Conviction of the Spirit


Conviction of the Spirit

Written by Peter J. Leithart

When we hear about the “conviction of the Spirit,” evangelicals immediately think of the Spirit’s work in our hearts. Conviction is what happens at revivals, after a preacher has made a surgical incision with the scalpel of the Word, when a friend rebukes us for our ingratitude.  To be convicted is to feel shame over our sins.That certainly happens, and it is certainly the Spirit’s work, but in the main passage where Jesus talks about the Spirit’s work of “conviction” (John 16:8-11), He means something else.Throughout his gospel, John presents Jesus as a new and greater Moses.  Jesus performs signs, as Moses did (Exodus 10:1-2; Deuteronomy 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; etc.), and His signs are like the signs of Moses, only better.  Moses turned the water of the Nile to blood; Jesus turns the water of purification to wine (John 2).  Moses led the people through the wilderness thirty-eight years (Deuteronomy 2:14), but did not lead them across the Jordan into the promised land; Jesus heals a paralyzed man who has been waiting by water for thirty-eight years (John 5:5).  While Moses led Israel, Yahweh gave manna, bread from heaven, to the people; but Jesus is the bread from heaven (John 6).In His Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17), Jesus is still Moses, now the Moses of Deuteronomy.  Moses preached the sermons of Deuteronomy on the eastern banks of the Jordan as Israel camped on the Plains of Moab.  Moses was about to die and leave Israel under the leadership of Joshua, and Deuteronomy contains instructions and warnings about what the Israelites are to do and what challenges they will face when they cross into the land.

In the Upper Room, Jesus tells His disciples He is about to leave, warns them about the dangers that await them when He is gone, and assures them that they will have a leader and helper, the Spirit.  Jesus’ promise that the “Helper” or “Paraclete” will come is surrounded by predictions about future persecution.    As followers of Jesus, the disciples must suffer as Jesus did (15:18-23).  As Jesus goes on, it becomes clear that He is talking about hatred and persecution from Jews (“their law,” 15:25; “synagogue,” 16:2).  When the disciples are surrounded by persecutors, the Spirit’s work will be twofold: He will empower the disciples as bold witnesses in the face of hostility (15:26-27), and he will convict the world, i.e., the Jews (16:8-11).

That is the larger context for Jesus’ statements about the Spirit’s work of “conviction”: The Spirit of Jesus is the Joshua that leads the church into the conquest of the land.  He convicts the world – and the world of Judaism in particular – in order to conquer it.

One other feature of the context is crucial.  The name given for the Spirit in John 16, paracletos, is a legal term.  A paraclete is a defense attorney, a public defender.  The word “convict” also has legal connotations.  It sometimes focuses on the subjective shame felt by the person convicted, but it doesn’t always include that.  James says that those who show partiality to the rich are convicted as transgressors of the law (2:9), and whether or not they feel convicted, they are in fact guilty.  Paul writes to Titus about the “conviction” of false teachers, and he’s mainly talking about exposing their false teaching (Titus 1:9, 13).  Jesus’ instructs the disciples, “If your brother sins, go and convict him in private.”  This obviously doesn’t mean that the person repents, because Jesus goes on to tell disciples what to do if the person who’s been “convicted” doesn’t listen.  According to Jesus, a brother can be “convicted” even when he’s not “convicted” in our usual sense of the term.

In sum, Jesus is talking not about feelings of remorse but about legal processes.  Like the prophets, Jesus thinks of the world’s battles as legal conflicts.  In this sense, the conquest of the land was also a legal battle: Who has rightful claim to the land – Israel or  Canaan?  Yahweh or the gods of the Canaanites?  When Yahweh gave Joshua victory in battle, He was handing him a legal decision as well.  Victory was vindication, proof that Yahweh and Joshua were in the right.

After Jesus leaves the scene, He warns, there will be a courtroom battle royale.  The great legal conflict that is human history will reach its climax as the church crosses over the Jordan to take the land.  At Pentecost, the Spirit arrives as the Paraclete to take the disciples’ side in the cosmic lawsuit that follows Jesus’ ascension.

The Jews who put Jesus on the cross charged Him with falsely claiming to be God’s Son; the Spirit overturned their verdict and gave the decision to Jesus, declaring Jesus’ vindication by raising him from the dead.  So it is for the apostles, as the Spirit turns all opposition to the church inside out.  “They are full of wine,” the Jews cynically say at Pentecost; but then three thousand are baptized in the name of Jesus.  The Jews kill Stephen, but that only scatters Christians from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth.  Paul breathes out violence against the churches, but then Jesus and the Spirit intervene to turn him in a new direction.  Peter gets locked up, but then the earth rumbles and Peter walks home past the sleeping guards.  Every charge gets overturned.  Every defeat turns to victory.  Every failure opens new doors for the gospel.

It doesn’t stop in Acts either, because the Paraclete is still with His Church.  And each time the Spirit brings new life and fresh triumph, He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment.  He offers one more Exhibit to show that unbelievers are in the wrong; He demonstrates once again that Jesus has gone to the Father; He brings forward further proof that the prince of this world has been judged.   Again and again and to the end of the age, the Paraclete gives preview after preview of final judgment as He advances the case of Jesus and His church in the courtroom of history.


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This entry was posted in All-Encompassing Gospel, Holy Spirit, Law of Christ, Z-Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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