What is the difference between the righteous, the ungodly, and the sinner?
“And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” 1 Peter 4:18
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:” John 16:7–8
Righteousness is to be in right standing with God, in these verses, we see a three-fold ministry the Holy Spirit will perform in relation to the unsaved world. He will “convict” the world; that is, He will reprove it or show it to be wrong. This reproof will target three areas in which the world needs admonishing: sin, righteousness, and judgment.
“Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.” John 16:9–11
The world is a sinful place, and one of the Holy Spirit’s tasks is to convict the world of its sin. No amount of preaching, pleading, or pointing of fingers will bring about the conviction of sin, unless the Holy Spirit is at work in the sinner’s heart. It is the Spirit’s job to convict. The most basic sin of which the world is guilty is unbelief. The convicting power of the Holy Spirit is at work in the world “because they believe not in Christ.” Once a person responds to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and turns to faith in Christ, the other sins he practiced will be taken care of. It is the sin of unbelief — a refusal to trust in Jesus — that is primary.
The world must also be convicted of righteousness, and this, too, is something the Holy Spirit does. There is a righteous standard we are all held to, despite the world’s stubborn denial of absolute truth. And who is the standard-bearer of righteousness? Jesus points to Himself as that standard:
“And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” John 3:13;
“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” 1 Timothy 2:5
The righteousness that the world tries to deny is found demonstrated in Christ. Everything He ever said and did was the consummate expression of God the Father (John 8:28; Colossians 2:9). Jesus is righteousness personified (Romans 3:23).
The world is facing judgment, and the Holy Spirit also convicts them of this truth. There is a day of reckoning scheduled — a day in which God will mete out justice and rid His creation of sin. In fact, this judgment in many ways has already begun. With whom did it begin? Jesus identifies Satan as the one on whom judgment fell:
“Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” John 12:31
It was on the cross that Jesus redeemed sinners for God and utterly vanquished Satan. “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;” Hebrews 2:14
All who reject Christ and remain in their sin will be condemned along with Satan, and this is the warning that the Holy Spirit sounds in the hearts of the unsaved.
The influence of the Holy Spirit in an unsaved person’s life will lead that person to the realization that they are guilty, that God is just, and that all sinners are deserving of judgment. Once a sinner has been awakened to his soul’s great need, the Holy Spirit will point him to Christ, the one and only Savior and Refuge from judgment (John 16:14). In all of this, the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), and the result is a regenerated heart. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17
The Bible talks of “the ungodly” as those who are separated from God. Ungodliness is the condition of being polluted with sin. To be ungodly is to be sinful, to act in a way that is contrary to the nature of God, to actively oppose God in disobedience, or to have an irreverent disregard for God. The Bible often speaks of “the flesh” in reference to things that emanate from our sinful natures. The acts of the flesh and the desires of the world fall under the category of ungodliness.
“But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” 2 Peter 3:7
“And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:14–15
Ultimately, those who reject God — the ungodly — will be separated from Him forever. Jude refers to false teachers as ungodly. Judes description contains these characteristics of ungodliness:
“For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jude 4
Later, Jude mentions the “ungodly acts” of the wicked and “defiant words” that the ungodly speak against God (Jude 15). The ungodly are also characterized as “grumblers and faultfinders” who selfishly follow “their own evil desires,” boast and flatter (Jude 16). The ungodly scoff at the truth of God and attempt to divide churches (Jude 18–19).
Jesus actually sacrificed Himself for the ungodly. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6, 8
God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5), clothing them with the righteousness of Christ and enabling them to “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way” (Colossians 1:10).
Our sanctification is progressive. That is, even though the Christian is saved and justified in Christ, we sometimes still act in ungodly ways. We are still in the process of being transformed into His image (Romans 8:29–30; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 1:6). We are declared righteous before God but are still being made holy in practical terms. In short, we still sin. Scripture says we should confess our sin and trust God’s forgiveness (1 John 1:8–9). Nothing can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ (Romans 8:31–39). We are no longer numbered among the ungodly or sinful, even though we still fight our fleshly urges and sometimes act in ungodly ways.
Generally speaking, the sinful and ungodly are those who do not know God through Jesus the Christ. They have rejected God’s Son and remain in their sins. Those who are in Christ have their sins forgiven and are becoming more godly. Believers seek to remove ungodliness from their lives (1 John 3:9).