Q: “This may sound silly, but is there a difference between guilt and conviction?”
A: This is the first time I have been asked this question, and to me it is a pertinent one because I think there is confusion and assumptions about both of these subjects. The answer is yes, there is a major and noteworthy difference between them.
Guilt is a determination and/or feeling. The concept of being guilty of something is based on a legal determination when used in a courtroom and a moral judgment when it comes to the conscience. Guilt in the legal sense happens when one breaks the law and in the moral sense, it happens when a person betrays their personal convictions about what is right and wrong. In both cases guilt is determined by some type of judgment.
In the courtroom, guilt is relative and people often declare it is unfair and refuse to accept the burden of it. At this point it becomes a debate as to the legitimacy of that particular law, whether it is just, fair, and justifiable, but in the conscience, it is inward knowledge that a matter is morally wrong, silencing all debate as to the legitimacy of it as it remains a rigid judgment that will not budge from how it defines and interprets the action. In the courtroom guilt leads to consequences, but when it comes to the conscience it ends in condemnation.
As we can see, in the courtroom when guilt is determined a debt is required, but in the conscience, it leaves a matter open ended unless forgiveness is sought and obtained. It is for this reason many people carry around a guilty conscience because in the gravest sense it is the greatest type of betrayal.
It is important to point out we all have a worldview and depending on what has influenced it becomes a means of how we judge ourselves and others in light of moral issues, beliefs, and behavior. God did put His moral law into our conscience and for people to silence it, they must ignore, resist, and mock it in order to sear it, producing a reprobate mind (Romans 1:20).
When our worldview is activated or challenged, it will be quick and decisive in its judgments. When it is directed at others it becomes a board in the eye and when it is directed within, it becomes a condemning judge that is void of mercy and compassion. Its judgment of others is based on bias, and prejudicial opinions while its judgment of self is mocking and tormenting.
Remember, guilt is a feeling that is associated with shame, failure, offense, or culpability. The shame is attached to a moral infraction, failure associated with some type of fiasco, offense that has been committed on others, and culpability in dropping the ball in regard to commitments, oaths, and honorable obligations. For this reason, Hebrews 10:22-23 gives us this instruction, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering: (for he is faithful that promised.)”
Conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-13). He convicts us of sin in light of the work of Jesus on the cross. This conviction becomes a type of knowing in our spirit and if we are tender towards the truth, the inner knowing will bring us into agreement with God’s evaluation about it. It is only in agreement that we can take on the same attitude as the Lord towards it and as we do it, it becomes unacceptable. True agreement will result in true conversion after ending in repentance brought on by a changed attitude, a heart that has been humbled, and an about-face in conduct.
People use guilt to get us to do something contrary to our person and such guilt is a form of witchcraft. However, the Holy Spirit convicts, and then enables us to confront what ails our spirit and soul. It is from humility we are given the power to overcome it, experiencing liberty from its bondage.
The way I look at my conscience is that it is a yellow light that warns me to take stock and if a problem is revealed, it will quickly lead to conviction which is the red light that tells me to stop and properly deal with it. The green light gives me the liberty in the Spirit to advance forward, knowing the problem was dealt with.