In the exchange I had a week ago with a couple atheists on a different site, one person who described himself as a former pastor who no longer believes God exists, said he has never been more at peace. I answered that I can understand completely why that would be true: only Christians have the unsettling discomfort of the conviction of the Holy Spirit and a burden for the lost.
Guilt! the atheists cried. That’s what is so terrible about Christianity, and Christians. That religion is all about making you feel guilty for everything. (And how dare you say he has no compassion—but that’s a subject for another day).
It seemed so odd to me at first, because I don’t live with guilt. I live under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, which means I am warned from doing things that wouldn’t glorify God, I’m reproved for things I’ve done or said or thought that don’t please Him, and therefore am led to the throne of grace where I can pour out my sorrow and be reminded that Jesus Christ paid my debt, that I am a new creature, and that Jesus has set me free from sin and guilt and the law.
So guilt? Not on my worst days do I live under the weight of guilt. I don’t doubt that some Christians who were raised with a legalistic framework or with a works mentality, might have old habits to break from. But even as they struggle to find the freedom in God’s grace, they can assert with their head, if not their heart, that they are only in right standing with God because of Jesus Christ and what He did at the cross.
As God so often seems to do, He validated those thoughts with Scripture. I’m reading in the Psalms and got to 34:22
The LORD redeems the soul of His servants,
And none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned.
I’d used the words “conviction of the Holy Spirit,” and I realized as I thought about the above verse, there’s a gulf between conviction and condemnation.
In fact, I just recently wrote about faith as the conviction of things not seen. In that post I tied conviction with the idea of being convinced, in the same way that a jurist only convicts someone of a crime if he is convinced by the evidence that the accusation is true.
Conviction, then, is a matter of agreeing with, based on evidence. When the Holy Spirit convicts a Christian of sin, we simply stop trying to justify ourselves or alibi out of our sin. We no longer pretend that what we have done, said, or thought is perfectly fine and acceptable to God. Instead, we agree with Him that we have fallen short, that we have disobeyed, that we have displeased Him, that we need to grow in the area He’s revealed to us.
Condemnation is an entirely different thing. That’s an accusation, a declaration, that we are guilty of something. But we’re not. We can’t be because Jesus took all our guilt on Himself. Because He “bore our sins in His body on the cross” I am declared righteous.
It’s a more complete transformation than a blood transfusion or a heart transplant. Those are only partial fixes and they are only physical and temporary. This new life God gives is permanent and complete. Romans 8:1-2 spells it out:
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Revelation 12 identifies Satan as the one who is the accuser of believers. He stands before God hurling invective at Christians, but none of it sticks. What Satan doesn’t apparently understand is the extent of Christ’s work on our behalf. Romans 4:7-8 clarifies it:
“BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN,
AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED.
“BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.”
Ironically, the kind of peace this former-pastor atheist claims is the kind that comes when you get to do whatever you want without anyone telling you to stop or change or shape up or do better. But that’s only temporary and it’s oriented toward the self—if I’m at peace, it’s all good.
There is, however, a greater peace, one that is deeper and eternal:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1)
This is the peace that a person can count on even when their world turns upside down. I have a friend, a man I taught with years ago and who I’ve reconnected with on Facebook, who is an example of a Christian with this kind of peace. From a recent FB post:
This past week doctors discovered a fast growing tumor in my pancreas about the size of a silver dollar, several spots on my liver and surround the portal vessel providing blood to the liver, pancreas and spleen. I start chemotherapy today and pray for one to two years of serving Jesus.
Please pray for [his wife] Suzy as my greatest caregiver. I know Our Lord is the great healer and will use my body for His miracles and His glory. These next months are planned to reach more people for Christ and encourage this generation and the next generation of Christian leadership.
I am so very grateful for the opportunity to minister . . . I have been allowed to serve in the kingdom of God on earth and prepare for His eternal kingdom. I look forward to seeing Jesus and worshiping Him in heaven, and I look forward to these next months with you, my family and my precious wife.
There’s peace that passes understanding, the peace that reconciliation with God gives, the peace that comes from one not under condemnation—though he still might from time to time feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit. 🙂