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Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Psalms. I’m preaching today from Psalm 51 about the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction in our lives. Conviction, not like being convicted of a crime, but in the sense of seeing the truth about sin in your life, a conviction in your soul leading to repentance, turning away from sin. We talked last week about the wrath of the Holy Spirit, how because of the great love of God for his children, the Spirit responds in wrath to the sin that has caused pain and suffering in our lives and in the world. I encouraged you to be angry like God, instead of being angry like we so often are—because our anger accomplishes nothing, but God’s anger accomplishes justice and restoration—God is able to make our lives and our societies right again, to give us peace. I focused last week on sin and brokenness in the world and in society. But this week I want to talk about sin and brokenness in our own lives; whether or not we have a chance of being made whole and clean again, of mending our relationships, of living again with family and with joy, at peace with those closest to us.
We’ve been going through a summer series on the Holy Spirit since the day of Pentecost six weeks ago when we celebrated God with us, the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell among his people. We started out talking about several of the gifts of the Spirit—discernment, which is being able truly to know God, about the gift of unity in the church, and other gifts like teaching, preaching, speaking in tongues, healing, and how spiritual gifts aren’t about you. You’re given spiritual gifts to help show the grace and power of God to his church. And the Holy Spirit orders our worship, giving a role and a task to each and every person in the church. We need each other, each member of the body of Christ, for the church to be healthy and whole.
Read with me. Psalm 51, starting in v.1. [Psalm 51:1-17] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Holy Spirit, I pray that you would convict us this morning, Father, that you would give us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
In short, conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit of bringing our own sin in front of us, showing us the truth that our sin has done more damage in the world than you could imagine, but in Christ we are also more loved and forgiven than you could imagine. When we make mistakes, when we sin, the Spirit will put it in front of us, on our mind, in the words of scripture, in the mouth of the pastor, or in the mouths of your friends, until you finally stop running, denying, making excuses, and deal with your sin. So in v.3 in our passage, when David says “my sin is ever before me,” that’s a clear example of conviction, and this whole Psalm is David expressing his experience of the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction.
I want to start here: hear this, the experience of conviction, as a Christian, is very different from the experience of accusation and guilt—beating yourself up, considering yourself worthless, regretting something you’ve done—because the conviction of the Holy Spirit leads to repentance and forgiveness. That’s the first point from our text today: the conviction of the Holy Spirit leads to repentance and forgiveness.
I know a lot of people think that pastors are peddlers of guilt. You know, like a fireman who starts fires so he can prove he’s a hero, people think pastors go around promising hellfire to everyone, accusing them of wrongdoing, so people will be grateful for the offer of escape. But in the Bible there is a huge difference between accusation and conviction. Satan is the accuser, the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts. Accusation is what happens when conviction is bent and broken by sin, and guilt is what happens when repentance is bent and broken by sin. Conviction and repentance are the lifeblood of a healthy Christian community, but accusation and guilt will sicken even the strongest faith. So we need to understand the difference.
I had a conversation with a good friend of mine the other day who called to tell me that he was walking away from Christianity, that he didn’t believe in God anymore, so I was talking through that with him. He had gone through some legitimately very difficult things, and he was feeling a mixture of grief at what had happened, anger at God for allowing all of this in his life, and guilt at his part in it.
The grief and anger we feel when we go through very difficult times in our lives are legitimate. We can hear “sin brings death to the world,” all day, but until you actually taste some sort of death, be it death of a loved one, death of a relationship, or death of your spirit, it’s difficult to understand what death is like. When you’re young, people tell you life will be hard, but you can’t imagine. It’s what George Elliot calls “the new real future which replaces the imaginary,” when the story you thought you were writing for yourself takes a tragic turn, and you wind up in a place you never wanted to be, and you can’t for the life of you figure out how you got here, or how you might get out. You think, if God actually loved me, he wouldn’t have brought me here. So in this conversation, I welcomed my friend’s anger and grief.
The guilt my friend was feeling, though, I could see was tearing him apart. He told me, “I’ve decided to live my life without regrets,” and I find that whenever people say things like that, it’s usually not because they’ve actually found a way to live free of regret; usually, they’re filled with regret, and are trying to move past their guilt by sheer force of will and denial, pulling against the truth of the mistakes they’ve made. But as strong as you may be, you’re going to end up exhausted, and mired in guilt, pulling like that against truth. I want a better life than that for my friend, and for you.
As a pastor, I’m never going to try to make you feel guilty—and I’m sorry if others have—, but I will pray every day for the Holy Spirit to convict you of your sin. Here’s the difference: guilt wants to kill you. Conviction wants to show you that your sin is killing you, then the Spirit is able to resurrect you and make you whole again.
Guilt offers no way forward. Like death, it tempts you to believe that there’s no resurrection, no coming back from what you’ve done. Guilt looks at a mistake you’ve made, some sin in your life, and says, that’s it, this mistake is irrevocable, incurable, there’s nothing you can do. Guilt is final and hopeless, like death. It tells you you are wretched, and therefore unworthy of joy or love.
The conviction of the Holy Spirit can also feel a little bit like you’re dying, because in conviction the Spirit reveals to you just how deadly the sin in your life is to your own life and to the people around you; but conviction is like death with the promise of resurrection. Like the pain caused by cleaning a wound; like going under for surgery, knowing there will be pain, but also knowing that the doctor only means to save you, and will only cut out the cancer that’s killing you, leaving everything that’s really, actually you inside. The Holy Spirit’s conviction not only offers a way forward, but it’s the only way forward. Because if you’re willing to admit it, we’ve all sinned, and we all need forgiveness. You can either ignore your sin, hear only accusation, feel only guilt, determine to live life without regrets, and let your sin grow until it kills you, or you can seek conviction and through conviction, forgiveness.
Let’s read v. 6 again: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.”
These verses give insight into how the Holy Spirit convicts us. He brings truth and wisdom into your inner heart; he confronts you with the truth of your sin and its effects on the world, the ways that you’ve hurt yourself and the people around you, the people who love you the most. He tells you of the truth that your sins are part of the reason Christ had to die, and so in even small things, our sin makes us complicit in the worst act of humankind—the murder of Christ himself when he came to save us from our sin. The conviction of the Spirit is painful, like resetting a broken bone, or washing out a wound, but in the end the wounds of the Spirit are the only things which can make you healthy again.
We all have regrets, even those of us who have decided to ignore them. You can’t live with guilt—guilt will seep into your life until you’re just numb to the constant pain. And you can try other ways of moving past your mistakes, or forgetting them. But nothing’s going to help. Your heart is going to be restless until you find your rest in him, in his forgiveness and grace. We need conviction. That’s why I pray that the Spirit would convict you of your sin, let you see the whole truth of it, so you might turn and be healed. Your guilt, Satan’s accusing, will kill you. But through conviction, confession to me or another Christian close to you, and repentance, actually changing your actions, there is hope in Christ for a changed life.
For me it’s always when I wake up in the middle of the night, and I’m desperate to fall back asleep, and I’m just lying there praying, all of my excuses are gone, all of my defenses are down, and that’s when I’m at my most honest. That’s when the Spirit brings truth and wisdom to my inward being. And whenever I’m able to get honest with myself, and the Holy Spirit shows me the truth and beauty of God, that’s when I realize how far I am from being the person he made me to be. How many mistakes I’ve made. And in those moments, there is grief, yes, grief at the death I’ve let seep into my life in sin; but there is also hope for the resurrection the Holy Spirit brings into my life.
Conviction in that way is participating in the death and resurrection of Christ in your own small way. Because of your sin, you die. But if the Spirit convicts you, and you confess your sin, he will forgive you. Because of his forgiveness, you’re able to come back from the depths, and the life you have after the resurrection is more free and more joyful than you had before.
For you, today, I hope you will join me in praying to the Spirit, asking God to convict us, individually, and as a society, of what needs to change in our lives. The sin we need to confront, the amends we need to make, the thing you’ve decided to live with, to make the best of, that it’s just part of who you are, and you ask people to accept it about you and not try to change you, but really everyone who loves you most deeply is grieved by it, because your Christian brothers and sisters are able to see a life for you of wholeness in Christ. My prayer today is for conviction, that we would confess, turn, and be healed.
I want to spend the rest of my time today on v.4. Again, David writes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” And if that, “you only,” didn’t catch your attention the first time, let it catch your attention now. “Against you only have I sinned.” David makes a point to say that God is the only one against whom he has sinned. This is my second point from our text today, our sin is against God alone, so he alone is able to forgive us. Our sin is against God alone, so he alone is able to forgive us.
David wrote this psalm, we read in the book of 2 Samuel, chapters 11-12, after he had sent guards, misused his power as king, took a woman from her home, raped her, and then murdered her husband to cover up the truth. And here he is, saying to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned?” What does he mean? David is obviously well aware at this point of the people he has injured: the man he murdered, the wife he took, the guards he made complicit, the son he lost.
His point is not to downplay his sin against other people; his point is to make much of the wrath of God. We talked about this last week—because God loves his children perfectly, his wrath is perfect when they suffer.
AJ lately has grown very fond of stories about me making mistakes, so he loves this story. I remember one time when I was a kid, I slammed my brother’s fingers in a drawer. It was on purpose. I was mad at him. He did something, I don’t know, it’s not important, and I slammed his fingers in a drawer. My dad is 6’6”, and when you’re five, that’s enormous, and I remember he came and very gently asked me whether or not I had slammed my brother’s fingers in a drawer; so naturally, I lied about it. And the reason my brother drops out of the story in my mind shortly after I slammed his fingers in a drawer, is because at that point my dad had taken it on himself to make the situation right. He took up my brother’s cause, and from then on I didn’t have problems with my brother anymore, not really. I had a problem with my dad.
There were some immediate consequences—my dad brought me over to my brother, and made me apologize to him, make amends. There were some longer-term consequences, too—I’m still not entirely certain today if I’m allowed to watch tv. At the end of all of the consequence, my dad was the one who took me aside and assured me that he still loved me, who hugged me, and made me whole again. Because he loves my brother, and because I hurt my brother, I had sinned against my father, and if I was ever going to move on through that conflict or any other, first and foremost I needed my father’s forgiveness.
And you, when you make mistakes in life, you can try to just move on, tell yourself that you live without regrets, but you’re just kidding yourself. You’ve sinned against your father, and you need your father’s forgiveness to move on from those mistakes. The good news is, our God loves you and would rather die than allow your sin to kill you. Again, my prayer for you today is that the Holy Spirit would convict us today, bring our sin before us, show us the truth that our sin has done more damage in the world than we could imagine, but in Christ we are also more loved and forgiven than we could imagine.
You know in those moments when you’re honest with yourself, if you’re ever honest with yourself, that there are things in your life you’ve done that have hurt the people you love—words that you’ve spoken in anger, or in jealousy, not being there for a child or spouse when you should have been, or habits that became obsessions, that took everything from you. Or slamming your brother’s fingers in a drawer. Pray to your father, because he has taken up the cause of the people you’ve wronged—he will still make you apologize, bear the consequence, make amends, but now all of those sins are against God alone, and God alone is able to forgive you.
In verses 7-12, David shows us what that forgiveness looks like. He paints a picture of going to the tabernacle and instead of washing himself, God washes him. And the implication of these verses is that David tried to wash himself, tried to live without regrets, to perform some sort of penance, but he can only wash his skin, and the stain is on his spirit. So he calls on God to wash him to the bone. Remove everything in him that doesn’t desire goodness and justice. That’s the only way he’ll be able to move forward from the depths of his own sin. That’s the only way he’ll feel joy again in the presence of God.
And maybe that’s where you are this morning. Maybe you are in the depths of sin wondering how to move forward. Maybe you have been sinned against, and you’re wondering how forgiveness is even possible. Maybe it’s been years since you’ve felt joy in the presence of God, and you’ve wondered more than once why you keep coming to church. Wash me, David writes, and I shall be whiter than snow.
So many of us live lives so full of regret and shame, like a burden, Bunyan writes, that you carry around with you everywhere you go, only because we are unwilling to go to our father, admitting that we have sinned. We walked around stained, ashamed, because we are unwilling to go to our father and ask his forgiveness.
We run as hard as we can away from conviction—never wanting to admit to anyone that we’ve sinned, that we aren’t perfect. We compare, we point out the sin in others, we do everything we can to avoid confession of our own sin. We put on a good shirt, a good smile, a good attitude on Sunday and when I ask what I can pray for you about you say nothing. Running from conviction. But if the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts, then running away from the recognition of our sin is just running away from God, himself.
If the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us, then running away from conviction and confession is just running away from God, himself.
Why not rather turn, and be healed? Pray with me.