Saturday Oct 28, 2023

Soteriology Lesson 22 - The Role of God the Holy Spirit in Convicting the World of Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment

     In the NT, God the Holy Spirit took on a new ministry after Jesus returned to heaven (John 16:7-15; cf., Acts 1:6-8; 2:1-4; 15:7-9). Part of His ministry is to believers, and part is to unbelievers. Concerning the Spirit’s ministry to believers, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). The Helper is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus will send (future tense of the Greek verb pempo) to believers. The Spirit’s work in Christians would be multifaceted and would relate to their sanctification and godly influence in a fallen world. After Pentecost (Acts 2), God the Holy Spirit would work in and through His church to other Christians, to help with their sanctification, and to unbelievers, to share the gospel of grace that they might be saved. Wiersbe states:

  • "The Holy Spirit does not minister in a vacuum. Just as the Son of God had to have a body in order to do His work on earth, so the Spirit of God needs a body to accomplish His ministries; and that body is the church. Our bodies are His tools and temples, and He wants to use us to glorify Christ and to witness to a lost world."[1]

     This is very encouraging, because Christians know that God the Holy Spirit is working through them to help lead the lost to Christ. But there is also a special work the Holy Spirit is doing in the hearts of unbelievers to help prepare them to turn to Christ as Savior. Concerning this special work, Jesus said, “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Jesus’ statement about the Holy Spirit is in the future tense (He will convict), which implies the Spirit’s special ministry was not active at the time Jesus uttered His statement. This special convicting ministry would be inaugurated on the day of Pentecost. The word convict translates the Greek word elegcho (ἐλέγχω), which means, “to bring a person to the point of recognizing wrongdoing, convict, [or] convince someone of something.”[2] Jesus said the Spirit’s convincing work would fall into three areas: 1) “concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:9), 2) “concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me” (John 16:10), and 3) “concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:11). Let’s look at these in order.

The Sin of Unbelief

     The sin mentioned by Jesus in John 16:8 does not refer to a catalogue of sins one might be guilty of (i.e., lust, greed, worry, gossip, stealing, etc.), but rather, one specific sin, which is unbelief, as Jesus said, “because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:9). The word for sin is hamartia (ἁμαρτία), which in Jesus’ statement is a singular noun that refers to a specific crime; namely, unbelief. Sylva notes, “Here sin is unbelief. Jesus faces people with a decision for or against himself: by belief or unbelief a person decides either for life or for death (John 8:24; 9:41; 16:8–9).”[3] There is only one sin that keeps a person out of heaven, and that’s the sin of unbelief. Wiersbe states:

  • "The Holy Spirit convicts the world of one particular sin, the sin of unbelief. The law of God and the conscience of man will convict the sinner of his sins (plural) specifically; but it is the work of the Spirit, through the witness of the believers, to expose the unbelief of the lost world. After all, it is unbelief that condemns the lost sinner (John 3:18–21), not the committing of individual sins. A person could “clean up his life” and quit his or her bad habits and still be lost and go to hell."[4]

     The Spirit always performs His work perfectly in the hearts of the lost, but because people have volition, and their hearts are corrupt, the vast majority of people suppress His message (Matt 7:13-14; John 5:39-40; Rom 1:18-32). Only the Holy Spirit can reveal to the human heart the truth about Jesus, as well as the truth about their sin of unbelief. To suppress the Spirit’s work about Jesus as the Son of God and Savior is the greatest of sins possible, as well as the most fatal sin that forever condemns a person to hell. Lightner states:

  • "Apart from God the Father there would have been no plan of salvation. Without God the Son there would have been no provision for salvation. Apart from the work of God the Spirit there would be no application of this great salvation to man’s needs. It is the third member of the Godhead who procures salvation for all who believe."[5]

The Righteousness of Jesus

     God alone sets the standard for righteousness, not people. Divine righteousness may be defined as the intrinsic, immutable, moral perfection of God, from which He commands all things, in heaven and earth, and declares as just that which conforms to His righteousness and as sinful that which deviates. Borchert is correct when he states, “Humanity is not in control either of the future or of setting the standards for life. That is the work of God.”[6] And Merrill C. Tenney states, “Apart from a standard of righteousness, there can be no sin; and there must be an awareness of the holiness of God before a person will realize his own deficiency.”[7] Though Jesus was rejected and treated as a criminal, God the Father declared Him righteous and welcomed Him to heaven, His natural home. Jesus is “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14), and throughout His life “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), was “without sin” (Heb 4:15), “committed no sin” (1 Pet 2:22), and in whom “there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). The rejection and crucifixion of Jesus was the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of the human race. Jesus said those who rejected and crucified Him would “rejoice” (John 16:20), but as Borchert notes, “their rejoicing at being finished with Jesus turned out to be the rejoicing of the damned.”[8] William Hendriksen offers the following insights:

  • "The world, represented by the Jews, was about to crucify Jesus. It was going to say, “He ought to die” (John 19:7); hence, in the name of righteousness it was going to put him to death. It proclaimed aloud that he was anything but righteous. It treated him as an evil-doer (John 18:30). But the exact opposite was the truth. Though rejected by the world, he was welcomed by the Father, welcomed home via the cross, the cross which led to the crown…By means of the resurrection the Father would place the stamp of His approval upon His life and work (Acts 2:22, 23, 33; Rom 1:4). He, the very One whom the world had branded as unrighteous, would by means of His victorious going to the Father be marked as the Righteous One (8:46; Acts 3:14; 7:52; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 John 2:1; and cf., Luke 23:47). Thus, the world would be convicted with respect to righteousness."[9]

     Christians do not need to struggle to convince people about the perfect righteousness of Christ, nor of the sinner’s failed righteousness before a holy God. They need only to communicate the biblical truth about Christ and fallen humanity, and leave the Spirit to do what only He can do, to convince them of the truth about Christ as the only Savior of mankind. If unbelievers suppresses the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, then no amount of reasoning or argumentation on the part of Christians will advance the gospel even one inch.

The Judgment of the Ruler of this World

     A third area where the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of unbelievers concerns judgment, “because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:11). Satan has been judged and found guilty before God. This means that Satan and his world-system is condemned. Being the ruler of this world, Satan naturally rules in the hearts of all unbelievers. Three times Jesus referred to Satan as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Other passages of Scripture call Satan “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2), informing us “that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Satan rules as a tyrant who has “weakened the nations” (Isa 14:12), and currently “deceives the whole world” (Rev 12:9). Satan continues to attack God’s people today (1 Pet 5:8), practices deception (2 Cor 11:13-15), and has well developed strategies of warfare (Eph 6:10-12). Furthermore, humanity is living in an “evil age” (Gal 1:4), under “the dominion of Satan” (Acts 26:18), whose sphere of influence is called “the domain of darkness” (Col 1:13). But Satan has been judged and his punishment is pending execution. Furthermore, those who side with Satan in this life will be judged with him in eternity. According to Ryrie, “At the cross, Christ triumphed over Satan, serving notice on unbelievers of their judgment to come.”[10] Radmacher notes, “Satan was judged at the Cross, and the Holy Spirit would convince people of the judgment to come. Satan has been judged, so all who side with him will be judged with him. There is no room for neutrality. A person is either a child of God or a child of the devil.”[11] Merrill Tenney states:

  • "To convince any unbeliever of sin, righteousness, and judgment is beyond human ability. It may be possible to fix upon him the guilt of some specific sin if there is sufficient evidence to bring him before a jury; but to make him acknowledge the deeper fact, that he is a sinner, evil at heart, and deserving of punishment because he has not believed in Christ, is quite another matter. To bring a man to some standard of ethics is not too difficult; for almost every person has ideals that coincide with the moral law at some point. To create in him the humiliating consciousness that his self-righteousness is as filthy rags in comparison with the spotless linen of the righteousness of God cannot be effected by ordinary persuasion. Many believe in a general law of retribution; but it is almost impossible to convince them that they already stand condemned. Only the power of the Holy Spirit, working from within, can bring about that profound conviction which leads to repentance. The Spirit anticipates and makes effective the ministry of the disciples in carrying the message to unbelievers."[12]

Dr. Steven R. Cook


[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 362.

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 315.

[3] Moisés Silva, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 260.

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1, 362.

[5] Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology: A Historical, Biblical, and Contemporary Survey and Review (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1995), 196.

[6] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 167.

[7] Merrill C. Tenney, “John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 157.

[8] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 167.

[9] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. 2, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 326.

[10] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible: New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update, Expanded ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 1712.

[11] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1350.

[12] Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 237.

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