Question: "What does it mean that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment?"
Answer: In John 16:8, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit: “When [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (ESV). In this verse, we see a three-fold ministry the Spirit will perform in relation to the unsaved world. He will “convict” the world; that is, He will reprove it or show it to be wrong. This reproof will target three areas in which the world needs admonishing: sin, righteousness, and judgment.
Jesus went on to explain: “Concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:9–11, ESV).
The world is a sinful place, and one of the Holy Spirit’s tasks is to convict the world of its sin. No amount of preaching, pleading, or pointing of fingers will bring about the conviction of sin, unless the Holy Spirit is at work in the sinner’s heart. It is the Spirit’s job to convict. And what is the most basic sin of which the world is guilty? Jesus specifies it as unbelief. The convicting power of the Holy Spirit is at work in the world “because they believe not in [Christ].” Once a person responds to the Spirit’s conviction and turns to faith in Christ, the other sins he practiced will be taken care of. It is the sin of unbelief—a refusal to trust in Jesus—that is primary.
The world must also be convicted of righteousness, and this, too, is something the Holy Spirit does. There is a righteous standard we are all held to, despite the world’s stubborn denial of absolute truth. And who is the standard-bearer of righteousness? Jesus points to Himself as that standard: “Because I go to the Father.” There is only one Person who came down from heaven, lived a life of sinless perfection, and who ascended back to heaven—the Son of Man, who lives to be our Intercessor (John 3:13; 1 Timothy 2:5). The righteousness that the world tries to deny is found demonstrated in Christ. Everything He ever said and did was the consummate expression of God the Father (John 8:28; Colossians 2:9). He is righteousness personified, and none can measure up to Him (Romans 3:23).
The world is facing judgment, and the Holy Spirit also convicts them of this truth. There is a day of reckoning scheduled—a day in which the holy God will mete out justice and rid His creation of sin. In fact, this judgment has already begun. With whom did it begin? Jesus identifies Satan as the one on whom judgment fell: “Because the ruler of this world is cast out.” Jesus had earlier indicated that His death on the cross was when “the prince of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31). It was on the cross that Jesus redeemed sinners for God and utterly vanquished Satan. “That by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Three days later Jesus rose from the dead, showing to all the world that Satan’s rule has been overthrown. All who reject Christ and remain in their sin will be condemned along with Satan, and this is the warning that the Holy Spirit sounds in the hearts of the unsaved.
The influence of the Holy Spirit in an unsaved person’s life will lead that person to the realization that he is guilty, that God is just, and that all sinners are deserving of judgment. Once a sinner has been awakened to his soul’s great need, the Spirit will point him to Christ, the one and only Savior and Refuge from judgment (John 16:14). In all of this, the Spirit uses His “sword,” the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), and the result is a regenerated heart. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17).