we take turns) started a profitable discussion on the difference between conviction and condemnation—a difference which he learned as a result of reading the chapter. What a crucial lesson to learn! Pastor friends (and teachers and parents!), we must teach the people to whom we minister how to distinguish between the two, lest they be overwhelmed by guilt which they wrongly assume is from above! Don’t assume that this is common knowledge. It’s not.

So what are the differences between conviction and condemnation? I’ll post some thoughts later, but first I’d like to get those who read MTC to think about it and chime in—preferably with biblical data to support your assertions. Fire away!


3 Responses

  1. Quick thought about the distinction. For starters, as with many words, the distinction is not absolute. Condemnation and conviction have overlapping elements to their definitions. In particular, both can be used in judicial contexts. One is convicted by a judge of a particular crime; thus the judge condemns him to such-and-such a penalty. I think this overlap is the very reason that (as you affirm) believers must understand “how to distinguish between the two, lest they be overwhelmed by guilt.”

    The big point lies in how we are differentiating these terms in a soteriological context. When we speak of condemnation, we are referring to that judicial decree by God which sentences us to the penalty we justly deserve, namely, the full fury of the wrath of God in an eternal hell. This judgment already rests on the heads of all unbelievers (Jn 3.18), but in keeping with the many already-not yet features of NT soteriology, the final verdict is yet future (Rev 20.11-15).

    When we speak of conviction, however, we typically refer to that work of the Spirit in the life of the believer by which he points out our sin and (eventually and effectually) leads us to repentance. Two clarifications are necessary at this point. First, the convicting work of the Spirit is broader than we typically speak of it, since his work includes convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn 16.7-9). Second, as mentioned earlier, conviction has a judicial aspect to it. It can refer to an inner sense (as I’m defining it here), or it can refer to a judicial reality (as I stated earlier). The point that emerges here is that our typical usage of the term is narrower than it can legitimately be used. Thus the confusion.

    In summary, then, as we typically use the terms, condemnation is judicial, while conviction is internal. There is, I think, a correspondence between the two types of guilt. All humanity is objectively guilty before God; that is, we are guilty whether we think we are or not. This is condemnation. When one realizes that he or she is objectively guilty before God, there follows a subject sense of one’s guilt. This is conviction.

    So much for a quick thought. =)

  2. Hey, Matt. We’ve been praying for you, my friend, both as a family and as a church. Tonight I mentioned to our body your battle with cancer and am confident that many will continue to pray for you. I so appreciate the way you’ve used this to point yourself and others Christ-ward!

    Thanks, too, for your comment. I invited conversation, then kind of “checked out.” Thanks for chiming in (despite what I think is the first day of chemo!).

    One clarification: I’m was actually thinking of both terms in a subjective (internal/experiential) sense. Your discussion of objective condemnation and conviction is extremely helpful. Excellent. You’ve helped my understanding.

    Again, though, I was using the two terms more casually/popularly to discuss the subjective experience of believers. Those who are in Christ are under no condemnation from God (Romans 8:1), but we still experience (a) helpful conviction (from God) for unconfessed sin and (b) harmful condemnation (from Satan, others, ourselves, etc.). That’s the sense in which Mahaney speaks of condemnation in the chapter I cited above.

    For a very practical (perhaps somewhat simplistic) distinction between the internal experiences of guilt by believers which we often call conviction or condemnation, I’d suggest the following, for starters:

    * Conviction continues until the time of confession (as in Psalm 32:3-5 or Proverbs 28:13); condemnation continues afterward (as the accusation of repentant sinners by Satan, the self-righteous, etc.; Luke 7:39; Job 1:9; Zech 3:1; Rev 12:10b; of course, all of these last 4 passages speak of the accusation of believers before God, but I’d say they at least describe his common M.O.).

    * Conviction pushes the sinning believer toward Christ in dependence on the finished work of Christ; condemnation pushes the sinning believer away from Christ in unwarranted shame. (1 John 2:1-2)

    (Which is what I addressed last week here.)

    * Conviction makes much of the sacrifice of Christ that removes sin; condemnation makes much of sin. (2 Cor 7:10)

    I’m thinking of what is so wonderfully expressed in Before the Throne of God Above:

    “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within,
    Upward I look and see Him there who made an end of all my sin…”

    (As usual, Matt, you’re thinking much deeper and more theologically than I am.)


  3. […] much of the sacrifice of Christ that removes sin; condemnation makes much of sin. (2 Cor 7:10) https://mytwocents.wordpress.com/2008/07/08/chime-in-conviction-vs-condemnation/ […]

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