We are listening again to Jesus in John 16, the day before the crucifixion, preparing His disciples of what is to come after His death and resurrection. It would be better, with this text, though, to speak of “who” is coming, because Jesus is here promising to send the Holy Spirit. This is one of the greatest gifts of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus: the Holy Spirit is poured out.
This is indeed a mystery. The Holy Spirit has always been; He is eternal God, eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is there are the very beginning of creation, hovering over the waters. King David prayed “take not your Holy Spirit from me.” We know that it is God the Holy Spirit who creates faith, and this is just as true in the Old Testament as it is in the New.
But there is something unique that happens at the Ascension, when Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, and now the Holy Spirit is proceeding from the Son, who is both God and man, dead for our sins and raised for our justification, now the Holy Spirit is pour out on “all flesh,” as the prophet Joel promised and Peter preach fulfilled on Pentecost. We’ll hear more of this in the weeks to come, but as far as our text goes, Jesus is pointing to this sending of the Holy Spirit as a comfort to the disciples.
Jesus says, “But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, 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 16:6-8). That one named Helper is the Holy Spirit, also known as the Comforter, or Advocate. The Greek word there is paraklete, and it seems difficult to bring into English. It is a legal term, an official of the court who is on your side, like a defense attorney.
Here’s the really wonderful thing about this word. Jesus has already used it as a title of the Holy Spirit in chapter 14. John will use this as a title for Jesus in his first epistle.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
In this text it was translated “Advocate,” as John was teaching us how Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, is speaking to the Father on our behalf, pleading our case, making the argument for the forgiveness of our sins, and presenting as evidence His suffering, His death, His scars.
Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are given the title “Paraklete.” Jesus is parakleting before the Father, making the case of our forgiveness. The Holy Spirit is parakleting in our conscience, making the case that we are sinners forgiven by Jesus. This is simply wonderful.
So Jesus unfolds this by teaching the disciples what the work of the Holy Spirit will be.
And when he 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.
Jesus outlines the three main works of the Holy Spirit: to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. At first this looks like all law, but we will see, as Jesus explains it, that it is both law and Gospel.
First, the Spirit convicts the world of sin because “they do not believe in Me.” The Holy Spirit brings the crushing weight of the law to bear on the sinners conscience.
We know that when we do something wrong it bother us, we get an inflamed conscience, we know we’ve made a mistake. We are troubled. But the Holy Spirit comes along and shows us how we’ve done more than hurt our neighbor (or our self), but that we’ve broken God’s law, offended His holiness, and deserved His wrath.
And while the Holy Spirit will convict us of all sin, of breaking all the commandments, it is His special work to show us how we’ve broken the first commandment, how we have not believed in God, how we have had other gods, how we have feared and loved and trusted in just about everything else above God. And when the Holy Spirit is doing this work, He is getting to the heart of the matter, showing us how we have lost the image of God, how sin has infected every part of us.
The Holy Spirit convicts us of more than our sins, the things we do and don’t do, and He shows us that we are sinners. This is original sin, the corruption that clings to our nature from the moment of our conception, the sin that was passed down to us from Adam.
This is the difference between confessing, “I have sinned,” and confessing, “I am a sinner.” Both are true. But the first thing, that “I have sinned”, is obvious. You can look at your life and see what you’ve done wrong. But this confession that “I am a sinner” is not as obvious.
Consider Xerxes the Unbeliever. If you ask him if he has sinned, I suspect he’ll answer “yes.” (You might have to help him out a little with the law, tell him that stealing is a sin, that lying is a sin, that lust is a sin, etc.) But then, ask Xerxes if he is a good person, and he will say, “Yes,” or “I think so,” or “I’m trying to be.” You know how that goes? We know that we have sinned, but apart for the work of the Holy Spirit, we do not know that we are sinners.
Original sin is so deep a corruption that we don’t know or feel it, we only know and feel the effect of it. This is the difference between the man who falls off the ladder and breaks his leg, versus the man who falls off the ladder and breaks his leg and his neck. If you ask the first guy how he is doing, he’ll tell you, “I’m hurt. I broke my leg.” But if you ask the second man how he is, he’ll answer, “I don’t know, I can’t feel my leg.” This is how wounded we are by sin, we can’t even feel the depth of our own sinfulness. It is the Holy Spirit’s first work to reveal this to us, to convict the word of sin, because they do not believe in Jesus, to show that the rottenness of our thoughts and words and deeds goes all the way down to our hearts, and that the stench that arises for there, even if we cannot smell it, is repulsive to God.
This is the preaching of the Law.
But this first work of the Holy Spirit is followed by the second. “He will convict the world of righteousness, because I,” says Jesus, “am going to the Father.
So the Holy Spirit comes and convicts the world, convicts us, of righteousness. This sounds strange, probably because of the word “convict,” because we think of being convicted of a crime. This, though, is the conviction of innocence, the declaration of righteousness, the imputation of the perfection of Christ. This is justification, the justification of the sinner by grace through faith, and it, too, is the work of the Spirit through the Word.
Jesus has accomplished the satisfaction for our sins. He has died, been raised, and ascended to the Father. His work is finished. Now the Holy Spirit brings that saving work of Jesus to us. He convicts the world of righteousness, that is, He preaches the Gospel.
This word, “righteousness,” is one of the most important words in the Bible. It means keeping the law, and stands alongside words like holiness and perfection. We often think of it as a word of the law. How does a person become righteous? By living according to the Ten Commandments. This is true, but if that is the only way to be righteous, then we would all be doomed.
There is a righteousness of the Gospel, an alien righteousness, an external righteousness, the righteousness that is imputed to us, given to our account. This is the righteousness of Jesus, His perfect keeping of the law, both in what He did and didn’t do. His holiness, His perfection, this is given to us in the preaching of the Gospel.
The picture we use for this is a child eating their dinner. There are two ways to be finished with dinner, the first is to eat all the food. This, for a child, is difficult. (I remember that this was difficult as a child. I can hardly imagine it now, as I’m scraping up the last crumb and wishing there was more. Anyhow…) You can either finish eating all your food, or your mom or dad can say, “You can be done.” There is still food on the plate, you haven’t done the required work, but the declaration has been made, “It is finished,” and dinner is over.
The righteousness of the Gospel is this second kind of righteousness, a declared righteousness. This is what Paul is talking about through all of His Gospels. Here’s Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Galatians 2:16: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
I have heard justification defined “just as if I had never sinned.” This is true, but it is only the first part of justification. Jesus not only takes away our sin, He then gives us His own righteousness, His holiness, His perfection. Justification is both a taking away of sin and the gift of God’s own righteousness.
Back to dinner. Imagine that you thought that you had to bring your own food to dinner, so you went out to the street and grabbed some road-kill (I’m sorry about this illustration, it’s a good thing we’ve got a few hours until lunch), you get the rotting stinky carcass of a possum, and slop it down on your plate. That’s about how nice all your good works look. There you are with your sin, and it’s not going to do you any good. So Jesus comes along and dumps your filth, he takes the plate, cleans it off, and brings it to you, clean slate (or in this case, a clean plate). This is the forgiveness of sins, and a lot of Christians think that this is the end of it, this is the Gospel, and now it’s up to them to get out there and cook up something better, to bring something nice to the table. But this is only the first part of forgiveness. Jesus not leave you with an empty plate.
When you came to the table Jesus was sitting on the other side, and His plate was piled high with all sorts of wonderful things. It’s pizza in my imagination, but use yours to put your favorite foods on Jesus plate, lots of it, cooked perfectly, smelling wonderful. And when you came to the table with your possum carcass, Jesus takes your plate for Himself, and gives you His. He suffers your sin. And you are given His righteousness.
I’m sorry this is disgusting, but there is something incredibly distasteful in the work of the cross, this shame that Jesus despised (Hebrews 12:1), the stench of death that is your sin and mine that Jesus suffers in order to give you His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). So your plate is not empty. Jesus does not give us a clean slate; He gives us His righteousness. When the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then, look upon you, they seen not your sin, but the righteousness of Jesus. According to God’s reckoning, you are as perfect as Jesus.
The Holy Spirit convicts the world of righteousness.
And there is a third work of the Spirit that Jesus speaks of: He will convict the world of judgment. This, again, sounds like the work of the law, until we hear Jesus explain what He means: “concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” This is the work of the Spirit to convict us, to convince us and give us the comfort that the devil has been judged.
The Holy Spirit has to do this work, because just as we don’t know the depth of our sin, so the Holy Spirit has to show it to us, and just as we don’t see the Lord’s righteousness, so the Holy Spirit has to teach is too us, so here, we do not see the devil overcome. What we see is the devil running around unfettered, bringing violence and destruction all over the world. What we hear is the devil’s voice tempting us, throwing unbelief into our heart, confusing law and Gospel. We see false teaching everywhere. A false understanding of reason and natural law destroying the state. False doctrine destroying the church. It looks to us as if the devil has free reign.
So the Holy Spirit comes to show us that the devil has been judged. Consider especially Hebrews 2:14-15 (this is a text we should inscribe on our hearts), “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Jesus, by His death, destroyed the power of the devil. He stripped from the devil his greatest weapon, which is the fear of death.
Death normally comes with the terrifying fear of judgment, but not for the Christian who has passed from death to life, from sin to forgiveness, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, who is a friend of God. Now there is nothing to fear, nothing to dread. Death is a kind sleep, and to close our eyes to sleep the sleep of death is to open them and see the face of Jesus, His smile, His love. The Holy Spirit convits us of this, of the judgment of the devil. He convicts us that Jesus is at the right hand of God, and that He rules and reigns the universe, and all for the sake of His church.
We are not Lookaroundists, determining truth from what we see. We are Christians, determining truth from what Jesus says. And it is the Holy Spirit who brings this truth to us, in the word of the prophets, in the words of the apostles, and in the preaching of the word.
So Jesus promises:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
I have heard the accusation that Lutheran never talk about the Holy Spirit. I think what this means is, “Lutherans never talk about God on the inside, about that whispering voice that you hear in your heart. Lutherans never talk about the internal tugging, about the impulses that are supposed to be from God.” And this is true, because the Holy Spirit gets to your heart through your ear. Whatever internal voice we hear is first the external Word. The Holy Spirit is not in the impulse business, but in the word business, because He is in the certainty business, and the Holy Spirit does not want your faith resting on your feelings, or on the vague impulses that occur in the heart and the conscience.
The Holy Spirit comes to convict the world, to bring certainty, and, dear saints, we have His certainty. We know, for a certainty, that we are sinners, and that sin goes all the way down. We know that we have deserved God’s temporal and eternal punishment. But we know we even more certainty that our Jesus has carried all our sin, suffered all our suffering, and delivered to us His perfection and righteousness. We know that we are holy, justified, forgiven, and that there is nothing to fear. Though the devil rage, we belong to Jesus, and salvation belongs to us.
This certainty, this comfort, this is the joyful work of the Holy Spirit, the work He does in His church. It is the work He has accomplished in us today.