I wonder if you’ve heard the phrase applied to someone that they were a ‘person of deep convictions’? Often it’s used in the context of someone who effected great change, based on their principles: a Nelson Mandela or an Abraham Lincoln. But you might use it to describe a very principled friend or colleague. The word ‘conviction’ in this case refers to deeply and strongly held beliefs that determine the way they live, the things that sit deep in their heart.
We come across the word ‘conviction’ in the Bible too, and it means something similar. Jesus uses it here in this passage when he talks of the Spirit ‘convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgement’ (v8). Modern translations might render it ‘prove the world to be in the wrong’, but the idea is that, prompted by God’s Spirit, people come to a deep awareness of truths which cause them to live a different way.
In particular, Jesus says, these truths involve understanding that we fall short of being the people that God made us to be (sin), that this has eternal consequences (judgement), but that there is One who did not fall short and is able to sort things out on our behalf (righteousness – found in Jesus).
Although these are not easy truths to admit (especially in our modern culture) nevertheless without them the central act of the Christian faith – Jesus’ death and resurrection – makes no sense at all. Jesus dies for a reason: the ‘fallen-shortedness’ of every member of the entire human race for all of history. His righteousness wins for us what we could never claim for ourselves, and because of that we are forgiven, we are free, we become ‘new creations’.
It’s worth reflecting that whilst words like judgement might feel awkward for us, the fact that there will be a day when God puts everything right, when all the abuse and corruption and violence perpetrated by those who seem to have got away with it will be punished and dealt with, ought to bring us great comfort. What happens in this world matters profoundly to God, and He will make things right.
Jesus uses the word Advocate again here to describe the work of his Spirit, and we might like to observe that the Spirit can act as counsel for the prosecution as well as the defence, if I can put it like that. The Spirit defends our hearts, reassures us of God’s love, and helps us see through the lies of the enemy. But there are also times when we need to be reminded that God calls us to be holy, and to cast ourselves again on His mercy. That is ‘conviction’ as Jesus describes it, and either way (prosecution or defence) Jesus is glorified, since in both scenarios it leads us back to Him.
Whilst the word ‘convict’ is usually applied to an ex-prisoner, this passage reminds us that Christians are all convicts in a spiritual sense: those who have had deep truths revealed to them, but – praise God! – are no longer in prison.
Today, invite the Spirit to speak those deep truths to your heart again. And rejoice in your convictions!