The Work Of The Spirit
Adapted from a Sermon by John Angell James
That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him. Ephesians 1:17
Our subject this morning is the work of the Holy Spirit, adapted from a sermon by John Angell James: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit's work in the regeneration and sanctification of the human soul.
Man, by his fall, brought a twofold evil of a most dreadful nature upon himself, guilt upon his conscience, and depravity into his heart. What, therefore, he needs for his salvation, is pardon and sanctification. To obtain for him the former, his pardon, is the purpose of the mediation of Christ; while to produce the latter, his sanctification, is the design of the work of the Spirit—and it is very important to accurately distinguish between the work of Christ for us, and the work of the Spirit in us.
What good would it be to us that the Father loved us, and contrived a plan for our redemption, or that the Son loved us, and executed that scheme, if no provision were made to apply the whole, as a system of restoration, to our depraved hearts?
Man is blind in his judgment, and neither understands his need of salvation, nor the nature of the plan by which he is to obtain it; he is obstinately set against all that is spiritual and holy, and full of hostility against God and his ways; and so there is the need of something more than a plan of reconciliation—What is needed is a power to fix his attention, to enlighten his mind, to subdue his aversion, to make him willing to accept the offer of mercy, and amid all the temptations by which he is surrounded, to hold him to the way of truth. This influence, this operation, is provided in the office and work of the Holy Spirit.
The atonement of Christ having been accepted of God, and a way of communion, which honors God’s Divine character and government, having been opened in this way—the Spirit is poured out on man, as one of the most blessed fruits of the mediation of the Savior. This rich gift of celestial mercy is granted to our world entirely for the sake of our Lord's glorious sacrifice, and is therefore so much honor done to Christ.
The whole work of the Spirit, in the age of the Christian Church, includes his extraordinary and miraculous gifts, granted and confined to the first age of Christianity for the confirmation of the truth, and his ordinary renewing and sanctifying influence, continued through all ages, for the application of the truth, in the regeneration and sanctification of believers; and in reading the New Testament, we must always keep this in mind, and always ask whether the sacred writer is speaking of miraculous gifts or those which are to be expected throughout the Church age.
In explaining the ordinary and continued work of the Spirit, we will briefly look at, first, what the Spirit's work does not imply.
It does not, then, suppose, nor is it intended to make up for any deficiency in the atonement of Christ, since it is altogether for a different purpose. Nor does it suppose, nor is it intended to make up for any deficiency in the word of God, for the word is as complete and sufficient as an instrument can be. Nor does it suppose any weakness, inappropriateness, or lack of suitableness in the ministry of the word, for the preaching of the cross is the power of God to salvation for those who believe.
But it does imply, that the mind of man is so blind, his heart so worldly and wicked, that notwithstanding the boundless love of God, the perfection of Christ's atonement, the clearness of the word of truth, and the power of the Christian ministry—he will not repent, believe, and obey—without the power of the Spirit operating upon his mind!
Consider next, in what the Spirit's work really consists.
Not in imparting new natural faculties—but in rightly directing the exercises of those we already possess, not in bringing about any mechanical change in the physical essence of the soul—but in producing a moral change in its disposition, not in bestowing upon us natural power—but that which is moral. Teachers of the word have distinguished between natural and moral inability, and the distinction is real, and exists in the very nature of things. Natural inability is that which a man has no power to do if he would; such, for instance, as in a blind man, with respect to vision, he cannot see if he would. Moral inability is that which a man would not do if he could, or which he has no inclination or disposition to do; such, for instance, as a man has, who hates a person he ought to love; he will not love him. Everybody perceives that there is a difference between these two kinds of inability.
Now the Spirit's work is not to give natural power—but moral; or, in other words, to impart will, inclination, disposition. If men had no natural ability, they could not be guilty and responsible; but, having natural, though not moral power, they are both guilty and responsible, for not repenting of sin, believing in Christ, and loving God.
A physically disabled person may have no natural power to go and hear a sermon, and is not blameworthy for not going, for he has no natural power; but if anyone comes and preaches to him in his house, he is guilty, and will be condemned, if he does not repent and believe. Yet it is certain he will not repent and believe, unless the Spirit, who opened the heart of Lydia, disposes and enables him to do so. Nothing, however, prevents him from believing—but the depravity of his heart; nothing but what makes him guilty; nothing but that for which he is accountable to God—but still which the Spirit alone can remove.
We now have as clear a view as can be presented, in this short overview, of the work of the Spirit—it is a Divine power operating upon the mind, giving it clear and impressive views of the truth, taking away from the heart its natural aversion to the truth, and substituting love to the truth in its place, and inclining the will to embrace it.
The instrument employed by the Spirit in this great change, is the Holy Scripture, the word of truth. James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:22, 23. There is much that is mysterious in this subject, as our Lord shows Nicodemus in John 3:8. But amid all this mystery we see much that is plain and intelligible. The truth reveals to the mind the objects to be loved and obeyed; the Spirit disposes the heart to embrace them. It is neither the Spirit without the truth, nor the truth without the Spirit—but the Spirit by the instrumentality of the truth, and the truth in the hands of the Spirit. It is not the Spirit in the word merely—but the Spirit with the word. Without the word there would be nothing to love; without the Spirit there would be no love. The word is the light which reveals the objects of spiritual affection; the Spirit gives the affection towards these objects. The Spirit's operating upon the heart, apart from the word, would be only to give an inclination, a disposition without an object as its end and purpose.
This view of the subject clears it of all difficulty and objection, on the ground of irrationality and false zeal, as if it meant the setting up of another rule, standard, and light within, and meant spontaneous blind impulses, without any appropriate object to produce them, or any fixed rule to guide them. It treats us as rational creatures, and yet as sinful and wilfully blind ones. It does not extinguish our reason—but sanctifies and guides it. It calls us to exercise our faculties on their appropriate spiritual objects, as presented by revelation, and gives us Divine aid in so doing. It teaches us to unite diligence and dependence. It keeps us from the pride of self-sufficiency on the one hand, and from the despondency of unaided helplessness on the other. It preserves us from wild false zeal, and equally so from dead formalism. In short, it directs to the rule we are to go by, and gives us the strength we need to follow it.
After all, we have to realize, that much remains beyond our power to understand or explain. Can this be surprising? How imperfectly do we understand what a finite spirit is, and how much less do we understand the Infinite Spirit? How, then, will we be able to completely understand the influence of the Divine Mind upon the human? The fact is evident, however mysterious is the mode. If a man is a fallen creature, and totally corrupt, how can he renew himself? Can darkness produce light? Corruption, purity? Evil, good? If holiness comes into our nature, it must come from outside. To suppose that a heart totally depraved will reform itself, is not only to suppose an effect without a cause—but contrary to a cause. No! All evil is from ourselves—and all good is from God.
Search the Scriptures, and see how every part and exercise of true religion is ascribed to the Spirit of God.
- Illumination: “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,” (Eph 1:17-18)
- Regeneration: “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6)
- Sanctification: The apostle Peter writes to those who are elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit.” (1 Pet. 1:2)
- Consolation: The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria is said have grown, “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:31)
- Help in all the weaknesses of the Christian life: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” (Rom. 8:26)
- Teaching in prayer: “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8:26)
- Habitual guidance: Paul says to the Romans that “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Rom. 8:14.
- Witnessing to our adoption: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Rom. 8:16)
- Sealing to the day of redemption; “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Eph. 5:30)
- Constancy in our walking; “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Gal. 5:25)
-and finally the production of all Christian virtues: All the fruit of the spirit that we read of in Galatians 5:22.
All these exercises of true religion are attributed to the Holy Spirit in the word of God.
Is there a grace which is not formed in us by the Spirit? Is there a duty we perform, without being directed to seek his help to fulfill it? Are we not said to live in the Spirit, to have no spiritual existence, no actual being, apart from his gracious influence? He dwells in us, and we in him, so that all the energies we exert, all the vital acts we perform, all the spiritual powers we put forth—are the result of his working in us.
Such, then, is the work of the Spirit, and it is, moreover, vitally important to remember that his work is carried on by a direct process on individual minds. It is not a power coming down upon a collective mass, which relates only to the mass—but not to its individual and component parts. We can form no idea of the Spirit's work—but as a direct work upon individual minds. The church is regenerated, sanctified, comforted, and preserved—only by the calling, sanctification, and consolation of its individual members.
This influence of the Spirit comes upon the mind of man, through the channel of the truth, however that truth must be presented to the mind.
And here it ought to be noted that it is one of the great objects of the Roman Catholic teaching in particular to destroy as much as possible the Christian's personal relationship with Jesus. That presumptuous and dreadful system has raised up and thrust something between man and his God. It will not allow the fruits of the Savior's mediation, or the influence of the Spirit to come to the soul—but through this additional medium, the church. It claims for its priests the power of bestowing the Spirit in baptism and in its other sacraments. How grievous are its pretensions! How awfully presumptuous and arrogant its claims!
God declares that it is by the truth, the work of sanctification is carried on. Wherever the truth is understood and believed, there is the work of his Spirit; no matter whether the truth be read or heard; meditated upon in private, or listened to in church; presented in sermons, or in sacraments; by laymen or by ministers—God's Spirit accompanies his own truth, goes with it into barns or into cathedrals; into the pulpits of learned doctors, or of unlettered missionaries.
But this is denied practically by many—they want to confine the communication of the Spirit to the ministrations of a certain class of 'ordained men', and even to a certain kind of their ministrations; they would hold back the atonement—and put forward the sacraments; extinguish, or at any rate obscure, the truth—and light up candles; veil the cross—and uncover the crucifix. They would have no other conduits connected with the fountain of grace—but their official hands. They would make the whole work of regeneration and sanctification a matter of priestly order, and clerical administration. They would shut up the Spirit within their ranks, and claim to be the sole dispensers of Divine grace.
The plain and simple truth that God will pour out his Spirit upon every one who devoutly prays for him, and seeks him in reading the word, and hearing sermons, and striving against sin, and longing to be holy—but this truth is mystified, obscured, and lost amid ambitious talk about sacramental grace and apostolic succession, and other like matters.
Do not deceived; God's Spirit is not confined or communicated in this way. The Holy Spirit comes down on every renewed and believing soul directly from God. The Holy Spirit is not given by the Catholic church, or at the church's disposal, nor conveyed through any church.
It is true that many means are to be enjoyed in the fellowship of Christ's true churches, upon which God’s blessing may descend—but the work of the Spirit neither begins in the church, nor by the church, nor is confined to it; nor does its communication depend upon the offices of the church's ministers. The Holy Spirit is a Divine gift to the soul directly from God, the fountain of life. The Holy Spirit is a separate gift upon each individual; and every holy soul, in its own individuality, is taken separately under the patronage, and guidance, and fostering care of the Divine Comforter.
The oversight of the Christian pastor, the ministrations of the church, and the vivifying power of sacraments and ordinances, may be blessed, and are much blessed, by the Holy Spirit, for carrying on the work of grace in the soul; but these are not the only means that are blessed by the Spirit, for there is reading, and prayer, and watching, and striving at home in the house; on all of which the Holy Spirit pours his gracious energy, for he has established with every soul that is united by faith to Christ, a direct channel of communication, which is independent of priestly order and ministerial mediation. The work of grace in the soul is God's own work, and not man's; though to a certain extent he makes use of human instruments of various kinds.
And here, James quotes a passage of great beauty, from a writer of the seventeenth century on the work of the Spirit in regeneration and sanctification.
"This which it is our duty to seek, is our dignity to possess. It is the glory of a Christian man, that he has a higher Spirit than his own, no less than the Holy Spirit of God, in him. The Holy Spirit accommodates grace to every faculty, as the dew is white in the lily, and red in the rose, so the Holy Spirit in his graces, is light to the mind, liberty in the will, order in the affections. Also the Holy Spirit accommodates suitable influences to every grace—he gives such sweet touches upon their holy love, fear, meekness, patience, as makes them go forth into action in a free spontaneous manner. He acts so powerfully, as if there were no room left for human liberty, and yet so naturally, as if there were no power at all in it. Further, the Holy Spirit accommodates himself to them at every turn; he is a Spirit of grace in their penitential meltings; a Spirit of supplication in their ardent devotions; a Spirit of revelation in their biblical studies; a Spirit of love in their charities; a Spirit of power in their infirmities; a Spirit of fear in their holy walkings; a Spirit of meekness in their attitudes towards others; a Spirit of comfort in their afflictions; a Spirit of glory in their reproaches; a Spirit of holiness in all their living. The Holy Spirit lives, breathes, moves, and aptly operates in them. Hence in all their good actions they are lifted up above themselves, and carried beyond the line of a mere human spirit; they walk in a Divine circle from God, as the first cause, to God as the last end; they center on nothing less than God himself; and take no aim lower than his glory. This is an excellent privilege indeed, they are actuated by the Holy Spirit, and walk as Christ walked; they, as mystical parts of him, tread in his Divine steps—no flesh on earth but that which is spiritually joined to him, does so—all others are off from the great center; their best works putrefy; one inferior end or other, like a worm at the root, makes them moulder into nothing; not being terminated in God, they are not accepted as done to him." (Polhill)
And a few words of caution concerning this important doctrine of the Holy Spirit may be very helpful.
1. First, do not be confounded by your inability to understand how the Spirit acts upon your mind. Modes of operation are often inscrutable, where facts are obvious and indisputable. Our Lord admits the mysteriousness of this truth, in his conversation with Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes…” (John 3:8)
2. Next, do not attempt to discriminate at the time, between the influence that comes from above, and the operation of your own faculties, or of the word of God. There is nothing violent, nothing palpable, nothing ascertainable, either by the evidence of the senses or of consciousness, at least, necessarily so, in this power, except as to its effects. The workings of Divine influence are so gentle, so harmonious with all the working of our own mental faculties, as to insinuate themselves unperceived, at any rate in any other way than by their fruits, by the mind that is the subject of them. We may have good reason to believe we are worked upon, without being able to discriminate between the Spirit's grace to us—and our own mental acts.
3. Also, do not test the reality of the Spirit's work so much by the strength of emotion, as by the sanctity of affection and principle. The Spirit's work is not usually characterized by raptures or terrors. He does not usually speak in the storm or earthquake—but in the still small voice.
4. Again, while acknowledging the sovereignty of this Divine gift, do not confound sovereignty with what is capricious and arbitrary. God gives the Spirit to whom he will—but he wills to give him to all who seek him. The Spirit's influence is distinct from means—but not separate from them.And you should not expect the Spirit but in connection with means. When God first gives the Spirit, he is often found by those who have not sought him—but every following increase must be obtained by believing prayer, watchfulness, diligence, and waiting.
5. Beware of slighting and grieving the Holy Spirit by neglecting his gracious motions, and by the indulgence of sinful affections.
6. Do not be satisfied with small and ordinary measures of Divine influence. God gives more grace. Any measure is attainable, if we have faith to seek and to receive it. "Open your mouth wide," says God, "and I will fill it." (Ps 81:10) ‘We are not restricted in him—but in our own affections.’ (2 Cor 6:12)
7. We are not to wait, in matters of duty, until we feel ourselves aware of the influence of the Spirit—but to enter in obedience, expecting his gracious aid—we are not so much to wait for, as to wait upon the Spirit.
8. Also, beware of making the experience of others, rather than the word of God, a criterion to judge of the work of the Spirit in yourselves.
9. And finally, in judging of the Spirit's incitement to duty, do not trust to the impulses of your own mind, however strong, without testing them by the word; the most frenzied enthusiasm, and the most mischievous fanaticism, have resulted from a neglect of this caution. All the Spirit's work in the heart is in accordance with his own rules in the word. He cannot contradict himself.
And now with a few directions we will close.
Believe, feel, and practically acknowledge, your need of Divine influence. Let there be an continual, humbling, influential sense of your utter moral inability, of childlike weakness, and dependence.
Let there be habitual, earnest, believing, wrestling prayer for the Spirit, Matt. 7:7-11. Pray sincerely, really desiring to make whatever sacrifices, self-denial, mortification, his coming will bring.
Depend on the Spirit. Do everything in simple childlike reliance on his aid. Never venture out of his sight, nor take a step without laying hold of his hand by faith. Read, hear, pray, watch, struggle—in the Spirit. Yield yourselves up into the care, protection, and guidance of this Divine Agent.
Expect the Spirit in faith. He is promised. You live under a dispensation of abounding communicated grace. Look for the heavenly blessing in its season.
Seek often sanctifying grace, for all those precious fruits which form the Christian character, adorn our behavior, and bless our species, and which the apostle enumerates in Galatians chapter 5, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (Gal 5:22-23)
Obtain and preserve the Spirit's witness to your adoption. Seek after this heart-warming testimony to your Divine sonship, "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God." (Rom 8:16) Happy assurance and blessed confidence!
Dwell on this glorious and delightful doctrine of the Spirit's work in believers. Yield yourselves up into his hands to become his finished and exquisite workmanship. Implore him to add another and another stroke and touch, in producing the image of God in your souls. Implore him who formed Christ in the womb of the virgin by a supernatural overshadowing, to form him in your heart, that you may be a miniature picture of him who is the brightness of his Father's glory. Seek his blessed power to inspire obedience into you, that holiness may become, in this sense, natural to you, and all your duties be carried out in the easy, healthful, and graceful walk of the new creature; that you may feel no confinement or constraint in the service of God—but walk, run, even fly onward towards eternal happiness in the fullness and liberty of your Divine life.
Since it is by the means of the word of truth, that the Spirit carries on his work of grace in the soul—be diligent in the devout reading of the Scriptures. It is when the mind’s eye is fixed on the contemplation on the objects of revelation, that the Comforter comes down into the heart. The word of God is the sword of the Spirit by which he puts our corruptions to death, and the fire by which he purifies our souls. When we commune with God in his own book, light is poured out through our minds, sanctification through our heart, and comfort spreads over our whole soul. The Divine Author loves his production, and delights to bless those who study it. The Spirit-like dove is ever hovering over these precious leaves, to reveal himself to the humble and contrite student from their contents. No wonder we have little of the Spirit when we do not seek him in the word.
Diligently follow up and seek to grow from all the gentle enticements and persuasions of this Divine Sanctifier. When your mind is under his gracious impulse, stretch every sail, launch out into the depths of the perfections of God and his promises, and take in as much as possible of the fullness of God.
Be quick to discern the times when he visits you, and skilful to profit from all his various operations. Be deeply humbled that with such a Teacher you have learned so little, with such a Sanctifier you are no holier, and with such a Comforter no happier. Seek a livelier faith, a closer union with Christ, that you may have more of that influence which is ever flowing from the Head into all the members.
Look to him, that by his effective and rich blessings you may be enlightened when dark, made alive when dead, drawn when reluctant, strengthened when weak, sustained when falling, enlarged when in difficulties, comforted when sad. May this Divine Spirit be in us as a well of water springing up into everlasting life. If Israel could so joyfully sing to an earthly fountain, "Spring up, O well," (Num 21:17) how should Christians rejoice in the fountain of grace, and say, "Flow out, O infinite well, let your streams make us glad forever and ever!"