The Holy Spirit’s Work in the World
Scripture: John 15:16 - 16:12
Text: John 16:7-8
Sermon by Rev. Benjamin R. Short
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Cambridge, Ontario
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 18, No. 4
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ:
The celebration of Pentecost in the church preceded the celebration of Christmas by some 200 years. Of course Pentecost was celebrated in the church because it was the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. Pentecost was the great harvest festival of ancient Israel. At the time of Christ multitudes of Jews came from the outreaches of the Roman Empire to celebrate the three great feasts which began with the celebration of the Passover and ended with Pentecost some 50 days later. It was on the day of Pentecost after our Lord had ascended into heaven that the Holy Spirit descended in fulfillment of the promise of Jesus Christ. It is customary for us to think of the Holy Spirit’s coming in terms of the church.
The New Testament frequently speaks of the ministry of the Spirit in connection with believers. He does so much in us, and so much for us. Everything Christians enjoy in the application of redemption, comes by the Spirit's work within us. Christians are said to be born of the Spirit, they are sanctified of the Spirit, they are indwelt by the Spirit. He is the Comforter, He is the quickener, He is the sanctifier.
Our text however has to do with the world. We do not usually think of the Spirit as having a ministry towards the world. Our Lord Jesus plainly tells us that the Spirit does. Our text tells us that Jesus will send the Spirit and when He shall come He will reprove the world. In John 17 our Lord Jesus does not pray for the world; He says specifically, “I do not pray for the world. I pray for those whom Thou hast given me out of the world.” But He does, however, send the Holy Spirit to do something in the world, and towards the world. The Spirit reproves the world. It is always important when you are dealing with any portion of the Holy Scripture to examine the context. That always has bearing upon what any biblical statement means. Here the Lord Jesus Christ is sitting at the table of the Last Passover with His disciples. He has already instituted the new supper, the new feast, the new passover. Chapters 13 to 17 are John’s record of what transpired at that table. He, more than all of the other gospel writers, tells us what Jesus talked about as they sat around the table in that very intimate feast. We have the record of the table talk of our Lord Jesus on the eve of His departure. “For He knew from whence He had come and that He would return unto the Father.” Jesus tells them in 15:27 that they are going to bear witness to Him. He has already said that He is going to leave them but He will send a Comforter. “The Comforter,” says Jesus, “will testify of me and you also shall bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning.” We must understand this to govern what is said in our text. The apostles are to be witnesses also. That is, the Holy Spirit will be a witness to Christ, He will testify of Christ, and they also will be witnesses -
Now as they go into the world and witness for the Lord Jesus Christ that will not endear them to men. Jesus warns they will put you out of the synagogue. They will be excommunicated because they dare witness to Jesus Christ. “Yea,” He says, “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think he is serving God.” He will think that he is doing God a favour. What Jesus is saying is that the apostles will be persecuted and it will be by religious people, by religious rulers. That is where the source of persecution will originate. It will be done in the name of Christ; that has happened throughout the Church's history. Think of the Waldensians, persecuted by the Roman Inquisition. Think of the Lollards in England, persecuted by the Inquisition, and think of the Huguenots, in France, all persecuted in the name of Christ. Their tormentors believed that they were doing God a favour. The reason, Jesus says, they will think so, “is because they have not known the Father nor me.” In spite of all their boasted religiosity they do not really know God and they do not really know Christ. That's why they persecute Christ's sheep. Jesus will leave them and go to the Father; and they will be in the world witnessing of Him. The disciples of course were upset. The fact that He said He was going was upsetting. The Spirit, Jesus says, cannot come until He departs. When He does, the Comforter will come alongside of them, He will be their advocate and supporter, He will come alongside as they fulfill their work of witness bearing. He will work; He has a task in conjunction with their bearing witness.
Now we need to realize that this statement of Jesus, of the Spirit’s coming is pointing to Pentecost. The fulfillment of the promise took place at Pentecost. We must understand this statement as embracing the whole age of the church. It is the age of witness bearing. It is the age of gospel proclamation. We are all engaged in this witness bearing and this giving of testimony. It is the age of persecution as well. What is said of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world to the disciples is equally applicable to the whole age.
The first thing we want to see is that the Holy Spirit will reprove the world. That is what He does. For the believer He is the Comforter, the Advocate, the Counselor who leads into truth. He comes alongside Christ’s people and supports them. But His work in the world is very different than that. He reproves the world. The word “reprove” there means to show, sometimes to show to be guilty. Here in our text He convinces or convicts the world. Towards the world He assumes the role of prosecutor. He is the divine prosecutor. He prosecutes the world; He charges the world. He represents the Law-giver and accuses the world.
The work of the Spirit is absolutely necessary for witness bearing. Jesus says, “it is expedient,” in verse 7, “that I go away.” The word there would be better translated “profitable.” It isn’t that it’s merely convenient, but rather that it’s profitable for you because the Holy Spirit will come. Because of the work that He will do in the world it is profitable that I go, and that He come. The Holy Spirit will testify of Christ to the Church, and then the Church in turn will be His witnesses. The Holy Spirit will come and His coming is profitable to the Church as He reproves the world, and convinces or convicts the world. But of what does He convict, what does He show to the world? What does He convince it of? Well, says Jesus, he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.
The Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin, he will accuse the world of sin, He will make sin plain. The work is vitally important and absolutely necessary.
The world is blind to its sin. Men and women of the world are blind to their sin. Men and women of the world go to great lengths to hide from the reality of their sin. They will lie to themselves, they will lie to one another. There is a great cover-up in which men and women engage. The last thing people will do is to acknowledge their sin. They will admit to nothing. They are always protesting their innocence. Now you can see that very soon in the lives of young children. If you catch them doing something wrong: lying, stealing, well, they’re quick to offer some excuse as to why they had to do this. That’s the first impulse; that's the spontaneous impulse, to cover up, to pretend. Grown-ups do the very same thing. Men and women hate to have others view them as less than perfect. We are always on the defensive, always justifying ourselves rather than admit that what we do is wrong. Isn’t it true that we have a ready excuse for our wrongdoings?
We live in a world that is filled with sin. Men and women lie and steal. The other day the newspaper reported that 3 million dollars worth of goods are stolen by shoplifters in Canada a year and two million more are pilfered by employees. Imagine that! Think of all the robbing going on! But people do not regard that as sin. They regard it as being very clever, of getting it over on somebody else. They regard it as very smart, certainly not sin. Well some people might have a psychological problem and that's why they go out and do this thing, maybe kleptomaniacs or something of that nature. But you see the world rebels against the very word sin. It hates that word. In this day of subjectivism sin is a bad word. Sin suggests blame and it suggests guilt. Now if you can explain it away by a psychological problem, well that does away with blame and with guilt. You see you are a helpless victim to circumstances. You are a helpless victim of your environment, of the society about you, or you are a helpless victim of the home in which you were raised, of what your parents did to you, they crushed your ego, your self esteem. Hence you must not be blamed; you are guiltless. That is the spirit and attitude of the world. To charge someone with sin brings anger, it brings resistance, it brings hatred.
But the Holy Spirit does exactly that. He convicts of sin. He convicts the world of sin. He has been sent by our Lord Jesus to do that. He does it through the witness of the gospel. The apostles were to bear witness to Christ. In Luke 24, Jesus tells the disciples they were to preach repentance and the remission of sins in His name among all nations. He then told them to wait in Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high. That is simply a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He came then to endow the church with power enabling it to witness in the world of Christ, to preach repentance and forgiveness in Christ's name amongst all nations. That is the task of the church. It is profitable, says Jesus, that the Spirit comes, because He will convince the world of sin. It is absolutely necessary that He do so.
On the day of Pentecost Peter preached the Word. He preached Christ. He laid their sin before them. We read, “When they heard this, they were pricked in their hearts, and they cried out, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” That was the result of the Holy Spirit convincing them, convicting them of sin. Peter gave witness to Christ. Read his sermon. It was an explanation of the events of Pentecost and it was about Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God. The Spirit accompanied the testimony and the witness of Peter. He was there alongside of Peter convincing. They were pricked, and the idea is, they were violently struck. They were emotionally overcome. Peter’s word was like a sword, and they were cut to the heart and overcome with a sense of guilt. You see the truth hit them, the truth of sin came home to them. The enormity of their sin came home with violence and they were overcome by the reality of what they had done. Now Jesus says, He will convince the world of sin, and He further explains in verse 9, “sin because they believe not in me.”
The message of the gospel is Christ. Peter preached Christ on Pentecost. They had rejected Christ. They had refused to believe on Him, they had refused His word and all the signs and evidence that God had given. They accused Him of being a deceiver, a liar, a blasphemer, but He was approved of God by miracles, wonders and signs, and they with wicked hands had taken Him and slew Him; they crucified Him. As Peter preached, the Holy Spirit bore witness in the hearts of the hearers and convinced them of the great sin of their unbelief; the heinousness of that sin was born in upon their conscience. They saw what they were, awful and terrible breakers of God's covenant. “What shall we do?” they cried in their guilt. Now that is the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. It is absolutely necessary that He does this work. Without His doing this work men will never be convinced. The heart of man is so hard and so in love with sin that it is impervious to the words of any man no matter how true they may be. It takes a supernatural work to convince men and women of their sin.
We bear witness, we preach Christ. The gospel presents us with Christ the son of God from heaven who lived for us and was crucified and was raised from the dead for us. History is presented to us in the gospel, real history, but men and women reject it, they refuse it, yea, they hate it. You know that. You know when you try to witness, people quickly change the subject, or suddenly remember they have an appointment and have to rush, or they get embarrassed and shift from one foot to the next, or even get angry, or scoff, and ridicule. They will talk to you about anything and everything but Christ. They hate the gospel. And we can do nothing. The apostle could do nothing. All we can do is preach Christ. We have no power to convince anyone of sin. And what is more, we have no method to convince anyone of sin.
Conviction is the work of God’s Spirit. When we witness and speak the word, God bears witness, the Spirit bears witness. Sometimes the word becomes like an arrow and the Spirit touches the heart and He troubles and He convicts and guilt seizes the heart and the mind. Christ is seen for what He really is, the son of God, the Lord, the Saviour. A sense of sin is present, a sense of guilt, a sense of shame. That's the work of the Holy Spirit. That is what He came to do. That is a divine work, and no man can do it. It is a deep work, it takes a person off of their self sufficiency; it is a humbling work, it breaks men of their pride. Only the Spirit of God can do that. It is absolutely necessary if the gospel is to have any success. He must convince the world of sin.
The Holy Spirit convicts and convinces the world of righteousness. Now this accompanies the conviction of sin.
We must not think of time sequence here, first a sense of sin, which is followed by a conviction of righteousness and then that later is followed by a conviction of judgment. No, it’s a package. It’s laid out logically but temporally it’s the same time. It’s a package. Sin and righteousness stand over against one another. The conviction of sin is the realization of our unrighteousness. Sin is a lack of righteousness partly. “Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God,” says the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The sinner is convinced of righteousness. The Holy Spirit does that.
But what is righteousness? Well, here it is not the righteousness of imputation. It’s not the righteousness of justification that Paul talks about. It is connected to verse 10. It is connected with Christ going to the Father. “Of righteousness because I go to the Father.” How do we relate righteousness to Christ going to the Father? Well, His ascension declares and affirms His righteousness. It approves all of His life. All that He said and did is approved by the fact that He is ascended to the Father. It declares to us that Christ is righteous. God raised Him from the dead and set Him at His own right hand. He is true, He is right, He is not an impostor. Now He would not have gone to the Father if He were not righteous. God would not take an unrighteous man into His presence. He is exalted. He must be righteous. He is over all. The Christ rejected by the world as a liar and as an impostor is the righteous one. He is the one with integrity. His integrity is upheld. He is altogether righteous. Now Jesus Christ is the very embodiment of righteousness. His life was the perfect righteous life. The law of God was lived to its fullness and to its perfection in Him. He is the pattern of righteousness. What He was morally is what God expects of all men. The law of God came to true life in Jesus Christ. In Him the righteousness of God is shown and lived and revealed. We know that is so because He has gone to the Father. If He was less than righteous He would never have gone to the Father.
When we see Christ we are convinced of righteousness. When we see Christ the reality of our sin comes to view over against His righteousness. You remember how Peter seeing Jesus as the Lord saw his own great sinfulness and falling at the feet of Jesus cried, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In the presence of Christ he realized what he was. When we confront the righteous Christ we see sin, the exceeding sinfulness of sin in ourselves. The Holy Spirit does this. He makes men realize that there is such a thing as righteousness. He makes men realize there is something other than what we are. There is a whole life that condemns what we are. There is true righteousness over against our sinfulness. Sin is real. It is not merely a matter of opinion. It is not merely a matter of something that has evolved in society. Sin is real because righteousness is real and that is manifest in Jesus Christ. He comes and gives the lie to all of our subjectivism. Christ is righteous. We know it because He has gone to the Father.
Now my dear friends, if you have ever stood in the presence of the righteous one you know that you are sinful. The Holy Spirit has convinced you of righteousness, righteousness as God has declared it in the ascension of Christ. Now this has largely been lost in modern evangelicalism. We need this conviction today. God is righteous. Christ is the proof of it. Christ is the embodiment and the exemplar of righteousness. He has gone to the Father. Men and women are far too casual about Christ and they are far too casual about God, they are far too flippant about holy things. It's a terrible and disparate mentality. We need to learn to fear Christ. In the world today He is presented as the loving, gentle, harmless and often weak and ineffectual Jesus. Now it is true He was loving, it is true He was often gentle, but He was more. He was righteous, He was sinless and holy. He fulfilled all righteousness. Now that is what He demands of us - righteousness. The Holy Spirit shows men and women, righteousness. That is His work in the world. As we witness He does His great work.
The Holy Spirit convinces men of judgment. Sin and righteousness spells judgment. They go together. The righteous one is the righteous judge. That is the message.
“God has appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He has ordained.” The Holy Spirit convinces men of the certainty of judgment. It is certain; it is inevitable. Men and women need to be convinced of it. We live in the world as if there was no accounting, in a world that believes that all there is, is what you can see and handle, which believes all that is, is the product of chance. In such a world, of course, there is no idea of judgment. Men and women will not accept it; and the church for the most part has stopped preaching it. If ever judgment needs to be preached it is in this wicked day in which we live. Multitudes believe they can do anything they want with impunity. There is absolutely no fear of judgment. Men and women live their unrighteous and sinful lives without fear, they believe there are no consequences to what they do, and if there are they do not really care. But the Holy Spirit convinces men and women of judgment. He convinces them of its certainty and reality. The apostles warn men of judgment and in so doing are only following Jesus.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God,” the New Testament warns. Sin will be judged by the righteous Christ. All judgment has been given into the hand of the Son. The evidence for that, Jesus tells us, is that the Prince of this world is judged. The ruler of this world is judged. How do we see this in verse 11? Well, Satan came against Christ and could find nothing in Him. Satan put into the heart of Judas to betray Him. Satan moved men to crucify Christ. But Christ overcame death. Death was Satan's domain. He had the keys of death. But Christ led captivity captive. By His death and by His resurrection He broke the power of Satan. He was judged. The head of the serpent was crushed. He was cast out. That is evident through the gospel. Men and women who the New Testament calls children of disobedience, who walk according to the Prince and power of the air, have been delivered. They have been brought into life and into the liberty of the children of God. The ruler of this world has been judged, and if he the ruler is judged then surely all those who follow him will be judged. All who do not turn from their sin and trust in Christ will be judged. All unbelief will be judged for it is sin. This is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince of judgment. Men cannot do it, you cannot do it, I cannot do it. The Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost to do this work in the world.
Men cannot convince anyone. No Church can convince anyone, and no method can do it either. That is a fact the church of our day needs to learn. The church is always trying to do the work of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t content to do the work that God has given it to do, which is to proclaim the Word. No, we want to go beyond that; we want to make our own results. We want to convince men and women of sin and of righteousness and of judgment. We want a feather in our cap and say, “Look at the great work we are doing.” Those churches who talk most about the Holy Spirit and about the gifts of the Holy Spirit are the worst offenders. They will use any method; they manipulate men and women emotionally, they use all matter of gimmicks, and they seek all manner of entertainment in order to do what they want to do, and get people to do what they want them to do. And then they will turn around and tell us, “This is the Holy Spirit.” But it is not the Holy Spirit. He uses the Word. He uses the testimony of the apostles, and the witness of God’s people to the truth. We have to trust Him alone to do His work. We are not to trust in our entertainment acts, or in our gimmicks, or our psychological manipulation. Only the Spirit can convince the world. Men cannot. The church cannot. The only thing we can do is to speak the word, preach the Word, in season and out of season, at all times. We must trust the Holy Spirit to do His work. And that’s true, dear friends, of you in your personal witnessing. You cannot make anybody believe. I am sure you have learned that by now. Only the Spirit can. You witness knowing that the most feeble witness has behind it all the power and sovereignty of the Spirit of God. He can do with that witness what you cannot do; your witness can become an arrow in His hand to bring the mightiest sinner down in humility at the feet of Christ in repentance and faith. If it’s left up to us, then we can only despair.
It is the Spirit that we need, for He alone convinces and convicts the world of sin, and of righteousness and of judgment. He does the very same thing in you and me. We too need that work, for we are not different. Our hearts are hard, and our minds resist the fact that we are sinners, and we too need His work in our hearts. Amen.