Fifth Sunday of Easter – Cantate
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Three Convictions – John 16:7 – 11
Jesus says: 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. 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.
Got it? Is Jesus’ point clear as crystal to you? If you are struggling to understand, you are not alone. These three ‘convictions’ of the Holy Spirit are a challenging passage, not because Jesus is unclear, but because our understanding is so limited. This is one of those passages I sometimes think I understand, but then the next time I hear it, or maybe right after I explain it to someone, I’m suddenly at a loss again, struggling to come to any confident conclusions. Of course, God through His Scripture is always saying things deeper than we can fully grasp, which is why we can spend a lifetime digging into the Word, and never get to the bottom of it. Still, it is good to be able to draw some conclusions, good to have a level of confidence, a surety that we know, at least in a simple way, how a passage fits within the overall Good News of God’s salvation. Lord willing, together we’ll get there today with these three convictions of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promises to send the Helper, and says this is better for the disciples, and us, than it would be if He remained. The Helper is identified by Jesus in a nearby section as God the Holy Spirit, and His sending is, by Jesus’ definition, a particularly wonderful gift. But the way Jesus describes the Spirit’s ministry is pretty hard edged. The Helper is coming to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. That doesn’t sound too comfortable. What is this convicting all about? How does it work? What does it mean to me?
Jesus goes on to explain a bit: The Helper will convict the world concerning sin, says Jesus, because they do not believe in me. What does this mean? Well, it helps to consider how this first conviction sounds a lot like another challenging teaching of our Lord, that the only unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit. What is the sin against the Holy Spirit? Unbelief, the same thing for which the Helper convicts the world.
Here’s how this is: As John the Baptist declared, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, all of them. The Cross was coming the very next day after Jesus’ said the words of this morning’s Gospel. On that Cross, the Lamb of God has poured out His holy and precious blood on all sins, paying for every last one, reconciling the world to His Father, by means of His own suffering and death, in our place.
As the Son of God made man, the forgiveness earned by Jesus’ death is limitless. But this reconciliation by forgiveness is received by each individual sinner only by faith. There is forgiveness for everyone, but it is only received through personal faith in Christ.
Since Jesus has paid for all sins, anyone who believes in His forgiveness is saved. So, ever since Jesus died and rose again, disbelieving the convicting testimony of the Holy Spirit is the only way to be condemned. If you have no faith in the Cross and Resurrection, you are still in your sins. But, if you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior, all your sins have been taken from you, and you are declared righteous and holy by God. When you believe in this blood-bought forgiveness, you have life, life in fellowship with God, both today, and forever and ever. To bring people to believe in Jesus’ forgiving blood, the Helper comes, giving the gift of faith by the preaching of the Gospel.
This is very good news, the very best. However, the sinner’s road to faith is rocky. Before anyone, you, me or anyone else, will even begin to look for a way out of our predicament with God, we must first believe we are in a predicament. We must know how bad our predicament is. Being confronted by your sin, and God’s wrath against sin, is the only way anyone will ever look to Jesus for rescue. This is why the Helper comes to convict the world concerning sin. The ministry of the Holy Spirit, and so also the ministry of the Christian Church, will until the Last Day necessarily include the condemnation of sin, and sinners.
Easier said than done, of course. Proclaiming God’s law and the reality of human sin to people, especially to outwardly nice people whom we like, has never been easy. Today in America, naming and condemning sin is extremely unpopular, as the world tries to redefine every sin as a lifestyle, as free choices made by independent, autonomous, consenting individuals. So the claim is made that homosexual acts are not the sad extreme of the sexual sin that afflicts us all, but rather just an alternate lifestyle. The same goes for heterosexual sex outside of marriage, and also living together before marriage. Speaking ill of your neighbor, cheating just a bit on your taxes, scheming to live off someone else’s money, worshiping your recreation time and ignoring the gatherings at God’s house, all of these sins are no longer talked about as sins. God’s unchanging Word against these sins still stands, but nobody wants to speak it.
Thankfully, the ultimate proclaimer of the Law is the Helper, the Holy Spirit. Through His Church, through His preachers, in pulpits, and at dining room tables, God the Holy Spirit causes His Word of conviction to go forth. God the Holy Spirit convicts the world, including you and me, of sin, for the sake of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the ultimate aim of the Helper’s first conviction, because forgiveness in Christ is the only hope for salvation, and also because the forgiving love of Jesus is the only power for a truly amended life. God the Holy Spirit, joining us by faith to Jesus Christ, gives us life in Him, connecting us to His power, causing us to begin to live differently. Scolding people into outward conformity with the law only works so long, and doesn’t change hearts. Only God’s forgiving Gospel makes real change in sinners, the Gospel, which needs its way prepared by the Law.
So the Church which has the Holy Spirit will be preaching against sin and sinners, for the sake of salvation. When we do this, the world will accuse us of bigotry, hatefulness, of trying to hurt and control people. But proclaiming God’s law in order to lead sinners to forgiveness is truly the only way to fully love a sinful world. Law and Gospel, the condemnation of sin, in order to apply Christ’s righteousness, His forgiveness, which restores, resurrects, and gives joy to sinners, this is the Holy Spirit’s first conviction.
Jesus also says the Helper will convict the world concerning righteousness, because no longer will the Apostles, or anyone else, see Jesus. The righteousness of Christ must be learned and received through the Spirit’s convicting Word; seeing Jesus with our fallen eyes is not the way of salvation.
Jesus in His visible ministry was certainly righteous: perfectly faithful to God His Father, perfectly loving to His neighbors, teaching and healing and comforting. Jesus’ earthly ministry was wonderful, and definitely attracted many people to come and see Him. But the star power of Christ tended to make people miss the essence of His ministry. His healings, His great moral example and teaching, the comfort He gave, the power and wisdom He displayed, all of these were wonderful. All of these were true and Godly. All of these were good. But none of it could save anyone from sin. All of the amazing works of ministry Jesus did were simply preliminary to the main act. Rescue from sin and death requires a death, a full payment for sin. So Jesus saved the world through death. Ugly, sad, and frightening though it was, His death makes our life.
Jesus achieves our righteousness and future glory, through suffering. And so, the amazing miracle worker, the wonderful preacher, the one to whom the crowds flocked, goes away, so as not to be seen for His brilliance. Jesus goes away so that through His Word the Spirit can give eyes of faith to the Apostles, and us, and to people all around the world, eyes of faith to see His true beauty, in His Cross. The Holy Spirit displays the righteousness of Christ Crucified and Resurrected, through His Word, which gives us eyes of faith to see and receive Jesus, our Savior.
The third conviction flows from number two. The Helper also convicts the world concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. There is no “neutrality,” no safe place to exist between the kingdom of God and kingdom of Satan. Every human being is either in one kingdom, or the other. The Helper comes to convict the world that the kingdom of Satan stands condemned, defeated, so that people might look for a way to escape.
The judgment of Satan is also a comfort for believers. The world may still be in Satan’s sway, but in truth, because of Jesus, the old evil foe is only angrily and bitterly awaiting the final enactment of his eternal defeat. At the Cross, the power of Satan’s kingdom, his ammunition for accusing sinners, was destroyed. Satan’s power is God’s Law and our sin. Satan uses God’s law against us, pointing out how we have failed, tempting us to hate God and flee, or persuading us to believe that God could never love such as sinner as you or me.
But Jesus by His life of good deeds and by His Cross fulfills God’s Law, both positively and negatively. All the good works that God’s Law demands are fulfilled by the Good Works of Jesus. You are free to do the good works God has prepared for you to walk in, free to do good works precisely because you don’t need them to win God’s favor. God the Father is completely pleased with you and everyone who is joined to His Son, for Jesus shares the credit for His perfect life of good works with His people, with you.
As on the positive side, so also on the negative. All the punishment and the death that God’s Law requires for human sin was suffered by Jesus at Calvary. It is finished. There’s nothing left. In the blood of Christ, all your sins are washed away. So Satan has nothing left to say. His kingdom is judged, destroyed, powerless over those who are in Christ. This bad news for Satan is our great hope, the heart of the Gospel, for you and me. Satan may still accuse you of your sin, he may try to fool you with his lies. And it is truly frightening that in our sinful flesh we continually try to emigrate to Satan’s kingdom. Despite what we know and believe, despite what God has made us to be, members of the body of His Son, the Church of Christ, still, we sin. And by each sin we cast our lot with Satan. This is the great struggle of Christian living, daily realizing and repenting of our sins, from which we cannot free ourselves. Lord have mercy.
He does. The Lord does have mercy, for you. The Holy Spirit, day by day, forgives you all your sins, and the sins of all believers, in His Church, by His Word. Repent of your sins, and trust in Jesus, trust in the truth of His Word, trust in the power of His blood. For the truth is, Jesus Christ is your all in all, your righteousness, your forgiveness, your holiness, your resurrection from the dead. Look to His Cross, and be convicted of this: Satan’s power over you is a lie. In Christ, you are free, free to rejoice in God’s grace, and live under Him in His kingdom in righteousness, innocence and blessedness, today, and forever and ever, Amen.