How are we to pray for a friend or family member who doesn’t know Christ? If you follow the example of most believers’ prayers, you’ll pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sins so that they’ll become open to the gospel. No one would object to the motivation behind that kind of prayer, which is the salvation of loved ones. But are we really praying according to what the Bible says the Holy Spirit will do when we approach it that way?
The answer is no. It is pointless to hope or pray that the Holy Spirit will convict an unbeliever of the things they are doing wrong. He’s not going to do that for one simple reason: Their sins are not the problem. You see, the specific sins — the detailed misbehavior — of a person who isn’t trusting in Jesus Christ is just indicative of a deeper problem.
The Holy Spirit isn’t going to convict unbelievers of their specific sins because that wouldn’t meet the deepest need they have. Their biggest problem isn’t their misbehavior. He’s going to convict them of the one thing that ultimately matters — their unbelief in Christ. That’s the core issue.
John 16:8 tells exactly what the Holy Spirit will do in regard to the conviction of the world. Jesus said, “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:8-9).
The word “convict” in this biblical context doesn’t mean that He finds them guilty, as we might normally think of when we use that word. The word in this context means “to convince” and that’s what God wants to do. God’s Spirit will convince an unbeliever of his unbelief and he will come to see the necessity of believing in Jesus Christ. In comparison to that, nothing else matters. Compared to unbelief, behavior is just incidental.
I’ll give you an example. When I was in high school, I worked in a nursing home. Part of my responsibility there was to take the bodies of men who had died and bathe and clean those corpses, to get them ready for the funeral director.
When I bathed them, shaved them, and dressed them, I would put their dead bodies in a geriatrics chair and tie them to the chair. There they would sit until the funeral home would come to pick them up and take them to the morgue. Without wanting to sound disrespectful, I can honestly say that, after I finished with them, most of those guys looked better than I’d seen them look in years. Everything looked right about them, but they had a big problem. They were dead.
That’s exactly the way it is with the life of an unbeliever. His sins, as serious as those things might be, are really symptoms. You might as well forget praying that the Holy Spirit will convict an unbeliever of his addiction to drugs, or her addiction to alcohol or promiscuity or anything like that. If a person doesn’t know Christ, he has one consuming need, and that is his unbelief.
Sometimes the most glaring characteristic of an unbeliever in our minds may be his misbehavior. We may see a person acting in a way that would be considered morally offensive to many and we cringe to see such behavior, but that isn’t the big thing to God. He knew how we would all behave when He gave Himself for our sins. His concern now is that we believe on Him and enter into the experience of knowing our sins are forgiven and living out of the fullness of His indwelling life.
So we may think, since a person’s bad behavior is the most urgent thing to us, that God’s Spirit sees them the same way and that His main concern is about how they are acting. That’s just not the case so we might as well not pray based on that faulty assumption. The idea that the Holy Spirit convicts an unbeliever of their sins is false. He will only convict an unbeliever of one thing, and that is his unbelief in Jesus Christ. He will show that person where he stands so that he can enter into the experience of knowing God through Jesus.
We all know people who haven’t trusted in Jesus Christ. When we pray for them, let’s not pray that they’ll be convicted about taking drugs or drunkenness or immorality or anything like that. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their unbelief, because that is His ministry. When we pray for them in that way, we are appropriating a truth of the Bible that can make an eternal difference in somebody’s life.
(This article is taken from my working manuscript, 52 Lies Heard In Church Every Sunday. It will be released January, 2011)