“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And when He comes, He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness . . .”
“And we . . . are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
The headlines read, “Disaster in Bangladesh!” A huge thirty foot tidal wave pushed by 110 mile an hour winds crashed ashore sweeping homes, animals, crops and thousands of people to destruction. The following day, as we are so accustomed to seeing happen, various disaster relief agencies moved into the area to help the survivors. The Bangladesh government sent in Army troops to keep order, bury the dead, and prohibit looting. The international Red Cross flew in food, medical supplies, and emergency shelter. And various Christian ministries moved onto the field to bring words of comfort and hope as well as to help with the long term efforts to rebuild.
In the Bible the Holy Spirit works something like a disaster relief agency. When one meets the Holy Spirit on the first page of Scripture the earth is “Without form, void, and darkness” covered everything. But the Spirit of God moved across the face of the chaos and before one chapter is completed a new creation is organized and pulsing with life (Genesis 1:1-28).
And here is where the Holy Spirit can help us. There has been sin in our lives, sin with its disastrous, death-dealing consequences. Oh, the rebellion, the betrayal, alienation, and divorce! Burned-out on drugs, financial ruin, the loneliness and confusion, ecological insanity, self-hatred— it’s all there in our lives. But when the Holy Spirit comes, as He moves across the face of our civilization, the formlessness and void, the darkness; and as we allow Him individually to come into our lives, He brings renewed power.
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you . . . “ Acts 1:8
The Holy Spirit also comes and brings truth. Jesus said,
“When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth . . .” John 16:13
And, now, a third thing the Holy Spirit will do as we allow Him to minister in our lives: He will cleanse us of sin. Jesus promised,
“I will send Him to you. And when He comes, He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness . . .” John 16:8
So, to the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives as a clean-up agent we now turn.
He Points Out Our Sins
The first thing the Holy Spirit does in our lives is to point out what is right and wrong, to point out sin, or as the text says, “To convince of sin and of righteousness.”
Here is an amazing thing: our human inability to know what is right and what is wrong, what is sin and what isn’t.
Did you hear about the two men who were up on the roof cleaning the chimney? One slipped and fell down the chimney head first. His partner tried to grab his ankles and stop him, but he fell down the chimney, also. Both men got up, decided they weren’t hurt and took a good look at each other.
Now, the first man’s face was clean. That’s because he covered it with his arms as he fell. But the second man’s face was dirty with soot because he hadn’t covered his. And the strange thing is that the man with the clean face went and washed his before he went back to work. But the man with the dirty face just went on back to work. Why?
You see, the man with the clean face looked at his partner’s dirty face and thought to himself, “If his face is dirty mine must be, too.” So he went and washed. While the man with the dirty face looked at his friend’s clean face and thought, “If his face is clean mine must be, too.” So he didn’t wash.
It is true that we cannot rightly judge ourselves by looking at one another. Nor is it true that we can decide what is right or wrong by looking at ourselves.
Don’t we often say, “Let your conscience be your guide” as a means of arriving at right and wrong? Yet the conscience cannot always be trusted! An Indian explained it this way. He said, “Inside me is a three-cornered sharp thing. When I do wrong it turns and hurts me. But if I keep doing wrong it keeps on turning until it is worn smooth and doesn’t hurt anymore.” This is what Paul described in 1 Timothy 4:2 as a “seared conscience,” broken and undependable. And everyone’s conscience is broken like that!
Elsewhere in Scripture we are warned against relying on the conclusions of self-evaluation. Psalm 19:12 says, “But who can discern his errors? Clear Thou me from hidden faults.” In Psalm 69:5 the man prays, “O God, Thou knowest my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from Thee.” Even Jeremiah the prophet laments, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
For the Christian the answer is not, “Let your conscience be your guide” but “Let your conscience have a guide.” And that guide is the Holy Spirit.
Actually the Greek word for “conscience” is “syneidesis” and it means “co-knowledge” or “to know in common with.” And this is the promise of God in the Bible. We’re not left on our own to decide what is right or wrong. We have the Holy Spirit with us to help. “I will send Him to you,” Jesus said. “And when He comes, He will convince the world of sin and of righteousness” (John 16:8). “He will lead you and guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).
He Points Out Our Sins Gradually
Not only does the Holy Spirit move into our lives and begin to point out our sins, it is exciting to note that He does so lovingly . . . gradually! 2 Corinthians 3:18 points out that “We are being changed . . . from one degree of glory to another.” So, you see, it is by degrees, little by little, a process, and not all at once.
Maybe you’ve had the experience of being sound asleep when someone turns a light on in your face and wakes you up. Your eyelids struggle in flutters to remain open. But you’re blinded by too much light too soon! And it is the same with too much criticism at one time. Why, it is simply overwhelming! In each of our lives there is so much still wrong, immature and broken. And it wouldn’t do a bit of good to have someone sit us down and tell us to quit smoking, lose 35 pounds, clean up our language, get out of debt, purify our motives and stop lusting. That much of an agenda would be utterly overpowering. And thank God the Holy Spirit doesn’t work like that! Instead, He works with us one sin at a time, little by little, until we are completed.
Consider an experiment to see how the Holy Spirit works. Take this room as an example. It has all of its lights on. But the light doesn’t have all of the room. There are shadows. So you and I go hand in hand throughout the room discovering the things that block the light and cause darkness. And one by one we throw them out of the room until the light fills every corner of the place. The Holy Spirit works the same process in our lives. His presence immediately and entirely possesses us at our conversion. But though we have all of Him His light does not have all of us. There is still sin in our lives blocking out His light. So He takes us in hand and begins to patiently point out the sins in our lives. This month it might be a negative attitude. When that is dispatched and His light shines there, he may move on to gossip, and after that our stewardship of time, followed by our temper and our eating habits. Not all at once, you see, but gradually the Holy Spirit moves sharing with us a patient, loving, enabling agenda for our cleansing.
When the Holy Spirit convicts you of sin, simply confess it to God as a sin, be willing to turn away from it, and ask God for power to quit it. By doing so you “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), you “grieve not the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30), you “quench not the Spirit” (Thessalonians 5:19). And you mature. However, when the Spirit convicts me of sin and I refuse to repent and stubbornly persist in my wrong I begin to experience guilt, frustration and pain. And believe me you, the most miserable people in the world are not sinners or obedient believers but disobedient Christians. They’ve got just enough religion so they cannot be happy at a cocktail party and they’ve got just enough sin in their lives so they can’t be happy at a prayer meeting. They are simply between two worlds. And come to grief in both!
“Grieve not the Spirit.” “Walk by the Spirit.” “Quench not the Holy Spirit.” Co-operate with Him. Heed His agenda and be cleansed!
A word of caution here. Be very careful not to go trying to play the Holy Spirit in someone else’s life. And be just as careful not to allow others to play the Spirit in your life! The Holy Spirit, you see, is all-knowing and we are not. He has a perfect agenda for one’s cleansing. We do not. It is His responsibility to cleanse us from sin, not our own.
The older I get I find the less I’m willing to criticize and condemn. And the more I’m eager to pray, to share and encourage. I guess I’ve got my hands so full what with my own cleansing that I’ve very little left for others. And I know from past experience that those who helped me most weren’t my gloating critics full of venomous condemnation, but servants, fellow sinners, who prayed for me and with me, and who encouraged me, spoke the truth in love, and lived with me.
Linda, a friend of mine, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 16 years. When she became a Christian the habit persisted. And there were plenty of Christians standing in line to tell her to quit. Others condemned her, brow-beat her, ostracized her and gave her self-righteous looks or read Scripture in her face. Last year, however, the Holy Spirit in His sovereign timing allowed her to get the flu. For two weeks she was laid up in bed. And during that time cigarettes tasted awful! And she went without smoking. Oddly, when she recovered she’d lost the habit and hasn’t regained it since. And she is able to praise God for this cleansing as He goes on to another area of her life to work His will.
We Become Like Him
So far we have seen it is the Holy Spirit’s task to move into the rubble of our sinful lives and begin to clean things up, to organize us into new creations in Christ. He does this by pointing out our sins and by doing so gradually so as not to overwhelm us. And the Bible tells us what the result of all of this can be if we co-operate with Him. 2 Corinthians 3:18, says, “We are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” There you have it. “Changed into His likeness.” That’s what the Holy Spirit is out to do. It is His purpose to make us like the most beautiful person who ever lived, Jesus Christ. It is His will to reproduce in us the life and the character of the Lord Himself.
In the Far East they tell the story of a king who built a palace and wanted to commission a painter to do the walls of his banquet hall with exciting murals. The artist who finished his work in two years and pleased him most would receive a fortune in rubies for his labor. Two artists began work on their murals, each on opposite walls of the great hall. The one began to sketch out a splendid hunting scene while the other patiently began to clean his wall. The other artist filled in the color, roughed in the horses, the dogs, the boars and lions and trees. The other artist hadn’t drawn a single thing yet, but was still at work smoothing, cleaning and polishing his wall. Alarmed, and fearing the other artist was going to copy his work, the painter asked that a curtain be stretched between them so the other man couldn’t see his painting. The two men worked on for months, the one drawing and painting fastidiously, the other tirelessly polishing his wall. Two years of work nearly complete the artist added the final brush strokes to his masterpiece and signed it. And then, unable to resist, he peeped behind the curtain to see what his opponent was up to. And there he was quietly polishing his wall, still not a thing painted on it yet!
The day came when the king was to judge. The curtain was torn down and the king looked to make his decision. And to everyone’s utter amazement the one artist had created a mirror that perfectly reflected the painting on the other wall. Why, one couldn’t tell the original from the copy. The only difference was that when the king looked at the mirror he saw himself right in the midst of an exciting hunting scene! And he liked that just fine.
That story is a parable of our life in Christ. You see, it is not our job to create character, to decide what we are to do or be. We just co-operate with the Holy Spirit as He cleanses, smooths and polishes our lives. And more and more as the days go by we reflect His likeness until one day one won’t be able to tell the original from the copy, the Christian from the Christ!
One may see this process at work over and over again right here in the church. In walks a person who is broken in sin, their life a dirty, marred wall, blank and boring. They sit on the back row in the corner, hang their head, and avoid all eye contact. When they finally talk, their story is one of overpowering dispair— drugs perhaps, or divorce and loneliness, financial ruin or failure or hatred. And day by day the message of repentance from sin, faith in Jesus, and redemption seeps deeper into their soul until they believe. From the waters of baptism they emerge to begin the steady life of faith, involvement in a community of Christ, prayer, the Lord’s supper, worship, Bible study and useful ministry. And then suddenly we realize it’s been but a year’s time and we’ve all changed so much. Why, we’re different people! We can see the face of Jesus in one another and it is the Holy Spirit who has done it all!
The process that we are talking about here is known in Scripture as sanctification. And it is a process that will go on in the Holy Spirit in each of our lives until we die and are raised in newness of life to be with Jesus forever! And at least part of what this means is that we should be patient with one another as God works on us. It’s like the sign I saw the other day in a mall undergoing renovation. It read, “Pardon our mess, please! We’re building to serve you better!” And pardon, if you please, the mess still in my life. God and I are building to serve you better!
In my front yard is a tree that lost its leaves in Autumn. Most of them I promptly raked up and hauled away. Yet throughout the winter dozens of its old leaves still clung tenaciously to the branches. The winter winds howled and they were pelted by rains yet they refused to let go. Not even snow or sleet or ice could pull them away. As springtime came and the grass greened and early flowers bloomed, my tree made a pitiful contrast what with its leathery brown leaves hanging there in death. But as the sun warmed and the sap rose in the tree an exciting thing began to happen. One by one the dead leaves fell away. They were being gently pushed from within, the new life causing the old to fall away, until my tree was completely restored in its green summer finery.
And what about your life? Is the Spirit of the Living God flowing in your life like the sap of springtime? Is the Lord crowding sin out of your life as He enables you by his power to add new truth? Teachable, humble, correctable, have you given yourself to God for these things to happen in you?
Yes, Lord! Yes to your Holy Spirit’s cleansing! Amen