And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.
Jesus is speaking to His disciples, explaining that the “Helper” – the Holy Spirit – is coming. Instead of “convict,” the NIV translation says He will “prove the world wrong.” Jesus goes on to explain:
…about sin, because people do not believe in me;
The world says sin doesn’t exist. It says we can do whatever we want or whatever feels good in the moment, without regard to absolute truth or righteousness. Jesus’ point here is that we are guilty. We stand condemned. His death and resurrection (which happened some time after this conversation with the disciples) is the avenue for our salvation. It is the only way for us to be delivered from bearing the penalty for our sin.
…about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;
Jesus is the perfect representation of righteousness, who serves not only as an example but also as the One who redeemed us from unrighteousness. The Holy Spirit will teach us, as Jesus taught the disciples.
According to the dictionary, righteousness is “the quality of being morally right or justifiable.” However, to the world, what constitutes moral or justifiable behavior shifts. Each one of us can make a decision we believe to be right. But when we do this we only compare ourselves to other people.
When I was 19, I lied to my parents. At some point I became aware that they knew I had lied, yet they never said anything. By that time, I had changed my behavior and things were fine. I drifted along being a “good” person. But years later, in the midst of personal crisis, I began to devour God’s word and He began to convict me of that lie. I needed to confess the lie to my parents, but I argued with God. Why should I confess something they already knew?
This is the way the world thinks about sin and righteousness. If we can rationalize it, or if we think no one is being hurt, then we don’t think there’s a problem. 1 Peter 1:15–16 says “But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” And in Matthew 5, Jesus showed a standard far higher than man’s. Our perfect and holy God is the definition and measure of righteousness.
I did eventually confess my sin. It was a turning point for me, and it ushered in a season of breakthrough and growth.
…and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
Jesus has defeated Satan and exposed his lies. Further, He proved sin will be judged. God the Father sent His only begotten son, who died on the cross, taking the punishment for our sin. This sacrifice would not have been necessary if God accepted sin or if there were not a day of judgement coming where the whole world will be judged. Satan’s lie is that we will not be judged, that sin is acceptable or even reasonable, and that God is not just.
When the Holy Spirit convicts us, He points out the sin, and teaches righteousness. He offers grace and mercy, and enables us to live holy lives.