Without the Spirit We Don't Know Much
Today we celebrate the ascended Jesus pouring out the Holy Spirit on His Church. It's fitting, then, to focus on the shy member of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit. Look in the Yellow Pages. Read the church ads in the Saturday papers. You'll find churches claiming to be "Spirit-filled." Can you blame them? In this text Jesus tells us that without the Spirit we don't know much.
Without the Spirit you don't know what sin is. You think sin is doing this or that wrong thing or not doing this or that right thing. You lose your temper; you have lustful or greedy thoughts; you're prejudice; you fail to help your neighbor in need; you're not generous enough. You think sin is primarily doing or not doing. So the answer to your sin, is changing what you do or not do. You become different. You act different. You don't do the bad and start doing the good.
Without the Spirit everyone thinks sin mainly has to do with actions. You are good or bad based on what you do. But this is not what the Spirit says. He convicts us of sin because we don't believe in Jesus. This is the sin of sins. This is the sin from which all other sins grow, and this is the sin you don't think you're guilty of. No, other people are guilty of this sin. Those people who don't come to Church. Those people who don't support a Church. Unbelief can't be your sin because you think of Jesus, speak of Jesus, pray to Jesus. How can you be convicted of unbelief? But I tell you this, if the Holy Spirit doesn't convict you of unbelief, you can't be saved.
All other sins you can outwardly do something about. If you think your sins are mainly with your mouth, you can control your tongue somewhat. If you think your sins are primarily with your eye, you can control what you look at to some extent. If you think your sins are mainly done with your hands, well you can keep them in your pocket to some degree. But if your sin is primarily of heart, what are you going to do about that? You can't make yourself believe, can you? You can't make yourself trust in God with all your heart, soul and mind, can you?
But isn't it true that each Sunday you come here confessing what you do wrong with every part of your body but your heart? You need the Spirit to convict you of your heart's failure to believe in Jesus. That's what your real sin is. Your fear that God will give you or your loved one a terrible disease is really unbelief in the God who spared not His own Son to give you all things. Your failure to trust that God in Christ will only give you good things is really unbelief in what God has clearly promised. Your lack of love for God because you see Him as a vengeful deity who doesn't really have your best interests in mind is really rank unbelief of the God revealed in the Person of Christ.
Without the Spirit we don't know what sin is and neither do we know what righteousness is. People think righteousness is one of two things: right living or right believing. A few of you do think you are righteous because you're a good citizen; you pay your taxes; you don't commit obvious crimes. Most of you can see that such outward righteousness isn't enough. Most of you know that God declares such outward righteousness, which is noble in men's eyes, to be dirty, stinking rags in His sight. But what most of you don't know is that right believing is no more righteous than right living. In other words, you can't stand before God based on your having correct doctrine any more than you can based on your having a correct life.
What am I saying? Aren't we a Church that believes doctrine can be pure? Yes, we believe we can confess correctly the truths God has revealed in His Holy Word. But we have never believed we're saved based on our being right. Correct doctrine is a matter of sanctification, a matter of holy living, and when were you ever taught that you were saved based on your sanctification, based on your holy living? We claim salvation based on our justification, based on the fact that Jesus led a holy life in our place and died the unholy death we deserve because of our sins.
Some of you desperately need the Spirit to convict you of this. You're unsure about your salvation because you've linked it to having righteous doctrine rather than to having the righteousness of Christ. It's true; having Christ's righteousness puts you firmly in heaven and makes you want to be right in doctrine but having right doctrine isn't want puts you in heaven. Righteousness is not a matter of right living or right believing, it's a matter of Christ's right living and Christ's right believing.
Only the Spirit can convict you that right living or right believing isn't the righteousness which saves; only Jesus "going to the Father" is that. Three times in our short text Jesus refers to this. He says, "I am going to Him who sent Me." "I am going away." "I am going to the Father." These 3 phrases refer to the entire ministry of Jesus: His incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary; His humiliation where He kept God's Law for us and where He suffered the punishments the law demands sinners suffer; His death on the terrible cross; His victorious resurrection on Easter, and His ascension.
All of this is "going to the Father." And only the Spirit can convict you that this is righteousness. Righteousness is not your correct understanding of the miracle of the Virgin Birth; righteousness is the fact that God the Son became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Righteousness is not your right belief that Jesus kept all the commandments and died for your not keeping them; righteousness is the fact that Jesus did these things. Righteousness is not your orthodox faith that God in Christ died on the cross; righteousness is the fact that God in Christ really did it.
Our understanding, our perception, our ability to confess these truths will falter with age, in crisis, under disease; so if our righteousness before God is tied to how well we understand, how clearly we perceive, how rightly we confess, we have no certainty of salvation. But if Jesus and what He did is our righteousness, that is very sure. Simple trust in Jesus and what He did gives me all of His righteousness. In the hour of fear, pain, sickness or death even if that hour lasts for days, months or years, I cling not to my knowing or understanding, but to what Jesus has done by going to the Father. The Spirit never directs a person to himself, but always outside of himself to Jesus. Therefore, the Spirit directs you to Jesus' Water, Words, Body and Blood. Having been baptized into Him, having been Absolved by Him, having partaken of Him in His Supper, you go with Him to the Father.
Without the Spirit we don't know much: We don't what sin is, what righteousness is, or what judgment is. You think judgment is in the future. One day Satan will get what he deserves; one day he'll be judged; one day he'll be condemned, one day he'll be overthrown. So you languish in the here and now as battle fatigued soldiers who see no end to the war. You think you're at the mercy of the prince of this world. Actually, the word "prince" is better translated "ruler," and that better fits your wrong view of things. You think Satan rules here and now. He brings up tsunamis from the depths of the ocean; he dispenses heart disease here and cancer there; he decides who gets what crisis when.
That's what people "know" without the Spirit. This is the only view that we can have on our own, but the Spirit teaches better. He convicts us that Satan, the ruler of this world, now stands condemned. He has been cast out of heaven and been bound by Christ Himself, so that Satan can't do what he wants to do. Revelation says Satan has been cast out of heaven where he used to accuse us day and night before God as he is shown to be doing in Job 1 and 2. Later Revelation says Satan has been bound; he is not free to roam about the earth as he is also shown to be doing in Job 1 and 2.
This is the reality the Spirit wants to convict you of. Though Satan can din into your ears a litany of all that you are not, should be, ought to be, and better be; you are to know that he has no standing before God. The only reason Satan could appear in God's court was because of the Law which demanded humans keep it and be punished for breaking it. Once Jesus lived a perfect life as a Man, He fulfilled the Law. Once Jesus died on the cross bearing the sins of all men, the Law's judgment against sinners was carried out. What case against you can Satan now make before God? What Law can Satan point to that you must keep because Jesus didn't? What penalty demanded by the Law can Satan require you to suffer because Jesus didn't? Having no case against you, Satan is thrown out of heaven's court.
And though Satan has been cast out of heaven to earth, don't think he is free to do as he pleases. Christ has bound him by the preaching of the Gospel which sends His powerful Spirit into all the world. Wherever the Word of forgiveness is proclaimed in the Name of Christ, there the Spirit is beating back Satan. There Satan is shown to be bound. So like a mean dog on a chain, Satan may frighten us when he lunges for us, but we know he can only go as far as the chain. The Spirit, through the Word of God, reveals that Satan has been chained and that Jesus is the One holding it.
Without the Spirit, sin looks manageable, our righteousness looks unsure, and judgment looks distant, but with the Spirit I'm convicted of not being able to manage my sin, of my righteousness being certain in Christ, and of the ruler of this world being judged. Being convicted by the Spirit, I am "guilty" of being Spirit-filled. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Day of Pentecost (5-15-05); John 16: 5-11