We Distinguish: General/Special Operations

Believers are temples of the Holy Spirit.  So we say because this is what Scripture teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:19.  We’re therefore accustomed to thinking that the Holy Spirit has exclusive dealings with Christians.  We might hesitate to affirm that the Holy Spirit could have anything to do with any unbeliever.  But then there’s King Saul in the Old Testament.

King Saul’s relationship with the Holy Spirit is curious.  In 1 Samuel 10, Saul was anointed to be king and afterwards the Holy Spirit “rushed upon him” and he prophesied.  The Holy Spirit came to Saul in the same way in 1 Samuel 11 when he heard of the siege of Jabesh-Gilead.  However, after David is anointed to be King Saul’s successor, we’re told in 1 Samuel 16:14 that the Spirit of the LORD departed from him.  Yet nevertheless the Holy Spirit comes upon Saul one last time in 1 Samuel 19.  Under the power of the Spirit, Saul strips off all his clothes and lays naked on the ground prophesying.

How do we explain this situation where we see the Holy Spirit coming and going with a king whose spiritual state is at best ambiguous?  Or do how we make sense of Hebrews 6 which speaks of those who “shared in the Holy Spirit” and yet cannot be restored to repentance after having fallen away?  The answer has to do with an important theological distinction between the general and special operations of the Holy Spirit.

The special operations of the Holy Spirit are by far the most well-known to us.  They’re called “special” operations because their application is redemptive.  They’re directed specifically towards the salvation of God’s elect.  Let’s survey some of those special operations.  The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit provides a witness to Jesus (John 15:26).  When the gospel is preached, he works the new birth in the person whom God has decreed to save (John 3:1-7).  The Holy Spirit convicts “the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).  He is the Helper/Comforter (John 14:16).  The Spirit also works holiness in the life of a believer (2 Thess. 2:13).  The foregoing is not an exhaustive list of his special operations, but it illustrates some of what’s meant by redemptive application.

Reformed Christians are often in the dark about the general operations of the Holy Spirit.  We call them “general” operations because they’re not limited to or directed necessarily towards the salvation of the elect.  In God’s decree, these operations or works have a more general scope.

Only one of these general operations gets mentioned in the Creeds and Confessions.  The reference is hidden away in the Nicene Creed:  “And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”  The Holy Spirit is the Giver of life.  Now when we hear that, we might be tempted to first of all think in terms of spiritual life or eternal life.  We wouldn’t go wrong in so thinking; after all, Jesus said in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life.”  However, we would go wrong if we restricted it to that special operation.  Scripture also speaks about the role of the Holy Spirit in creation and providence.  All biological life is owing to the work of the Holy Spirit on this earth.  Concerning all creatures, the Psalmist confesses:  “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created…” (Psalm 104:30).  In Job 33:4, Elihu rightly states, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”  Therefore, wherever we see biological life on this earth, we see the handiwork of the Holy Spirit. 

Looking in Scripture, we find other general operations of the Holy Spirit.  For example, in Exodus 31, the Holy Spirit gives gifts of intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship to Bezalel and others.  One of the most commonly mentioned general operations is what he does to equip men for various offices in the Old Testament, whether prophet, priest, or king.  The Spirit of the LORD comes upon an individual so he can fulfil his calling in accordance with God’s will.

This is what we see happening with King Saul.  The mention of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life says nothing about his salvation.  It’s simply impossible for someone to have the Holy Spirit in the sense of 1 Cor. 6:19 and then to lose him, i.e. to lose salvation.  This would contradict what Scripture teaches elsewhere about the preservation and perseverance of the saints (e.g. John 10:28).  What Saul experienced was the general operations of the Holy Spirit in relation to his office as king.  When the Holy Spirit left him in 1 Sam. 16:14, we’re being told that the Holy Spirit was no longer present to equip him for his calling.  He was entirely on his own.  Yes, the Holy Spirit returned to him to cause him to prophesy for a short period.  But again, this says nothing about a saving presence of the Spirit in his life.

We have to understand Hebrews 6:4 in a similar way.  Those who have “shared in the Holy Spirit” have experienced his general operations within the context of the church.  What are those general operations?  Hebrews 6:5 gives us a hint when it speaks of these people having “tasted the goodness of the word of God.”  One of the general operations of the Holy Spirit is his inspiration of Scripture.  By reading and tasting the objective goodness of God’s Word, a general operation of the Holy Spirit is having a bearing on your life, even apart from regeneration.  But it could also be that the author of Hebrews has in mind the prophesying which took place in the apostolic church.  Could it be possible for an unbeliever to prophesy and thus “share in the Holy Spirit”?  The example above of Saul in the Old Testament and also of Caiaphas in the New Testament (John 11:49-51) would certainly suggest it is.  The Holy Spirit can prophesy through unbelievers. 

The Holy Spirit has often been called the “shy Person of the Trinity.”  His purpose is to focus our attention on Christ, not on himself.  Nevertheless, he is true God and as such deserves to be worshipped and glorified for all he is and all he does.  What he does extends far beyond our individual experience of salvation.  He is actively working everyday around us, creating and upholding life, bringing beauty and wonder into a broken world, and endowing image-bearers to do amazing things with their intellects.  Have you praised the Holy Spirit today?

Meet Cornelius Van Til

One of my favourite authors is Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til was born in the Netherlands in 1896.  While still a child, he immigrated with his family to the United States.  He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and eventually went on to attend Calvin College and Seminary.  In 1922, it was on to Princeton where he earned master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in 1927.  He spent one year as the pastor of a CRC in Michigan before returning to Princeton as an instructor in apologetics.  Later he became one of the pioneering faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He taught apologetics there until 1973.  He died in 1987.

Van Til is important because he recognized the need for consistency in apologetics (the defense of the faith).  Up till his day, there was no internally consistent system of Reformed apologetics.  In other words, the apologetics that was taught and practiced up to that point was more consistent with Arminianism and Roman Catholicism than with Reformed theology.  Van Til took the best insights of previous Reformed theologians including John Calvin, B. B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper and (especially) Herman Bavinck, and brought them together into a consistent approach to defending and promoting the faith of the Scriptures.  This consistent approach begins with recognizing that the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) has to be applied to our method of apologetics.

If you want to read just one book by Van Til, it should be The Defense of the Faith.  However, two caveats are in order:  1) Van Til is not always easy reading.  He wrote for educated laymen and pastors/scholars; 2) If you are going to read The Defense of the Faith, I would suggest the third edition.  There is a more recent fourth edition with notes by K. Scott Oliphint, but that edition tends to focus more on the differences that Van Til had with a number of his critics in the 1950s.  If you’re looking for Van Til to put his beliefs about apologetics into practice, the only thing that’s available is his little booklet Why I Believe in God.  If you want to read about Van Til’s life, the best biography is the one by John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman.  Finally, the best anthology and commentary on Van Til’s work is the massive Van Til’s Apologetic by Greg Bahnsen.

One might quibble with some of Van Til’s statements or formulations, but on the whole he is a reliable and consistently Reformed theologian.  He had two formal faults, however.  One was what I mentioned a moment ago:  clear, effective communication was not his strong suit.  The other is the fact that he so rarely provided the biblical foundations for the case he was making.  It’s not that those biblical foundations weren’t there, but he just didn’t always make them obvious.  That would fall to later generations of his students and followers, especially K. Scott Oliphint and Greg Bahnsen.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that I learned to love the Reformed faith because of Cornelius Van Til.  As a university student I read The Defense of the Faith and I caught Van Til’s infectious love for being Reformed.  Moreover, I realized that Reformed theology, because it is biblical, has the resources within to be able to withstand any assault the world can mount.

How to Love the Unloveable

It isn’t easy to love a jerk.  Someone who’s quiet, meek, and kind – no problem.  But the person who annoys us, whether through habit or personality?  The person who pushes all our buttons, perhaps even intentionally?   The selfish and insensitive clod?   

Yet the Lord commands us to love our neighbour as we do ourselves (Mt.22:39).  That Christian love is “not irritable or resentful.”  Instead, it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:5-7).  This is the love that leads us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

But how do we do that with someone we might think to be unworthy of our love and good deeds?  How do you love a jerk?  You might say take a look in the mirror.  Humbly realizing that we’re all unworthy jerks could indeed be a good place to start.  However, in his epic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explored this practical issue in the Christian life from a different angle.  His advice, drawn on sound biblical teaching, is worth a listen.  If you want to look it up and read the whole section for yourself, it’s in Institutes 3.7.6.  I’ll be quoting from the Lewis-Battles edition. 

Calvin begins by acknowledging that most people would be unworthy of our love if they were judged according to merit.  But that isn’t how Christians are to think.  Says Calvin, “But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love.”  He goes on to affirm that with members of the household of faith this obligation is intensified by virtue of the fact that God’s image has been renewed and restored in them by the Holy Spirit.  Nevertheless, what remains of the image of God after the fall into sin and before regeneration is itself reason enough to show love to all by doing good.  Calvin concludes, “Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.”       

Calvin then anticipates a series of objections.  Someone might say, “But he’s a stranger!”  To which Calvin would reply that this is irrelevant.  With the image of God, you have something in common which instantly binds you together.  Or someone might say, “But he’s loathsome and a good-for-nothing!”  Calvin replies, “…but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.”  You might say that this person doesn’t deserve any of your effort.  But, says Calvin, “the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” 

Then last of all, what if the other person is a jerk?  You’re thinking that he does deserve something from you, but it’s definitely not a demonstration of love.  Calvin says, “Yet what has the Lord deserved?  While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself.”  The connection with Calvin’s answers to what precedes has to do with the fact that he is telling us that when it comes to loving our neighbour, we have to look to God.  If we focus all our attention on people and who they are and what they do or don’t deserve, we’ll never love our neighbour.  True Christian love is only possible as we think about our existence before the face of God and the grace we have received from him through Christ.

At the end of this section, Calvin circles back to the image of God.  This is brilliant:

Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature:  to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches.  It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.          

I remind you that Calvin is speaking here not only about the image of God as it exists restored in Christians, but even the image as it exists spoiled by sin in unbelievers.

Essentially what Calvin is saying is that we ought to love all people on the same basis that God does.  Earlier in the Institutes (2.16.3) Calvin states that God’s hatred finds a deserving object in each one of us because of our sin.  But then he says something surprising:  “But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love.”  No matter what sin we have committed, we remain his creatures.  As his creatures, we bear his image.  According to Calvin, image-bearing is what leads God to love and it’s also what should lead us to love.

That has implications and not only for dealing with garden-variety jerks.  In our current climate where the church is facing so much hostility from the world, we need this teaching more than ever.  If we would only look around us and see ALL other people as God’s image-bearers, we would find something to love.  Perhaps better said:  at least we would know that there is something to love even if we can’t readily see it.  As Calvin notes, this is utterly against our human nature.  Our hearts resist it.  Yet remember how God is sovereign over our hearts.  We can and should pray for him to keep changing our hearts so they become more like his, reflecting the image of him and his wondrous love.

Letter to the Editor

In response to this story in today’s Examiner, I’ve sent the following letter to the editor. If you’re interested in reading my full submission to the Tasmania Law Reform Institute, you can find it here.


Dear editor,

In the August 30 article, “No apologies for conversion therapy,” our church was referenced as a body that admits to having “carried out SOGI conversion practices.”  I want to emphasise: our church does not provide exorcisms, electroshock therapy, psychoanalysis, reconditioning, or aversion therapy. We simply hold out the same hope God offers to all people:  forgiveness through Jesus Christ and grace to change.  However, by simply praying and preaching the Bible, the Issues Paper prepared by the Tasmania Law Reform Institute would have you believe that we are engaged in “SOGI conversion practices.”  The reality is that we simply carry out Christian ministry as it has historically been done.  Finally, the article states that we were contacted for comment.  Yet when I responded your reporter did not return my e-mail.        

Rev. Dr. Wes Bredenhof

Free Reformed Church of Launceston

Know Your Enemy — and Your Father

The earth can be a dangerous place.  In some places there are animals that will eat people, for example.   One such place is Africa.  In Tanzania people are still regularly attacked and killed by lions.  Some wildlife researchers recently looked into this.  They wanted to see if there were patterns in lion attacks on humans.  Were there more attacks at certain times than others?  They already knew that lions attack mostly at night, but were there times of the month where lions attacked more?  The research showed that most lion attacks on humans occur in the first week following a full moon.  This was important for two reasons. 

First, it demonstrated that the full moon is a reliable indicator of impending danger for people living in close proximity to lions.  It partly explains why there are so many superstitions and customs in connection with a full moon.  But it also and more importantly teaches people who live near lions to take extra pre-cautions right after a full moon.  You don’t let your kids wander outside in the dark after a full moon, for instance.  People are getting educated about how lions behave and, knowing their tactics and typical behaviours, they’re better protected.  Lives will be saved.    

The Bible teaches that Christians have sworn enemies who don’t stop attacking.  One of those enemies is the devil.  We ought never to forget what 1 Peter 5:8 says about this enemy:  he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  He sneaks around and he attempts to frighten us.  He wants to kill us.  Literally 1 Peter 5:8 says that he wants to drink us up.  He wants our blood.  He wants us dead.  Furthermore, Scripture teaches us that he has tactics and typical behaviours.  Just like rural Tanzanians benefit from knowing the behaviour of the lions threatening them, Christians benefit from researching and being aware of Satan’s ways.

Consider the ways in which he tempted our Saviour in Matthew 4.  Jesus was hungry after fasting for forty days.  Satan had a trick in his bag from way back.  Back in the Garden already, he had used food to destroy God’s creature.  He thought this might work again.  He appealed to the appetite of Jesus and urged him to abuse his divine powers to feed himself.  That tactic worked in the Garden, but it failed in the wilderness. 

His next temptation involved the use of the Word of God.  Here again we find a recycled tactic.  Satan had said to Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  Satan perverted God’s Word and turned it against God’s creature and against God himself.  That tactic worked in the Garden, but it failed in the wilderness. 

The third temptation involved power and the lies it often involves.  Once again, we need to see how Satan isn’t really creative when it comes to his tactics.  He told our first parents that if they would listen, they would be like God.  In the wilderness, Satan attempts a similar lie with Jesus.  He told him he could have power, he could have everything, if only he’d bow the knee and worship Satan.  Again, that lie worked in Eden, but in the Judean desert, the Second Adam stood firm.  He was aware of the lion’s ways. 

This lion is still prowling around today and he still throws the same kinds of temptations at us.  He tells the same kinds of lies.  He knows all our weak spots.  He’s had thousands of years of practice at tempting and turning people against God.  We should not underestimate the deceitfulness of this enemy and his vicious intent on getting his bloody paws on us to finish us off. 

Being aware of him and his ways is only one part of our survival plan here.  We need to cry for help.  Satan is a strong enemy.  And who are we?  We’re weak.  With our own resources, we can’t stand even for a moment against Satan or any other enemy.  We’re like a little child in a Tanzanian village.  Our father has told us to stay inside because it’s just after a full moon.  But we wander out anyway.  The lions are prowling around and they’re looking for some human tenderloin.  A little child is helpless and weak against these lions.  But if he calls for the help of his father, his father will come running with a large calibre rifle and fend off the lions and save his child.  The child can do nothing but call for help.  The powerful father, however, will hear and answer.  He’ll act. 

So it is with us.  Surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction, we need repeatedly to call to our Father God for help.  Without him, we’d invariably go down to defeat.  But when we humbly pray to him, he’ll hear and he’ll uphold and strengthen us by the power of his Holy Spirit.           

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to make it our practice regularly to acknowledge our weakness and our need when we pray.  It’s in the sixth petition:  “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  God wants to hear his children humbly admitting that they are but children, weak and powerless of themselves.  He wants to hear his children praying and asking for the strength to go on to victory in Christ.  We can and should pray frequently in this manner.  I assure you, God will hear your prayer and he’ll give you the help you need.  Your Father will come to your aid and fend off the lions.  The Word of God guarantees and promises us this:  “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honour him” (Ps. 91:15).