The Spirit Convicts the World (John 16:5-11)

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Let me ease your troubled mind. You are not responsible for convincing the world of their sinfulness or repudiating their wrongly crafted man-made righteousness. Let me offer an additional pastoral caution. You are not capable of convincing the world of their sinfulness or repudiating their perception of righteousness and morality.

Yet, this does not let us off the hook. We have a role to play, just maybe not the role we often think or take upon ourselves.

Let’s read the text. “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 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” (Jn 16:5–7).

Let me pause for a moment. Our primary emphasis this morning will be on the next four verses. These first three verses, once again, acknowledge the importance and necessity of the Spirit coming following Christ’s departure. As we will see in the following verses, the Spirit’s coming impacts both the world at large and believers particularly. This week we will discuss the Spirit’s work directed at the world. Next week we will consider aspects of the Spirit’s work in the life of believers. So then, what will the Spirit do regarding the world?

Continue reading the text. “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” (Jn 16:8–11).

Purpose statement. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of their sinfulness and employs the Word of God and the transformed lives of believers to do so.

Let me clarify part of my purpose statement. I draw the first part of the purpose statement directly from the text. However, I draw the second half of the purpose statement from implications of the text and other scripture passages for the purpose of application.  

To draw this purpose statement from the text, we need to work through what may feel a bit tedious. One commentator wrote of these verses, “John 16:7-11 constitutes one of the most baffling passages in the fourth gospel.”[1]

Challenge 1: Clarifying righteousness and judgment.

I start with the second challenge (chronologically) because it involves much less explanation. Discussion abounds as to what righteousness and judgment reference. This discussion manifests itself in some of the different translations. For instance, the NLT translates verse 8 as, “when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment” (Jn 16:8). Whereas, keeping the integrity of the original text, most translations offer something like, “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” These varied translations reveal the two primary interpretations. (1) The Holy Spirit will convict the world about its’ sin, their perceived righteousness, and their poor ability to judge and assess accurately, or (2) the Holy Spirit will convict the world about its’ sin, Christ’s righteousness, and God’s judgment of the world. While both interpretations espouse theological truth, only one of them reflect Jesus’ intent.

Many factors play a role in determining the meaning of these words. (1) One’s understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role of conviction, which will be discussed in the next challenge, plays a key role in understanding these two words. (2) Additionally, one’s understanding of the word because plays a significant role, although we will not take time to develop this discussion this morning.[2]

I will develop the meaning of these two words further as we discuss the second challenge. But, for now, I would like to propose that the NLT gets their interpretation wrong. The Holy Spirit is convicting the world about three things, and simply put, it makes little sense to me that the Holy Spirit would convict the world about someone else’s righteousness or convict the world about their future judgment. He likely will inform them of those areas but would not convict them for those. Instead, the Holy Spirit is convicting the world about their sinfulness, their perceived righteousness, and their failure to judge accurately and justly.

Carson. What the Paraclete convicts the world of is the world’s sin (αμαρτία), the world’s righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), and the world’s judgment (κρίσις).[3]

Perceived righteousness throughout Scripture. Evidence abounds throughout Scripture for understanding righteousness as human perceived righteousness.

Old Testament. Isaiah discusses the righteousness of the people as a menstruous cloth. Imagine, is their perceived righteousness is that foul to what must their sinfulness be compared? Additionally, Daniel acknowledges that Israel’s prayers for liberation and God’s resulting willingness to listen to their prayers were founded in God’s mercy, not their righteousness (Dan 9:18).

Synoptic Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus informs the crowd that if their righteousness does not exceed “that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).  

John’s Gospel. There ought to be no struggle to acknowledge in John’s gospel this façade of righteousness. On several occasions, the Jews display a strict adherence to the law, and yet Jesus regularly points out their misunderstanding and inadequacy in keeping the law. All Israel would consider Nicodemus, one of the leading Pharisees, a righteous man, but Nicodemus fails to comprehend the basics of new birth. The Pharisees, in general, carefully observe Sabbath regulations, yet condemn Jesus for performing miracles on the Sabbath. Israel possesses the law, yet condemns and kills Jesus. Does it not seem appropriate that the Holy Spirit would convict the world in regard to their supposed or assumed righteousness?

Additional New Testament. Other New Testament authors acknowledge this perceived righteousness. In Romans, Paul references how mankind was ignorant of God’s righteousness and attempted to establish their own (Rom 10:3). As well, Paul speaks to his own “righteousness” in Philippians.

as to righteousness under the law, blameless. . . . For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Phil 3:6–9).

The Spirit is needed to convict the world of their perceived righteousness. Why? Because Jesus is not going to be present to do so anymore.

Failed ability to judge.  What type of judgment does the world possess. Jesus describes and confronts the world’s judgment earlier in John’s gospel. As Jesus taught in the temple, he told the crowd, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (Jn 7:24). The world failed in their judgment. They judged Jesus, condemned him, and killed him.[4] Two events happened to prove the world has poor judgment, (1) Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to His Father, and (2) Satan, the ruler of the world, was condemned and defeated. Because of their poor judgment, they would share in Satan’s condemnation and judgment.

[Let me offer a caution by means of a side note.] Within each of these challenges, various translation philosophies play an important role. Many of the translators made interpretive decisions instead of simply translating the words. The more “wooden” translations avoid most interpretive choices whereas some of the more dynamic translations draw interpretive meanings which are not present within the text. The NLT translation offers the clearest example. The translators insert many words that are not part of the Greek text. They desire to be clear, but in so doing, fail to accurately translate the text and likely fail to even interpret the text correctly. These translations can be helpful but be careful in your use of them.

Challenge 2: Clarifying Spirit’s conviction.

Many struggle to understand the intent behind convict. This challenge manifests quickly by reading various translations. Bible translators translate the word ἐλέγξει (convict in ESV) in many ways. “He will convict the world” (ESV, NASB, NLT), “convince the world” (RSV), “reprove the world” (KJV), “prove the world wrong” (NET, NIV). Potentially none of these carry the full meaning.

Carson. Does the Paraclete convict the world, convince the world, prove to the world that it is wrong, or prove to the believers that the world is wrong?[5]

Borchert. Büchsel notes that in early Greek writings the verb elenchein meant “to scorn” and later “to shame,” but in the New Testament it “almost always means ‘to show someone his sin and to summon him to repentance.’[6]

To the best of my ability, the varied opinions may be explained by means of three different word pictures. Either (1) the Holy Spirit presents evidence to God (or someone else) displaying the guilt of the world and convicting the world, or (2) the Holy Spirit desires to encourage the disciples by displaying to them the wrongness and guilt of the world and by implication bolstering their faith in their beliefs, or (3) the Holy Spirit primarily interacts with the world in shedding light on their guilt and bringing conviction to the world.

First scenario. In the first, the believers receive no direct encouragement and the world is only acknowledged not directly addressed by the Spirit. This first possibility seems the least likely, although held by well-respected commentators.[7] I believe that the second or third word picture best fit the context and flow of John’s Gospel. Let us trace each of them separately.

Second scenario. The Holy Spirit encourages the disciples by displaying to them that the world is wrong about its’ concept of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Carson acknowledges the possibility of this view in his discussion about the idea of convict. He writes, “the proof of the guilt need not be offered to the guilty in the sense of convincing or convicting him. The proof may be offered to a third party, in order to convince, not the guilty, but that third party.”[8]

The immediate context supports such a view. The current circumstances and Jesus’ last-minute information likely swamp the disciples with fear and confusion. They begin to wrap their head around the idea of being alone following Jesus’ departure. Desiring to encourage them, Jesus draws their attention to the impending arrival of the Holy Spirit who will verify that they are holding on to the truth whereas the world embraces a false understanding of sin, righteousness, and judgment.

In this view, the Holy Spirit has no direct function to or for the world. If this is the case, that would be a surprising reality. I think this is a viable interpretation but not Jesus’ intent.

Third scenario. If the Spirit does not primarily intend to offer evidence to a third party of the world’s guilt or directly offer encouragement to the disciples, the Spirit must primarily intend to confront and directly convict the world. The Spirit convinces (or convicts) the world of its’ sin, a faulty perception of self-righteousness, and a failure to accurately judge.

To some degree we draw this conclusion by process of elimination, but we also draw this conclusion because it appears to make the most sense. As has already been said, an interpretation that proposes the Spirit convicts the world concerning God’s righteousness makes less sense than a proposal that the Spirit convicts the world, in a damning way, of their own sin and perceived righteousness.

Lenski. It is vital to note that all three: sin, righteousness, and judgment are the world’s for the obvious reason that the world is to be convicted either in a salutary or in a damning way. . . . The world everlastingly seeks “righteousness” in some form, either making itself the judge of its own case, or, when it thinks of God as the judge, conceiving him as a God who deals gently with sin. Thus men evolve their own schemes for appearing righteous.[9]

As a byproduct of this conviction, the disciples are encouraged. The Spirit’s primary work of conviction points to the world, but as a result, the disciples (and believers) are encouraged. Those beliefs and the person in which they placed their trust, once again, will be proven legitimate and worthy of ongoing commitment. The Holy Spirit reaffirms, yes, the world’s righteousness fails to work redemption. Yes, the world’s judgment is false. Keep plugging away. Hold fast to the truth that has been handed down to you.

Therefore, the Spirit takes up where Jesus left off. Jesus, during his earthly ministry, both encouraged his disciples and shed a light into the darkness of the world bringing conviction of sin and a repudiation of their perceived righteousness and poor judgment. As he leaves, the Spirit takes up this task. Carson writes, “In other words, both Jesus in the days of his flesh, and the Paraclete, exercise this ministry to the world.”[10]


God’s grace revealed. First, be encouraged by the fact that God never leaves the world in their darkness without shining in the light of truth. We could see this work of conviction as a mean God poking his finger of conviction into the chest of the world, and yet I believe more accurately, we see a loving God shedding light into their darkened minds once again offering redemption and grace. Of course, as Scripture says and our experience verifies, the world primarily rejects this conviction by the Spirit in the same way that they rejected the conviction and light of Christ during his earthly ministry. However, the fact that God continues to extend this work is marvelous.

Do not take on the Spirit’s role. We will never effectively convict someone of their sin, false righteousness, and poor judgment. However, we sure do our best to try, don’t we?

The vast majority of those who heard Jesus rejected Him. The vast majority of those who the Spirit convicts reject His conviction. And yet, we often stand dumbfounded when the world rejects our hearty attempts to persuade them to our way of thinking. It is not our job to convict the world of its’ sin. However, that does not mean we do nothing.

Do embrace your role. The Holy Spirit uses believers, primarily through the communication of His written Word. Do we believe that the Bible is truly sufficient to work change in people’s lives? When we attempt to moralize or transform people through our own logic (biblically sound as it may be at times), we will fail. However, any lasting and meaningful change comes through the Spirit using God’s Word to effect change in someone’ life.

The Spirit also uses the lives of transformed believers. “The Paraclete convicts the world of its pseudo-righteousness, but he accomplishes at least part of this convicting work by so operating within the believers that they themselves establish before the world true and convicting standards of righteousness.”[11]

Purpose statement. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of their sinfulness and employs the Word of God and the transformed lives of believers to do so.

[1] Donald A Carson, “The Function of the Paraclete in John 16:7-11,” Journal of Biblical Literature 98, no. 4 (December 1979): 547.

[2] An additional complication presents itself. How should the word “because” be understood? Is because causative or explicative (explanatory)? Regarding the first phrase, it is true that sin can be boiled down to a lack of belief (explicative). It is also true that mankind is convicted of their sin because of their unbelief (causative). This first phrase makes sense either way and is theologically true either way. However, the other two phrases only make sense (to me) if because is understood in a causal sense. Because Jesus ascended to the Father, the world’s perceived righteousness is proven to be lacking. Because Satan has been judged and condemned, the world’s ability to judge and assess is proven to be wretched. If we take the final two because as causative, we should be consistent and take the first as causative also. I attempted to explain this to a couple of people, and my explanation caused more confusion.

[3] Carson, “The Function of the Paraclete in John 16,” 558.

[4] Carson, The Gospel According to John, 538; Kruse, John, 326; Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, 1088; Beasley-Murray, John, 36:282; Michaels, The Gospel of John, 835; Borchert, John 12–21, 25B:167.

Carson. The judgment of which the Spirit convicts the world is its multifaceted spiritual blindness, supremely displayed in its treatment of Jesus. Earlier Jesus had exhorted the ‘world’, ‘Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment’ (7:24).

Kruse. Just as the standards of righteousness by which ‘the Jews’ operated were mistaken, so also were their judgments about Jesus. . . . After Jesus’ return to the Father, the Counsellor would continue to prove them wrong ‘in regard to judgment’

Lenski. here the world’s conscience is to be impressed concerning its own judgment by what has already happened to its own ruler. . . . In the devil’s judgment the world may see something concerning judgment for itself. He is the world’s own ruler, to whose control the children of this world have submitted.

Beasley-Murray, Michaels, and Borchert all take the alternate view of righteousness and judgment.

Beasley-Murray. its continued failure to acknowledge Jesus as the rightful Lord of the world, installed by God, implicates it in the judgment that took place in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Like the prince of this world, its cause is lost; it has been judged.

Michaels. “Judgment” too (like “justice”) is accomplished through Jesus’ departure to the Father and the coming of the Advocate. In short, the Advocate will redefine three familiar terms (familiar especially to the Jews), each one in relation to Jesus: “sin” as rejecting Jesus, “justice” as what God has done for Jesus, and “judgment” as what Jesus carries out by his death.

Borchert. The Paraclete’s forensic task here then is portrayed in the presence of the disciples and in the Johannine court of God like a counselor and judge in bringing to just judgment the world and its rebellious prince.

[5] Carson, “The Function of the Paraclete in John 16,” 548.

[6] Borchert, John 12–21, 25B:165.

[7] Beasley-Murray, John, 36:281; Michaels, The Gospel of John, 833; Borchert, John 12–21, 25B:167.

Well respected commentators hold to this view. I do not dismiss it flippantly, but I’ve struggled in a few ways. Why would the Spirit need to convince God of the guilt of the world? I struggle understanding how this view is drawn from the context or what value it would hold. Time also does not allow me to dig deeper into this view.

Beasley-Murray. The fundamental concept of v 8 and its elaboration in vv 9–11 is that of a trial of the world before God….The task of the Paraclete is to expose the reality of this situation, and the trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate’s judgment hall in Jerusalem gives place to the tribunal of God in heaven. The Paraclete, through the witness of the disciples to Jesus in the gospel and its exemplification in the Church, unveils to the world the real nature of sin and righteousness and judgment in the light of what God was doing in Jesus, and its implications for men and women.

Michaels. To “convict the world of sin” probably does not mean to bring the world to a conscious recognition of its sin, and consequently to repentance, but simply to expose it before God as sinful.

If taken, proponents of this view understand righteousness to reference Christ’ righteousness, not the perceived righteousness of men.

Beasley-Murray. the lifting up of Jesus on the cross, which in the world’s eyes was the demonstration of Jesus’ unrighteousness, was none other than the means of his exaltation to heaven by the Father . . . the justification of Jesus thus is the vindication of his righteousness. (282)

Michaels. The verb “convict” is obviously less appropriate with “justice” and “judgment” than with “sin,” for the latter two are not wrongful deeds to be “exposed,” or crimes of which one can be “convicted.” The point is rather that the Advocate will “reprove” the world, or prove it wrong, about both “justice” and “judgment,” thereby proving Jesus right . . . Jesus is proven right by going to the Father, so that the world—and, we now learn, even the disciples—no longer sees him. (833-834)

Borchert. Thus what seemed to be the world’s victory over Jesus was, in fact, a clear Johannine example of the divine reversal because Jesus did not decay in the tomb. Rather, his exaltation to the Father vindicated his presence among them. (167)

Within this view, the Spirit does not appear to engage or interact with the world in any way. If anything, he engages, only from a distance, to point to and prove their guilt. So then, he is not convicting people of sin, etc. but instead laying the groundwork for their conviction (ie. declaration of guilt).

[8] Carson, “The Function of the Paraclete in John 16,” 551.

[9] Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, 1084.

[10] Carson, 552–53.

[11] Carson, “The Function of the Paraclete in John 16,” 565.