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. John 16:8-11 English Standard Version (ESV)
There’s a lot of truth packed in these verses of scripture. Although Matthew Henry, Charles Spurgeon, and John Calvin all commented or preached on this text, we turn to a heartfelt sermon by George Whitfield, Anglican minister, preacher of Calvinist Methodism, and revivalist preacher in the USA circa 1740s. Speaking of sin, righteousness, and judgment, Whitefield said:
…First, …The Comforter, when he comes effectually to work upon a sinner, not only convinces him of the sin of his nature, the sin of his life, [and] of the sin of his duties…
But there is a fourth sin, of which the Comforter, when he comes, convinces the soul, and which alone (it is very remarkable) our Lord mentions, as though it was the only sin worth mentioning; for indeed it is the root of all other sins whatsoever: it is the reigning as well as the damning sin of the world. And what now do you imagine that sin may be? It is that cursed sin, that root of all other evils, I mean the sin of unbelief. Says our Lord, verse 9. “Of sin, because they believe not on me.”
…Perhaps you may think you believe, because you repeat the Creed, or subscribe to a Confession of Faith; because you go to church or meeting, receive the sacrament, and are taken into full communion. These are blessed privileges; but all this may be done, without our being true believers.
…Ask yourselves, therefore, whether or not the Holy [Spirit] ever powerfully convinced you of the sin of unbelief? …Were you ever made to cry out, “Lord, give me faith; Lord, give me to believe on thee; O that I had faith! O that I could believe!” If you never were thus distressed, at least, if you never saw and felt that you had no faith, it is a certain sign that the Holy [Spirit], the Comforter, never came into and worked savingly upon your souls.
…We have seen how the Holy [Spirit] convinces the sinner of the sin of his nature, life, duties, and of the sin of unbelief; and what then must the poor creature do? He must, he must inevitably despair, if there be no hope but in himself…
Secondly, what is the righteousness, of which the Comforter convinces the world?
…O the righteousness of Christ! It so comforts my soul, that I must be excused if I mention it in almost all my discourses. I would not, if I could help it, have one sermon without it. Whatever infidels may object, or Arminians sophistically argue against an imputed righteousness; yet whoever know themselves and God, must acknowledge, that “Jesus Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, (and perfect justification in the sight of God) to everyone that believes,” and that we are to be made the righteousness of God in him.
This, and this only, a poor sinner can lay hold of, as a sure anchor of his hope. Whatever other scheme of salvation men may lay, I acknowledge I can see no other foundation whereon to build my hopes of salvation, but on the rock of Christ’s personal righteousness, imputed to my soul.
…When therefore the Spirit has hunted the sinner out of all his false rests and hiding-places, taken off the pitiful fig-leaves of his own works, and driven him out of the trees of the garden (his outward reformations) and places him naked before the bar of a sovereign, holy, just, and sin-avenging God; then, then it is, when the soul, having the sentence of death within itself because of unbelief, has a sweet display of Christ’s righteousness made to it by the Holy Spirit of God. Here it is, that he begins more immediately to act in the quality of a Comforter, and convinces the soul so powerfully of the reality and all-sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness, that the soul is immediately set a hungering and thirsting after it.
Now the sinner begins to see, that though he has destroyed himself, yet in Christ is his help; that, though he has no righteousness of his own to recommend him, there is a fullness of grace, a fullness of truth, a fullness of righteousness in the dear Lord Jesus, which, if once imputed to him, will make him happy for ever and ever.
…If you were never thus convinced of Christ’s righteousness in your own souls, though you may believe it doctrinally, it will avail you nothing; if the Comforter never came savingly into your souls, then you are comfortless indeed…
Whitefield then proceeds:
Thirdly, …the Comforter, when he comes, convinces the soul of judgment.
“Of judgment (says our Lord) because the Prince of this world is judged;” the soul, being enabled to lay hold on Christ’s perfect righteousness by a lively faith, has a conviction wrought in it by the Holy Spirit, that the Prince of this world is judged. The soul being now justified by faith, has peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and can triumphantly say, “It is Christ that justifies me, who is he that condemns me?”
The strong man armed is now cast out; my soul is in a true peace; the Prince of this world will come and accuse, but he has now no share in me: the blessed Spirit which I have received, and whereby I am enabled to apply Christ’s righteousness to my poor soul, powerfully convinces me of this: why should I fear? Or of what shall I be afraid, since God’s Spirit witnesses with my spirit, that I am a child of God…
But, if we do not find ourselves thus convinced, Whitefield appeals to us once more to be reconciled to Christ:
Though of myself I can do nothing, and you can no more by your own power come to and believe on Christ, than Lazarus could come forth from the grave; yet who knows but God may beget some of you again to a lively hope by this foolishness of preaching, and that you may be some of that world, which the Comforter is to convince of sin, or righteousness, and of judgment?
Poor Christless souls! Do you know what a condition you are in? Why, you are lying in the wicked one, the devil; he rules in you, he walks and dwells in you, unless you dwell in Christ, and the Comforter is come into your hearts. And will you contentedly lie in that wicked one that devil? What wages will he give you? Eternal death.
O that you would come to Christ! The free gift of God through him is eternal life. He will accept of you even now, if you will believe in him. The Comforter may yet come into your hearts, even yours…
In conclusion, we briefly quote Augustine on these same verses:
Let men, therefore, believe in Christ, that they be not convicted of the sin of their own unbelief, whereby all sins are retained;
let them make their way into the number of believers, that they be not convicted of the righteousness of those, whom, as justified, they fail to imitate;
let them beware of that future judgment, that they be not judged with the prince of the world, whom, judged as he is, they continue to imitate.
For the unbending pride of mortals can have no thought of being spared itself, as it is thus called to think with terror of the punishment that overtook the pride of angels.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God – Classic Sermon by Jonathan Edwards – Christian Praise and Worship in Songs, Sermons, and Audio Books, Sermon Text