The Bible teaches us that God is everywhere present in his creation. The psalmist affirmed this truth when he prayed,
“You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways” (Psa. 139:2-3).1
Expanding further on this subject, he inquired of the Lord in verses 7-8,
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
Theologians refer to this everywhere-present attribute of God as omnipresence.
But there is another dimension to the presence of God that requires our attention. Those who are students of the Word of God, as well as experienced in the ways of God, know that God comes near and is present in the lives of God-seekers in a way he is not near and present among the rest of humankind. Some refer to this activity as the manifested presence of God: God communicating with ordinary Christians like you and me—people who are characteristically hungry and thirsty for God.
Something with the mark of the Eternal stamped upon it inevitably occurs when God and the God-seeker encounter one another. What impact that encounter has on us will vary depending upon what one’s need is at the time. But we can rest assured of this: Before that Divine rendezvous is over we will know in our spirit that we have been in the presence of God like Jacob of old when he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place” (Gen. 28:17)!
What actually happens when God comes near to us by his Holy Spirit?
Conviction of Sin
Webster’s dictionary won’t help us understand what conviction of sin is all about, but all who have experienced the persuasive influence of the Holy Spirit indicting one’s own conscience of unacceptable behavior (sin), knows full well what it is. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit, “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin . . .” (John 16:8). It is impossible for a sinner to trust Christ as Lord and Savior without this prerequisite conviction of sin.
“I’ve been reading a friend of yours,” said a young man to theologian J. I. Packer leaving church one Sunday morning. “I think he knows me.”
“Who is it?” asked Packer.
“John Owen. He seems to know exactly what’s going on inside me . . .”2
It’s true, John Owen (1616-1683) embodied the best of Puritan devotion: the awe of God, humility, wisdom, and an awareness of God’s grace. He also dealt with the nature of sinful humanity as few writers have done as keenly or thoroughly. But it is the Holy Spirit who really knows what’s going on inside of us. “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13).
As a sixteen year old boy kneeling at an altar of prayer, it was the Holy Spirit who uncovered layers of transgressions in my sinful, broken heart. He reminded me of the grapes I had stolen from a produce counter in the local A & P grocery store, of Cokes I had taken unlawfully from a soda machine, of the many unkindnesses I had committed against my step-mother, of the moral impurities of a wicked heart. But fundamentally he showed me that I had sinned against him, a holy God.3
Sin is an offense against the character and person of God; it’s a violation of his holy law, a transgression of his revealed will. Sin is an enemy of God. Sin is a failure to perfectly obey the revealed will of God; it’s a failure to love as Christ loved. However, sin should not only be thought of as an unholy act, but also as a moral pollution, an unholy disease, the bent of the will toward evil.
The only way one can be brought face to face with his or her own sin is through the personal, pungent, convicting ministries of the blessed Holy Spirit. The Spirit uses many and varied means to this end: the spoken Word of God, the creation of God (Martin Luther was reminded of his barren, sinful life upon seeing a leafless tree one winter); the Christ-like life of a devout believer; providential happenings (such as a death, divorce, or illness); inner emptiness and a sense of aloneness. Through any one of these, as well as many other providential circumstances, the Spirit of God draws people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here is where the church and her ministering servants play such a vital and necessary role in Kingdom work. God’s primary means of reaching people—and conviction of sin is a necessary means to that end—is his Word.
God uses his Word in at least three different forms: the read Word of God; the spoken Word of God, and the lived Word of God (incarnational Word). We’ll concern ourselves here with two of these.
Conviction of Sin and the Read Word of God
The Holy Spirit again and again uses the read Word of God to bring conviction to the hearts of the reader. Whether it is a traveling businessman reaching into a desk drawer for a Gideon’s Bible before he retires for the night, and upon reading is convicted of his sins, or a gospel tract providentially falling into the hands of some desperate God-seeker, or in the privacy of one’s own home with an open Bible on the lap, the Word of God is God’s primary agent in arresting guilty sinners. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Thus the importance of Christians engaging in both Bible distribution and Bible reading. Thank God for every ministry engaged in Bible distribution—ministries like Voice of the Martyrs, for example, which in 1994 floated 80,000 Scripture balloons into closed North Korea. Or, like a team from our church who recently distributed 7,000 Bibles in China.
Conviction of Sin and the Spoken Word of God
All God’s people have a responsibility and privilege to speak his Word as opportunities arise. As those who believe in the priesthood of all believers, we evangelicals don’t—or, shouldn’t—leave to vocational clergy the sole responsibility of sharing the Word of God. The spoken Word of God can have a powerful effect upon the hearer, whether it’s spoken by a so-called layperson or one employed in full-time ministry.
Even so, preachers do have a unique responsibility. It is their special calling to preach and teach the whole counsel of God, and to proclaim the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. They are called by God to do this, not in their own strength, but through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). “. . . our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:6). What an awesome calling!
Wherever and whenever this Word is spoken, if it is to have its maximum effect, it must be spoken by a person God can use. When God seeks to reach the unsaved, he sends a prepared person across their path with the gospel message; when he seeks to revive and restore his wandering sheep, he raises up a God-anointed individual to reach them. Whether this spoken Word is shared in a corporate setting (e.g., a Sunday worship service), or one-on-one with an individual (e.g., Philip with the Ethiopian), apart from the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit, the work of God will not be effective.
God’s plan to reach needy people is not merely Bible distribution, or else he wouldn’t need preachers. God’s normal plan in reaching men and women with the gospel of Jesus Christ is to call, cleanse, equip and fill his ministering servants with the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit working through a God-filled person when the Word of God is spoken that has great power. And whenever this is accompanied by a contingent of God-filled, praying saints in the pews, sinners will be convicted of their sins, and careless Christians will be convicted of theirs as well.
If I could, I would shout this truth from the pulpit of every church in America: “It’s the Holy Spirit! It’s the Holy Spirit! It’s the Holy Spirit!” Without him all our Bible studies, sermons, seminars, prayers, songs, lovely sanctuaries, degrees, choirs and orchestras are absolutely worthless—worthless. One of the greatest needs in our churches is Holy Spirit conviction!
Has the church forgotten how to do God’s work in God’s way? Listen to the late Times Square Church pastor David Wilkerson’s assessment of our dilemma:
We constantly hear awful exaggerations about the numbers of people who come to Jesus through various ministries. Christians report scores of people were saved as they preached in prisons, schools, tribal meetings. They say, “Everybody in the place gave his heart to Jesus. When I finished preaching, they came forward for salvation.”
No—that is a tragic exaggeration! All too often, what actually happens is that everyone simply repeats a prayer. They merely pray what they’re told to pray— and few of them grasp what they’re saying. Then most of them go back to their heathen ways!
Then Wilkerson reasons:
“I believe the church has even taken the feeling out of conviction. Think about it—you hardly ever see tears on the cheeks of those who are being saved anymore. Of course, I know tears don’t save anyone. But God made us all human, with very real feelings. And any hell-bound sinner who has been moved by the Holy Spirit naturally feels a profound sorrow over the ways he has grieved the Lord.”4
Alcibiades once said to Socrates: “Socrates, I hate you; for every time I see you, you show me what I am.” And so it is with God; he strips us of all the veneer, makeup and pretense. He tears away our facade and cover-up, and then shows us what we are and who we are—if we listen, if we bow down low enough, if we stay long enough.
Joseph Is a Stranger
The children of Israel’s troubles began when “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). The churches’ troubles begin whenever we have pastors, church leaders and members who are brought into the church without ever being convicted of their sins, without ever being truly changed. The language of Spirit-conviction is totally foreign to them—they do not know Joseph, as it were. They are unfamiliar with godliness, righteousness, holiness and divine truth. They introduce into the church the ways of Egypt, the ways of the world. They say it is better than before. Jesus walks away weeping.
I realize the picture I’ve just painted is not the condition of every church, and it may not be the condition of yours. But who among us can be satisfied? If it’s not the condition of your church, shouldn’t we be burdened for neighboring churches and the Church at large? What can we do to see a greater degree of the manifested presence of God?
Pray for yourself. Ask yourself before God: Am I a truly converted person? Have I been born again? Am I living a fully surrendered and obedient life? Is there sin in my life? Make sure you are thoroughly right with God and then, by his grace, walk in the light of God, keeping in step with the Spirit of God.
Secondly, pray for your church. Pray for its leaders. Pray for its services. Pray that God will be pleased to send a fresh visitation of the Holy Spirit your way. Don’t be critical of your leaders and fellow members. Oswald Chambers once wrote: “God gives his people the Spirit of discernment for the purpose of intercession, not for the purpose of criticism.” Pray, pray, pray. Love, love, love. Believe, believe, believe.
What actually happens when God comes near in his manifested presence? One of the undeniable marks of the presence of God is conviction of sin—Holy Spirit conviction. Where the Spirit is welcome and present, sinners will be convicted of their sins and Christians will be convicted of their lack of failing to be more Christlike.
Our singing, prayers and preaching
Are shallow and vacuous sounds,
Until the Lord himself appears,
Revealing his five bleeding wounds.
Our motions at worship and Word
Leave us empty on the inside,
Unless our hearts are touched by God,
And he alone is glorified.5
– Soli Deo Gloria –
1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. John Owen, Introduction by J. I. Packer in Triumph over Temptation, James M. Houston, ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications, 2005), 21
3. See Psalm 51.
4. David Wilkerson, “Times Square Church Pulpit Series,” August 2, 1999.
5. By Ralph I. Tilley.
Ralph I. Tilley
copyright © 2016 Ralph I. Tilley
(May be copied for noncommercial purposes;
not to exceed 500 copies.)