Just before Jesus ascended to heaven He told His disciples that as soon as He arrived He would send the Holy Spirit back to them. Then He said, “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (Jn. 16:8-11).
What does this all mean? Well, let’s break it down. Since Jesus has left, we know that the Holy Spirit has come. And by this passage we know that He is now working to convict (or to convince) the people of this world of three things: of sin, righteousness, and of judgment.
He works to convict them of sin, Jesus said, “Because they do not believe in Me.” Therefore, the work of the Holy Spirit, first of all, is to convict the world of their sin of not believing in Jesus—so that they will repent of their sin and believe.
Secondly, it is the Holy Spirit’s work to convince sinners of righteousness, because Jesus ascended to His Father. This is a difficult passage and commentators disagree on its meaning. Many commentators say that the Holy Spirit seeks to convince people of the righteousness of Christ, and that He has proved His righteousness by His resurrection and ascension. Others emphasize that the Holy Spirit convicts people of their unrighteousness or self-righteousness because Jesus is no longer on the earth to do that job (while He was on earth He in fact went around convicting people of their self-righteousness). Well, I think that both ideas are true. He works to convict sinners of their unrighteousness, and He also works to convince them that Christ is the only righteous one, which He proved by His resurrection and ascension. Furthermore, I believe that what the Holy Spirit tries to do is to convince sinners that the only way to be truly righteous is to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.
The last work of the Holy Spirit toward sinners is that He tries to convict (or to convince) them of the coming judgment for their sins. He does this by showing them that the devil has already been cast down (Jn. 12:31) and that they too are doomed to the same fate if they don’t repent and believe in Jesus.
So this is what the Holy Spirit tries to do for sinners—so that ultimately they will be saved. Notice I said that He tries to do these things. What I mean is that He is limited in what he can do if we don’t pray. Our prayers will make His job of convicting the world successful. I really believe that to the degree that we pray for the Holy Spirit to convict the sinner and convince him to repent, to that degree it will happen.