Having examined the “who” of the Holy Spirit, we now turn to examine the “what,” as in: “What does the Holy Spirit actually do?” Because the Spirit is not seen in the Bible, there is more to say about the work of the Holy Spirit than about the person of the Holy Spirit. The best way to know the Spirit is to understand and experience his effects. I have divided the work of the Spirit into seven categories: the Holy Spirit convicts, converts, applies, glorifies, sanctifies, equips, and promises.
The Holy Spirit Convicts
It is remarkable if you think about it. Jesus spends his last few hours before death teaching his disciples about the Trinity. Of all that he could have said, he felt it most necessary to speak of his oneness with the Father and his unity with the coming Holy Spirit. Five times in the Upper Room Discourse Jesus promises the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–17, 26; 15:26–27; 16:4b–11, 12–15). In the fourth of these statements Jesus speaks of the Spirit’s convicting power:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper [parakletos] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 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 16:7–11)
Understandably, the disciples are upset that Jesus is leaving (John 16:6). But Jesus assures them it is for their good, for if he doesn’t go away, the paraclete will not come. The “will not” is not because the Spirit and the Son cannot occupy the same space, but because the Spirit can come only after the Son’s death, resurrection, and ascension. The inauguration of God’s reign begun by Christ will be completed by the Spirit, but only after Christ’s work is accomplished.
The church, then, in a paradoxical way, is better because Jesus is no longer physically here. Back in the first century one had to go to Palestine in order to be with Jesus. But now, on the other side of Pentecost, Christ can be everywhere by his Spirit. We don’t have to travel to Israel to be with him or live in the mountains or light a candle to find him. We can do better than walking with him or seeing him. He can dwell in us anywhere at any time.
For the disciples, the presence of the Spirit was good news. He would be their Helper-Comforter-Advocate. But for the world, for those mired in sin, the Spirit would wield a convicting or exposing power (see John 3:20, where the same word, elegcho, is used). The Holy Spirit acts like a giant searchlight, exposing the world’s wickedness and calling people everywhere to repentance. It’s as if the world is having a nice romantic candlelight dinner, thinking everything is all sirloin and roses, and then voila! The Spirit flips on the lights to expose cockroaches scurrying up the walls and garbage strewn about the floor. We are not as good as we imagine, and the Spirit can prove it to us.
In particular, Jesus says the Spirit will convict the world of three things:6
1) Of sin, because it does not believe in Jesus. At the heart of sin is unbelief. And there is no better (worse?) sign of unbelief than refusing to recognize Jesus for who he is.
2) Of righteousness, because Jesus went to the Father. The world is impressed with its own supposed goodness (Isa. 64:6) when it should be impressed with Jesus. We want to determine who Jesus is and decide what he really accomplished. But his ascension into heaven is enough to demonstrate his identity as the holy Son of God, one with the Father.
3) Of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. This is the most damning evidence the Spirit could bring against the Jews: they killed the wrong man and worship the wrong ruler. But the Spirit will come and bear witness to the resurrected Christ so they might see that the one they follow has been defeated and the one they murdered has proven victorious. The blow dealt to Satan on the cross was a precursor to the final defeat that awaits him and his spiritual children. Satan can still bark and bite, but he’s on a short leash headed for the pound.
The primary fulfillment to this threefold promise came at Pentecost (Acts 2:22–24, 37), but the ongoing work of Spirit-prompted conviction continues wherever there is sin to be exposed and forgiven. The convicting work of the Spirit is the first element in regeneration. God the Holy Spirit must awaken us to our selfishness, our antipathy to godliness, and our indifference to Christ. Jonathan Edwards observed:
The Spirit that is at work takes off persons’ minds from the vanities of the world, and engages them in a deep concern about eternal happiness, and puts them upon earnestly seeking their salvation, and convinces them of the dreadfulness of sin and of their own guilty and miserable state as they are by nature. It awakens men’s consciences, and makes them sensible of the dreadfulness of God’s anger, and causes in them a great desire and earnest care and endeavor to obtain his favour.7
When the Spirit is at work, we will not just be embarrassed by our failures or regret our mistakes; we see our sins in relationship to God and experience what David felt when he cried out, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4). No sentient man or woman is a Christian who has not seen his or her sin in light of the Spirit’s convicting work and seen it as an offense against Almighty God. — DeYoung, Kevin L. 2011. The Holy Spirit. Edited by D. A. Carson and Timothy J. Keller. The Gospel Coalition Booklets. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.