“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)
What does Jesus mean when he says that the Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment?”
Theologians have to struggle here because what Jesus does explain about his statement here is not altogether very clear. What did he mean?
- Concerning sin, because they do not believe in me. This point seems fairly straightforward. The great sin of the Jewish opponents of Christ specifically, and the Jewish nation generally, was that they did not recognize, nor believe in the Messiah when he actually showed up! Indeed, the early part of John is a demonstration again and again of how the Jews should have believed Jesus, but did not.
Gerald Borchert quotes Leon Morris: “The basic sin is the sin that puts self at the center of things and consequently refuses to believe” [Morris]. If one were to relate this idea to a political system, it would be the equivalent of registering a charge of treason against a ruler, and there is no question that John regarded Jesus as the Lord (20:28).
- Concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer. This is a little more difficult. There are two possibilities here: Either Jesus was talking about God’s righteousness, or he was talking about his own innocence of any sin. Ultimately there is little difference between the two. The UBS Commentary seems to me to have the best explanation of what Jesus meant:
“If one sees the focus on Jesus as the one who is innocent, one may translate “will prove to the world that they were wrong about me, because God will show that I was innocent (in the right),” But if one sees God’s righteousness in focus here, one may translate “will prove to the world that they were wrong about God’s justice, because he will show that I was innocent (in the right).”
- Concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I think I like the explanation in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary the best:
“In this context “judgment” refers to the condemnation of satanic self-will and rebellion by the obedience and love toward the Father exhibited by Jesus. The Cross was the utter condemnation and defeat of the “prince of this world.”
What the Holy Spirit does, dear reader, is knock us off the proverbial bar stool of our comfortable existence and force us to make a decision about Jesus.