His Person and Work
There is a branch of Protestant Christianity that you probably are aware of that identifies itself primarily with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. They choose to call themselves “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” because they either desire to emphasize the importance of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (believing also that this is a reoccurring event even to the present day) or because they desire to emphasize the importance of the ongoing gifting (charismata) of the Holy Spirit (especially concerning the extraordinary gifts of speaking in strange tongues and miracles). Furthermore, many times when they are speaking to a member of different Protestant churches, they will bring up the importance of this emphasis and express their concern that other churches fail to focus on the person and especially on the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. The author has met some who even go so far as to say that unless you have experienced the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in your life (signified by speaking in strange tongues), you are not saved. How would you answer this claim or their critique concerning this lack of emphasis in the life and teaching of most Protestant churches including the Reformed Church?
A number of responses come to mind. One could respond by critiquing the doctrine and teaching of those churches. Instead I would like us to consider one of the most concise and powerful positive responses that can be found in the universal church. It is simply the statement found in the Apostles Creed, namely “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. Although Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant churches all profess this belief, I would like to concentrate on how we as Biblical Christians (B. B. Warfield referred to Reformed theology as simply Biblical Christianity come unto its own) understand what we are confessing in this affirmation. To make it more interesting, I would like to ask you a personal question, “What do you understand and believe when you publically confess with God’s people that “I believe in the Holy Spirit”?
Hopefully, as you were formulating your answer, you thought of the succinct statement found in question #53 in the Heidelberg Catechism. In answer to the question “What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost?” we read “First, that He is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Secondly, that He is also given unto me; makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all His benefits; comforts me; and shall abide with me forever.” Although this answer emphasizes two points, first concerning the person of the Holy Spirit and secondly concerning His work, it is important to note that imbedded in the second point is the marvelous truth that the Holy Spirit is personally involved with each and every believer. Don’t you find great comfort and encouragement knowing that He “has been given to me”, “makes me a partaker of Christ and all His benefits”, “comforts me”, and “shall abide with me forever”? Or maybe you thought of Heidelberg Catechism question #1 where in addition to the comfort of knowing that you belong to your faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, you understand that “by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.”
What does it mean that we confess that the Holy Spirit “is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son” Again we could turn to another of the confessions of our church, namely the Belgic Confession in order to discover a fuller explanation. For example, in Article 11 titled The Holy Spirit is True and Eternal God we read the following; “We believe and confess also that the Holy Spirit from eternity proceeds from the Father and the Son; and therefore neither is made, created, nor begotten, but only proceeds from both; who in order is the third person of the Holy Trinity; of one and the same essence, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son; and therefore is the true and eternal God, as the Holy Scriptures teach us.” The Holy Spirit is not an influence nor a force but the personal God, eternal in nature, equal to the Father and the Son. He is one who can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30) and lied to (Acts 5:3-4), as well as one who teaches (John 14:26), testifies (John 15:26), reproves (John 16:8), etc.
If I were to ask you to name the teacher in the history of the church that is known as “The Theologian of the Holy Spirit”, what would be your answer? Would it surprise you to learn that it was none other than John Calvin? Why is that so? The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield justified his attributing this title to Calvin in an article titled Calvin as a Theologian. Here is an excerpt from that article.
“It is probable, however, that Calvin’s greatest contribution to theological science lies in the rich development which he gives—and which he was the first to give—to the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit. No doubt, from the origin of Christianity, everyone who has been even slightly imbued with the Christian spirit has believed in the Holy Spirit as the author and giver of life, and has attributed all that is good in the world, and particularly in himself, to His holy offices. And, of course, in treating of grace, Augustine worked out the doctrine of salvation as a subjective experience with great vividness and in great detail, and the whole course of this salvation was fully understood, no doubt, to be the work of the Holy Spirit. But in the same sense in which we may say that the doctrine of sin and grace dates from Augustine, the doctrine of satisfaction from Anselm, the doctrine of justification by faith from Luther,—we must say that the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit is a gift from Calvin to the Church. It was he who first related the whole experience of salvation specifically to the working of the Holy Spirit, worked it out into its details, and contemplated its several steps and stages in orderly progress as the product of the Holy Spirit’s specific work in applying salvation to the soul. Thus he gave systematic and adequate expression to the whole doctrine of the Holy Spirit and made it the assured possession of the Church of God.”
Warfield concludes his article with the following:
“Here then is probably Calvin’s greatest contribution to theological development. In his hands, for the first time in the history of the Church, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit comes to its rights. Into the heart of none more than into his did the vision of the glory of God shine, and no one has been more determined than he not to give the glory of God to another. Who has been more devoted than he to the Saviour, by whose blood he has been bought? But, above everything else, it is the sense of the sovereign working of salvation by the almighty power of the Holy Spirit which characterizes all Calvin’s thought of God. And above everything else he deserves, therefore, the great name of the theologian of the Holy Spirit.”
We, at Rehoboth Reformed Church, who identify John Calvin as one of our spiritual fathers and teachers, should rejoice that we have such a rich heritage of teaching concerning the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The question that could be raised at this point is did this emphasis of Calvin impact the subsequent generations of Reformed believers, even down to the present day? The answer is a definite yes! This can be demonstrated in a number of ways but we will limit our focus to a perusal of the third document of what we declare to be our doctrinal standards, namely the Canons of Dort. Though they were written over 50 years after the death of John Calvin, yet his influence and emphasis lived on in them.
Have you ever noticed that the structure of the Canons Of Dort reflect the structure of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion? Just as Calvin structured his Institutes around the three persons of the Godhead (Book 1 concerning God the Father, Book 2 concerning God the Son, and Books 3 & 4 concerning God the Holy Spirit), so also did the delegates at the Synod of Dort. The Canon’s first head of doctrine focuses on the election by God the Father, the second head focuses on the redemption by God the Son, and the next three heads upon the application of Christ’s redemption by the Holy Spirit. This was not by accident but on purpose. With this structure in mind, we will concentrate on the last three heads of doctrine.
In The Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine: The Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, And the Manner Thereof the Synod first established the greatness of our need of God’s saving intervention due to our total depravity or total inability. Then beginning in Article 6, they point us to the means by which God sovereignly intervenes to save His elect. “What, therefore, neither the innate understanding nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.” Notice that it is due to the “operation” or activity of the Holy Spirit that one is saved. Turning to Articles 11 we find their attempt to explain in detail what this “operation” entails; “But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit He pervades the inmost recesses of man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”
An excellent word that could be used to summarize this point is the word regeneration. But notice that they were not satisfied with simply labeling it, but rather were overwhelmed by the wonder of this work of grace and mercy by the Holy Spirit. Thus in Article 12 we read “And this is that regeneration so highly extolled in Scripture, that renewal, new creation, resurrection from the dead, making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the Author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe.” As the Prophet Jonah learned the hard way in the belly of the great fish – salvation is of the Lord!
The Holy Spirit is not only the active agent in the initial act of the application of saving work of Christ, but he abides with the regenerate person, continuing His work of sanctification. Furthermore it is He who ultimately perseveres on behalf of the saint. Thus we find that the Synod declared that it was important to include the ongoing presence and work of the Holy Spirit in their final head of doctrine titled The Perseverance of the Saints. It is there that we are taught that by our sins we “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Article 5) and yet God “does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls”(Article 6). On the contrary, “in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit He certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (Article 7). Furthermore we learn of “the sealing of the Holy Spirit” (Article 8), of “the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God (Article 10), and of the encouragement of the Holy Spirit who gives us “the comfortable assurance of persevering” (article 11) to give us a future and a hope. All of these aspects of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that are found in the Canons of Dort were not newly discovered by the delegates of Synod but were previously taught by John Calvin as a examination of Books 3 and 4 in his Institutes will verify.
So where does this leave the 21st century Reformed Christian when confronted with the claims of our Pentecostal or Charismatic brethren? Are we destitute of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit because we do not expect “extraordinary signs and wonders” nor speak in strange tongues? On the contrary,
- We glory in the knowledge of the powerful, sovereign work of the Spirit in His application of the finished work of Christ to our daily lives.
- We stand in awe of the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit as He is pleased to take dead men and women (Ephesians 2:1-5) and to raise them to life (regeneration) through our meager attempts at sharing the gospel (Romans 1:16).
- As we consider our own state in Adam prior to the intervention of His grace (total depravity), thanksgiving and praise arise in our hearts and flow from our lips. It is truly amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
- Furthermore, when we find ourselves struggling against the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16, Romans 7:14-24), we know that we not alone but that the Spirit of holiness abides with us and enables us to walk in the Spirit and not to fulfill the lust of the flesh (Gal, 5:16; Romans 8:9-16).
- Again, we are not left alone to try and figure out how to conduct our life in this world but have been given an abiding Comforter (John 14:16), even the Spirit of truth (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13), whom Christ said “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (John 14:26).
- And finally, as the Apostle Paul so marvelously declared, it is by the Spirit of the Lord that “we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Therefore “being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6), let us rejoice and give glory to God and confess to all who will listen that we “believe in the Holy Spirit.” Amen.
Rev. Michael Voytek
Rehoboth Reformed Church
La Habra, California