Sin. Righteousness. Judgment.
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
John 16:8 (Holman) “When He comes, He will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment.”
Discussions about the Holy Spirit’s work usually focus on His ministry for believers. Our text describes His work in “the world,” among unbelievers.
His principal task among prechristians is to “convict” them. The word referred to the cross-examination of a witness in court. It carried the idea of pressuring a person until they saw and admitted the error of their way.
Used of the Holy Spirit, the word refers to His efforts to convince people they are wrong and weak. Wrong in their relationship to God; weak when it comes to fixing the relationship. People must be convinced they are in error and helpless to help themselves, especially regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment.
These three essential ingredients in a person’s walk with God are precisely where people are most powerless. Unbelievers flounder on all three counts.
When Jesus walked among us, the world regarded Him as sinful, saw itself as righteous, and had the audacity to pass judgment against Him. People by nature so totally err in their understanding of sin, righteousness, and judgment that only the Holy Spirit Himself can correct their wrong thinking.
We are foolish to think we can figure out the riddle of holiness without the Holy Spirit’s intervention. Unless He extends a helping hand sent down from above, all efforts by an unbeliever to be right with God prove fruitless.
John 16:9 “. . .about sin, because they do not believe in Me;. . .”
The Holy Spirit begins His work in lost people’s lives by convicting them of sin. People cannot know God personally until they acknowledge they are sinners.
Since sin is a rebellion against God eliciting His wrath, we need to precisely know what it is. Beware religious linguists who make up their own definitions.
Unbelievers often don’t believe sin offends God. Some never use the term at all, and if they ever did, it would refer at best to actions which hurt people. Many see people not as sinners, but as merely misdirected, as having not yet overcome problems received from our ancestors. Others say the human problem is ignorance, not sin, and view learning as the sole solution to our dilemma.
Many Christians define sin solely as breaking God’s laws. All these efforts, including the last one, to describe our deepest problem miss the point. The definition of sin that counts, the one we most need to understand, is the one Jesus gave in our text. Sin is refusal to believe on Jesus, not letting Him rule our life.
If we do not surrender ourselves to Him, when we live for self rather than for God, we are in sin. What we rightly call sins (plural) – lying, cheating, stealing, cursing, adultery, etc. – all have one root, sin (singular), a regard for self so strong that we keep God out.
Sin is the desire to live in self-centered independence, disowning any allegiance to Jesus. Not believing on Jesus is serious. Some claim it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we’re sincere, but sincere unbelief on Jesus is sincere lostness. Indifference condemns as quickly and surely as atheism does.
Being flippant about renouncing sin, and not believing on Jesus, are dangerous. If Ruth were murdered, what would people think of me if I valued the knife stained with her blood? You would think me insane at best, cruel at worst. Yet people frivolously cherish sin, the knife that pierced the heart of Jesus. It behooves us to hate this dagger, and throw it away.
The Holy Spirit has to hate unbelief. It crucified Jesus. Moral, upstanding, educated, religious men crucified Jesus because they harbored sin in their heart. The Holy Spirit confronts people’s lack of wanting God above sin. Anyone refusing to yield to this Heaven-sent conviction is guilty of sin.
John 16:10 “. . . about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see Me; . . .”
In our legal system, being found guilty is only bad news. If a person is convicted of wrong-doing, the next step is judgment. The guilty face sentencing.
In God’s courtroom, another step has been inserted in the legal process. A middle step can separate guilt from judgment. Once the Spirit successfully convicts people of sin, convincing them they are sinners, He then convicts them about righteousness, trying to convince them they can be righteous.
We once again have to beware potential linguistic problems. Self-proclaimed pundits are quick to offer their own definition of righteousness.
Many see it as the best good for the largest number. Some see it as adequate laws. Christians often define it as a moral, clean-living person who obeys the law, but by this definition, a Pharisee would be righteous.
Self-made linguists again miss the mark. Righteousness refers to our being made right with God. Since this is the most important issue we face in life, we need to know precisely what righteousness is, plus where and how to find it.
Even as sin is not outward badness, righteousness is not outward goodness. It is a gift Jesus bought with His blood and desires to give away. Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven proved the Father believed His Son had lived a totally righteous life, and had authority to dispense His righteousness to others from His abundant supply.
The Holy Spirit’s job is to convince people their self-made efforts to be righteous will never produce the righteousness God requires. We can do nothing to earn merit before God. Righteousness has to be given to us as a free gift.
This is why in Heaven we will wear robes. We will not be nudists. We are not innocent, as Adam and Eve were before they sinned. Being sinners, we all left innocence behind long ago. In Heaven, our white robes, serving as emblems of our righteousness, will remind us righteousness was ours not by nature, but had to be put on, received as a gift given to us.
Righteousness is made possible for us by the infinitely worthy righteousness of Another, the only One who is altogether righteous. Apart from Jesus, we have not one ounce of acceptance before God. The good news is, though sinners are separated from God by birth, choice, and habit, they are not past hope.
Once the Holy Spirit convinces us we are sinners and convinces us we need to be made righteous, He shows us where righteousness can be found, lest we despair. The Spirit uses Christ’s atoning work to make believers righteous. My Grandpa Hill’s favorite song said it well. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” (Edward Mote, Baptist preacher). His blood negates the negative (sin); His righteousness provides the positive (our being righteous).
John 16:11 “. . .and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.”
“The ruler of this world” is Satan. He “has been judged.” His failure to keep Jesus in the grave proved he had been conquered. The domain of the strong man was entered and defeated by the strongest Man. Jesus, by His resurrection, ruined the Devil, disarmed him, dispossessed him, and set up a royal throne on the ruins of his palace.
The Holy Spirit convicts sinners to know, if the ruler has been overthrown, his subjects will be too. Those who never quit belonging to Satan will be cast down on the last day. At the final judgment all unbelievers will be defeated, for their strongman has been defeated.
Someday we’ll all be judged, and give an account. The Holy Spirit convicts us of this. What makes us hesitate to do all we want to, makes us sense someone is watching, makes us think we may face a reckoning someday? The Holy Spirit “makes us feel what we can only call the danger of God” (Barclay).
While Jesus lived among us, people put Him on trial and passed judgment on him. Many still treat Jesus as if He were on trial. They evaluate Him as they would an item of clothing. Does it fit? Do I look good in it? Will it help me impress others? The truth is just the opposite. Jesus is not on trial. We are. We are the ones found guilty of sin, and needing righteousness, to prepare us for judgment. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our danger.
On the final day, when we see Jesus enthroned at God’s right hand, no skeptics will be found anywhere. All unbelief will have ceased by then, but for many it will be too late. God desires for us a better end to our story. The Holy Spirit’s convicting work within us is an errand of mercy. His reproofs are not a final sentence of condemnation, but rather a call to repentance.
The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment. We are sinners unable to help ourselves, but Jesus, by His amazing grace, can give us His righteousness. Someday we will be judged to see if we appropriated His gift.