The first point upon which the Holy Spirit will convict the world is with respect to sin.
In our attempt to make real to our minds what is meant by this convicting work we might be inclined to transfer this operation to the day of Christ’s return and judgment of which the Bible so often speaks as the day when the secrets of men shall be revealed, as the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess to God, and when every man shall give account of himself to God. ().
Yet this idea is rather definitely excluded by the closeness with which, the promise is connected with the lives of the apostles, and it is also not favored by the form of the expressing “when He is come”, which especially our Dutch version separates the coming from the action following more than is necessary for it evidently means “and He coming”, or “when He comes”, He will convict, etc.
Now of the Spirit thus coming it is said “He will reprove the World”. We have already suggested that this does not quite express the idea of the Saviour, especially to our modern ears. Reprove, to our ears, means “to rebuke openly”, or “to censure”. This, however, is not the meaning of the word in the Bible, nor does it harmonize with the possible meaning of the word in the two “because” clauses that follow. The meaning is rather the action of a teacher or authority whereby a truth hitherto not acknowledged, is so demonstrated to an unwilling conscience that the mind is compelled to yield to its power. So Trench (Synonyms, etc., p. 14), quoting Lampe with ardent approval. We are thus lead to render this word not by reprove, but by convict or convince, and of these the latter is undoubtedly more in accord with the passage which deals not so much with legal conviction as with moral persuasion, therefore, convince. He shall convince the world.
Now this convincing will be carried out from three viewpoints or in three phases, and first in order is the convincing of sin.
The meaning of this expression is largely determined by the meaning of the “because” clause that follows. And as is so often the case, especially in the writings of the apostle John, the word rendered because, may have various shades of meaning, indicating cause, or ground, or also content. Here, however, in accordance with the two parallel clauses that follow, it cannot well indicate cause, and we are necessitated to take it as the ground of the conviction that is established.
Let us try to understand this.
Negatively speaking, it does not mean that because men do not believe in Jesus, that therefore they are lost, and this is the cause of their perdition, and that the Spirit tries to bring them to the conviction of this fatal negligence so that they may turn therefrom, We know that it is often taught that Christ has made atonement for all men and that thus all their sins are paid for. Consequently the only sin that can be fatal is the sin of not accepting Jesus. Logically speaking this must not really be a sin but only an unfortunate mistake, a fatal judgment of the mind.
I may quote a typical passage from Lenski on—“In the last analysis it is not sin as such at all that damns, whether great or small, many or few, commissions or omissions. For all sins can be pardoned and wiped away forever by grace. In the final analysis it is unbelief that damns, the unbelief that ever says no to grace, continues to say this no even in hell ( ), and thus retains for itself also the guilt and damnation of all its other sins”. This is not merely an attempted exegesis of this passage, but it is a doctrinal postulate with this writer and it occurs often. (See ; .
But our text teaches that He will convince the world of sin, and then this is to be taken in its most general sense of not performing the will of God, or of being delinquent in relation to the demands and requirements of God.
This meaning in the text is plain from the words of the Savior in the context, where ‘He teaches that the hatred of the world against the Apostles (chap. 1.5:21.) and against Himself (15:22-24) is nothing but a manifestation of their hatred against the Father Himself.
So it is often in the Bible. This one is set for a fail and a rising again of many in Israel and a sign that shall be spoken against that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed,. Thus is also the teaching of the Savior in ff. God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world. . . . He that believeth not has already been condemned, because he has not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God. This, however, is the condemnation, that light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For he that does evil will not come to the light lest his deeds be convicted (also here the word “elenchthee”),
In these several passages the sin which is referred to is the one great depravity of nature, and the one great resultant alienation from God’s holy will of righteousness. They hate the Father, their deeds are habitually evil and these deeds are in accord with the thoughts of their hearts.
So it is in our passage. The world is convicted here of its utter sinfulness, apart from this added sin of unbelief. It is totally depraved.
And now the ground upon which this conviction rests in the mind of that sinful and condemned world is that they do not believe in Christ. That is the undeniable proof before their own eyes that they are under the sentence of utter sinfulness. That removes every veil with which they might hide the fact that they are not really enemies of God and of all that is good in His creation and revelation. They even reject the All-glorious Son of His own bosom and that even when He comes as a messenger of divine mercy.
Thus it is not the rejection of Christ that brings men to perdition. This rejection really comes afterward and is only the proof of their inborn perversity and aversion to the highest good.
This unbelief, of course, manifests itself in various ways and degrees. There is a difference between failing to believe in Christ as the Babe of Bethlehem, and the humiliated son of Man preaching and laboring in Israel and again the resurrected Christ, and again the Christ returned and present in the mighty Spirit of Pentecost. But in whatever form this appears it is always unbelief in the revelation of the arm of the Lord, disobedience to the messenger of the covenant of the Lord of Hosts.
Now the question may arise: how shall we harmonize this with that statement that men will be judged by the law written or unwritten.ff.
There is undoubtedly this difference, that whereas the separate acts of men are judged by the law, so that every man shall be judged in accordance with his works as they are weighed, great and small, by the standard of the law, on the other hand the conviction established by the attitude toward the Christ will especially testify to the spiritual quality of those works as basically evil.
Hence it is not necessary to limit the application of this conviction only to those who have definitely made contact with Christ or the Gospel in the New Dispensation, but it can very well apply also to those who lived under the Old Testament form of revelation in which also the Christ was revealed, from the time of Cain and Abel to the very last.
And this proof of the quality of men’s works can even apply to those who have never seen or heard of Christ, because they admittedly are of the same nature and stock as those are who have concretely historically rejected Him, because their deeds were evil. By the example and test of their new dispensational representatives the entire race is proved to be in sin.
At this juncture the question may arise whether this interpretation is sustained at all by our experience. And since it is a fallible interpretation also experience may be used as a test. And then it does seem as though this conviction is not observed in the world, it does not appear that men are impressed to silence and consent by the testimony of the Christ.
However the experiential support for the interpretation that this is saving conviction instead of a non-saving conviction is at least not any stronger. It is not our experience either that men are brought to a saving conviction of their sin by reflecting that they do not and have not believed in the Christ of God, even though that interpretation often presents it so.
And yet it is exactly the revelation of the Christ in the Gospel that is adapted to work the conviction of sin.
There is surely no higher and clearer revelation of God than the historical revelation of Christ. There is no rock upon which unbelief, criticism, modernism, dashes itself more futilely, than upon the rock of Christ Resurrected as the testification of the validity of His Messianic claims.
Men may seem to have some pretense of questioning the Old Testament with its so-called primitive religion and ethics. They may seem to have an excuse to question the claims of the church amid her changes and instabilities. But all these attacks and denials are silenced when we come to the essence of the Scripture and the Church, so they are the proclamation and revelation of the Messiah of God, sinless, raised from the dead and exalted before the eyes of many unimpeachable witnesses. Any man who does not believe in this Christ, bears in his own conscience the conviction that he is sold in the power of sin and will not come to the light lest his life and deeds be reproved.
We must say a final word about the manner of this convincing work.
This is not an operation of the Spirit that has no content, but the content is provided by the Savior through the Apostolic preaching, “He shall testify concerning Me. And you also shall testify, because you are with Me from the beginning (). The relation here is such that the Spirit is the Source of the testimony, and they, the Apostles, testify as a consequence. But the content of the testimony is drawn from the material of their observation acquired while they heard and saw Him in His ministry.
But this apostolic message is, of course, also the testimony of the Church. It is the testimony with which you and I are entrusted. And so we must be ever careful that we present no other message. There may be no mistake about our message so that men do not become confronted with the Christ of the Scriptures. No message of human progress, or righteousness, or morality will serve this purpose. Men must be able to say that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ and then must be brought to say in their own conscience: “We will not have this man to reign over us”.