8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11 ESV)
I have always felt that these verses in John are quite tricky to understand. From reading some commentaries, it appears that the Greek isn’t straightforward either. The concept of the Spirit “convicting” people of sin is not problematic, but what does it mean that he will convict people of “righteousness”?
One solution that I have heard is to take the word ‘convict’ to mean ‘convince’. i.e. The Spirit will convince people that Jesus is the righteous one. Or he will convince them of their need to be righteous. Not only does this require a modification in the meaning of the word convict between verse 9 and 10, but it is in danger of making the Spirit’s work into a merely intellectual persuasion.
Don Carson offers an interesting alternative take on what it means to convict the world concerning righteousness:
John loves to quote or allude to Isaiah, and Isaiah 64:5 establishes that all the dikaiosyne (righteousness) of the people of Isaiah’s day was as a menstruous cloth. Within the Fourth Gospel, this reading of ‘righteousness’ is eminently appropriate. (The Gospel According to John, PNTC, D A Carson, p537)
What does this make of the clarifying phrase: “because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer”? Carson explains that the Spirit is simply continuing an important aspect of the ministry of Jesus, confronting and challenging religious hypocrisy:
The reason why the Paraclete convicts the world of its righteousness is because Jesus is going to the Father. … [The] Paraclete … drives home this conviction in the world precisely because Jesus is no longer present to discharge this task.
Not all commentators are convinced by this. Köstenberger considers it plausible, but prefers a legal interpretation:
… the Spirit of truth in his legal function of parakletos is said here to prosecute the world on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus, who is declared just and vindicated in court. (John, BEC, Andreas Köstenberger, p472)
However, if Carson is right, this is a very provocative concept. All Christians know what it feels like to be convicted of sin by the Spirit, but have you ever been convicted of “righteousness”? We know the Spirit’s voice telling us that our bad temper, greed or impure thoughts are sinful and we need to repent, but have we ever considered that some of our religious good deeds could in fact require repentance too?
Repentance for empty legalistic ‘righteousness’ would take on a different form to repentance from sin. Repenting from sin involves stopping the wrong behaviour, but repenting from righteousness requires something even deeper. After all, the Pharisees regularly gave alms to the poor and prayed daily. Jesus was hardly intending for them to stop these activities. Repenting from legalism is therefore a change of heart rather than necessarily outward behavioural change.
Like many Christians at the start of a new year, I try to make resolutions concerning things like Bible reading and prayer, as well as other spiritual goals for the coming year. But we need to beware of turning from grace to legalism and doing the right things with the wrong motivation, or before long, we will find the Spirit convicting us of our shallow religious ‘righteousness’ and calling us back to a relationship with God based on delight and not duty.