Sermon for the Festival of Pentecost. Based on John 16:5-11.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, Wisconsin. Preached on May 28 & 31, 2020.
The Spirit Convinces Us…
- about sin
- about righteousness
- about judgment
Are you convinced that Coronavirus is a serious threat, or do you think the response to the virus has been a major overreaction? Are you convinced that the way our lives are intertwined with technology is a good thing (It did allow education and worship to continue online during a pandemic!), or do you think technology is distracting families and especially children from real relationships and healthy human interactions with one another (which may have only gotten worse during the quarantine!)? Are you convinced that the Green Bay Packers made all the right moves in the 2020 NFL draft, or do you think the there was no need to draft a future quarterback and that Brian Gutekunst should do something else with his life other than be the Packers General Manager? Although these three issues range from a life-and-death matter to a lighthearted sports discussion, they all have something in common. These kinds of debates involve people who are strongly convinced of their own opinions and are unlikely to be convinced by another opinion.
Today we celebrate the day of Pentecost and the miraculous blessing that the Holy Spirit gave to Jesus’ disciples ten days after he ascended into heaven. In the Gospel for today’s service, Jesus speaks to his disciples on Thursday of Holy Week and tells them that he will eventually ascend to heaven and physically depart from them. They were not convinced that was a good idea. As he broke this news to them, they were filled with the kind of sadness and grief that weighs you down. But Jesus goes on to explain why it was good and proper for him to eventually leave them. Only if Jesus ascended into heaven would they receive the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit came, it will be his job to convince people about important spiritual truths—truths about which many people remain unconvinced.
This is what Jesus said to his disciples: “I am going away to him who sent me, and not one of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Yet because I have told you these things, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth: It is good for you that I go away. For if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
This birthday of the Holy Christian Church called Pentecost could not have happened unless Jesus completed his work as our Savior—unless he suffered and died as a substitute who endured the wrath of God against our sin. The risen Jesus would be received by his Father in heaven as our perfect Savior who perfectly completed everything necessary to make us one again with God. Jesus’ ascension into heaven was a statement of a mission completed, salvation secured, and peace again with God. And unless that work was complete, which included Jesus ascending into heaven, the disciples would not receive the Holy Spirit.
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit, “the Counselor,” a word that pictures someone standing alongside another for support. The Holy Spirit, the Counselor, would lead them to preach, teach, proclaim, and record the completed work of Jesus. They were not yet convinced that this plan for Jesus’ departure and the Counselor’s arrival was a good thing, although on the day of Pentecost they were fully convinced that this was God’s good and wise plan.
But the Holy Spirit did not come merely to convince the disciples that Jesus’ plan was a good idea. The Holy Spirit came to convince and convict the world. Notice what Jesus said in this reading about the Spirit’s job: “When he comes, he will convict the world about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
Jesus said the Spirit would “convict the world about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment.” The word “convict” can also mean to convince someone of something—and if you are convincing someone who has assumed something wrong, you are convicting them in a sense. If we substitute the meaning convince for convict, Jesus’ intended meaning becomes clearer. Jesus said the Holy Spirit’s job was to convince the world that its thinking was wrong “about sin and righteousness and judgment.” Let’s unpack those points.
First, Jesus said that the Spirit “will convict the world … about sin, because they do not believe in me.” If people acknowledge that sin exists, they think of it in terms of poor choices we make and mistake we regret: I lost my temper; I was lazy at work; I drank too much at the party. But sin is far worse than that. Underneath every sin is a failure to believe Jesus’ Word and trust his wisdom above my wants and whims. Unbelief is at the root of all sin. Why would I believe what Jesus says about sin if I’d rather live under my standards?
Several years ago, after a funeral service I conducted for a member of the congregation I was serving at the time, a person came up to me after the service and asked about something I said in the sermon. She noted that I said that the deceased man was a sinner. That shocked her, because the man was actually a very respectful and respectable person. I explained to her that sin isn’t just the outward evil actions that criminals behind bars have committed. The Bible’s definition of sin includes anything and everything I do that fails to meet the perfect standards of God. Her reply sounded something like this: “By that standard, everyone is a sinner.” Bingo! I’m not sure she was convinced that was true, but she did realize that her definition of sin was not Scripture’s definition.
Next, Jesus said that the Spirit “will convict the world … about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me.” The world in Jesus’ day and the world in our day is largely unconvinced that the message of Jesus as Savior is true. But how can it be anything but the truth if Jesus was raised from the dead and then raised to the Father’s right hand in heaven? Jesus’ resurrection and ascension prove his righteousness! These things prove that Jesus was perfect and holy, which was necessary for him to perfectly complete his work to redeem mankind from sin. These things prove that Jesus’ righteousness is something we can count on, not our attempts to live righteous and godly lives which fall short of God’s standards far more often than we care to admit.
Another pastor and friend of mine recently attended a presentation by a Muslim apologist—a man whose work is to defend and prove Islam to be true. The pastor spoke to the man personally after the presentation, and at the end of their conversation, the man said that he thought Christianity was unbelievable and foolish. Why? Christianity says that someone else was punished for your crimes. If you know that you are not going to get into trouble for what you did wrong, wouldn’t you be inclined to sin more? Why should Jesus’ righteousness count as your righteousness? That incident demonstrates what St. Paul said: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). It also shows that the world needs to be convinced by the Spirit about Jesus’ righteousness.
Finally, Jesus said that the Spirit “will convict the world … about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” The world is largely convinced that there is no final judgment. Many are convinced that their opinions and standards are the correct definition of morality, and that there is no God to whom we must give an account. But when the world thinks that way, the world is siding with a loser. Satan has already lost. He lost when God kicked him out of heaven after creation; he lost when Jesus paid for our sin and defeated our grave; and he will lose once more on the Last great Day when Christ returns to judge all people, condemn those who rejected him, and take his own home to heaven in glory. But faith in Jesus’ Word and trust in his righteousness gives God’s people confidence that they will stand before Christ for the final judgment clothed in his righteousness, which is their ticket into heaven.
Many years ago, I heard a liberal theologian speak about the concept of hell. He introduced his idea—apparently a common one in some circles—that hell exists, but that no one is there now and no one will be there eternally. Doesn’t that sound like a favorite trick up the devil’s sleeve? Satan would rather get modern Americans believing that he doesn’t exist and that hell isn’t real and that there won’t be a final judgment that condemns unbelievers to hell. Satan actually gets people to follow him (the opposite of following Christ) by convincing people that he isn’t real, hell is no threat, and there is no judgment to come. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit to convince us of the truth about Christ’s judgment.
Doesn’t this all sound so theoretical? Jesus is speaking in his simple yet profound manner, talking about spiritual concepts like sin and righteousness and judgment, with thoughts that we wouldn’t normally attach to those concepts. Meanwhile, in “real life,” the world is facing a pandemic, unemployment has skyrocketed, people are experiencing tremendous stress and distress, and the headlines report chilling incidents of police brutality and violent protests. How does Jesus’ talk about sin and righteousness and judgment do us any good?
Should we be concerned about these worldly matters that fill the headlines right now? Of course! But what happens if we spend our life’s energy and focus only addressing these worldly issues and not getting to the sin and unbelief that lies underneath the surface? Will we have a world free from sickness and disease, but that has forgotten about the cancer of sin naturally found in our hearts? Will we have a world that shows outward acts of kindness, and yet fails to understand that those nice deeds cannot atone for our sin as only Jesus can? Will we have a world that isn’t ready to face the final judgment because they don’t know that Jesus has faced God’s judgment in our place?
Our family is in the process of buying a new car. One too many dashboard lights lit up in our old Honda Accord a couple of weeks ago, and the repairs were more expensive than the car was worth, so it was time to look for a new vehicle. Ignoring those warning lights wouldn’t do any good—unless you want to be stuck on the freeway with a broken-down vehicle!
We cannot ignore the “warning lights” that Jesus puts on the dashboard of our souls in these words. For our worst problem is not really the threat of a virus (though we should take it seriously!), but the threat of separation from God because of sin. Our worst problem is not poverty and unemployment (though that is a legitimate concern!), but the poverty of our own assumed righteousness before God. Our worst problem is not emotional despair (though that can be a very real and serious cross to bear!), but being sentenced into the fiery pit of despair and judgment for eternity.
God understands, more than we, that these are our biggest problems. That is why he sent Jesus to become one of us, and to step into the place of sinners on behalf of us sinners. That is why Jesus journeyed to the cross to pay for our sins, to offer his righteousness in place of our sinfulness, and to endure our just judgment so that we will receive his “innocent” verdict on the day of judgment. And that is why God now sends us his Holy Spirit—no, not in the impressive way the disciples first received the Spirit on Pentecost, but in the simple message that convicts us of sin and convinces us that the completed work of Jesus is the only remedy to our guilt and the greatest gift we could ever receive from God!
Jesus warned the disciples on the night he spoke these words that they would face trouble in this world. Our troubles may be different than theirs, but they are no less real. But Jesus promised to send them his Spirit to be their Counselor, to be the One who stands alongside them and strengthen them through this world of grief and turmoil. Even though the Spirit does not come to you today with the sound of wind or flames of fire, that same Spirit and Advocate and Counselor speaks to you in God’s Word. That same Holy Spirit guides you in life through that Word. That same Holy Spirit has convinced you of the truth about sin, righteousness, and judgment. That same Holy Spirit has convinced us that despite all the ups and downs of this life, we have in Jesus the One greatest blessing who makes us One with God now in this life and ready to meet God then in eternal life. Amen.