What is a conviction? One person says that it is no more than a personal opinion. Others define it as those things for which you would be willing to die; all else is a preference. Some teach that convictions are based on direct scriptural teaching. Others teach that convictions are not even scriptural. Why all the confusion? What is a good biblical approach to the concept of convictions? Let us see if we can make any sense out of it all.
The word "conviction" is not found in the Bible and this is the source of much of the confusion. It is, however, related to two biblical words: convict and convince.
- The word convict is only used once in the Bible where the men who accused the women of adultery were "convicted by their own conscience" (John 8:9).
- The word convince is used seven times (Job 32:12; John 8:46; Acts 18:28; 1Corinthians 14:24; Titus 1:9; James 2:9; Jude 15). This word (convince) is the key to understanding the other two words. One who is convicted is convinced of sin or error. In its simplest meaning, a conviction is something about which we are convinced. In most of the cases where convince is used in the Bible, it is similar to our use of the word convict. It usually deals with those who are convinced of sin.
This being the case, we need to ask, are convictions a biblical concept? I think they are—at least, in the way we commonly use the word. If we use it correctly, we use it to describe the work of our conscience in making personal decisions of right and wrong in areas not specifically detailed in scripture. A conviction is a convinced conscience.
Please note that a conviction is not needed where the Bible is specific in its command. We need only to obey in those areas. Perhaps we need to be convicted of our disobedience. But we do not need to have a conviction about it. A conviction is only needed in those areas where biblical precepts (by definition, general principles) need to be applied to particular circumstances. Does God teach us to do this? Yes. Notice the following teaching from God’s word.
- We are to use our spiritual discernment to judge all things (1Corinthians 2:14-15).
- As to certain practices, Paul said, "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Romans 14:5).
- John speaks of doing those things in which our heart condemns us not (1John 3:20-21). Evidently, there are also things in which our heart does condemn us.
- We are to prove all things and hold fast to that which is good (1Thessalonians 5:21).
- We are to use wisdom and judgment to approve things that are excellent (Philippians 1:9-10).
- We are to make certain that we condemn not ourselves in the things which we allow (Romans 14:22-23).
- We are to use the Bible to such an extent that we are able to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:14).
Paul exalted the use of the conscience as a guide in daily practice. He said: "And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men" (Acts 24:16).
The Bible clearly teaches that the conscience is not a perfect indicator of right and wrong. It can be weak (1Corinthians 8:12), defiled (Titus 1:15) and even seared with a hot iron (1Timothy 4:20). However, when fed a steady diet of the word and submitted to God in a pure heart, it can help to guide us in many circumstances. It can tell us that things are wrong before we know why they are wrong. It can act as an early warning system against sin. It can help us to establish personal convictions that guide us as we walk through the pitfalls of this life.
As to a conviction being something for which you will die and all else being a preference, this is a man's definition as much as any other. It is good as far as it will carry you. Perhaps it describes some particular concepts, but I personally find it faulty. I first saw it in material dealing with legal cases where people had Christian schools or were homeschooling. These definitions made a particular point but they are weak for every use of the word.
As I said, a conviction is a convinced conscience. Some may say that all we need is the Bible and the conscience is thereby made superfluous. Yet, it is the Bible that tells us that God uses the conscience. Our convictions will not always agree because they are personal. They do not carry the authority of scripture and may be faulty. But, as we submit to God and exercise ourselves in His word, we are to keep our consciences clean by establishing convictions in our lives and by avoiding offense to our consciences. By the way, we are also to allow others to live according to their conscience without molestation—as long as their convictions do not directly oppose God's word.