And when he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. – John 16:8-11 ESV
Jesus had just told His disciples that it would be to their advantage if He went away, because when He left He would send them the Holy Spirit to indwell them. So in place of Jesus’ physical presence, they would have the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. Then Jesus told them one of the aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry: He would convict the world. What is important to remember is that Jesus had already told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would live within them, not just among them. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17 ESV). I think it is essential to keep these two thoughts together as we examine this passage. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came He would indwell His followers. But He also said that same Holy Spirit would convict the world (the lost) concerning sin, righteousness and judgment.
It would seem that Jesus is saying that the power of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within the lives of believers would have a convicting influence on the lives of the lost. The Spirit within us provides us with the power to live free from slavery to sin and capable of living righteously and rightly before God. The very presence of Christ’s followers living in the power of the Holy Spirit gives proof of the gospel and brings conviction on the lost. Paul echoed this thought when he wrote, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-6 ESV).
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul told them, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11 ESV). But how were they to expose them? Paul provides the answer. “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, Awake, O sleeper,and arise from the dead,and Christ will shine on you. Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:13-16 ESV). Our lives should have a convicting influence on the lost living around us. Our God-given capacity to live righteously, provided by the Holy Spirit within us, will expose the sin and unrighteousness of those who do not yet know Christ. We will live out the truth of the gospel, giving proof of its efficacy.
But our lives, as a result of the Spirit’s presence within us, will also convict the lost world of righteousness. The Greek word Jesus used in this passage was elegchō and it means “to bring to the light, to expose.” It can also mean “to refute” and “to show one his fault.” It would seem that Jesus is saying that the righteousness of His disciples, made possible by His coming sacrificial death and the Spirit’s indwelling presence, would expose the false righteousness of the world. Self-righteousness can never measure up to Christ’s righteousness. And it is only Christ’s righteousness that makes us right with God. It is not what we do as Christians that makes us right with God, but what Jesus did for us on the cross. Our positional righteousness before God, made possible by Christ, and our practical, everyday righteousness, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will convict the lost of their false righteousness. Which then leads to the Spirit’s final point of conviction: Judgment.
Without the righteousness Christ provides, the lost have no hope. They are condemned and destined to an eternity separated from the love of God. But our presence among them provides proof that forgiveness is possible and the gift of grace made available through Christ’s death on the cross is free to all who will accept it. But those who refuse will suffer judgment. One of the primary ways in which the lost will be convicted of sin, righteousness and judgment is through the sharing of the gospel. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been commissioned to spread the good news regarding His death, burial and resurrection and the free gift of salvation He has made possible. What makes the gospel “good news” is the fact that it stands in direct opposition to the “bad news.” Man is sinful, unrighteousness and stands condemned and convicted of rebellion against a holy and just God. He has no way of fixing his problem, apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. As we share the good news regarding God’s love as revealed in His sacrifice of His own Son, it will bring conviction on those who hear. And as we live out the life-transforming reality of that message in our daily lives, we will be light, exposing the darkness and convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.