In his book “The Holiness of God” RC Sproul tells the story of a “Pro/Am” golf tournament. A professional golfer was paired with an amateur golfer in a tournament to raise money for charity. Billy Graham loved golf and often played in these types of tournaments. In one tournament after the round of golf was over, a fellow pro golfer asked Billy Graham’s partner how the round went. He responded with great anger by shouting, “I don’t need Billy Graham stuffing religion down my throat.” He stormed off. After a while he had cooled down so his friend approached him and asked if Billy had been a bit rough with him. He said, “No, he didn’t even mention religion.” Turns out the pro golfer just had a bad round! Why would he take it out on Billy Graham like that? Could it be that he recognized something in Billy that convicted him? I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said the Spirit would convict the world concerning righteousness—specifically, the world’s utter lack of it.
Last Sunday we looked at John 16:1–15. Jesus is with the eleven disciples (Judas has left in order to betray Jesus). This is during the Last Supper. Jesus has been preparing the eleven for what is about to happen. In just a few hours he will be arrested, culminating in his death the following afternoon. He was also preparing them for his resurrection and then ascension into heaven. During this time of teaching he promised them multiple times that he would send the Spirit of truth to them after he ascended. In John 16 he explained some of the Spirit’s role. The Spirit today convicts the world concerning three things: sin, righteousness, and judgment.
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.”John 16:8–11 ESV
Jesus explains why the Spirit will convict the world concerning these three things. Bear in mind that when John writes of the “world” he usually means the mass of humanity in rebellion against God. The Spirit convicts the mass of humanity in rebellion against God concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. The world does not believe in Jesus so the Spirit convicts the world concerning this sin. The ruler of this world (Satan) has already been judged so the Spirit convicts the world concerning its judgment against Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is going to the Father and the disciples will no longer see him so the Spirit convicts the world concerning righteousness. How does this lack of seeing Jesus connect to the world’s righteousness?
In verse 7 of John 16 Jesus said, “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.” Jesus must ascend into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. Only then will he send his Spirit. Through his Spirit he will be present with his people until the end of the age, just as he promised. The Spirit’s presence magnifies God’s presence on earth. This is why it is to their advantage that he goes away.
Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus spoke of the Spirit’s work in this world (John 3:5–8). Nicodemus had come to Jesus at night in order to trap him in some way, yet he found himself trapped. He, a Pharisee, a zealous Jew, had to be born again—had to be converted—to faith in Jesus in order to see the kingdom of heaven. This new birth came about through the Spirit’s work. Nicodemus did not understand this and Jesus chided him a bit for it, wondering how he, “a teacher of the Jews,” could not understand this (John 3:10). This is because the Spirit’s work among God’s people had been prophesied for centuries. Through Jeremiah God promised a new covenant that would fulfill and replace the covenant given at Mount Sinai (Jeremiah 31:31–33). This covenant would not be like the covenant given at Mount Sinai—the covenant that they broke. This covenant would involve God putting his law with them, writing it on their hearts, rather than writing it on tablets of stone. The prophet Ezekiel explained this further (Ezekiel 36:22–27). God would give his people a new heart and put a new spirit within them. He would remove the heart of stone from them and give them a heart of flesh. If that weren’t enough, God promises to put his Spirit within his people and cause them to walk in his statutes and to be careful to obey his rules!
Rather than give a list of rules designed to control the sinful impulse in his people, God will change the impulse of his people! The promise of a new heart is the promise of regeneration, the new birth by God’s Spirit. The Spirit will cause his people to be transformed so that they would love God and obey him. This is why Jesus could say hard things like this:
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.”John 14:23–24 ESV
In John 16 Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit will convict the world concerning righteousness. The reason the Spirit will convict the world concerning righteousness is because Jesus is about to return to his Father and the disciples will not see him any longer. What is the result of Jesus returning to the Father and no longer seeing Jesus? He will send his Spirit to them. What will the Spirit do? He will cause them to be born again (1 Peter 1:3–5) by removing their heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh and will write God’s law on these new hearts and will cause them to walk in his statutes and be careful to obey his rules.
It is odd, though, to think of the world as having righteousness, especially since John usually means “the mass of humanity in rebellion against God”. Jesus is likely alluding to Isaiah:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.Isaiah 64:6 ESV
Isaiah says that our righteous deeds, our righteousness, is like a polluted garment. The Spirit will convict the world concerning the world’s “righteousness,” for the world’s righteousness is nothing more than “vestis menstruis polluta”—polluted menstrual cloths. In John 16 Jesus had just told them that the world would hate the disciples and that the time was coming that the world would kill them, thinking they are “offering service to God” (John 16:2). What the world sees as good deeds God sees as filth.
One more point will help us see Jesus’ connection between him leaving and the Spirit convicting the world concerning righteousness. In John 3:19 Jesus said,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”John 3:19 ESV
Jesus is the light of the world. Light shines into darkness and exposes what is in the darkness. Jesus left the world, however, and sent his Spirit, but the world cannot see the Spirit. How does the Spirit shine into the darkness, then? Think back to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. You cannot see the wind. You can hear the wind and you can feel it on your face and you see the leaves and branches moving about and you can see the waves on the sea, but you cannot see the wind directly. It is the same with the Spirit of God. The world cannot see the Spirit yet the world can see the Spirit’s work. How? The Spirit is causing Jesus’ disciples to obey him.
While at the Last Supper Jesus knows his time is short. He is using that time to prepare the disciples for his death, burial, and resurrection. He is also preparing them for his ascension by promising them the Spirit. They will soon experience life in Christ rather than life with Christ. Their role in the world is to be the body of Christ. They, the transformed people of God who have his Spirit dwelling among them, reveal the righteousness of God. The Holy Spirit shows himself in the world by causing us to be born again and by causing us to obey all that Jesus has commanded. The Spirit uses the very real righteousness he is bringing about in his people to convict the world concerning righteousness.
New City, holy living is not an option for followers of Jesus. It is the work of God in this world to cause his people to follow him, to gladly obey him. As Jesus has emphasized in his final hours with his disciples, those who love him will obey him. This is because when the wind blows the branches move. The Spirit of God moves his people into obedience and shines the light into the darkness by showing the world true righteousness. We must, as the followers of Jesus, follow him wherever he leads and we must forsake sin and pursue holiness. We must participate with the Triune God in his mission and purposes in this world, and a significant part of this is our participation in his work of making us holy. We must pursue life in Christ.