Tag Archives: the Holy Spirit

I Recommend

This past week, I shared the following links on social media and I think they’re worth sharing here too:

The Free Reformed Churches of Australia

It’s been a long time coming, but the FRCA finally has a new website. It now includes news items from our churches (which you can also get delivered to a blog aggregator like Feedly via RSS).

What To Do About Halloween on the Sabbath?

This is, to me it seems, a distinctly North American discussion. Halloween is a thing here in Australia, but not a big thing. It’s certainly not anywhere near as big as in the US and Canada. That suits me just fine.

Legalism: What It Is and What It Is Not

Chris Gordon: “Too often when people critique confessional Protestants, who affirm the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments, as “legalistic,” they are really advocating antinomianism, rejection of God’s moral law. What they are saying is this: we won’t require anything of you if you come to us. This is all an escape tactic for people who are running. God’s law is totally disregarded, and the consequences of this are evidenced in the way people approach him in worship.”

Victorian Government to Discriminate against Faith-Based Schools

While this is a deplorable development, I can’t help but wonder if the real problems are being missed here: churches which don’t practice church discipline, and then Christian schools which don’t make biblical church membership a requirement for employment.

Appeal court overturns UK puberty blockers ruling for under-16s

The case of Keira Bell (Bell v Tavistock) has received a lot of attention from Christians concerned about so-called conversion therapy legislation. This is a set-back, however an appeal to the UK Supreme Court is in the works.

Study: Majority of Self-Identified Christians Don’t Believe the Holy Spirit is Real

Perhaps a better title: Majority of Self-Identified Christians Don’t Really Believe Christian Doctrine.

Christian vs. Atheist Debate

I didn’t post this one on Facebook, but last week I did show it to participants at a Reformed Apologetics course I taught in Western Australia. Brace yourself — one unhinged atheist makes it a wild ride.


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?


Does the ESV Honour the Holy Spirit?

This past Sunday morning, I preached on John 1:29-34.  As I was working on the text, I noticed a potential problem with the ESV translation of verse 32:

And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”

Do you see the problem?  If not, compare the ESV with the NIV and NKJV on the same verse:

NIV:  Then John gave this testimony:  “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”

NKJV:  And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.”

If you haven’t caught on yet, the problem is with the “it” in the ESV.  The other translations avoid this issue, either through by-passing the use of the pronoun or using the third-person masculine pronoun.  This is what I said about this verse in my sermon:

I need to say one more thing about verse 32.  Look at it with me.  Our Bible translation says that “it remained on him.”  That could give the impression that the Holy Spirit is an “it.”  I want to be charitable.  I think the ESV translators meant to say that the image of the dove remained on Jesus.  “It” then refers to the image, not the Holy Spirit himself.  After all, elsewhere the ESV is careful to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he.”  To be fair, even the old King James Version used “it” here.  The NKJV has “he,” and that is better at removing the danger that we might think and speak wrongly about the Holy Spirit.  What we need to remember is that the Holy Spirit is not an “it.”  We dishonour the third person of the Trinity when we refer to him as “it.”  We always need to speak of he, him, his, when we’re speaking of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or power – that’s what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach. No, he is a person, which means that he is a someone.  Scripture teaches that he is a someone whom you can grieve (Eph. 4:32), he is someone to whom you can lie (Acts 5:3) and so on.  Brothers and sisters, I urge you to be careful in your speaking about the Holy Spirit.  Be careful, don’t ever say “it.” Why?  Because this is a matter of honouring God.

So, in John 1:32, while I still wish it would be clearer, I’m willing to cut the ESV translators some slack.  I’m less inclined to do that for another problematic text referring to the Holy Spirit, Numbers 11:25.

ESV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.

NKJV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders;

NIV (1984):  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders.

This is a more challenging case, because there is no image or symbol of the Holy Spirit involved.  There is apparently no excuse for the ESV’s approach in Numbers 11:25.  However, there may be an explanation.  I suspect it has to do with the pedigree of the ESV in the RSV and KJV.  Compare:

KJV:  And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders:

RSV:  Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders;

Notice how both the KJV and RSV translate/interpret the Hebrew word ruach as “spirit” with a lower-case ‘s.’  The Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have capital letters like English does, so it can be difficult sometimes to gauge whether a word like ruach is referring to the spirit of a man or to the Holy Spirit.  The KJV and RSV chose for the former and then used the appropriate pronoun for their choice, “it.”  The problem with the ESV is that it capitalizes “Spirit,” normally meaning a reference to the Holy Spirit, and then — inconsistent with that choice — uses “it.”  That seems to be a carry-over from the earlier translations, a mistake that was somehow overlooked.

One of the good things about the ESV is that it is still being periodically revised and updated.  There is a possibility that future editions of the ESV will include better translations of John 1:32 and Numbers 11:25.  I find it hard to believe that the ESV translators deliberately set out to speak of the Holy Spirit as “it.”  Rather, I reckon this betrays a problem common amongst so many Christians:  we don’t take the Holy Spirit seriously enough as a person of the Trinity.  He often has a background role and, as a result, our thinking and speaking about him can often be less than precise.  Bible translators are no less afflicted with this than the rest of us.  However common it may be, it should not be acceptable.  We should aim for giving full honour to the Spirit and his personhood in our speaking — and we should also insist that a faithful Bible translation do the same.


Abraham Scultetus on Baptism with the Spirit

The other day I attended a reception to commemorate the retirement of Dr. N. H. Gootjes, my seminary dogmatics professor.  In honour of this occasion, one of his colleagues from the seminary presented a copy of a collection of writings of Dr. Gootjes, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics.  I hope to soon have a review of this book posted here.  So far, it’s excellent.

Chapter 6 deals with “The Baptism with the Holy Spirit and the Meaning of Pentecost.”  Gootjes discusses the history of how various figures have interpreted “baptism with the Spirit.”  One of the figures he mentions is Abraham Scultetus.  Scultetus was a professor at the Reformed academy in Heidelberg.  He was one of the representatives of the Palatinate at the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.  Here’s what Gootjes has to say about him:

In the period that followed [Calvin], this view that the baptism with the Spirit is in fact the essence of the baptism of John and of Christian baptism was very influential.  A noteworthy exception is A. Scultetus (1566-1625), a theologian of great influence at the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.  He mentioned that the general understanding is that John the Baptist distinguished the external baptism and the administration by himself and other ministers from the internal administration of Christ.  However, Scultetus cannot agree with this.  In his opinion, Luke 3:16 mentions two baptisms: a baptism with water and a baptism with fire.  The baptism with water has people submerged in water and pulled from it as a testimony to the Holy Spirit’s work of putting to death and raising to life.  The baptism with fire takes place when the fiery gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out in people in a miraculous way.  This latter baptism refers to the special gifts of Pentecost, which have been repeated several times since.  Only Christ can give this baptism, and he ceases when the authority of the gospel is sufficiently confirmed.  Scultetus does admit that his opinion is different from that of the majority.

Gootjes has a footnote here indicating that he drew this from the compilation of Balduinus Walaeus, Novi testamenti libri historici: Gr. et Lat. perpetuo commentario (1653): 574-575 as a commentary on Luke 3:16.  Unfortunately, that source is apparently not (yet) available online.


The Efficacy of Baptism

I’ve quite enjoyed Sinclair Ferguson’s The Holy Spirit.  A colleague recently recommended it to me and I’m glad that I followed the recommendation.  It’s a wonderful, detailed, biblical-theological study of the Holy Spirit.  In chapter 9, Ferguson discusses the relationship between the Spirit and the sacraments.  I found what he wrote here on baptism to be especially helpful.

He noted that “baptism is first and foremost a sign and seal of grace, of divine activity in Christ, and of the riches of his provision for us.  It is not faith that is signified and sealed.  It is Christ.” (198).  In baptism, “the Spirit bears witness to Christ, takes from what belongs to him and shows him to his people, clothed in the garments of his messianic ministry” (199).

The covenant of grace is here in this explanation of baptism.  It’s mentioned a bit earlier where Ferguson notes that the Holy Spirit is the one who glues God’s people into covenant relationship with himself (196).  Ferguson would no doubt agree that baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  However, as Ferguson works it out here, it is more in the background, and what receives more attention in this discussion is the way in which the Holy Spirit uses baptism in the lives of believers.  I suppose that makes sense in a book about the Holy Spirit.

I found these two paragraphs to be particularly thought-provoking:

Martin Luther…would say to himself when hard pressed with temptation, ‘I am a baptised man’; thus recalling the grace and resources of Christ which the Spirit illumines through baptism, he responded with a confession of faith.  In this way, baptism realizes what it signifies, just as God’s word accomplishes that for which he sends it.

An understanding of the way in which the Spirit uses baptism (as well as the Supper) preserves us from the twin errors common in sacramental theology:  1) the error of so subjectivizing the symbolism of the rite that our use of it throws us back upon our own actions, decisions and experiences, and thus distorts the function of faith, which is to turn away from the resources and actions of the believer to the grace that is his or hers in Jesus Christ; and 2) so objectifying the effectiveness of the blessing of the symbol that we identify the reception of the sign with the reception of what it signifies, and give no place to the faith which finds Christ himself unveiled in the sign, or to the ongoing ministry of the Spirit.  The efficacy of baptism and the Lord’s Supper can no more be separated from the ministry of the Spirit than from the efficacy of the reading and hearing of the Scriptures. (199)

If I understand Ferguson correctly, he is saying that the promises of baptism are real for each and every person who is baptized.  There is an objective promise signed and sealed.  Nevertheless, that promise calls for faith in every person who is baptized so that they may receive what is promised.  If you think my reading is off, I trust you’ll let me know…