I. We see in this passage that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict men of sin. That is, to so convince of their error in respect to sin as to produce a deep sense of personal guilt. We have the first recorded fulfillment of this promise in Acts ii.36, 37, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" The Holy Spirit had come just as Jesus had promised that He would and when He came He convicted the world of sin: He pricked them to their heart with a sense of their awful guilt in the rejection of their Lord and their Christ. If the Apostle Peter had spoken the same words the day before Pentecost, no such results would have followed; but now Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit (v.4) and the Holy Spirit took Peter and his words and through the instrumentality of Peter and his words convicted his hearers. The Holy Spirit is the only One who can convince men of sin. The natural heart is "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked," and there is nothing in which the inbred deceitfulness of our hearts comes out more clearly than in our estimations of ourselves. We are all of us sharp-sighted enough to the faults of others but we are all blind by nature to our own faults. Our blindness to our own shortcomings is oftentimes little short of ludicrous. We have a strange power of exaggerating our imaginary virtues and losing sight utterly of our defects. The longer and more thoroughly one studies human nature, the more clearly will he see how hopeless is the task of convincing other men of sin. We cannot do it, nor has God left it for us to do. He has put this work into the hands of One who is abundantly able to do it, the Holy Spirit. One of the worst mistakes that we can make in our efforts to bring men to Christ is to try to convince them of sin in any power of our own. Unfortunately, it is one of the commonest mistakes. Preachers will stand in the pulpit and argue and reason with men to make them see and realize that they are sinners. They make it as plain as day; it is a wonder that their hearers do not see it; but they do not. Personal workers sit down beside an inquirer and reason with him, and bring forward passages of Scripture in a most skillful way, the very passages that are calculated to produce the effect desired and yet there is no result. Why? Because we are trying to do the Holy Spirit's work, the work that He alone can do, convince men of sin. If we would only bear in mind our own utter inability to convince men of sin, and cast ourselves upon Him in utter helplessness to do the work, we would see results.
At the close of an inquiry meeting in our church in Chicago, one of our best workers brought to me an engineer on the Pan Handle Railway with the remark, "I wish that you would speak to this man. I have been talking to him two hours with no result." I sat down by his side with my open Bible and in less than ten minutes that man, under deep conviction of sin, was on his knees crying to God for mercy. The worker who had brought him to me said when the man had gone out, "That is very strange." "What is strange?" I asked. "Do you know," the worker said, "I used exactly the same passages in dealing with that man that you did, and though I had worked with him for two hours with no result, in ten minutes with the same passages of Scripture, he was brought under conviction of sin and accepted Christ." What was the explanation? Simply this, for once that worker had forgotten something that she seldom forgot, namely, that the Holy Spirit must do the work. She had been trying to convince the man of sin. She had used the right passages; she had reasoned wisely; she had made out a clear case, but she had not looked to the only One who could do the work. When she brought the man to me and said, "I have worked with him for two hours with no result," I thought to myself, "If this expert worker has dealt with him for two hours with no result, what is the use of my dealing with him?" and in a sense of utter helplessness I cast myself upon the Holy Spirit to do the work and He did it.
But while we cannot convince men of sin, there is One who can, the Holy Spirit. He can convince the most hardened and blinded man of sin. He can change men and women from utter carelessness and indifference to a place where they are overwhelmed with a sense of their need of a Saviour. How often we have seen this illustrated. Some years ago, the officers of the Chicago Avenue Church were burdened over the fact that there was so little profound conviction of sin manifested in our meetings. There were conversions, a good many were being added to the church, but very few were coming with an apparently overwhelming conviction of sin. One night one of the officers of the church said, "Brethren, I am greatly troubled by the fact that we have so little conviction of sin in our meetings. While we are having conversions and many accessions to the church, there is not that deep conviction of sin that I like to see, and I propose that we, the officers of the church, meet from night to night to pray that there may be more conviction of sin in our meetings." The suggestion was taken up by the entire committee. We had not been praying many nights when one Sunday evening I saw in the front seat underneath the gallery a showily dressed man with a very hard face. A large diamond was blazing from his shirt front. He was sitting beside one of the deacons. As I looked at him as I preached, I thought to myself, "That man is a sporting man, and Deacon Young has been fishing to-day." It turned out that I was right. The man was the son of a woman who kept a sporting house in a Western city. I think he had never been in a Protestant service before. Deacon Young had got hold of him that day on the street and brought him to the meeting. As I preached the man's eyes were riveted upon me. When we went down-stairs to the after meeting, Deacon Young took the man with him. I was late dealing with the anxious that night. As I finished with the last one about eleven o'clock, and almost everybody had gone home, Deacon Young came over to me and said, "I have a man over here I wish you would come and speak with." It was this big sporting man. He was deeply agitated. "Oh," he groaned, "I don't know what is the matter with me. I never felt this way before in all my life," and he sobbed and shook like a leaf. Then he told me this story: "I started out this afternoon to go down to Cottage Grove Avenue to meet some men and spend the afternoon gambling. As I passed by the park over yonder, some of your young men were holding an open air meeting and I stopped to listen. I saw one man testifying whom I had known in a life of sin, and I waited to hear what he had to say. When he finished I went on down the street. I had not gone far when some strange power took hold of me and brought me back and I stayed through the meeting. Then this gentleman spoke to me and brought me over to your church, to your Yoke Fellows' Meeting. I stayed to supper with them and he brought me up to hear you preach, then he brought me down to this meeting." Here he stopped and sobbed, "Oh, I don't know what is the matter with me. I feel awful. I never felt this way before in all my life," and his great frame shook with emotion. "I know what is the matter with you," I said. "You are under conviction of sin; the Holy Spirit is dealing with you," and I pointed him to Christ, and he knelt down and cried to God for mercy, to forgive his sins for Christ's sake.
Not long after, one Sunday night I saw another man sitting in the gallery almost exactly above where this man had sat. A diamond flashed also from this man's shirt front. I said to myself, "There is another sporting man." He turned out to be a travelling man who was also a sporting man. As I preached, he leaned further and further forward in his seat. In the midst of my sermon, without any intention of giving out the invitation, simply wishing to drive a point home, I said, "Who will accept Jesus Christ to-night?" Quick as a flash the man sprang to his feet and shouted, "I will." It rang through the building like the crack of a revolver. I dropped my sermon and instantly gave out the invitation; men and women and young people rose all over the building to yield themselves to Christ. God was answering prayer and the Holy Spirit was convincing men of sin. The Holy Spirit can convince men of sin. We need not despair of any one, no matter how indifferent they may appear, no matter how worldly, no matter how self-satisfied, no matter how irreligious, the Holy Spirit can convince men of sin. A young minister of very rare culture and ability once came to me and said, "I have a great problem on my hands. I am the pastor of the church in a university town. My congregation is largely made up of university professors and students. They are most delightful people. They have very high moral ideals and are living most exemplary lives. Now," he continued, "if I had a congregation in which there were drunkards and outcasts and thieves, I could convince them of sin, but my problem is how to make people like that, the most delightful people in the world, believe that they are sinners, how to convict them of sin." I replied, "It is impossible. You cannot do it, but the Holy Spirit can." And so He can. Some of the deepest manifestations of conviction of sin I have ever seen have been on the part of men and women of most exemplary conduct and attractive personality. But they were sinners and the Holy Spirit opened their eyes to the fact.
While it is the Holy Spirit who convinces men of sin, He does it through us. This comes out very clearly in the context of the passage before us. Jesus says in the seventh verse, R. V., of the chapter, "Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send Him unto you." Then He goes on to say, "And when He is come (unto you), He will convict the world of sin." That is, our Lord Jesus sends the Holy Spirit unto us (unto believers), and when He is come unto us believers, through us to whom He has come, He convinces the world. On the Day of Pentecost, it was the Holy Spirit who convinced the 3,000 of sin, but the Holy Spirit came to the group of believers and through them convinced the outside world. As far as the Holy Scriptures definitely tell us, the Holy Spirit has no Way of getting at the unsaved world except through the agency of those who are already saved. Every conversion recorded in the Acts of the Apostles was through the agency of men or women already saved. Take, for example, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. If there ever was a miraculous conversion, it was that. The glorified Jesus appeared visibly to Saul on his way to Damascus, but before Saul could come out clearly into the light as a saved man, human instrumentality must be brought in. Saul prostrate on the ground cried to the risen Christ asking what he must do, and the Lord told him to go into Damascus and there it would be told him what he must do. And then Ananias, "a certain disciple," was brought on the scene as the human instrumentality through whom the Holy Spirit should do His work (cf. Acts ix.17; xxii.16). Take the case of Cornelius. Here again was a most remarkable conversion through supernatural agency. "An angel" appeared to Cornelius, but the angel did not tell Cornelius what to do to be saved. The angel rather said to Cornelius, "Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter, who shall tell thee words whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts xi.13, 14). So we may go right through the record of the conversions in the Acts of the Apostles and we will see they were all effected through human instrumentality. How solemn, how almost overwhelming, is the thought that the Holy Spirit has no way of getting at the unsaved with His saving power except through the instrumentality of us who are already Christians. If we realized that, would we not be more careful to offer to the Holy Spirit a more free and unobstructed channel for His all-important work? The Holy Spirit needs human lips to speak through. He needs yours, and He needs lives so clean and so utterly surrendered to Him that He can work through them.
Notice of which sin it is that the Holy Spirit convinces men -- the sin of unbelief in Jesus Christ, "Of sin because they believe not on Me," says Jesus. Not the sin of stealing, not the sin of drunkenness, not the sin of adultery, not the sin of murder, but the sin of unbelief in Jesus Christ. The one thing that the eternal God demands of men is that they believe on Him whom He hath sent (John vi.29). And the one sin that reveals men's rebellion against God and daring defiance of Him is the sin of not believing on Jesus Christ, and this is the one sin that the Holy Spirit puts to the front and emphasizes and of which He convicts men. This was the sin of which He convicted the 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost. Doubtless, there were many other sins in their lives, but the one point that the Holy Spirit brought to the front through the Apostle Peter was that the One whom they had rejected was their Lord and Christ, attested so to be by His resurrection from the dead (Acts ii.22-36). "And when they heard this (namely, that He whom they had rejected was Lord and Christ) they were pricked in their hearts." This is the sin of which the Holy Spirit convinces men to-day. In regard to the comparatively minor moralities of life, there is a wide difference among men, but the thief who rejects Christ and the honest man who rejects Christ are alike condemned at the great point of what they do with God's Son, and this is the point that the Holy Spirit presses home. The sin of unbelief is the most difficult of all sins of which to convince men. The average unbeliever does not look upon unbelief as a sin. Many an unbeliever looks upon his unbelief as a mark of intellectual superiority. Not unfrequently, he is all the more proud of it because it is the only mark of intellectual superiority that he possesses. He tosses his head and says, "I am an agnostic;" "I am a skeptic;" or, "I am an infidel," and assumes an air of superiority on that account. If he does not go so far as that, the unbeliever frequently looks upon his unbelief as, at the very worst, a misfortune. He looks for pity rather than for blame. He says, "Oh, I wish I could believe. I am so sorry I cannot believe," and then appeals to us for pity because he cannot believe, but when the Holy Spirit touches a man's heart, he no longer looks upon unbelief as a mark of intellectual superiority; he does not look upon it as a mere misfortune; he sees it as the most daring, decisive and damning of all sins and is overwhelmed with a sense of his awful guilt in that he had not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.
II. But the Holy Spirit not only convicts of sin, He convicts in respect of righteousness.
He convicts the world in respect of righteousness because Jesus Christ has gone to the Father, that is He convicts (convinces with a convincing that is self-condemning) the world of Christ's righteousness attested by His going to the Father. The coming of the Spirit is in itself a proof that Christ has gone to the Father (cf. Acts ii.33) and the Holy Spirit thus opens our eyes to see that Jesus Christ, whom the world condemned as an evil-doer, was indeed the righteous One. The Father sets the stamp of His approval upon His character and claims by raising Him from the dead and exalting Him to His own right hand and giving to Him a name that is above every name. The world at large to-day claims to believe in the righteousness of Christ but it does not really believe in the righteousness of Christ: it has no adequate conception of the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness which the world attributes to Christ is not the righteousness which God attributes to Him, but a poor human righteousness, perhaps a little better than our own. The world loves to put the names of other men that it considers good alongside the name of Jesus Christ. But when the Spirit of God comes to a man, He convinces him of the righteousness of Christ; He opens his eyes to see Jesus Christ standing absolutely alone, not only far above all men but "far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come" (Eph. i.21).
III. The Holy Spirit also convicts the world of judgment.
The ground upon which the Holy Spirit convinces men of judgment is upon the ground of the fact that "the Prince of this world hath been judged" (John xvi.11). When Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross, it seemed as if He were judged there, but in reality it was the Prince of this world who was judged at the cross, and, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, the Father made it plain to all coming ages that the cross was not the judgment of Christ, but the judgment of the Prince of darkness. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see this fact and so convinces us of judgment. There is a great need to-day that the world be convinced of judgment. Judgment is a doctrine that has fallen into the background, that has indeed almost sunken out of sight. It is not popular to-day to speak about judgment, or retribution, or hell. One who emphasizes judgment and future retribution is not thought to be quite up to date; he is considered "mediaeval" or even "archaic," but when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of men, they believe in judgment. In the early days of my Christian experience, I had great difficulties with the Bible doctrine of future retribution. I came again and again up to what it taught about the eternal penalties of persistent sin. It seemed as if I could not believe it: it must not be true. Time and again I would back away from the stern teachings of Jesus Christ and the Apostles concerning this matter. But one night I was waiting upon God that I might know the Holy Spirit in a fuller manifestation of His presence and His power. God gave me what I sought that night and with this larger experience of the Holy Spirit's presence and power, there came such a revelation of the glory, the infinite glory of Jesus Christ, that I had no longer any difficulties with what the Book said about the stern and endless judgment that would be visited upon those who persistently rejected this glorious Son of God. From that day to this, while I have had many a heartache over the Bible doctrine of future retribution, I have had no intellectual difficulty with it. I have believed it. The Holy Spirit has convinced me of judgment.