THE CONVICTION OF THE SPIRIT
B. B. Warfield
“And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged” John 16:8-11.
These chapters which contain the closing discourse of Christ to His disciples are wonderingly dwelt upon by every Christian heart, as the deepest and richest part of the riches of this gospel. That we may obtain an insight into the marvellous words which we take as the subject of our meditation to-day, it is essential for us to realize the setting which our Lord gave them in the midst of this discourse. He had described to His disciples the conditions of their life, in continuous union and communion with Him, purchased as they were by His death for them and elevated to the lofty position of His special friends from whom He withholds nothing – not even His life itself. Then He had opposed to this picture of their exaltation, a delineation of their condition in the world, opposed and hated and persecuted and slain; while they, on their part, were to bear quietly their witness, endure their martyrdom, and trust in their Redeemer. But was this all? Were they condemned to a
hopeless witness-bearing through all the coming years, while the world triumphed over them and in them over their crucified Lord? What an end to the hope they had cherished that this was He who should redeem Israel!
No, says the Lord, not the world but they were to win the victory; the laurel belongs by right not to Satan’s but to His own brow. But we will not fail to notice the air of reproof with which He opens the section of His discourse which He has consecrated to an exposition of the victory over the world which He intended that they – as His – should win. “But now,” He says, “I am going to him that sent me, and none of you asketh me, ‘Whither goest thou?’ , but because I said these things to you, sorrow hath filled your hearts.” They had, indeed, expected Him to redeem Israel. It was therefore that they had given Him their trust, their love; that they had left their all to follow Him. But now sad days had come; and they saw their trusted Lord on the eve of giving Himself up to death. Was not this a dashing of their hopes? And had they, then, been so long time with Him and had not learned that the Father had ten myriads of angels who were encamped about Him and who would bear up His every footfall lest by chance He might dash His foot against a stone? Nay, that He had Himself power to lay down His life and to take it again? How could they look upon this coming death as an interference with His plans, the destruction of their hopes, and so sorrow as those without hope, instead of rejoicing as those who see the bright promise of the coming day in the east?
On the lines of these needs of the babes with which He had to deal, our Lord disposes His comforting words. The sorrow of their hearts He deprecates, not merely because He might expect them to rejoice like friends in His approaching departure to the higher and better life, but because He might expect them, after so much that He had done in their sight and spoken in their hearing, to have confidence in His mission and work, and to know that the power of Satan could not prevail against Him. What a spectacle we see here! The Master girding Himself for His last stroke of battle with the joy of victory in His eyes, while His surrounding friends are with streaming tears anointing Him for burial!
He plants His foot firmly upon the steps of His Eternal Throne; and they smite their breasts with the sorrowful cry, “We had hoped that thou mightest have been He that should have redeemed Israel!” No wonder that He gives them the loving rebuke, “But now I go my way to him that sent me,” – to Him that sent me; on the completion of His work, then; not as balked, defeated, – “and none of you asketh me, ‘Whither goest thou?’, but because I have said these things sorrow hath filled your hearts.”
Note how our Lord presses forward His personality here. “But I tell you the truth” – none of you has asked me, but I lovingly volunteer to tell you, – “It is good for you that I go away.” This departure is not a
forced one, by way of defeat and loss; it was planned from the beginning and is part of the great plan by which I am to redeem not only Israel but the world. Note the emphatic “I”: “It is good for you that I go away.” Why this emphasis? Because there is Another to whom this work has been committed and whose offices are necessary for the consummation of the work. Because unless I go, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you; and it is He who, on His coming, will convict the world as to sin, and as to righteousness and as to judgment.
Let us observe:-
1. That Christ proclaims the victory.
2. That He announces the Agent through whose holy offices the victory will be realized in the world.
3. That He describes the manner in which the victory will be realized – by convicting the world.
4. That He names the three elements in which this conviction takes effect – sin, righteousness and judgment. And finally,
5. That He points out the means which the Spirit uses to bring home this conviction, in each element, to the hearts of men.
1. Christ, I say, proclaims here the victory. Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? He says in effect to His tearful disciples. I go to the Father, and the world will hate you as it hated Me, and the world will persecute you and the world will slay you. But still the world is conquered. It is not because Satan is victor that I go to the Father; it is because I have completed My work, because redemption has been won, and I go to take My place upon the throne, that from that throne I may cause all things to work together for your good, – that from it I may send the Helper forth to you, who will convict the world.
2. Here He announces the Agent through whom the victory is to be realized in the world. He has won the victory; the Spirit is to apply His work that the fruits of the victory may be reaped to the full. A new age has dawned on this sin-stricken world; the prince of the power of the air is dethroned; the Prince of peace reigns. Henceforth men strive not single-handed against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places; they have a Comforter, Advocate, Helper, Paraclete ever at their right hand, and He will give them the victory. It will be observed that Christ is here dealing with His apostles, not merely as individuals striving against the sin that is within them, but as His lieutenants, leading His hosts against the sin that is in the world. The world may persecute them – and slay them. But they will win the victory; by the power of their Helper they will lead captivity captive.
3. Hence the nature of the victory that is to be realized in the world is here declared for us. It is a moral victory, a spiritual victory, and its essence is not physical subjection but mental and moral conviction. That Christ dies, that His followers are imprisoned, persecuted, slain, in no wise detracts from the victory; these things are disparate to it; they move on different planes and cannot conflict. What the Helper is to do is to convict the world; and in this conviction rests their victory.
It is easy to see that this was a hard saying. No doubt when it was spoken it fell like a deeper knell on the hearts of the apostles; instead of comforting, it pained, instead of encouraging, it slew. But then, Christ was not yet risen and their eyes were holden that they should know neither Him nor His victory. But turn to Pentecost. Then the Spirit came as He was promised and gave the convicting power to Peter’s sermon that here was announced. See the joy in the victory, the exulting courage of the apostles, from that day to the end. Paul declares that he spoke not in the wisdom of the world but in the demonstration of the Spirit and in power. Although he uses a different word, what he means by the ‘demonstration of the Spirit’ seems to be what Christ here promised under the name of the proof, convincing, conviction of the Spirit. This phrase of Paul’s, indeed, is perhaps the best verbal commentary on our passage. The best actual commentary is found, doubtless, in the narrative of the results of the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts. This, then, is the victory; not an external one over men’s bodies, but the conquest of the world to Christ by the demonstration of the Spirit in the proclamation of the Gospel, whereby the world is convicted of sin and righteousness and judgment. The conquest is a spiritual one; the apostles are the agents in it; but the source of the power is the Holy Ghost – our one and true Helper in the world, who convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.
4. We approach now the centre of our subject and perceive what it is that the world is convicted of by the demonstration of the Spirit. The Saviour pointedly discriminates between the three elements: as to sin, as to righteousness, as to judgment. Conviction of the world is the work of the Holy Ghost. Conviction as to what? (1) As to sin. The world which as yet knows not sin is convicted of it as the first and primary work of the Holy Ghost. It is not without significance that this is placed first. There is a sense in which it underlies all else, and conviction of sin becomes the first step in that recovery of the world, which is the victory. Once convicted of sin, another conviction is opened out before it. (2) It may then be convicted of righteousness, that is, of what righteousness is and what is required to form a true righteousness, and (3) it may be convicted of judgment, that is, of what judgment is, what justice requires and its inevitableness. These two together form the correlates of sin. It is only by knowing sin that we can know righteousness; as it
is only by knowing darkness that we know light. We must know what sin is and how subtle it is, before we can realize what righteousness is. We must know how base the one is before we can know how noble the other is. We must know the depth that we may appreciate the heights. In like manner we must know sin in order to know judgment. We must know sin in its native hideousness that we may understand its ill-desert, and perceive with what judgment the sinner must be judged. So, too, we must know righteousness to know judgment. Not only the depths of sin, but also the heights of righteousness are involved in the judgment. Sin on the one side, righteousness on the other; these give us our true conviction of judgment. And the work of the Holy Ghost in the world is declared to be conviction; and by convicting men He conquers the world. The Gospel is preached and it everywhere brings a crisis to men. Shall they hear or forbear? Some hear; to some it is hid; but on all the conviction takes effect. Sin is made known; righteousness is revealed;
judgment is laid bare. And men convicted of their sin have but a choice of the righteousness or judgment.
5. For our Saviour does not leave us in ignorance of the import and instruments of this threefold conviction.
(1) “Of sin,” he says, “because they believe not in me.” This does not seem to mean that there would be no sin save for rejection of Christ, but that the proclamation of Christ is the great revealer of sin, the great distinguisher of men. When Christ is preached the touchstone is applied and men are convicted of being sinners and of the depths and hideousness of their sin by their exhibited attitude towards the Son of God. The Gospel is never hid save to them whose eyes the god of this world has blinded, lest they should see the glory of the Saviour and come to Him and be saved. There is no revelation of character so accurate, so powerful, so unmistakable, so inevitable, as that wrapped up in the simple question, “What think ye of Christ?” Like a loadstone passing over a rubbish heap, His preaching draws to His side all that is not hopelessly bad. And all who come not are demonstrated to be sinners, and the depth of their sin is thus revealed.
(2) “As to righteousness,” He adds, “because I go to my Father and ye see me no more.” This seems to mean that the fact of Christ’s completed work, closed by His ascension to His primal glory, is the demonstration of righteousness. Convicted of sin, the world is also convicted of righteousness; that is, of the need of a righteousness such as it cannot frame for itself, and such as will match in its height, the depth of its own sin. This is brought to light only in the gospel, in which a righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. The convicting of the Holy Ghost consists no more of a conviction of human sinfulness and need of salvation than it does of the perfect righteousness of Christ wrought out on earth and sealed and warranted by His triumphal
departure from this world. Men are convicted of sin, because of their unbelief in Christ: of righteousness because of His finished work.
(3) But there is one more step. “As to judgment, because the Prince of this world has been judged.” If there is a sin, and a righteousness, there is also a judgment. And men must know it. The third element in the Spirit’s demonstration is the conviction of men of the overhanging judgment. This He performs by means of the obvious condemnation in Christ’s person and work of the prince of this world, involving those who hold of his part in the same destruction. That the world and all that is in it is of the evil one, that there is no life in it and no help for the children of men, is one element of the Spirit’s testimony to the preached gospel; that this world is under condemnation and reserved for the eternal fire is but another element of it. Everywhere the Spirit carries His demonstration men know what judgment is, and they know it by perceiving the judgment of the evil one.
We should not permit to slip from our minds that we have here the Saviour’s own exposition of the method and manner of His spiritual conquest of the world. This conquest is assured. It is the Spirit who performs it. And the method of His work in it is by accompanying the preached word with His demonstration and power. This demonstration of the Spirit consists in convicting the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Is conviction of sin then, we may ask, necessary to salvation? Is conviction of sin the first step of salvation? Let those smitten souls at Pentecost answer, who cried aloud, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Is conviction of righteousness necessary to salvation? A convinced and convicted appreciation of the needs of our soul which alone can be found in Christ Jesus? Ask him who has proved to us that the whole world lies alike under the wrath of God, and that by the works of the law no flesh can be justified, and who adds to this word of terror the only word of hope: But now apart from the law a righteousness of God has been revealed, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unto all them that believe; for there is no difference, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And as to conviction of judgment, ask Felix, who trembled as this same Paul reasoned of righteousness and temperance and judgment to come.
Assuredly, my brethren, would we be saved, we must know what sin is, we must know what righteousness is and where it may be found, and we must tremble before the judgment which that righteousness must pass on our sin. Christ has performed His work, and with the shout of “It is finished” upon His lips, has ascended to His throne on high, and there, seated by the right hand of God, He has shed forth this which we even now see and hear. The Spirit is in the world and wherever the gospel of God’s grace is faithfully preached He attends it with His demonstration and power. And what does He demonstrate to our souls? That we are sinners; that we need a God-provided righteousness; that
otherwise we must partake in the judgment of the prince of this world. This is God’s way and it is the only way. Let us be fully assured of it!