Convicted of Righteousness

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.

6 thoughts on “Convicted of Righteousness

  1. Another possibility is that the phrase “concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” could have to do with His work in convicting us that we ARE righteous because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. I find it interesting that it makes the connection between Him going to the Father. The giving of the Holy Spirit was evidence that Jesus had sat down at the right hand of the Father – His job was done! What was His job? To take the wrath of the Father that was rightfully ours upon Himself. “It is finished!”.

    So often we think of “Convict” in negative terms. But what about if the Holy Spirit’s work was actually to come and remind us that we ARE righteous – having the imputed righteousness of Christ? “The Spirit within us cries out Abba! Father!”. “You have received a Spirit of sonship”. Everything within us has changed – rather than the law now telling us that we have fallen short of the glory of God – we have stepped into a whole New Covenant where we are sons and accepted in the beloved.

    Why is the Church so impotent? Because we are still suffering and struggling with guilt and fear – the effects of the law. I recently read Jonathan Edwards “Notes on Scripture” and he makes this comment on Galatians 5:18;

    “The Spirit of Christ in Christians or spirit of adoption actuating and leading is a principle that supercedes the law and sets them ABOVE the law. The law obliges to no other things but what the Spirit inclines to and is sufficient for …

    The Spirit is better than the letter … A being led by the Spirit of the Son of God as a spirit of adoption is inconsistent with a state of bondage, as sonship is inconsistent with servitude”.

    Just a thought!

  2. I agree with Dan. I would also add that Jesus never judged the religious people for their righteousness but the opposite. Romans makes it clear that righteousness come to us by a gift of grace, never by works of any sort. Keeping that in mind the interpretation you bring up would make no sense, but that the job of the Holy Spirit is to convince believers of their righteousness in Jesus would be very consistent with the rest of Scripture in the New Covenant.

  3. As an afterthought, I think you have given a rather old covenant definition of sin, thinking it is primarily bad behaviour. New covenenant definition of sin is unbelief (which could lead to bad behaviour), concerning what we believe about God and how righteousness is obtained. The self-rightousness you’re talking about is sin, and would be repented of in the same way as any other sin…

  4. interesting thoughts Julie and Dan. Carson’s point is that the word “righteousness” might be used in an ironic sense (e.g. when Jesus says “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees). In other words the Spirit convicts them that the

    The other difficulty is, in this particular verse the Holy Spirit is said to convict “the world” which in John means unbelievers. So it is hard to say that in this verse he convinces people that they are righteous in Christ (even though I agree he does that for believers).

    Julie you are right, sin is more all-encompassing than just bad behaviour. I was trying to say that we don’t tend to be so aware of our own “self-righteousness”.

  5. It’s always exciting when you find a direct quote proving that a Puritan agrees with you! I must admit when I put down the Edwards quotes I wasn’t quite sure what his take would be on the text you quoted directly Mark – John 16:8-11. While reading “Notes on Scripture”, I found it! Here it is:

    “On John 16:8-11

    And when the Comforter has come, He will convince the world of sin, of righteousness, of judgement. He shall convict the world of sin as men must be convinced of their guilt in order to receive Christ. That is the reason that sin and guilt lie upon them because they believe not on Christ and their rejecting Christ above all things enhances their guilt.

    (Here it is:)

    “Of righteousness” – that is He will convict them of the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness of the way of REMOVING guilt by Him. Christ finished His work as priest, or what He did for the removing of guilt by His ascending into heaven, His entering into the holiest of all with His own blood to make intercession for us and thereby GAVE EVIDENCE TO THE WORLD THAT WHAT HE HAD DONE WAS ENOUGH”.

    Whoop!! I was excited there about what Edwards said – not that a Puritan was agreeing with me. Per se. 😉 Mark re: your point about whether John is addressing believers or unbelievers – I think it’s a problem. Because it also says that the Prince of this world is judged. So what and who is the Holy Spirit working on here? Edwards says that Satan is judged in the manner that Christ; “In redeeming men by power”.

  6. I use the term “convicted of Righteousness” often. Sometimes I’m asked to explain it. As was said earlier, we tend to look at the word “convict” with the wrong connotation.

    I feel when we are convicted of righteousness; it means we are found guilty of being righteous. If someone is accused of murder and convicted of it, the courts have agreed it is a true statement about the accused.

    When we receive Christ as our savior and believe on Him, the Holy Spirit mixes with our Spirit. Our spirit is made perfect in God’s eyes. When the Father sees us now, He sees Righteousness; we are in right standing with God. We are convicted of righteousness; it is a true statement about us.

    I also like to add a spin to it by saying: “when we are convicted of our righteousness, we can clearly see our short comings.” See, although our sin is no longer imputed to us, we still need to see it so we can continue our “progressive sanctification.”

    The old testament law magnified sin so it could be seen; Under the new covenant, the Holy Spirit shows us we are the righteousness of God and we can see where we fall short.

    Just my thoughts

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