The promise is clear, when the Holy Spirit comes, he will convict the world. About what? Jesus Christ says, about sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:8ff).
The word translated ‘convict’ points to facts for which there will be ample evidence. What facts? By nature we are in the wrong. In particular we have wrong ideas of sin, righteousness and judgement.
Where is the evidence, and what does it show? The Spirit of God convinces us about unbelief, Christ’s righteousness and the coming judgement.
There are three places from which we can gather evidence: the Bible, history and experience. What do they teach?
Firstly, when the Holy Spirit works, our conscience is pricked. The conscience is that part of us which prompts us to be honest with ourselves. Some liken it to a voice that speaks within. We do not hear it with our ears. Instead we are prompted to look at what we do and what we are really like.
Christ Jesus says the Holy Spirit rebukes us for our defective view of sin. People seek to justify themselves. We try to explain away what we say, what we think and what we do. We find reasons to excuse our words and deeds. ‘It’s not my fault’, we are quick to say when we do wrong. We even try to blame someone else or our situation.
When our conscience is awakened, we realise how silly it is to justify ourselves. The Holy Spirit of God works in such a way that we see the real character of our actions and nature of our hearts.
What happened to the prophet Isaiah? How did he react when he saw God’s perfection and purity? He said, ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5).
What did the people who heard Peter on the Day of Pentecost say? They were ‘cut to the heart’ when they heard of their responsibility for the death of Christ. And they asked, ‘What shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37).
Secondly,when the Holy Spirit works, we find the guilt for our sins unbearable. We see it with Isaiah. The question Peter was asked points to the same.
Church history is full of similar examples. When we read accounts of revival that happened in New England in the 1740s, in Wales in 1791, Ulster, Scotland and England and America in 1857-60, and on the Isle of Lewis between 1934 and 1939, we discover the same.
When the Spirit of God works, we feel guilt. We know we need to be made right with God. We realise we are powerless. We see the need for the righteousness of another; and it needs to be reckoned as ours.
The good news is that, when we believe on the Lord Jesus, God counts Christ’s righteousness as ours. It is ours for ever. This truth is the heart of the gospel message.
Thirdly, when the Holy Spirit works, he shows us the danger we face. What is our plight? Jonathan Edwards’ account of what happened in the days of the Great Awakening in America, in the 1730s and 40s, is instructive.
People saw it as a terrifying thing to be ‘out of Christ’ (that is, to not be a Christian). They were aware that unbelievers are ‘in danger every day of dropping into hell’. Edwards simply gives a faithful description of what happened.
Christ promises that, when the Spirit comes, he will also convict the world about judgement. Instead of thinking we are masters of our own destiny, we see we must answer to God. The day draws near when all of us shall be called to explain ourselves to him.
Fourthly, the Spirit shows us who the Lord Jesus is. His work is to teach us to understand all that Christ taught (John 14:26; 16:10).
The Spirit helps us see that Christ came from and is God (John 1:1ff); that Christ did the work God gave him to do — he laid down his life for his people (John 10:18); and that Christ went back to the Father to prepare an eternal resting place for us (John 14:2ff).
When we learn these truths we see that Jesus Christ is the perfectly righteous One who alone can make us right with God.
John Wesley saw that on 24 May 1738, when his heart was ‘strangely warmed’. Howell Harris had a similar experience on 18 June 1735, when he felt his heart melt ‘like wax before the fire, with love to God’.
Fifthly, the Spirit creates within us a hunger for God and his Word. When he comes, we take seriously the fact we are not made to live on food alone (Matthew 4:4).
We also take seriously the promises of God. In particular, we discover that those who ask shall receive, those who seek shall find, and those who knock shall have the door opened for them (Matthew 7:7ff).
We also recognise that those who hear Christ’s words and do them are like a wise man who built his house upon rock and not sand (Matthew 7:24ff).
The way God works leaves us amazed. To understand the work of the Holy Spirit, we must start with the teaching of Christ. It is he who shows us what the Spirit will do (John 14-17).
How God dealt with his people in the past shows he is true to his Word. The experience of those born again by the Holy Spirit does the same. When the Spirit comes, he convinces us about unbelief, about Christ’s righteousness, and that the day of judgement shall come.
How convinced are we of these things? For what do God’s people long? For what do we pray?
The author is minister of Elswick Parish Church, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a trustee of the Christian Institute