✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
What is the worst possible sin that a person could commit? What is the absolute worst thing that someone could do in God’s sight? The first thing that pops into most of our minds is probably something that has to do with a felony. An act of violence and hatred, or perversion and immorality–something like that would have to be the worst. And such things would be egregious and terrible sins against God and the neighbor. But there is something that fundamentally is even worse than that in the eyes of heaven.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is in the midst of telling the disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit. One of the things Jesus says the Spirit will do is this: “He will convict the world of sin, because they do not believe in Me.” What is the most damnable sin there is? Unbelief. Not to have confidence in Christ, not to trust in His words. There is nothing worse than that–stubborn, self-focused unbelief.
This is the real problem with the world and with us fallen human beings. It’s not simply that society is immoral and rebellious and greedy and power-hungry. Those are but symptoms of the real problem. The root of the matter, the heart of the situation is that people don’t love God or trust in Him or have faith in His Son whom He has sent. They don’t worship the Father and acknowledge Him as the source of every good and perfect gift. They don’t receive Jesus as the only Savior from sin or rely on His all-atoning death on the cross. Instead, they believe in themselves and their own thinking and wisdom. They’re full of pride in who they are and where they’ve gotten themselves in life. They figure that if they keep their nose clean, they can earn their way into some eternal reward by doing more good than bad. They may be religious, but their spirituality is oriented toward self-fulfillment. And so God ends up being just a part of their formula for achieving personal happiness. They’ve got no real need for a Jesus who is a Savior–maybe a Jesus who is a counselor or an advice-giver so that they can make a better life for themselves, but not a Savior from sin.
There is no greater insult and affront to God than to treat Him in that way. Jesus didn’t take on your flesh and blood and sacrifice His life on the cross just so that He could be another guru giving you principles for living. Jesus came to give you a whole new life–His own. Those who love their own lives, who have justified themselves and their behavior, in their hearts reject Jesus and the life He comes to bring. It is this sort of self-satisfied, self-justified way of life that is the greatest rebellion against God and the biggest slap in His face.
In John 6 Jesus was asked by the people, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” It is God’s work that you trust in Jesus. That is the work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in you. And apart from that work you can do nothing good. For it is written in Romans 14, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Since everything we are is by nature tainted and infected by the fall, none of us can do anything that is truly a good work apart from Christ, apart from holding to Him and His saving truth. No matter how good a person may appear to be humanly speaking, if they are not a believer in the Christ of the Scriptures, it is all a pile of manure before God. For it proceeds from a heart that doesn’t trust in Him.
Only what proceeds from faith in Jesus is good; for He alone is good. Only works that are sanctified by Christ’s blood are good works. Which is another way of saying that it is not our works that are good, but Christ’s works are good in and through us. He dwells in us to live in love toward God and our neighbor.
So let us be rid of all thinking which says, “So and so is a good person; church just isn’t their thing.” How could that be true if they are persistently ignoring the words and the sacraments of Jesus which alone create and sustain true faith? Hebrews 11 says that without such faith it is impossible to please God.
Let us rather be like St. Paul, who followed the law steadfastly even before His conversion, but who said that He counted all of that as sewage, “that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
This is the second part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Having convicted the world of sin, having brought us to repentance, He then proclaims and freely gives out the righteousness of Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all. This is the heart of what the Holy Spirit is about. Jesus said that the Spirit will “take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” That is the Holy Spirit’s job, to point to Jesus and glorify Him, to take the gifts of life and salvation that Jesus won for you and dish them out to you. The Holy Spirit is the delivery driver of the Trinity, who brings the blessings of the cross to you in the package of the Word and the Sacraments, that you may receive them and open them by faith. Just as the Son of God was sent to reveal the Father, so now the Holy Spirit is sent to reveal the Son. And in that way, He brings you back into fellowship with God, the Blessed Holy Trinity.
The Holy Spirit, then, is the real preacher in the Church. He is the One who preaches the Gospel to you that you may be led into all truth. St. Paul declares, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” Through the words of the Gospel, the Spirit reveals and gives to you Christ’s righteousness. He speaks Jesus’ righteousness into your ears, so that the Father in heaven no longer sees your sin but only the perfect holiness of His Son.
That’s how James in today’s Epistle can call Christians “my beloved brethren.” You are siblings of Jesus now because the Father has brought you forth by the Word of truth; you have been born from above to a new life by the Word of Christ, ministered to you by the Spirit of truth. Through Jesus you have been put right with God. It is written, “Having been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is what the Psalm means about singing to the Lord a new song. It’s not talking about some sappy contemporary garbage. It means singing about exactly what we sang in the Introit, “His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations; His right hand and His holy arm [that’s Jesus!] has gained Him the victory.” Your righteousness does not come within but from outside of you in Jesus.
Martin Luther once said about this Gospel. “It is a particularly consoling message which the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, proclaimed in the world through the mouths of the apostles. Indeed, what is more comforting than that all sins, regardless of how many and great, are canceled, forgiven, covered up, and not reckoned to our account because we believe in Christ, and that he who has such faith is declared righteous before God without any work or merit on his part, but solely through faith in Christ? A more comforting message could not be preached to the world!”
You must cling to that message of the Holy Spirit with all your heart. Don’t be tempted to look at yourself and say, “There’s no way God could forgive or accept someone like me.” Instead say, “Even though I don’t deserve it, I know that God loves and accepts me, for He is merciful and compassionate, and He has atoned for all my sins in His Son Jesus.” Don’t look to yourself; look only to the cross. For through that faith you are saved.
But at the same time be prepared for the devil and the world to oppose you because you have such faith in Christ. The world portrays those who follow Christ and take God’s Word seriously as being a bit whacko and on the fringe of society. They say, “Who are you to suggest that only those who believe in Jesus can be saved? What about all the other good people and religions in the world? Don’t my efforts at moral living count? You Christians just want to impose your thinking on everybody else.”
To all of this Jesus here says, “Take heart and be of good courage; you must not let the opinion and judgment of the world affect you. For ultimately their words come from the prince of this world, the devil. And He cannot help but condemn and persecute Christian faith and the righteousness of Christ. Do not fear or waver, for the prince of this world is judged. His condemnation can do you no harm, for he himself is condemned along with all those who parrot his empty words.” It is written in John 3, “He who believes in Jesus is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” And it is also written, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
This is the third and final part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the defeat and the judgment of Satan, the ruler of this world. Christ conquered him forever by His cross and resurrection. No matter how wise or powerful the people of this world appear to be, Jesus will retain the upper hand when it comes to judging. He alone is wise and righteous, while all others are fools. In the end He will have the last word on the last day.
So then, it is indeed to your advantage that Christ went away through Good Friday and Easter to the right hand of the Father. For only in this way could righteousness have been won for you. Only in this way is the Holy Spirit now poured out on you to rescue you from unbelief and to bring you to saving faith in Jesus. God grant you all to know ever more fully and deeply this help and comfort of the Holy Spirit, to whom with the Father and the Son belongs all glory, honor, and praise, now and forever. Amen.