The Holy Spirit in Conviction and Conversion

By James W. Adams

Every conversion to Christ which has occurred from the beginning of the Lord’s church, on the first Pentecost after his resurrection from the dead, until this present hour has been begun, carried on, and consummated as a result of the operation of the Holy Spirit upon the sinner’s heart. There is almost universal agreement among Bible students on this point. This treatise, therefore, does not concern itself with the fact of the operation of the Holy Spirit in this realm, but rather with the manner of his operation.

Superstition and mysticism have shrouded our subject with uncertainty and confusion to the point of making it incomprehensible to the average mind. Many suppose that the teaching of the Bible relative to this subject is hazy, abstruse, and ambiguous. Such is not the case. Bible teaching on the subject is just as clear as it is on any other theme which is related to the salvation of the soul. The trouble is that men have endeavored to make mysterious and difficult that which is lucid and easy. No difficulty will be encountered by any student in ascertaining the truth on the subject if he is willing to let the word of God speak and to hear and accept what it says.

The Proposition Stated

Someone has said, “A proposition well stated is half argued.” This is particularly true in dealing with the work of the Holy Spirit in any realm. Let the reader keep constantly in mind a fact already stated; namely, that our study has to do, not with the fact of the operation of the Holy Spirit in conviction and conversion, but with the manner of his operation. The question is: In the conviction and conversion of the sinner to Christ, how does the Holy Spirit exercise his influence upon the heart? Does he operate directly or indirectly? Does he – operate immediately (without means) or intermediately (through means)? The Bible teaches that, in the conviction and conversion of the sinner to Christ, the Holy Spirit operates upon the sinner’s heart through the agency of the Spirit-revealed and Spirit-inspired word of God – through the agency of Divine Truth, hence that the operation of the Holy Spirit in this realm is indirect and intermediate. To the establishment, development, and application of this proposition this tract is reverently dedicated. Our appeal for proof, shall be to the word of God as revealed in the Bible – the Old and New Testaments.

Denominational Dogma and Practice

Denominational dogma and practice have greatly obscured the truth concerning the manner of the Holy Spirit’s operation in conviction and conversion. The Calvinistic theory of “hereditary total depravity” has been the occasion of much of the false doctrine and practice in this realm. It is argued that: “In conversion and sanctification there is an influence of the Spirit in addition to that of the Word, and distinct from it – an influence, without which the arguments and motives of the gospel would never convert and sanctify one of Adam’s ruined race.” . . . “Why, then, it will be asked, is it necessary that there should be an influence of the Spirit, in addition to that of the Word, and distinct from it? The necessity arises simply from the depravity of the human heart,” . . . “men are sinful deeply depraved. Hence, the necessity of a special divine influence, in addition to, and distinct from, the word” (N.L. Rice, Campbell-Rice Debate, pp. 628, 630). “. . . man is so depraved that he is unable without the direct enabling power of the Holy Spirit to obey the gospel of the Son of God” (J.B. Moody, Missionary Baptist, in Nashville Debate). “Our first Parents by this Sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them, whereby death came upon all; all becoming dead in Sin, and wholly defiled, in all the faculties, and parts of soul, and body. . . . From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions” (London Confession – Baptist, Chap. VI, Part 2,4). “1, by natural birth, then am too wicked to live, too sinful to die, and too vile to meet God. . . . Total Hereditary Depravity means that man in his entire self is bad. He inherited this nature from Adam through the human race (Rom. 5:12). Consequently, he is entirely inherently conceived in badness, I mean by total that man is bad, mind, body, and spirit. Yes, a sinner by nature. . . . Before God, I by nature am depraved and unclean. Our best is but odious and obnoxious to the nostril of him until the life is changed by a new nature that is imparted” (Albert Garner, Missionary Baptist, in The Royal Birth A Life of Liberty, pp. 8,9).

The doctrine of hereditary total depravity is a creation of the fallible wisdom of theologians, but is nowhere taught in the Bible. Every passage of Scripture used by such teachers to sustain the doctrine is tortured and perverted. A child is born into a disordered world, a world of temptation and sin. Yet, in his essential nature, he is as innocent as was Adam when he fell from the plastic hand of God, Every child inherits from Adam a fleshly nature characterized by the same strength and weakness that characterized his fleshly nature. Adam and Eve, on the basis of the information supplied in the Divine Record, sinned at their first temptation. Whatever caused the first pair thus to sin is that in human nature which causes men to be prone to sin today. Adam was not created with a “depraved nature.” God pronounced man as created “good” (Gen. 1:31). Since the sin of Adam and Eve did not proceed from a totally depraved nature, why should it be thought that the sins of men today proceed from such? Jesus recognized the fact of the uncorrupted nature and practical innocency of man before “actual transgression” when he said to his disciples, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 18:16).

Since the sinner is not hereditarily totally depraved, there exists no real basis for the concept of direct, immediate, miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit upon the sinner’s heart in conviction and conversion. Someone has said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Necessity, created by the false theory of hereditary total depravity, gave birth to the equally false concept of the direct, immediate operation of the Holy Spirit on the sinner’s heart in conviction and conversion. Neither is true, hence they fall together.

The Holy Spirit Operates Through Divine Truth

The Old Testament period. In the period regulated by the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit exerted his influence on men in turning them from Satan and sin to God and righteousness through the words of the inspired prophets of God. Such is clearly stated with reference to David. “The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). The Hebrew writer of the New Testament times ascribes statements made by David (Psa. 95:7- 10) to the Holy Spirit, “Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness” (Heb. 3:7-11). Peter, the apostle of Christ said, “Men and brethren, this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus” (Acts 1:16). Nehemiah, prophet of Old Testament history, said, “Yet many years didst thou forbear them, and testifiedst against them by thy Spirit in thy prophets” (Neh. 9:30). Peter, further testified concerning Old Testament prophets saying, “Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls. Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Pet. 1:9-11). “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21). These passages will suffice to prove that God, in the Old Testament period, exercised his influence upon men by means of the Holy Spirit through the words of the inspired prophets.

The New Testament period. The Scriptures just as surely show that God exercises his saving influence upon men, in the New Testament period, by means of the Holy Spirit through the words of inspired apostles and prophets. Note a few general statements of this fact: “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-word: How that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words; whereby when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ,) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:1-5). John, writing to the seven churches of Asia said, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Rev. 3:6). Yet, those things which John wrote were things he “had seen, and things which are, and things which would be hereafter” (Rev. 1:19). John wrote, but it was the Holy Spirit speaking. Peter said that he and others “preached the gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Pet. 1:12) and Paul taught that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation unto everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). Surely, these passages indicate that God’s saving influence was exerted upon men through the Holy Spirit by means of the words of Spirit-guided apostles and prophets of the New Testament period.

The Word and the Spirit

Further corroborative of this truth is the fact that, in the New Testament, whatever is attributed to the Holy Spirit in the conviction and conversion of the sinner is also attributed to the word of God, the gospel of Christ. Based on this fact, which shall be demonstrated with appropriate Scriptures, is the following argument:

(1) Major Premise: Whenever the result of a given action is attributed to a person and an instrument, it is axiomatic that the action was performed by the person with, or through, the instrument.

(2) Minor Premise: Whatever the Holy Spirit is said to do relative to the conviction and conversion of sinners is also ascribed to the word of God, the gospel of Christ.

(3) Conclusion: Therefore, in the conviction and conversion of sinners, the Holy Spirit exercises his influence with, through, by means of the word of God, the gospel of Christ.

The argument above is known as a syllogism. There are only three ways that a syllogism can be successfully overthrown. (1) If the major premise can be shown to be false, the syllogism proves nothing. (2) If the minor premise can be shown to be false, the syllogism proves nothing. (3) If it can be shown that the conclusion is not logically deducible from the premise, the syllogism is worthless.

The major premise of our syllogism is unquestionably true, in fact, as stated, is axiomatic. A few simple illustrations will serve to establish this fact. If it is said, “John Jones cut down the apple tree,”and “the axe cut down the apple tree,” the conclusion is inescapable that John Jones cut down the apple tree with the axe. Or, if we affirm that Mary Smith killed the snake and that the hoe killed the snake, the conclusion is inescapable that Mary Smith killed the snake with the hoe.

The minor premise of our syllogism is abundantly sustained by the word of God. The chart appearing below will suffice to establish this fact.

In the left-hand column, under the word, “Spirit,” will be found the Scriptures which attribute the “Action,” which is to be found in the middle column, to the Holy Spirit. In the right-hand column, and directly in line with parallel matter in the other two columns, will be found the same “Action” attributed to the “Word of God.” We challenge the reader to find any action relative to the conviction and conversion of sinners that is, in the word of God, attributed to the Holy Spirit which is not also, by the word of God, attributed to the word of God.

Spirit Action Word of God
1. John 3:5, 6, 8 Born, Begotten 1 Pet. 1:23-25; 1 Cor. 4:15; Jas. 1:18
2. John 6:63 Quickens Psa. 119:50, 93
3. Titus 3:5 Saved Jas. 1:21
4. Rom. 15:13 Power of Rom. 1:16
5. 1 Cor. 6:11 Sanctified Jn. 17:17
6. 1 Cor. 6:11 Washed by Eph. 5:26

Having established our major and minor premise, a tyro in logic can see that our conclusion is fairly and logically deducible therefrom. In the words of another, “If not, why not? “

An Inspired Example

The truth expressed in the argument and passages of Scripture cited is confirmed by an inspired example of the Holy Spirit’s operation upon the hearts of sinners in their conviction and conversion.

Before Jesus left the world, he promised his apostles (his ambassadors, 2 Cor. 5:18-20) the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth and to inpower them to work miracles by which the truth thus revealed would be confirmed as Heaven’s will. “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (Jn. 14:26). “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16:13). “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. . . . And they went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mk. 16:17,20).

The apostles were instructed by the Lord to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit before they began to preach in the name of Jesus. “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things. And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high” (Lk. 24:46-49). “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The apostles, after the resurrection of Jesus and his subsequent ascension into glory, waited in Jerusalem for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit and power. “And they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God” (Lk. 24:53). On Pentecost, following the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit came as promised, enduing the apostles with “power from on high.” “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:14).

For the most part, the people marvelled at this manifestation of Divine power, but certain irreverent ones mocked saying. “These men are full of new wine” (Acts 2:5-13). Peter stood up and adequately defended the apostles against this charge (Acts 2:14-21). Then, he proceeded to preach the first gospel sermon ever preached under the great commission and the first time that repentance and remission of sins were preached in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:22-40).

Jesus had previously promised that when the Holy Spirit came “he would reprove (convict, ASV) the world of sin” (Jn. 16:8). The Holy Spirit came according to the promise. Peter, inspired of that Spirit, preached Jesus Christ as the Son of God, crucified, dead, buried, raised again, ascended, glorified and coronated, concluding with the statement, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly (believe confidently, JWA), that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

Now, observe the results of the sermon: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their hearts, and said unto Peter, and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) To be “pricked” or cut to the heart is to be convicted of sin. Precisely, how was this accomplished? Note that the record says, “When they heard this. ” When they heard what? When they heard the Spirit-inspired words of the Apostle Peter, of course. Hence, the inspired historian Luke attributes the conviction of these people to the word of God spoken by the inspired apostle. But Jesus had said that the Holy Spirit would “convict the world of sin.” We conclude, therefore, that the Holy Spirit convicted the sinners on the day of Pentecost through the instrumentality of the word of God.

The consummation of this matter was that Peter told these anxious, inquiring men, who believed confidently that they had crucified the Lord of Glory, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). The record then informs us that, “They that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls,” and that they “praised God and had favor with all the people,” and that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (day by day those that were being saved – ASV marginal rendering)” (Acts 2:41,47). Here is an inspired example of the conviction and conversion of sinners. Men heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. By the gospel they were convicted of their sins and made to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. In obedience to the command of the gospel, they repented of their sins and were baptized for the remission of sins. In so doing, they were saved from their sins and were, by the Lord, added to the church. In the light of this New Testament case of conviction and conversion, we are forced to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit exercises his influence in this realm through the word of God.

Objections To The Direct Operation Theory

We know of no better way of enforcing the truth previously taught in this tract than to set forth some very valid Bible objections to the theory of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit in the conviction and conversion of the sinner.

(1) It antagonizes the Bible doctrine of human responsibility in the matter of salvation, conviction and conversion. The Bible teaches that man is going to be held accountable and judged for the deeds done in the body, that the standard of judgment will be the word of God, and that his eternal destiny will be determined thereby (Jn. 12:48; Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12). The direct operation theory conditions man’s faith, obedience and consequent salvation on an act of God (the implanting of the new nature by a direct, immediate operation of the Holy Spirit) rather than on the “deeds” of man. It thus makes God responsible for every lost soul that will be eternally banished at the judgment.

(2) The absence of any evidence that a single heathen has ever been saved, born again, made a Christian, to whom the gospel of Christ had never been preached. When, in Old Testament times, God desired to bring the heathen Ninevites to repentance, he sent them a preacher, Jonah, who preached to them the word of God and turned them from evil, thus effecting their salvation from destruction (Matt, 12:41). Proponents of the direct operation theory teach that babies, dying in infancy, are regenerated and made fit for heaven by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. Does not God have as much interest in an unregenerate heathen as he does in a babe born to believing parents, or in a babe born in a region where the gospel is known (2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:3,4)? If so, why have no heathens ever been regenerated apart from the hearing of the gospel of Christ?

(3) Direct spiritual influence has never changed the character of man. There are numerous examples of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit upon men in the Bible, but never did such miraculous, direct operation change the character of the individual. Egypt’s Pharoah dreamed a dream which was of God (Gen. 41), but it did not change his character. Balaam prophesied under the impulse of the Spirit of God (Num. 24:2), but it did not change his character. He loved the hire of wrong doing (2 Pet. 2:15) and taught Israel to sin (Num. 31:16; Rev. 2:14). The Spirit of the Lord caused King Saul to prophesy, but be continued his evil course of seeking the life of David, God’s anointed (1 Sam. 19:18-24). We challenge the reader to find a single Bible example of the character of a man being changed by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit.

(4) The direct power of God is irresistible (Num. 22-24; 1 Sam. 19:18-24). There is no Bible example in which a man ever successfully resisted the direct power of God, or the Holy Spirit. If man could successfully resist the direct power of God, he would be more powerful than God. If, therefore, the Holy Spirit operated directly in conviction and conversion every person on whom he operated would be “born again.” Since God is no respector of persons (Acts 10:34), the Holy Spirit would operate upon the heart of every sinner and there would be universal salvation. But Jesus taught that there will not be universal salvation (Matt. 25:46). Hence, the direct operation theory is false.

(5) If the direct operation theory is true, the Devil is more powerful than God. All rational beings act from motive. The Devil seduced man’s first parents by laying before them a motive to sin. They were by this motive induced to sin, thus separating themselves from God. If God cannot lay before man motives to do his will and thus incline man to righteousness and bring him back into covenant relationship with himself, the Devil is more powerful than God. Furthermore, if the direct operation theory is true, error is more powerful than truth. Adam and Eve heard Satan’s lie, believed it, obeyed it, and were lost. If the sinner cannot hear God’s truth, believe it, obey it, and be saved, then a lie is more powerful than the truth. Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32).

(6) The direct operation theory denies the all-sufficiency of the word of God. The Bible teaches that the word of God has the power to save (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18; Jas. 1:21), reconciles (2 Cor. 5:18-20), gives life (Jn. 6:63; Psa. 119:50,93), converts (Psa. 19:7), cleanses the soul (Jn. 15:3; Acts 15:9; Rom. 10:17), is the seed of the new life in Christ (1 Pet. 1:22-25; 1 Cor. 4:15; Jas. 1:18), sanctifies (Jn. 17:17), and will condemn or justify in the last day (Jn. 12:48). The direct operation theory antagonizes every one of these passages and many more like them. It is, therefore, false.


God loves the sinner (Jn. 3:16). He sent his Son to die as a sacrifice for man’s sins (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 1 Jn. 4: 10). Christ died for our sins, shedding his blood, that man might be justified (Rom. 3:25,26). After his resurrection, ascension, and coronation, Christ sent the Holy Spirit to consummate the work of redemption by guiding the apostles into all truth and enabling them to work miracles by which the word was confirmed (Jn. 14:26; 16:7-13; Mk. 16:15-20). Sinners, hearing the gospel, believing, repenting, and being baptized were saved from their sins and added to the church (Acts 2:22-47). No person in the apostolic age ever received a direct operation of the Holy Spirit in order to make him a Christian, a child of God. If men today will believe the same gospel as did men in New Testament days, repent of their sins, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins as did men in the apostolic age, they will derive the same benefits. They will be saved from their sins and by the Lord be added to the church. Living faithfully in the service of Christ, they will be crowned with life in that world eternal (Rev. 2:10). Foolish indeed is he who waits for some mysterious, miraculous, “better felt than told” operation of the Holy Spirit (which is not commanded by God and of which there is no Bible example) and neglects to obey the gospel of the Son of God (2 Thess. 1:6-10).

(The material in this tract has been gleaned from many sources. No claim of originality is made by its author, except for the originality of the mode of expression in the tract. It would be impossible to give credit to every source from which help has been received. Especial acknowledgment is due for help received from SoundDoctrine, Vol. IV by C.R. Nichol and R.L. Whiteside.)

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 7, pp. 208-212
April 5, 1990