Results tagged “Holy Spirit” from Reformation21 Blog

The general contours of the doctrine of Scripture are familiar. Orthodox Protestants confess that Scripture has God as its primary author and is self-authenticating, supremely authoritative, necessary for this age, clear enough to be understood by the masses, and sufficient as a rule of faith and life. The word of God is also the primary means of grace. As such, the visible church is born of the word, now written in Scripture, not the other way around.

Protestants on the Efficacy of Scripture

Lutheran and Reformed theologians differ somewhat, however, on the efficacy of Scripture. Lutherans argue that the word has an inherent power to save; Reformed critics suggest this view is a little too close to Rome's more magical notions of sacramental efficacy. Some of those same critics can also claim, however, that "Lutherans are completely correct" in at least one respect: "always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit." God's word, Bavinck continues, "is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective,...continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit" (RD, 4.459).

So, Protestants agree on the efficacy of Scripture but disagree on how to construe its saving efficacy. By insisting God's word always operates to save, Lutherans appear to reduce the Spirit's activity to something like an impersonal power. They must then explain the apparent failure of the word to save some people by arguing that "God, working through means, can be resisted" in a way that "God, working in uncovered majesty, cannot" (Pieper, CD, 2.465). Reformed theologians, on the other hand, deny the Spirit always exerts the power of God's word to save all people indiscriminately. They instead restrict the saving power of Scripture to the elect and argue it is efficacious to this end only through the personal, particular, and irresistible work of the Spirit.

The Universal Scope of Biblical Efficacy in Reformed Theology

In their discussions of the point, Reformed theologians are primarily concerned with the efficacy of God's word as the primary means of saving grace. This does not prevent them, however, from recognizing a wider, variegated, and universal scope to the efficacy of Scripture. Consider two examples from the Dutch tradition.

First, Petrus van Mastricht, who defines the efficacy of Scripture, its "eighth property," as the "moral and instrumental...power" it has "from the Holy Spirit" to "work effectually" in the world. Scripture is therefore said to be both "able" and "active," penetrating the soul, exposing its secrets, working on the spirit, illuminating the mind, regenerating and converting the heart, kindling faith, and sanctifying, strengthening, consoling, and preserving the saints. "Indeed, people the world over sense the efficacy of the Word when they are converted by the mere preaching of the gospel." But he describes a common and non-saving efficacy of Scripture too, since "even reprobates themselves experience it when they lose their speech (Matt. 22:46), when they yield (Mark 6:20), when they fear (Mark 6:20; Acts 24:25),...and when they are hardened and blinded (Isa. 6:9-10)" bit God's word (Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1.131).

Second, Herman Bavinck, who argues that "the word of God, both as law and gospel, . . . concerns all human beings and all creatures and so has universal significance." Unlike the sacraments, therefore, which are only for the visible church, "the word of God also has a place and life outside of it and also exerts many and varied influences" (4.448-49). So, "this power of the word of God and specifically of the gospel must, with the Lutherans, be maintained in all its fullness and richness" (449). Again, the word "is always efficacious; it is never powerless" (459).

The efficacy of Scripture is not, therefore, one-dimensional. "Both Scripture and experience teach that the word does not always have the same effect." On the contrary, it has many diverse effects that can be organized into two general kinds: "If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down" (459). And so, "the word that proceeds from the mouth of God is indeed always a power accomplishing that for which God sent it forth."

This is not only true of "the gospel but also of the law." When Paul says "the letter kills" (2 Cor. 3:6), Bavinck claims, "he is saying as powerfully as he can" that the law "is not a dead letter. Instead, it is so powerful that it produces sin, wrath, a curse, and death" (458). So also, "the gospel exerts its effect" not just on the elect and unto salvation, but "even in those who are lost; to them it is a reason for their falling, an offense and foolishness, a stone over which they stumble, a fragrances from death to death (Luke 2:34; Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:8)" (458).


Of course Scripture would produce none of these effects apart from the Spirit but it never is apart from the Spirit. It is "perfectly adapted to accomplish the end of man's sanctification and salvation" but by the Spirit it "always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish." It may raise the hearer up to God or strike the reader down in the dust, but it always has its divinely intended effect and it "never returns empty" (458).

Counselor, Comforter, Keeper?


One exegetical consideration upon which I have never truly been settled is that which concerns the meaning of the word παράκλητος (Paraklete)--as it appears in such places in Scripture as 1 John 2:1 and John 14:16. The list of translation options from which we may choose includes such glosses as Comforter, Counsellor, Advocate, Helper, Keeper and Encourager. I have long been undecided to how to come to a settle opinion about the proper gloss. On the surface, all of these translations have their merit. However, we will only ever determine the meaning of the word based on the context in which it appears in Scripture.

Needless to say, I was delighted to find a treatment of the meaning of this word in Geehardus Vos' Reformed Dogmatics. Vos gave the word two individual meanings, based on its respective exegetical contexts. The first is that which is tied to the teaching of 1 John 2:1. Vos wrote:

"[Jesus] is called our Substitute or Advocate. He is α παράκλητος, Paraclete (1 John 2:1). One should note that the word paraclete is used in a double sense in the New Testament. It is originally a passive form and means 'someone who is called to help'--that is, an advocate. Since, however, an advocate can also take the place of someone whom he helps, the word at the same time also takes on the meaning of "substitute." It is so used of Christ in the passage just cited (1 John 2:1): 'And if anyone sins, we have an advocate (a substituting intercessor) with the Father.' This is the first meaning."1

The second meaning Vos gave the word is associated with Jesus teaching about himself and the Spirit--the other παράκλητος--in John 14. He explained:

"The word is taken in a somewhat different sense when Christ calls Himself 'Paraclete' for believers and promises them the Spirit as another Paraclete (John 14:16): 'And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete, that He may be with you forever.' Here the Paraclete is 'counsel-giving advocate.' The Holy Spirit, too, is now called a paraclete in this sense, especially because He fills the place of Christ with believers now that Christ has departed. Of course, the principal work of the Holy Spirit as Paraclete is to bring comfort, but the translation of the word itself as 'Comforter,' however common, appears to be incorrect and cannot be justified. Παρακαλεῖν does mean 'encourage,' 'comfort,' but παράκλητος is a passive, not an active, form. The explanation that most presently give it and that is supported by this active form, namely, 'counselor,' is also that of Augustine, Calvin, Beza, Lampe, and many others. The concept 'comforter' is too narrow."2

While this may not settle the question for everyone, it certainly provides a plausible conclusion based on a careful consideration of the unique biblical contexts in which the Holy Spirit has employed the word παράκλητος; and, that is the heart of all true exegetical labor. 

1. Geerhardus Vos (2012-2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 3, pp. 168). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

2. Ibid. pp. 168-169.

Only for a Time

I was interested to see that the cessationism/continuitionism issue is surfacing again--due to Matt Chandler's recent sermon, "A Supernatural Community and a Personal Word." Matt's introductory argument is as follows: Many Christians do not experience the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. tongues, prophecy, knowledge, healings, etc.); therefore, they have wrongly concluded that the extraordinary gifts have ceased and that everything in the book of Acts is merely history. Without wanting to analyze and critique Matt's arguments here in any sort of detailed way, I do want to make a few important observations about the fallacy of that argument in particular, based on the biblical rationale for cessationism.

First, it is unfair and uncharitable for someone to insist that brothers and sisters in Christ have adopted a cessationist understanding of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit simply because they have not experienced them in their lives. In fact, all the cessationists I personally know are convinced by the teaching of Scripture that tongues, prophecy and mediated extraordinary healings have ceased. After all, the word "cease" comes straight out of 1 Corinthians 13:8, where the Apostle Paul said, "As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away." 

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul contrasts three of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. tongues, prophecy and knowledge) with three of the ordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. faith, hope and love). He then says that the extraordinary gifts would cease and pass away, while the ordinary gifts would remain. Finally, Paul teaches that love is the greatest because love endures forever. Elsewhere, Paul teaches that "faith will be turned to sight," and "hope that is seen is not hope." He is clearly intimating that during the New Covenant era of redemptive history, faith, hope and love would continue, while, at some point, tongues, prophecy and knowledge would cease. Then, after the consummation, only love would remain. That's why love is the greatest of the gifts of the Spirit! 

Believers should be far more zealous for a manifestation of the Spirit's power in their lives resulting in the formation of the ordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. the fruit of the Spirit) than they should be for temporal and foundational extraordinary gifts. To reverse the order is to fall into the same error as that which the Corinthians had fallen into. In so doing, we may inadvertantly be undermining the force of the argument Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 13. 

Concerning the foundational nature of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, the Apostle Paul employed the word foundation when he says in Ephesians 2:20, that the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone."1 The Apostles and NT prophets were instrumental in laying the foundation of the New Covenant church. In Ephesians 3:4-5, the Apostle explains that the setting forth of the mystery of Christ in the Scripture was the end goal of the foundational work of the Apostles and prophets. He explained this when he wrote:

"When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit."

Finally, Paul lists the Apostles and prophets among the gift officers that Christ gave His church after ascending to heaven. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul writes, "He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." In short, if there are no more Apostles (and Paul made it clear that he was the last Apostle - see 1 Cor. 15:8), then there are no more prophets either. The grammatical construct "Apostles and prophets" was used to delineate a special redemptive-historical provision for the foundation of the New Covenant church. Anyone who has ever built a house knows that you only lay a foundation once! 

Second, the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, given in the Apostolic age, were in fact (contra to Chandler's instance) signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God to the nations. The Apostle Paul explicitly highlighted the sign nature of the gifts, as being attached to the Apostolic ministry, when he wrote, "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works" (2 Cor. 12:12). This is also the reason why we find the Apostles giving the Spirit and the gifts by the laying on of their hands. 

While there has been much debate over whether John Calvin was a cessationist or a continuationist, Calvin's comments on Acts 2:38 should suffice to help settle the question. There, Calvin explained that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit "lasted only for a time:"

"Because Christ meant to set forth the beginning of his kingdom with those miracles, they lasted only for a time; yet because the visible graces which the Lord did distribute to his did shoe, as it were in a glass, that Christ was the giver of the Spirit, therefore, that which Peter saith doth in some respect appertain unto all the whole Church: ye shall receive the gift of the Spirit. For although we do not receive it, that we may speak with tongues, that we may be prophets, that we may cure the sick, that we may work miracles; yet is it given us for a better use, that we may believe with the heart unto righteousness, that our tongues may be framed unto true confession, (Romans 10:10) that we may pass from death to life, (John 5:24) that we, which are poor and empty, may be made rich, that we may withstand Satan and the world stoutly."

Concerning the laying on of the hands of the Apostles in the imparting of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, Calvin explained, in his comments on Acts 19:6, that it was "a grace which was to last only for a time." He wrote:

"This laying on of hands...was a grace which was to last only for a time, which was showed by that sign, it is a perverse and ridiculous thing to retain the sign since the truth is taken away. There is another respect of baptism and the supper, wherein the Lord doth testify that those gifts are laid open for us, which the Church shall enjoy even until the end of the world. Wherefore we must diligently and wisely distinguish perpetual sacraments from those which last only for a time, lest vain and frivolous visures [semblances] have a place among the sacraments." 

Knowing full well, that I haven't even scratched the surface of this unceasing debate (pun intended), I do hope that what I have written will disabuse anyone of the notion that cessationists, simply on account of a lack of personal experience, have convinced themselves that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit have ceased--and, that they have, therefore, misread the Bible. One could argue by way of sanctified biblical logic that a lack of experiencing the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit is squarely in keeping with the biblical teaching about their cessation! 

1. For a fuller defense of the exegesis of the grammatical construct, see R. Fowler White's article, "Gaffin and Grudem on Ephesians 2:20". 

A Prayer for the Church (Galatians 5:16-26)


Our Father in heaven, we rejoice to remember that hidden in the holiness of your Son, you count us holy in your sight. Not only as we pray, but as we live each day, you see us as saints, set apart by our Savior, for our Savior.

And yet we live in the hope that what we see by faith, we will one day see by sight. Surely you will understand us, Father, if we ask today for a foretaste of what we will enjoy tomorrow. Surely you will overlook our impatience if we ask that you would continue to work out in our lives the righteousness and resurrection power that is already ours in Christ.

Father, we know that what we will be, is also what we should be. And yet in our conversations we find ourselves biting and devouring one another - we worry that in the carelessness of our words we'll consume each other. We dream of walking by the Spirit. We wake, and once again gratify the desires of the flesh.

And so we ask that you would be our guide. Lead us away from swamps of sexual immorality, sensuality and impurity. Painful as it might be, expose our inclinations to idolatry and our secret openness to empty superstitions. Fortify us against open and scandalous sins, against drunkenness, even orgies, and things like them. Protect us in our friendships and keep our families from the evils of enmity, strife and fits of anger. We covet your assistance as we struggle with envious spirits, hidden jealousy, and unhealthy rivalries. Restrain the evil one, we ask; restrain ourselves: check our rising doubts, our rebel sighs, our bitter thoughts.

What we pray for ourselves and for our loved ones, we pray for your church. Shield your bride, and shelter her from the onslaught of her enemies. Keep her from the ugliness of dissensions and the deformities that come from divisions. Make her as holy as people poised to inherit the kingdom of God can be.

Father, we ask all of this. Dare we ask for even more? Will you let us see a season in our lives when the fruit of the Spirit will be evident to all? Will you make your church a place where love informs action, where joy runs deep, where peaceful hearts produce patient people? Will you give us the pleasure of seeing kindness amongst Christian children? Will you let us see a day where a quest for true goodness typifies our young men and women, where faithfulness is the hallmark of our marriages, where gentleness and self-control are the prominent features of our parents, of our pastors?

If we belong to Christ Jesus, please crucify our flesh, with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, please keep us in step with your Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Let us become contented, promoting one another, elevating one another.

We come to you with these requests, because there is no one else who can work the wonders that we long to witness. We come to you, because you have redeemed us so that we might bear the fruit of your Spirit. To deny these requests would be to deny your own holy purpose, even your own self! So hear us and answer us for your own name's sake, as we confess you our one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

*This is the seventh post in Chad VanDixhoorn's series on "Praying Through the Scriptures." 

Five Extraordinary Benefits of Pentecost


We are wrapping the 2018 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology this weekend at Proclamation Presbyterian Church outside Philadelphia. Our theme this year is "Spirit of the Age - Age of the Spirit." As we have been celebrating the exalted Christ's outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and its implications for our age of history, let me briefly highlight some of the main benefits we now enjoy:

1. By the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the gospel is unleashed with power from on high. Prior to Pentecost, the gospel was confined to a small cultural and geographical corner of the world. But with the Spirit's coming, the gospel "has gone forth everywhere" (1 Thess. 1:8). Paul could state that the gospel has gone out "in the whole world" and "is bearing fruit and increasing" (Col. 1:5-6). Because of the outpoured Spirit, we who live in lands distant from the original church have heard and believed, and we have a mighty confidence in God for the success of the gospel among those who have still not heard its saving message.

2. At Pentecost, Christ has joined his ministry to the Spirit to advance his saving ministry with great power. Paul makes the stunning statement in 2 Cor. 3:17: "Now the Lord is the Spirit." The point is not an ontological union of the Second and Third Persons of the Godhead but an economical joining in the application of that salvation which Christ has achieved. It was for this reason that Jesus told his disciples, "it is to your advantage that I go away" (Jn. 16:7). Now Christ lives and moves in his people by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes "that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:17-19). What a joyous realization that by his Spirit, Christ lives in us!

3. After Pentecost, the Spirit is at work convicting sinners and regenerating their hearts to believe. Jesus taught of the Spirit: "when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment" (Jn. 16:8). Now, the most hardened sinner can be saved through the witness of the gospel, by the Spirit's power to convict of sin and bring to saving faith.

4. Because of the Spirit's coming, believers can and will be transformed into the glorious image of Christ. Whereas Moses would depart from the Lord's presence with a radiant face - only to have that divine imprint fade over time - Christians "beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18). Now, genuine Christ-likeness is not only our goal but the experience every Christian is able to know in growing measure. To be like Jesus! Yes, because of Pentecost.

5. By the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Christ has glorified himself in the world. Jesus told the disciples, "When the Spirit of truth comes,...He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn. 16:13-14). Through God's Word, believers in Christ behold the glory of Jesus, seeing in the gospel "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). Even the unbelieving world - which would never have known or cared a crucified Jew named Jesus - has had his glory revealed in the lives and witness of Christ's Spirit-indwelt people. What a thrilling thought! And what a glory-strewn purpose for our lives as people of the Holy Spirit in this world!

We are living in the Age of the Spirit, and thus able to speak of God's truth and grace to the spirit of the age. I hope you are able to join us for this year's PCRT. And I pray that you rejoice at the glorious thing Christ has done in sending the Holy Spirit to be the conquering power of our age.


Why Did Jesus Need the Holy Spirit?


As we make our way through the Gospel records, we quickly discover that Jesus needed the Holy Spirit at every step and in every stage of His life and ministry. While the human nature of Jesus was inseparably united to the Divine nature of the second Person of the Godhead, Jesus needed to live a perfectly sinless life in the power and by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It was not sufficient for Him--as the second Adam and representative of a new humanity--to merely live according to His Divine nature. What we need as fallen men is a human Redeemer who would gain a human holiness for His people and would die a human death in their place. As was true for Adam so it was for Jesus--the Last Adam. The Savior needed the Holy Spirit to sustain and empower Him to obey His Father, even to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:10).

Jesus needed the Holy Spirit in every act that took place in His life and for the work of redemption. The Holy Spirit had to overshadow the virgin Mary at Jesus' incarnation (Luke 1:35); Christ needed the Spirit at His anointing for public ministry when John baptized Him (Matt. 3:16; Luke 3:22); He needed the Spirit when driven into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12); He needed the Spirit when casting out demons in order to establish the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28); He needed the Spirit to enable Him to offer Himself without spot to God as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of His people (Heb. 9:14); and, He needed the Spirit to raise Him from the dead (Rom. 8:11). At every step in the Messianic ministry, Christ relied upon the Third Person of the Godhead.

In his masterful work on The Holy Spirit, Sinclair Ferguson succinctly summarized the various stages in Jesus' life in which the Holy Spirit was at work:

The Spirit who was present and active at Christ's conception as the head of the new creation, by whom He was anointed at baptism (John 1:32-34), who directed Him throughout His temptations (Matthew 4:1), empowered Him in His miracles (Luke 11:20), energized Him in His sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14), and vindicated Him in His resurrection (1 Timothy 3:16; Romans 1:4), now indwells disciples in this specific identity.1

Somewhat surprisingly, while theologians have righty devoted much time to unpacking and systematizing the biblical teaching about the two natures of Jesus, very little has actually been written--in a concentrated way--on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus. In addition to Ferguson's work, there is R.A. Finlayson's collection of short essays titled, Reformed Theological Writings, in which he contributed two short articles--"The Love of the Spirit in Man's Redemption" and "The Holy Spirit in the Life of Christ"--to flesh out the essence of this all-important aspect of Christology. However, it was John Owen, the Prince of the Puritan theologians, who has written what is arguably the most substantial treatment on this subject. In vol. 3 of his works, Owen set out eleven ways in which the Holy Spirit is said to have worked in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Scriptures:

"First, the framing, forming, and miraculous conception of the body of Christ in the womb of the blessed Virgin was the peculiar and especial work of the Holy Ghost...2

Second, the human nature of Christ being thus formed in the womb by a creating act of the Holy Spirit, was in the instant of its conception sanctified, and filled with grace according to the measure of its receptivity...3

Third, the Spirit carried on that work whose foundation he had thus laid. And two things are to be here diligently observed:

  • That the Lord Christ, as man, did and was to exercise all grace by the rational faculties and powers of his soul, his understanding, will, and affections; for he acted grace as a man, "made of a woman, made under the law."
  • The human nature of Christ was capable of having new objects proposed to its mind and understanding, whereof before it had a simple nescience...

Fourth, the Holy Spirit, in a peculiar manner, anointed him with all those extraordinary powers and gifts which were necessary for the exercise and discharging of his office on the earth...4

Fifth, it was in an especial manner by the power of the Holy Spirit he wrought those great and miraculous works whereby his ministry was attested unto and confirmed...5

Sixth, by him was he guided, directed, comforted, supported, in the whole course of his ministry, temptations, obedience, and sufferings. Some few instances on this head may suffice...6

Seventh, He offered himself up unto God through the eternal Spirit, Heb. 9:14...7

Eighth, there was a peculiar work of the Holy Spirit towards the Lord Christ whilst he was in the state of the dead; for here our preceding rule must be remembered,--namely, that notwithstanding the union of the human nature of Christ with the divine person of the Son, yet the communications of God unto it, beyond subsistence, were voluntary...8

Ninth, there was a peculiar work of the Holy Spirit in his resurrection, this being the completing act in laying the foundation of the church, whereby Christ entered into his rest,--the great testimony given unto the finishing of the work of redemption, with the satisfaction of God therein, and his acceptation of the person of the Redeemer...9

Tenth, it was the Holy Spirit that glorified the human nature [of Christ], and made it every way meet for its eternal residence at the right hand of God, and a pattern of the glorification of the bodies of them that believe on him...10

There is yet another work of the Holy Spirit, not immediately in and upon the person of the Lord Christ, but towards him, and on his behalf, with respect unto his work and office; and it comprises the head and fountain of the whole office of the Holy Spirit towards the church. This was his witness-bearing unto the Lord Christ,--namely, that he was the Son of God, the true Messiah, and that the work which he performed in the world was committed unto him by God the Father to accomplish..."11

1. Sinclair Ferguson The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996) p. 72

2. Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 3, p. 160). Edinburgh: T&T Clark. p. 160.

3. Ibid., pp. 160-161.

4. Ibid., p. 162.

5. Ibid., p. 168.

6. Ibid., p. 171.

7. Ibid., p. 174.

8. Ibid., p. 174.

9. Ibid., p. 176.

10. Ibid., p. 180.

11. Ibid., p. 181.

These Present Sufferings


As I write, the United Kingdom is still reeling from the latest terrorist atrocity to be unleashed in one of our major cities. It was particularly horrific in that it was deliberately targeted at children and teenagers attending a pop concert. The grief of those affected has been broadcast widely and it is impossible not to be deeply touched by their anguish - anguish repeatedly expressed in gut-wrenching groans. No matter how much the media and its pundits try to make sense of what has happened, words are inadequate to plumb the depths of pain.

Tragically, there is nothing new in this. This same week saw another terrorist incident back in the headlines--one that took place 41 years ago in Ireland. Four decades on and no one charged for the offense and the surviving members of the victims' families still expressing the raw pain of the loss they have lived with all that time. All this but another symptom of what C.S. Lewis aptly called, The Problem of Pain.

Something in all of us (Christians included) desperately wants to say something in response to these catastrophes, but in doing so we can easily stray into saying too much, or too little. We rarely get the balance right. In light of that we can be thankful for the many places in the Bible where God's words strike just the right balance. And what God says through his servant Paul is a prime example of getting it right.

Addressing the church in Rome, he speaks about 'our present sufferings' and declares they 'are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Ro 8.18). Far from being a cop out by kicking the problem of pain into the long (and currently inaccessible) grass of the world to come, this actually provides the springboard for a realistic look at the world in its 'present' state and why it is in this state.

With a significant choice of words, the apostle speaks first of all about creation 'groaning' (8.22), and how 'we ourselves [Christians]...groan inwardly' (8.23), then of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for believers 'with groans that words cannot express' (8.26). Language that speaks of something deep that must be expressed, but for which no normal vocabulary exists.

This in itself would suggest we can go no further. If words are inadequate to communicate these deep sentiments, then why write any more? Except that Paul sets these groanings in a very specific context: that of a fallen world.

The 'present' in which these troubles are ours is what Paul describes more fully to the Galatians as 'this present evil age' (Ga 1.4). The age that began in the aftermath of Adam's fall into sin. An age that is marked, not merely by the inescapable propensity to sin innate in every human being, but also by the consequences and collateral damage sin leaves in its wake.

Interestingly, therefore, Paul speaks first and foremost of 'creation' itself 'groaning as in the pains of childbirth' in this context. Earlier he depicts creation as waiting 'in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed' (8.19). He is referring to the parousia and 'the restoration of all things' associated with that day (Ac 3.21). He portrays it as if the entire created order was standing on tiptoe trying to see over the horizon of time for the first sign of the arrival of that day.

Although our pets may do their fair share of 'groaning' (when they are hungry or lonely) most of creation is inanimate and incapable of expressing any sentiment. So Paul is simply personifying its non-human elements as displaying discontent over its abnormality. The world and universe in their present state are not what God intended them to be; but one day that state of affairs will be changed.

When it comes to how humans respond, however, things are different. We can articulate our thoughts and feelings, however imperfectly. For those who are not Christians and cannot reach for God's word to shed light into the darkness and confusion of our world, they do express themselves in a multitude of ways, but ways that fall short of real comfort or hope. But those 'who have the firstfruits of the Spirit' - believers (8.23) - things are different. We too still groan - indicating the many aspects of present experience we cannot now fathom - but in a way that is tempered by 'hope' (8.24-25). And this enables patience in our affliction.

Paul's last reference to groaning is the one that is most intriguing. He says that the Holy Sprit helps God's children in their weakness, but does so by interceding for us 'with groans that words cannot express' (1.26). How could it be said that the Holy Spirit was somehow lost for words? Perhaps because Paul is giving us a glimpse of the fact that as the glory of God in his being and works go beyond the limits of language to adequately express, so too sin and its consequences do the same. And nowhere is that more plainly visible than on the cross. There we are confronted simultaneously with the word-defying horror of what put Christ on that cross but also the indescribable glory of what he was doing there. And just as the shameful reality of our sin and what it deserve leaves 'every mouth silenced' before God (Ro 3.19), so too when we are confronted with the glory of the Lamb who was slain for our salvation.

The fact the Spirit condescends to 'groan' on our behalf shows there are no simplistic explanations or answers to the anguish that lies behind our groaning. This should say something to us as Christians as we try to speak into the pain that surrounds us in our world. Sometimes it is best to just 'weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn' - but do so as those 'who share in the sufferings of Christ.'


Rev. Mark Johnston is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of Let's Study JohnLet's Study Colossians and Philemon and Let's Study 2 Peter and Jude.  You can follow him on Twitter at @revmgjohnston.

How Then Should We Preach?


However well constructed and attractive, a car is useless without fuel. On the flip side, a motor may have fuel without being a vehicle. Likewise, preaching is a vehicle that requires fuel. God designed preaching to bring us to himself through faith in Christ. If preaching does not have the right content, then it becomes more of a motor than a vehicle, since it can no longer take us where we need to go. If preaching has the right content, yet the Holy Spirit is absent from it, then it functions like a vehicle without fuel. It is only when Spirit shapes the content and blesses the act of preaching that preaching become a vehicle to bring us to God, through Christ, by the Spirit. In 1 Cor. 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul teaches these things when he writes:

"And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."

Paul teaches us in this text that preachers must preach Christ in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. This truth both informs the content of preaching and shapes the manner in which ministers ought to preach. We learn several vital lessons here about what preaching is not, about what it is, and about the proper manner of preaching.

Preaching must not be based on worldly speech or worldly wisdom. Paul contrasted excellence of speech and wisdom with preaching Christ and him crucified. The gospel message results in a paradox. While its message is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18), it is the wisdom and the power of God to those who believe (v. 24). People cannot know God through worldly wisdom (v. 21) because when they profess to be wise apart from the true knowledge of the true God then they become fools (Rom. 1:22). This is why God chose the "foolishness" of preaching to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). Paul's point is not that Christ is foolish. Neither is he implying that preachers should not take care to preach well or that sermons should be plain and boring. We eat food because we need food to nourish our bodies, but we also thank the Lord when food tastes good. So we should not be satisfied with boring dispassionate sermons that, technically, keep our souls alive while leaving a bad taste in our mouths. If the food we serve is good food, then we should enjoy it and help others enjoy it too. Instead, Paul is saying that preaching avoids worldly content and worldly methods because its content is the wisdom of God in Christ and its methods aims to preach the wisdom of God clearly. Though the world regards this as foolishness it is divine wisdom for salvation. Poison cooked well is poison still, but a good chef knows how to bring out the best flavors in the best foods. Likewise, God's wisdom in Christ informs the content and the manner of preaching.

Preaching must have Christ as its primary object. As the last two posts illustrated, 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 and Romans 10:14-17 teach that Christ pleads with sinners through preaching and preaching aims to produce and foster faith in Christ. This is why in 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul wrote that he intended to preach nothing other than Christ and him crucified. The aim of preaching is to preach the gospel and Christ is the substance of the gospel. God made Christ wisdom from God, and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption so that he who boasts should boast in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:30-31). "Christ crucified" is shorthand for Christ's work on our behalf. The Book of Acts frequently summarized the gospel in terms of Christ's resurrection as well (e.g., Acts 17:31). Christ's humiliation culminated in his death. His resurrection encapsulates his glorious exaltation. Preaching must proclaim "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), but it can do so only through the lens of Christ crucified and risen. Preaching Christ is both part of the definition of preaching and it determines the manner of preaching. Preaching is from Christ, through Christ, and to Christ because preaching is the primary means through which the Father brings us to himself through his Word and Spirit.

Preaching must be in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:5). The Spirit's power in preaching is connected to the content of preaching. Preaching must proclaim God's Word rather than man's word. Preachers must proclaim the wisdom of God which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor entered into the heart of man (1 Cor. 2:6-9). These are not the hidden things of the future, but the revealed things of the present (v. 10, 13). The Spirit reveals God through Christ through divine revelation. Yet preaching in the Spirit's power involves not only proclaiming the Spirit's revelation of God in Christ. Ministers need the Spirit to work to change hearers through conversion, growth, and perseverance. They need the Spirit to enflame their own hearts with love to the Christ whom they preach as well. Through receiving the Spirit of God, believers receive spiritual things, with spiritual discernment, for the spiritual knowledge of Christ (1 Cor. 2:12-16). Preaching in demonstration of the Spirit and of power is tied inextricably to preaching Christ and him crucified. The Spirit blesses preaching Christ in order to make the hearts of believers echo what he has revealed about Christ.

This passage leads to several important conclusions about preaching. We need the Holy Spirit in order to make preaching effective. We should pray for the Spirit's blessing on the preaching and the hearing of the gospel. Preachers must cull from their sermons everything that does not pertain to the Spirit's power in preaching. Rhetoric in preaching is a means of making preaching an effective vehicle of communicating the gospel clearly in order to bring us to God. It is not an end in itself. We must filter all sermons through the goal of preaching Christ and him crucified. Preachers must preach the whole counsel of God in relation to Christ. Preaching must be done in demonstration of the Spirit and of power and preaching Christ and him crucified is the means through which the Spirit exercises his power.

"In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit." Ephesians 1:13

This weekend, November 13 and 14, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Grace Bible Fellowship Church, Quakertown are partnering on the 2015 Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology, The Promised Holy Spirit. it is our great privilege and honor to have as our speakers, Drs. David Murray, Harry Reeder, Derek Thomas, and Scott Oliphint.

If you are not able to attend in person head over to AllianceLive and watch the entire conference for free, live, as it's happening.

Conference Schedule
Friday, November 13, 2015
7:00 p.m. Springs of Living Water, Derek Thomas
8:15 p.m. The Holy Spirit and New Creation, Harry Reeder

Saturday, November 14, 2015
9:00 a.m. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, David Murray
10:15 a.m. The Holy Spirit and the 'Last Days', Derek Thomas
1:00 p.m. Workshop
2:45 p.m. The Guarantee of Our Inheritance, Harry Reeder

Register for the free webcast now. 

The Alliance is committed to Sound Doctrine, Boldly Preached from a Reformed perspective. Alliance members partner in many regional conferences. Join the Alliance in your area. Download our Event Strategy and Methods white paper to find out more information on hosting an event in your area.

Have you ever wondered what happened on Pentecost? What are the implications of what took place on Pentecost for the church today? What expectations ought Christians to have for the work of the Holy Spirit in their own lives and the lives of others? Christians today continue to be divided, sometimes deeply, over the answers to these questions. 

In May the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals held its annual B.B. Warfield Memorial Lecture Series in Oklahoma City, OK. Richard Gaffin, professor emeritus of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, spoke on Pentecost and the Work of the Spirit Today. For those of you that weren't able to join us we have the audio available. This set is a great gift or study aid for those wanting to learn more about the Holy Spirit and His role in the Christian's life. 

The 3 messages of Pentecost and the Work of the Spirit Today include:
  • "Pentecost and the Gospel"
  • "Pentecost and the Gifts of the Spirit"
  • "Pentecost and the Intercession of the Spirit"

Purchase your set today!

Text links:

"Every precious blessing"

6 5. 6 5 (North Coates)
Every precious blessing
Comes from God above;
Everything we have is
From his heart of love.

Jesus is the best gift,
Coming down to save:
Dying for his people,
Rising from the grave.

Gracious Spirit, give us
Hearts to trust the Son,
Souls that overflow with
Praise for all he's done.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

The humility and jealousy of the Holy Spirit

I remember hearing the story: a gathering of ministers in a place that had known God's blessing in an unusual degree in time past, grieving over the present low state of things and seeking the Lord for his return. They pondered and discussed the ways and means that the Lord had given by means of which they might seek his face and obtain his blessing.

The suggestion was made that a series of meetings might be appointed, the grand topic of which would be the person and work of the Holy Spirit. This, it was felt, might be the surest way to pursue such blessings as were desired. This, it was believed, was a grand design to know and enjoy those spiritual operations which belong to him. There was at first general agreement on this point.

Then the oldest brother stood, a man who remembered what it was to have the Lord God of heaven and earth draw near, in this particular way, to his creatures in mercy and grace. He gently corrected his fellows. "What we need," he said, "is not sermons on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not pleased to bless such. What we need is sermons on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then the Spirit of Christ will come, for he delights to glorify Christ, to take of what is his and declare it to men."

In the last few weeks I somewhere read something brief about jealousy for the Holy Spirit. Now, do not misunderstand me: I do not, by any means, wish to dismiss or neglect God the Spirit. He is truly God in himself and ought to be worshipped and honoured as such. But what is his particular work? While we often speak, and rightly, of the humiliation of the Son, how much do we consider the humility of the Holy Spirit, who - himself being God and worthy of divine praise and glory - makes it his particular work not to draw attention to himself, but to throw the divine spotlight upon the being and doing of the incarnate Son, through whom alone we know the Father and enjoy the blessings of the Spirit? The Spirit keeps himself largely out of sight, his work intended to bring what God has accomplished in Christ Jesus into brightest and sharpest relief, for the blessing of sinners. So all our blessings are Spiritual blessings. There is no salvation apart from his operations. By him Christ accomplished his work. The application of that saving work is carried out by the Holy Ghost. Christ cannot be truly apprehended without him. Without the Spirit, who is God, we cannot know God in Christ, and we should and must honour and enjoy communion with God the Spirit accordingly.

However, when we begin to use the language of jealousy for the Holy Spirit, it may be better to remember the jealousy of the Holy Spirit. We honour the Spirit by declaring the Son. Christ was not operating apart from or against the Spirit when he cried out, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself" (Jn 12.32). When we in our turn exalt the Son as the one who was crucified, we most honour and cooperate with the Spirit whom he sent.

Fire in the dry sticks

It is usually after I have thought through or more formally prepared the introduction to a sermon that I again sit back and remember to pray. I do not mean that I should not or do not pray until that point (at least in theory), but it is often then that I am forced to consider my desperate need of God's help.

Will anyone still be listening? I hope I will have the ears and hearts of the people to whom I speak at this point, but will my words - designed to catch their attention and arrest their often-troubled and easily-distracted minds - have any effect, or will those troubles and distractions already have won the battle?

I am about to plunge into the substance of the sermon, the careful explanation and pointed application of God's holy truth, but will it have any effect? Even if people are still listening, will these words penetrate into the depths of the soul? There are men and women and children in front of me who are walking in darkness, and who need to see the light of the gospel of Christ. There are those who are downcast who need to be lifted up, those who are weary who need to be strengthened, those who are careless who need to be warned, those who are proud who need to be humbled, those who are presumptuous who need to be checked, those who are ignorant who need to be instructed, those who are hungry who need to be fed, those who are lazy who need to be stirred, those who are wandering who need to be drawn back. So many needs, such feeble words. Will these words, this sermon, have any lasting impact on the people who will be in front of me on the Lord's day, morning and evening?

So there I am, on the cusp of the thing, teetering between those words which are intended to open the door to people's arrested understanding and those words which are intended to carry truth through the door. Are they still hearing? Will they from this point hear - really hear?

And therefore I sit back and remember to pray, because neither what I have prepared nor what I am about to prepare will accomplish anything without the present, powerful influence of the Holy Spirit. Apart from his operations upon my heart and the hearts of those who will gather, there is a sense in which all will be wasted. It is the abiding Word of God that I will teach; the Spirit does not make it the Word of God in the act of its being preached and received. But if that Word is to reach its intended target it must be carried in on the wings of the divine Paraclete. If it is to accomplish its intended ends, then it must be applied - driven home and made effective - not just naturally by the labouring carer for souls but supernaturally by the all-powerful Spirit of God.

We cannot afford to go through the motions when we preach. We must reach the point at which we look at the words on the page or the screen, or review the things that are stirring in our minds and hearts, consider whatever notes that we have made to enable us to communicate the truth as it is in Jesus, and acknowledge that they will be as dry as a stick without heavenly influence. And that should drive us to our knees before God crying out to make his words effective in the hearts and lives of men, to do that thing which beggars human expectation and to make his word to prosper in the thing for which he sent it (Is 55.11), to bring the holy hammer of truth down with divine might on the stones of human hearts (Jer 23.29), and to glorify his name in salvation in its most complete sense.

And so we should gather up those dry sticks of our intended discourse, and pile them before God, and ask for fire from heaven.

Part 2 of The Holy Spirit and the Preacher of God

Check out the second installment of Pastor Ventura's article at reformation21!

The Christian calendar practiced by most evangelicals today is extremely illuminating.  What it shows is our generally weak appreciation for the fullness of Christ's saving work.  Two big holidays occupy our minds completely: Christmas and Easter.  So we focus on the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord.  So far as it goes, that is perfectly wholesome.  But what a huge event Pentecost is in the life of the Christian church (not to mention the Ascension)!  There can be little doubt that while most of our churches faithfully observe Mother's Day thsi coming Lord's Day, most will completely ignore our Lord's great redemptive-historical gift of the outpoured Holy Spirit.