January 16, 2021

Iain Murray: Facing the Main Problem in Evangelism Today

I really appreciate Iain Murray, the editor at Banner of Truth Trust, former associate to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and an eminent historian of evangelicalism. His many talks at various reformed conferences throughout the years are worth acquiring and his books are all valuable. Some are simply essential.

Dr. Murray’s books are available through any reformed book outlet such as www.ccvbs.com or monergism.com. His talks are available through Sound Word Associates. The particular talk that I want to encourage you to read/hear is in The Old Evangelicalism in a chapter called “Preaching and Awakening: Facing the Main Problem In Evangelism.” An audio version of the talk is available from Sound Word (search Iain Murray’s section) as “Facing the Main Problem In Evangelism.” This talk was given in 1987 at Calvin College, but it’s timeless and extremely diagnostic of what I have seen in my own ministry. The talk is currently $5, but it’s worth the cost and Sound Word is well worth your support. Their library of conference speaking is a real treasure.

(Monergism has a large Iain Murray archive, and I am sure the material I am talking about is in many of these talks. You won’t go wrong with Murray on any aspect of evangelicalism and the Gospel.) Sermon Audio has a similar archive.

I bring up Dr. Murray because his answer to the main problem in evangelism is the lack of conviction of sin. The fact that many of you are rolling your eyes is evidence that Murray needs to be heard.

I’ve been preaching for 34 + years, 28 of those as an ordained minister. I was formed and shaped in a church where conviction of sin was stressed and the Holy Spirit was depended upon to produce conviction and regeneration.

I’ve had experiences in ministry of seeing and personally experiencing conviction of sin. I understand it as a work of the Spirit, and I know from both scripture and experience how it is related to regeneration and conversion.

I say all that to get to this: I have not seen or sensed a general genuine conviction of sin among the non-Christians that I work with in many years. In my experience, Murray’s diagnosis is dead-on target.

In 1995, the ministry where I serve experienced an “awakening” that received some attention. It was a genuine work of the Spirit, and I have no doubt that God was at work. But I also believe that this “awakening” never reached the level of general conviction of sin, and today I would call it a “stirring” and a “drawing,” but I would be reluctant to call it much else.

I simply do not meet people who are…

1) Struck with any measure of a genuine fear of the Lord.
2) Thinking of God AT ALL in Biblical terms, especially in regard to their relationship with God.
3) Concerned with their own sinful condition as a matter of God’s wrath.
4) Convicted with a sense of sin MORE than a sense of their personal problems and felt needs. (This is universal, constant and unchanging.)
5) Any sense of the problem of sin other than the possibility of not going to heaven.

Murray is clear that conviction is based upon a knowledge of God. By that measure, conviction is almost impossible with the students under my ministry. There is an utter deadness to the subject of understanding the Biblical God or the Gospel in reference to the Biblical God. If I talk about God in reference to felt needs, relationships, marriage, sex or gender issues, the audience is with me. If I preach about “hurts” or brokenness in family relationships, I have attention and often emotional response. But if I talk about sin in reference to God and the Gospel, the unbelief is real and tangible.

This is a significant problem in evangelism, and it leads to many other problems in evangelicalism. What we see in evangelicalism today appears to me to be an abandonment of the place of broad, general conviction of sin, any connection of conviction of sin to regeneration and any assumption that conviction of sin in regard to God precedes Biblical conversion.

My ultimate reason for bringing this up is because I am concerned that much that is happening among evangelicals today has the net result of producing less and less true evangelism. A curious, felt needs attachment to Jesus is not evangelism. Being a fan of aspects of the Christian worldview is not evangelism. Church growth gimmicks are not evangelism. Talk of what we must do to reshape Christianity for the emerging generation is not evangelism.

Evangelism is a witness to Jesus Christ that calls the unbeliever to place faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. It is premised on the work of Christ in regard to our sin problem with the God of the Bible. The foundation of evangelism is the reality of the God of the Bible.

It concerns me that Murray’s answer to the issue of the main problem in evangelism is largely being ignored as we look to so many other answers to evangelicalism’s dilemmas. I fear that many evangelicals, enamored with theology, relevance and the next new way to do church, are missing what is most important: The power of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to faith, including conviction of sin.

Murray’s diagnosis of the Main Problem in Evangelism needs to be heard. Listen, read and consider.


  1. Amen. It is utterly impossible to desire a Savior, should not see anything to saved from.


  2. I agree entirely..I know everyone is relieved to hear that. 🙂

    Like him or not, Ray Comfort and his “Way of the Master” series nails this dead on. It’s useless to call people to repent when they have no idea what to repent of. Promising them “a better life” and never mentioning sin is just a travesty.

    Jesus came to deliver us out of bondage and from the coming judgment that awaits us all. Neglecting to tell people of that judgment and what they, personally, have done to deserve it is failing both our fellow man and our God in profound ways. Now, the guy standing in the back of a pickup truck yelling obscenities at people or going around pointing out every sin, real or imagined, people commit is also a failure. Clanging cymbals and all that….


  3. Thanks for this…I need to repent of all of the sins that I am so accustomed to that I barely recognize them as sinful anymore. I think we probably all have some of those…it’s time to stop listening to the latest polls, books, preachers, studies, etc. and start listening to the Spirit afresh.

  4. ‘Conviction of sin’ in the sense that you seem to mean it had nothing whatsoever to do with my conversion to Christianity. Nor could I have ever grasped that or had any response to it in the place where I was. Over the course of fifteen years following Jesus, I have gradually learned and am learning the Christian ethic, sometimes first intellectually, sometimes not, but eventually as a part of my identity. And as I have been steadily healed and grown, even if my growth on a measured scale has been very small, in communion with Jesus, my awareness and conviction of my own sinfulness has grown as well.

    In short, I don’t agree with the entire premise above. I don’t find that in Scripture. I don’t find in the story of how God relates to us. It may work that way for some people, some of the time. But as the whole gospel? (Or at least the ground or entry point of the whole gospel.) It’s too small and too narrow. It’s a lens that is so reduced to a specific cultural context that as culture shifts it no longer has room to speak.

    I’m hardly surprised at your perception of the non-Christians you meet. They sound to one degree or another like the person I was.

  5. Scott M:

    Point taken.

    But I’d suppose it would be extremely hard to read the entire New Testament and come away with the idea that conversion is not built upon the foundation of the Biblical view of God and our relationship to him. I’m not prescribing aisle-walking and altar calls. I’m saying that if people don’t perceive Christ the MEDIATOR as a mediator between GOD and sinful persons, then what are Hebrews, Romans, I John talking about?

    God is sovereign and the work of the spirit takes different forms. Some are drawn long before they are awakened. Some are in a kind of faith before they are convicted. I realize all that.

    But people with no thoughts of God and no disturbance in their relationship with him that needs a savior are- eventually- not Christians. Christ came to seek and to save what was lost. He came to save his people from their sins. He became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him. These paradigms aren’t optional and they aren’t my invention. They are central passages in the New Testament summaries ofthe Biblical story.



  6. Michael,

    I’ll try to better explain what I mean. But I’ve not been very good speaking across this particular gap so I’m not sure I’ll be able to do so this time. But it is worth trying, I think. We’re talking culture as much as Scripture here, even if you are not able to see how much in the above is culturally shaped, and since I’ve already put myself out there, I’ll continue to use my own life as the whipping horse.

    While I mentioned being Christian 15 years (or something less than that more likely), the journey of my dance with this Christian God has encompassed my entire life. Somewhere roughly 12 to 15 years ago, I realized my identity had been reshaped as one who intended to follow Jesus of Nazareth. While acknowledging all the previous interactions with this God, steps toward and away, and without dismissing the authenticity of any of my earlier steps toward (especially as a child), I refer to that time as the point when my long journey of conversion reached fruition.

    And I’ll say again. To the extent that I’ve been able to understand what people mean by the phrase ‘conviction of sin’, that had nothing whatsoever to do with any of my long journey of conversion. ‘Conviction of sin’ began to develop, undoubtedly through the work of the Holy Spirit, only after my identity had been reshaped as one who follows Jesus of Nazareth and continues to this day. Prior to that point in time I simply had no frame of reference, no lens for perceiving the world around me, in which such a conviction could have taken root.

    Now. Repentance is necessary. But most people confuse repentance with being sorry for your individual sins. N.T. Wright’s story of reading Josephus in the original Greek is one of the best for driving this point home. When Josephus went to speak with the leader of the Jewish rebels, Josephus told the rebel to give up his way of dealing with Rome and adopt his way instead. But in the greek, he used exactly the same language Jesus used and which we translate into english, “Repent and believe in me.”

    In order to follow Jesus, we must give up our way of leading life and trying to be human and adopt his way. In biblical language, we must ‘repent and believe in him’. Nowhere does that require some sense of individual ‘sinfulness’ or sorrow. It does require a sense that Jesus offers a better path and perhaps that the path you have chosen is broken in some way (or at least deficient).

    So how did I reach that point if it was not any ‘conviction of sin’? As one might expect growing up in the South, I had interactions with Christians my whole life. Some were positive and might have drawn me in. Others were quite negative, including being told from a pulpit to leave a church. However, my negative conceptions of ‘Christians’, even when based on personal experience, were always eventually deconstructed by Christians who refused to conform to my negative expectations. That was not enough to lead to conversion, but it is what prevented me from completely pushing Christianity aside and ignoring it.

    Now, as anyone who knew even a tenth of my story would guess, I do and have always had a sense of the brokenness of the world. And I’ve always been the spiritual sort of seeker. Eventually, as I kept meeting and even being ‘blessed’ by Christians who refused to conform to my negative preconceptions and instead acted in love, all because of this God they followed, I began to take a closer look at Jesus.

    And the more I looked, the more I was amazed at the story of this God who so intimately interacted with his creation. And I was overwhelmed by the implications of the defeat of the bondage of death in the Resurrection. I was captivated by the way Jesus said to be human. I had followed many paths and was at that time following a very different path. I gave up that path and began following Jesus of Nazareth instead. It was a fairly radical shift for me and it is still ongoing.

    It was only after I had changed paths that any sort of Christian ‘conviction of sin’ made any sense whatsoever. And that has only developed over time and is still developing today. You can only tell you are less than you should be in comparison to and out of communion with Jesus. So I’m not the least surprised that you see no widespread ‘conviction of sin’ today. Things have shifted and the cultural shaping required for even a vague preconversion sense of individual sin has largely vanished.

    The good news is the our ‘Good News’ is more than big enough and expansive enough to draw all people to be disciples of Jesus as long as we don’t reduce it.

  7. Memphis Aggie says

    How about Proverbs 15:16 or Proverbs 15:33? Or Matthew (I think) parable of the publican repenting in the Temple being justiied while the self satisfied Pharisee is not.

    Holy fear is an important gift of the Spirit. I’d quote the Wisdom books but y’all don’t use those for some reason.

    Great topic Michael

  8. Isn’t it part of humanity’s total depravity that they don’t recognize they’re sinful and need saving? That is, until the Holy Spirit makes us aware of the need.

    Most of the pagans I meet are pretty sure that they’re good people and will go to heaven, and are not worried about God because they really don’t know anything about Him except that God is love. That part they get. That’s the part they’re really putting their hope into—that God is love and would never, ever, send them to hell (if they believe in hell at all).

    I find that attitude among Christians too, which leads me to believe two things: Either they’re still pagans hiding in plain sight, or they’ve been taught—as churches teach—that Jesus took their sin away, and therefore they don’t need to worry about it anymore. So they don’t. The few that do think there’s something wrong with them—that they just don’t have the faith in Jesus they should—and hide it or are in therapy about it.

    Either way, we’re taught that dwelling on our sins is unhealthy. So we don’t.

  9. Memphis Aggie says

    KW Leslie,

    It’s not like that in Catholicism where all the Saints grow in humility and begin to think less and less of themselves and to imagine that they are the worst of sinners (like Paul did).

    Bishop Sheen described it as a man walking toward the sun: when he’s far way his shadow is great and he imagines he’s tall, but as he approaches the light his shadow shrinks and he begins to see himself as he really is.

    Or what was true for John the Baptist is true for everyone: He must increase and I must decrease.

  10. ‘K.W.’, why would a ‘pagan’ want to go to or even care about the Christian heaven? I share C.S Lewis’s opinion about total depravity. Nor do I believe in the somewhat gentler dogma of original sin in the Western sense. Over the last several years, I’ve discovered my understanding and experience in this regard seems to be utterly consistent with the Eastern Christian understanding. That’s been a relief for me, actually. I couldn’t accept the Western understanding. It seemed inconsistent with everything I read in Holy Scripture, everything I perceived, and everything I experienced. But until I discovered my perception was right in the center of ancient orthodoxy, I felt pretty weird and out in left field.

    Memphis Aggie, both the publican and the Pharisee were already a part of the people of God. They were both praying at the Temple. I think that illustrates my point better than Michael. Years before I knew it was the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner’ was a part of my prayer life. But that follows becoming a part of the people of God. It does not precede it.

  11. I’d have to agree with Scott. My story is similar in some ways, though at first it may not seem so. Born into a SBC/Christian home, my dad being the pastor, I learned, and knew, of my sinfulness and need for a Savior. But all the emphasis seemed to be focused on “getting in, getting saved, not going to hell”. Baptised at 11 years old, afterwards I never felt completely comfortable with the idea that this is what it was all about. Made my understanding of life here on earth as just kind of pointless…waiting around for the end to come, except for trying to get other people saved too…so they could go to heaven.
    Surely salvation meant more than that.

    It really seemed like the main point of it all was being missed. And here is where I would echo Scott. The point, as I understand it, is all about repenting as Scott explained, and through following Jesus being converted-changed-transformed-conformed into the image of God, by His Spirit recreated to the humans we were meant to be, and to be a part of His redemption work here on earth. Finding our true identity in Him. It’s as if we strayed off the road God intended us to stay on, but we wandered away, got lost in the forest and began following other paths. Only through our repentance will we ever get back to that good road, The Way, the only road that leads to truth, love, hope, forgiveness, right relationship with God, the Kingdom of God, on-going sanctification, abundant life. Repent, and believe the good news! Isn’t that what we are called to do?

  12. Memphis Aggie says

    Scott – you’re right I re-read your posts I agree with your post conversion conviction of sin.

  13. So, it seems that Murray is speaking in terms of the “evangelism” part of Evangelicalism. I.e. we’re failing in our communication to those on the unsaved side of the Cross.

    My biggest concern among those on the SAVED side of the Cross is an insidious legalism within Evangelicalism.

    What do you think is the relationship between the two? I.e. do you think that if there was serious conviction of sin pre-salvation it would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of Grace post-salvation?

  14. It should be clear from my comments, but just to put all my cards on the table in the open, I’m not even vaguely monergistic and never have been. When I did encounter it in my exploration of Christianity after I began following Jesus, I found it to be an exceedingly strange idea. God has never overridden my will or changed anything within me without my consent and cooperation. If my will and synergy with God is but an illusion, I might as well return to a belief in maya. Let it all be illusion.

  15. Michael,

    You stated that “there is an utter deadness to the subject of understanding the Biblical God or the Gospel in reference to the Biblical God. If I talk about God in reference to felt needs, relationships, marriage, sex or gender issues, the audience is with me. If I preach about “hurts” or brokenness in family relationships, I have attention and often emotional response. But if I talk about sin in reference to God and the Gospel, the unbelief is real and tangible.”

    So what is a Pastor to do? Talk about sin and not communicate, or talk about “hurts” and “brokenness” and get attention? If “hurts” and “brokenness” are a result of sin, then wouldn’t that be a way to get people to understand what sin is all about?

  16. Bob Sacamento says

    I know this is a problem with my own attitude about myself. There is a basic, but hard to explain, part of me that just don’t see me as a sinner in need of repentance and forgiveness anymore. I got to this problem point over a long and confusing journey. But the starting point was a time a couple of decades ago where I was so overwrought with a sense of guilt and unworthiness (even though my sins were not at all of the “scandalous” type, as we might put it) that I was seriously on the verge of a breakdown. The church I was going to at the time was no help and was, in fact, part of the problem. I know I need to remember, not just intellectually, but on a gut level, my own sinfulness. But I just don’t have the guts to go back to where I was twenty years ago. I hope there is a third alternative. I just wonder if evangelicalism has this problem because there are so many people in it with stories similar to mine.

  17. Scott M.

    “I’m not even vaguely monergistic and never have been. When I did encounter it in my exploration of Christianity after I began following Jesus, I found it to be an exceedingly strange idea.”

    I should think so since you are not decribing monergistic regeneration. God changes the heart, He doesn’t force the will. When the heart is changed, when man is born again he sees his sin and turns to Christ. No one forces us to do anything, it is the heart of the natural, dead man that is changed. Dead men don’t repent, and all men are dead until quickened by the Spirit.

  18. I agree and don’t agree. Part of the damage done to me by that Church of God in New Jersey was that the youth leader – who was later found to be having an adulterous affair with the pastor’s daughter – would get us in youth group and accuse of committing all kinds of sins that I’m sure I would have never thought up on my own. I was so convinced that I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t that I was gonna. And I did. Every chance I got. A lot. Of course, that caused a lot of spiritual damage in it’s own right. To this day I struggle with this image of God as mean old man who’s just sitting up their looking for an excuse to wallop me and send me to hell – instead of a loving parent who, yes, will punish me if needed, but he’s not up there looking for an excuse.

  19. Hey Mike,

    I agree with Mr. Murray! I believe the biggest problem is a lack of preaching on the cross. Even with good brothers like Comfort and crew they emphasize the Law not the Gospel. Here is what I mean brother. We see the greatest work of God in the cross! We see God’s utter disgust for sin and His undying love for His creation. God is a redeeming God for sure but He is so Holy that He crushed His Son. Sins ain’t the problem. Sin is! God’s infinite holiness in on the line today. I agree that the Church has overemphasized leagalism (smoking, drinking, movies) so many good brothers have brought in the need for the Church to do work of services; however, due to this service has become the focus of the ministry. While Paul is very clear that the preaching of Christ and Him Crucified is the focus of the Church.

    But with Have your Best Life Now, Purpose Driven Church, Velvet Elvis, and other such books demphasize the cross and some of our more Reformed brothers (Sproul, Piper, Puritans) have been consistent in showing the Holiness of God but sometimes don’t show the compassion and tender love of God. But I do agree, evangelism is either based on the Law (you see I am not of this persuasion) while others paint God to be overly obsessed with Sin.

  20. I agree with Scott M’s posts.

    C.S. Lewis said that we must be careful not to universalize our own salvation experience.

    God works in a myriad of ways. We like to generalize and paint industrially, with a broad bush. God is a pointillist, and all the points of color are individual stories that form a beautiful painting. And we will spend eternity marveling at God’s handiwork.

    Now 46, I cannot remember a time when I have not been a believer. How much conviction of sin could I have had at age 5 or 6 growing up in a pastor’s home?

    Yet, my personal salvation experience has always been regarded as suspect in the SBC churches I previously attended because I could not point to a specific point in time I had remorse and believed.

  21. Arthur, the closest modern English equivalent to ‘heart’ in the NT is ‘will’, even though, as with all translation efforts, it’s not really a direct equivalent. Like ‘mind’ (or nous), you really need a lot more than one word to adequately translate it. It’s the core of being and the source of decision and action. Yes, the fundamental problem is certainly ‘death’ (not sin), but that’s a different discussion. The language game of monoergism collapses to something almost indistinguishable to monoism to me. And both Augustine and Calvin (though Calvin took it much much further) make statements about seeing no place for free will whatsoever. It’s Holy Scripture read through the lens of Plato and (particularly in Calvin’s case) the lens of the idea of ‘natural law’.

    I’ve been reflecting more on the actual issue of this post. And several things strike me. I think of an analogy I’ve heard Wright use of the layers of an onion. And how you find the inner layers as you peel back the outer layers. He was using it for something else, but I think it applies here. The healing of my individual sin is important, but it is the innermost layer of the onion. We find the array of individual problems (of which sin is one) within the larger layers of our interaction with other human beings and our interaction with creation.

    Unfortunately, evangelicalism has reduced their ‘Good News’ to the forgiveness (not even much healing usually proffered) of sin in order to address the problem of an individual and personal lack of relationship with God. And that problem is so far into the onion that the only way they can offer their solution, their ‘gospel’ to someone is to somehow bring them far enough into the onion so that they see their own problem in terms of the personal, individual God relationship in such an utterly modern, Western Christian sense that the solution now fits.

    I think what Michael sees is simply the reality that many people today are nowhere near that layer of the onion. We are much farther out. It’s not that we necessarily don’t see that the way we treat the world is broken or that the way people treat each other is damaged or broken. But we do not see that in terms of the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

    However, God is present throughout every layer. He is intimately present with his creation, filling all things, and sustaining all from moment to moment. He is intimately involved with us even when we turn from him. He blesses the wicked as well as the righteous. We can begin to see him as we are concerned with man’s treatment of this world and all within it. God sends his church so people can see and experience how relationship works when people begin to act like true human beings. And as we progress inward in our understanding of God we find healing for our own individual sins. We begin to understand even that they are sin and why.

    Some people can cross the layers more quickly than others. I confess that I am a stubborn and strong-willed fool. I never had the grace and humbleness of those like the thief on the cross, to leap to sufficient faith in an instant.

    Nevertheless, mine has been a profoundly God-touched life. Looking back, I can see no time when God was not seeking me, was not blessing me, was not intimately engaged in the pursuit of me. He loved me beyond all reason. It may have taken me into my early thirties to finally begin to allow my identity to be shaped as one who follows Jesus, though I had taken steps in that direction before (as well as many more in other directions). And I only recognized that fact in hindsight, some time after it happened. But that doesn’t bother me. I don’t remember my first birth either, but I know it happened.

    The gospel is not just about the healing and forgiveness of my individual sin in order to restore my individual relationship to God. Yes, there is much healing and restoration to be found. And yes, there is all the forgiveness we will ever need. But trying to work from the individual to the communal to all creation strikes me as the wrong order. Or at least an order that is increasingly incomprehensible.

  22. Lionel, the ‘greatest’ work of God was the cross? A great work? Absolutely! Even an essential work? Certainly! But your use of ‘greatest’ bothers me. I read the NT, especially texts like 1 Cor. 15, but many others as well, and if any work of God deserves the appellation ‘greatest’, surely it would have to the Resurrection. We see in Col. that the moment when the whole cosmos — all creation — was when Jesus came out of the tomb. It was the Resurrection which broke forever the gates of Hades (e.g. death). If there was no Resurrection, our faith is in vain, we are still dead in our sin, and should be pitied above all other men.

    I’m not convinced that any single work of God should be labeled ‘greatest’, but if I was going to give that label to anything, it would be the Resurrection. I remember a year or so ago, the SBTC newsletter has some articles on some topic. And I remember in one of them, the author got to the Resurrection and the only thing he could say about it is that it was the proof that God had accepted Jesus’ payment for our individual sins. That was it. I was stunned. Since then, I have thought about it and think perhaps that is one of the greatest failures of a gospel reduced to nothing more than the solution of the problem of my individual sin. In that gospel (which I don’t think is what Michael was really describing — at least not reduced that far) the Resurrection is an afterthought and the Holy Spirit almost seems unnecessary.

  23. Thank you, Scott M. The Resurrection is why the blood of bulls and goats was powerless to take away sin. Only in the context of Jesus’ Resurrection does addressing our sin make sense and provide a way out. “Jesus paid it all” isn’t the whole story.

  24. I’ve thought for a long time that the core message that man is sinful and needs to be made right with God has been missing. The “evangelists” at the youth rallies I’ve attended with my kids mostly seemed to say that Jesus took away the bad things and made their lives better – no more big problems.

    This points to another part that is missing, the message of what discipleship is: they are entering a life of struggle between the habits of sin in the flesh and the new life of the Spirit that is transforming their lives; they are entering a life that is harder than they knew, that is more joyous than they knew.

    I wonder if we’ve been afraid of addressing sin because we’re afraid of scaring off our new converts; they might un-decide to follow Jesus if it looks like there is work and committment and struggle involved. If you’re using bait and switch to get people into the kingdom and then deal with sin, when do you do the switch? Maybe we’ll sneak up on them and work through the back door with “wouldn’t life go better if you stopped…?” – moralism instead of dealing with the root of sin.

    Try telling someone “I have good news, something that will really make your life better. It may involve throwing up and losing your hair, but you’ll be much better off!”. They will say you’re nuts. But start with “You have a disease that will probably mean a long and painful death”, and the good news now makes a lot more sense.

    We need to be speaking reality: what their condition really is, who really has the cure, and what is really involved in the new life they’re being called to.

  25. Mr. Whipple says

    I wonder if we’ve been afraid of addressing sin because we’re afraid of scaring off our new converts

    Reminds me of the “great commission” in Mt. 26:

    “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

    Sad to say, but the teaching part is rarely emphasized, perhaps for the reason you suggest. If Jesus is thought of as just another lawgiver, folks runaway.

  26. I’m a bit distraught that some of you are writing as if Murray’s emphasis on the main problem in evangelism equals the abuse you suffered at the hands of a group of sin obsessed, manipulative Christians.

    Conviction is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is most certainly NOT the result of beating the “flesh” with guilt and abuse.

    A big experience of good theology is one thing. A bad experience of bad theology is another.

    Scott M
    : I appreciate you saying you aren’t monergistic, as that is a very important aspect of Murray’s view.

  27. I recognized that it was. That’s why I wanted to put it out there so people at least had some idea of the lens through which I was writing. Thanks for starting (and managing) a very interesting discussion.

  28. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’ve been preaching for 34 + years, 28 of those as an ordained minister. I was formed and shaped in a church where conviction of sin was stressed and the Holy Spirit was depended upon to produce conviction and regeneration.

    I think what happened is the “holiness”-style churches of that period over-emphasized conviction of sin, so the Evangelicals of our period under-emphasize it. And both Calvary Road-style Worm Theology and Blinky Osteen’s Positive Thinking Theology are badly out of balance.

    Me? I suffer from what’s called “Excessive Scrupulosity”, i.e. conviction of sin gone pathological/perfectionist until it squeezes out all hope and you envy the psychopath’s inability to feel guilt. (It’s lessened over the years, but I still have bouts of depression from it.) You can guess how this can get seriously messed up when things go out-of-balance in the Holiness-style worm theology direction.

  29. From my admittedly simplistic redneck point of view, the best Gospel ever preached is the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ. Love God, love everyone else too.

    It’s not my job to convict the world of sin but to preach Christ and Him crucified. Let the Holy Spirit do His work. If there is no conviction of sin…maybe it’s because people are trying to take over the Spirit’s work. Do what you’re commanded to do and get out of the way.

  30. This has been a thought provoking thread, thanks to Scott M (and everyone) for their insights.

    I do have some questions. You’ve cited NT Wright a lot but you also said

    “…the ‘greatest’ work of God was the cross? A great work? Absolutely! Even an essential work? Certainly! But your use of ‘greatest’ bothers me.”

    I think NT would disagree. His view: “The truth about God is revealed, for Paul, supremely on the cross….” (What St. Paul Really Said)

    Can you elaborate on your view? Doesn’t the centrality of the Cross and the conviction of sin go hand in hand?

    And, doesn’t Paul’s Damascus Rd. experience illustrate the importance of the conviction of sin?

  31. I won’t have the opportunity to ask Bishop Tom, but I have a sense he would feel the same discomfort I do over labeling any one of these the ‘greatest’ act. The supreme truth about God may have been revealed on the Cross. (And that supreme truth, as John tells us, is a true revelation of love.) But the cosmos changed when Jesus came out of the tomb. I’ve also read the Resurrection of the Son of God.

    I’m probably more in line with the Christus Victor descriptions of the Cross. I grok recapitulation and ransom both better than the perspective of this post.

    And I’ve just mentally run the Damascus Road scene through my mind. I’m not sure where I see ‘conviction of sin’ as a significant facet of it at all. Paul was abruptly and dramatically told that he was following the wrong path and need to drop everything in his way of doing life and perceiving reality and start following Jesus. In other words — repent and believe in Jesus. And he did so. I’m not sure many of us get something as dramatic as Paul did. But again, I don’t see a straight line connection to your conclusion. I can sorta see how, if I squint and look sideways and make several assumptions and logical leaps, I might get there. But it’s not how the story naturally reads to me.

  32. Scott Miller says

    Conviction of sin…iMonk you consistently hit the nail on the head.
    I thought about this all afternoon and you are right. We have allowed free, easy grace to the point that the sinner comtinues to walk exclusively in sin and he is just “experiencing grace a little more than the rest of us”.
    I was introduced to the Reformed theology just in the last year through White Horse Inn and this site. I now go to a church that is most close to Reformed Baptist. The pastor is from the Master’s Seminary in California. They don’t encourage altar calls because they think people look to that moment instead of to God. Very Spurgeon. And they preach the abhorrance of your own sin as the evidence of a changed life.
    But I really don’t hate my sin. I pretend to lament and then spout something about how “its not works”.
    I thought about this all afternoon and I realized that I don’t fear God. And suddenly I became terribly afraid and in awe.

  33. Scott Miller says

    Well, the Damascus Road experience stands in the face of all that we call evangelicalism. It is also the main evidence of monergism in the NT.
    Paul wasn’t convicted of sin, and he didn’t get drawn to Jesus. He was on task and Jesus knocked him to the ground. He wasn’t even directly witnessed to until after he was struck blind.

  34. We don’t know what was going on inside Paul up until that point, and Paul didn’t really psychoanalyze himself in his writings, but I think he must have been chewing on what Christians had been proclaiming (and dying for, as Paul saw Stephen do), and when Jesus knocked him off the horse it all came clear. Conversion is a process; it may be quicker for some than others, but that’s how it works. I don’t believe that God overrides the will and choices of normally functioning human beings. We’re created in God’s image, and that’s not how the Trinity does things.


  35. Christopher Lake says


    God may not “override” our wills and choices (I’m not sure how you mean that though), but He does say that He will take hearts of stone and make them hearts of flesh. If this is not overriding our wills, it is most certainly *transforming* them– which *results* in our cooperation with God for our *sanctification.* Calling and justification, on the other hand, are purely His work. Romans 8:30.

  36. it’s been a problem for a while now, but it’s definately getting worse –

    “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved … They deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”
    – G.K. Chesterton

  37. I can certainly go with transformation. All I’m saying is that humans have a part in sanctification and that we choose. We are made in the image of God, who is Love, and if we can’t choose without coercion, then we can’t love. Love is what changes stones into flesh.


  38. Christopher Lake says


    What if we *won’t* love God unless He changes our hearts? This seems to be the Bible’s testimony about us– at least until God intervenes in our lives, personally, individually. Paul says that no one seeks God, which means that He is the one doing the seeking.

    Also, do hearts of stone love God, until they are changed to hearts of flesh– or perhaps a better question is, *can* they love God? What you describe as coercion may be like a blind man being given sight, after which he “sees” a Sight so beautiful that he cannot refuse, or wouldn’t *want* to refuse.

  39. Christopher Lake says


    Thanks for featuring Iain Murray on your site! I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this post, as I know that you have intentionally not identified as “Reformed” for quite a while.

    The Banner of Truth Trust has published so much material over the years that could help to positively reshape evangelicalism– if evangelicals only knew about it and/or would simply give it the time of day! The “Puritan Paperbacks” series contains some real treasures. The Puritans certainly had many problems (the American ones especially; I like that the Banner of Truth focuses more on the English ones), but they had a high view of God and a serious view of sin that evangelicals today desperately need!

  40. The fact is the world doesn’t see the need for salvation in the sense that the evangelical church offers it (a better hereafter) but the world is very concerned with the Problem of Evil here, now and hereafter.

    Thus I think we need to get back to Paul’s bigger perspective and God’s bigger plan which includes everybody and everything. Yes, our personal sins are a problem but God’s redemptive plan is bigger.

    Perhaps if we understood properly what Jesus came to inaugurate we would find far more non-Christians eager and willing to get onboard.

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