Conviction of Sin
The work of conviction of sin on those who expected it not, who desired it not, and who would avoid it if by any means possible they could. The world is filled with instances of this nature. While men have been full of love to their sins, at peace in them, enjoying benefit and advantage by them, the word coming upon them in its power has awed, disquieted, and terrified them, taken away their peace, destroyed their hopes, and made them, as it were, whether they would or not—that is, contrary to their desires, inclinations, and carnal affections—to conclude that if they comply not with what is proposed unto them in that word, which before they took no notice of nor had any regard unto, they must be presently or eternally miserable.
Conscience is the territory or dominion of God in man, which he has so reserved unto himself that no human power can possibly enter into it or dispose of it in any wise. But in this work of conviction of sin, the word of God, the Scripture, enters into the conscience of the sinner, takes possession of it, disposes it unto peace or trouble, by its laws or rules, and no otherwise. Where it gives disquietment, all the world cannot give it peace; and where it speaks peace, there is none can give it trouble. Were not this the word of God, how should it come thus to speak in his name and to act his authority in the consciences of men as it does? When once it begins this work, conscience immediately owns a new rule, a new law, a new government, in order to the judgment of God upon it and all its actions. And it is contrary to the nature of conscience to take this upon itself, nor would it do so but that it sensibly finds God speaking and acting in it and by it (see 1 Cor. 14:24–25). An invasion may be made on the outward duties that conscience disposes unto, but none can be so upon its internal actings. No power under heaven can cause conscience to think, act, or judge otherwise than it does by its immediate respect unto God. For it is the mind’s self-judging with respect unto God, and what is not so is no act of conscience. Wherefore, to force an act of conscience implies a contradiction. However, it may be defiled, bribed, seared, and at length utterly debauched, admit of a superior power, a power above or over itself, under God, it cannot.
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I know conscience may be prepossessed with prejudices, and, by education, with the insinuation of traditions, take on itself the power of false, corrupt, superstitious principles and errors, as means of conveying unto it a sense of divine authority; so is it with the Mohammedans and other false worshipers in the world. But the power of those divine convictions whereof we treat is manifestly different from such prejudicate1 opinions. For where these are not imposed on men by artifices and delusions easily discoverable, they prepossess their minds and inclinations by traditions, antecedently unto any right judgment they can make of themselves or other things, and they are generally wrapped up and condited2 in their secular interests. The convictions we treat of come from without upon the minds of men, and that with a sensible power, prevailing over all their previous thoughts and inclinations.
Those first affect, deceive, and delude the notional part of the soul, whereby conscience is insensibly influenced and diverted into improper respects, and is deceived as to its judging of the voice of God; these immediately principle the practical understanding and self-judging power of the soul. Wherefore, such opinions and persuasions are gradually insinuated into the mind, and are admitted insensibly without opposition or reluctancy, being never accompanied at their first admission with any secular disadvantage. But these divine convictions by the word befall men, some when they think of nothing less and desire nothing less; some when they design other things, as the pleasing of their ears or the entertainment of their company; and some that go on purpose to deride and scoff at what should be spoken unto them from it. It might also be added unto the same purpose how confirmed some have been in their carnal peace and security by love of sin, with innumerable inveterate prejudices; what losses and ruin to their outward concerns many have fallen into by admitting of their convictions; what force, diligence, and artifices have been used to defeat them, what contribution of aid and assistance there has been from Satan unto this purpose; and yet against all has the divine power of the word absolutely prevailed and accomplished its whole designed effect (see 2 Cor. 10:4–5; Jer. 23:29; Zech. 1:6).
It does it by the light that is in it, and that spiritual illuminating efficacy wherewith it is accompanied. Hence it is called a “light shining in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). That light whereby God “shines in the hearts” and minds of men (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). Without the Scripture all the world is in darkness: “Darkness covers the earth, and gross darkness the people” (Isa. 60:2). It is the kingdom of Satan, filled with darkness and confusion. Superstition, idolatry, lying vanities, wherein men know not at all what they do nor whither they go, fill the whole world, even as it is at this day. And the minds of men are naturally in darkness; there is a blindness upon them that they cannot see nor discern spiritual things, no, not when they are externally proposed unto them, as I have at large evinced elsewhere.3 And no man can give a greater evidence that it is so than he who denies it so to be. With respect unto both these kinds of darkness the Scripture is a light, and accompanied with a spiritual illuminating efficacy, thereby evidencing itself to be a divine revelation. For what but divine truth could recall the minds of men from all their wanderings in error, superstition, and other effects of darkness, which of themselves they love more than truth? All things being filled with vanity, error, confusion, misapprehensions about God and ourselves, our duty and end, our misery and blessedness, the Scripture, where it is communicated by the providence of God, comes in as a light into a dark place, discovering all things clearly and steadily that concern either God or ourselves, our present or future condition, causing all the ghosts and false images of things which men had framed and fancied unto themselves in the dark to vanish and disappear. Digitus Dei!4 This is none other but the power of God. But principally it evinces this its divine efficacy by that spiritual saving light which it conveys into and implants on the minds of believers.
Hence there is none of them who have gained any experience by the observation of God’s dealings with them but shall, although they know not the ways and methods of the Spirit’s operations by the word, yea, can say, with the man unto whom the Lord Jesus restored his sight, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”5 This power of the word, as the instrument of the Spirit of God for the communication of saving light and knowledge unto the minds of men, the apostle declares (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4, 6). By the efficacy of this power does he evidence the Scripture to be the word of God. Those who believe find by it a glorious, supernatural light introduced into their minds, whereby they who before saw nothing in a distinct, affecting manner in spiritual [things], do now clearly discern the truth, the glory, the beauty, and excellency of heavenly mysteries, and have their minds transformed into their image and likeness. And there is no person who has the witness in himself of the kindling of this heavenly light in his mind by the word but has also the evidence in himself of its divine origin.
- biased; preconceived.
- Πνευματολογια, or, A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit, bk. 3.
- Lat. “it is the finger of God.”
- John 9:25.
This article is adapted from The Holy Spirit—The Helper (Volume 7) by John Owen and edited by Andrew S. Ballitch.
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The Complete Works of John Owen brings together all of Owen’s original theological writing, including never-before-published work, reformatted for modern readers in 40 user-friendly volumes.