The work of the Holy Spirit is an absolute necessity in the plan of salvation. Without this work no one can be saved. This is the unmistakable teaching of God’s Word.
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29. The Holy Spirit’s Work
No man can say that Jesus is the Lord; but by the Holy Ghost. 1 Cor. 12:3.
When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth. — St. John 16:13.
Even those people who never heard of God’s inspired Revelation of Himself believe in a supreme, overruling Being. Only the fool says in his heart, there is no God. And some of these heathen people called their god, the Great Spirit. Hereby indicating something of their conception of the nature and the character of the operations, of their god. We Christians believe that there is a God one of the persons of which Being is properly called the Holy Spirit. We believe that He is the third person of the holy Trinity, that He is co-equal with the Father and the Son in all that makes each of these persons God. We believe also that the Holy Spirit is an equal partner in all the great and multiplied activities whereby the universe was produced, and is controlled. We further believe that the Holy Spirit, as is the case with the other members of the family of the Deity, has a particular work to perform, especially with respect to the carrying out of the plan whereby the children of men are to be saved.
In our introductory sermon on the third Article, we considered the person of the Holy Spirit, and, in a general way, His work. There is much more which an intelligent confession of this part of our Creed should embrace than it was possible to set forth in that one address. Especially does this apply to the work of the Holy Spirit. Today, then, we will continue this line of thought. We will take as our subject,
The Holy Spirit’s Work
The necessity of this work, and the steps in its progress are the points under which our thoughts will be grouped.
1. An Absolute Necessity
The work of the Holy Spirit is an absolute necessity in the plan of salvation. Without this work no one can be saved. This is the unmistakable teaching of God’s Word.
In what way can we speak of an absolute necessity of the Spirit’s work? Is there an implication in this statement to the effect that Christ’s work for our salvation is in any way lacking? that in extent, or efficacy, it needs to be supplemented? Not in the least. Jesus is the world’s only Saviour. Never has there been, never will there be another. And His work for man’s salvation was complete. Not a jot or tittle needs to be added to what He has done in order to make it effective. Throughout all ages Jesus stands at the portal of that narrow way which leads to heaven, and says: “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” He has made complete satisfaction for our sins. He has prepared for us a perfect righteousness. The dying thief on the cross, who in penitence and faith, clung to Christ in his extremity, received that which not only healed the wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores of his moral and spiritual life; but gave him that adornment of the inner life without which no one can stand approved before the throne of God. That which was all-sufficient for the poor malefactor will be efficacious for every one. Nothing more is needed. Nothing less will do.
But that there is only one way of coming into possession of Christ, and all that He has wrought for our salvation, is also clearly revealed. It is alone by faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). Everywhere throughout the Gospel reverberates the cry, “repent and believe the Gospel.” Everywhere, in one or another form, stands written the promise: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). And to preclude all thought of the worth of anything we can do, so far as meriting salvation is concerned, as well as the thought of the possible existence of some other method of appropriating the benefits of Christ, it is written: “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
If Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of mankind; if what He has done, without any possible addition from any possible source, is sufficient for man’s salvation; if all that is needed for the appropriation of Christ, and all His blessings, is simply to take it by faith; then the question may recur, with renewed intensity, — what necessity can there be in the plan of salvation for the presence and work of the Holy Spirit? Just a little patient study of God’s holy Word, just a little observation with grace enlightened eyes, will suffice to make this point clear. Salvation full and free has been prepared by Christ, is found in Him, and received with Him. The only hand which can take the gift is faith. But faith is not a natural or inherent gift or possession of man. The capacity for faith is in every human soul, but it is not self-generated or developed, as are the faculties of the mind. Faith is not a natural attribute of the present inner-life, lying dormant, to be awakened by the proper environment, as are the emotions of anger and human love. It is not an acquisition to be purchased at any price. Faith is not plucked by a little human exertion, as a flower, from the garden of the heavenly graces. The natural man is blind, deaf and dumb to spiritual things, and this includes faith. Faith is not only the means whereby man passes through the portal into the kingdom of grace, faith is itself a gift of grace. In man’s original state of integrity he unquestionably lived in the sphere of faith, his whole life was a life of faith, of receptive dependence on God; but when sin came faith died. And man has now no power of begetting it again. We are now dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). This is the reason we confess, as the Third Article teaches us, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, or come to Him.” This is not a flattering confession. Many do not like to make it. Some will not make it. But it is the truth of all Scripture, and of enlightened experience as well.
Corroboration of the truth of this condition we find everywhere, on the pages of all history, sacred as well as secular. Everywhere, in past and present times, the world has been full of people eagerly alive to the opportunities which the world affords, pleasure and gain; but averse, wholly dead, to the things of God. Among these people we find those of great native gifts, capable of worthy achievement; but in their lives no evidence of the operation of the Divine. Even Christian people, or those professedly so, give abundant evidence of the natural incapacity of the unaided human heart for the things of the Spirit. In spite of all that God the Holy Spirit has done for them, and is still striving to do in them, how weak, often, is our faith, how lethargic is our spiritual life; how slothful we are in doing the Spirit’s work. Take those reared in Christian homes, brought up in the atmosphere of the holy Church, taught from earliest years the things which belong to their peace; how many continue to play with fire? and to walk on the ragged edge of the precipice where lurk the deadly perils? How difficult it is to win them to the paths which are sane and safe. Even among the really sober minded, who have caught visions of the light of heavenly truth, who have heartily chosen the better part, how great the still inherent weakness, how frequent the failures. Everything everywhere in human life substantiates the Scripture teaching that man is by nature spiritually dead, that a new life must be begotten in him. This is the reason Jesus says: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, born of the water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God (St. John 3:3, 5). This is the reason Jesus says, through the Apostle, “No man can say, say believingly, with an appropriating faith, “that Jesus is the Lord, but by the holy Ghost.” The perfect salvation in Christ Jesus awaits us, but the organ of appropriation is wanting. It must be created, begotten, by God. And this work He does in the person of the Holy Spirit. In this sense we speak of the absolute necessity of the Spirit’s work to our salvation.
What would it profit a helplessly paralyzed man if there was a mountain of purest gold only three feet from him, if the condition was that he had personally to appropriate it, and carry it away. No doubt there are incalculable treasures of gold hidden in the recesses of the earth. What good does it do us while we are ignorant of its existence? What good does the heaven and earth filling riches of Christ do those who are ignorant of His true value, or dead to all power of appropriation? To give us the eyes to see, the heart to appreciate, and the hand of faith to grasp the riches in Christ Jesus, this is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself tells us that it was largely His mission, on going back to heaven, to send the Holy Spirit to teach us all things, to lead us into all truth; that is, of course, all truth needful for our salvation. And with the Holy Spirit’s teaching there comes the power to accept what is taught. No one, without the help of the Holy Spirit, can say that Jesus is the Christ; but with his help all can say it, and He wants to help every one to say it.
2. The Steps Involved
The steps in the progress of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing men into sonship and heirship in the Kingdom of God is the next point to which we will give our attention.
The first step in the process of bringing the spiritually dead to life and the aliens to membership in God’s kingdom is the proclamation of God’s desire that it should be done, and that He has made all provisions by which it may be done. And to this end He sends forth His call.
In all ages, from the time our first parents banished themselves from God’s garden, God has been having this call proclaimed. The priests and prophets of Israel were constantly delivering the message the heart of which was always God’s call. It may have come with the thunders of Sinai, but the heart of it was always the message of mercy. They ministered chiefly to the chosen people, but the message was not confined to them. There were times when it was sent directly to others. And in one way or another, it was always percolating out to the farthest confines of the races of men.
When Jesus came He was Himself the clearest call God had ever given the children of men to come to Him. In Jesus the world was privileged to see the glory of God’s grace as well as His truth. And as He went about on earth He was constantly inviting, urging men to come to Him that He might enrich them by the bestowal of His blessings. When He said, “I am the bread of life, he that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst,” it was the strongest kind of an invitation to men to come and find in Him all their souls needed. The Saviour was constantly emphasizing the fact that His call was for all, that all were welcome, were really wanted. In the parable of the wedding feast He shows how deeply grieved He is at the empty seats. He kept constantly urging his servants to renewed exertions in their efforts to find other guests. And after each new accession, the plaintive announcement went forth, “and yet there is room.” And that there might be no shadow of doubt as to the inclusiveness of His invitation, He says: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
This work of calling the children of men into God’s kingdom is still going on. The Church of God has been commissioned to continue the work. Christ’s last commission was, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.” This duty still rests on the Church, on the Church as a whole, and on each member of it. And we are not faithful to our Lord, not faithful to the Church of God, not faithful to our own profession, not faithful toward those who need our help, when we refuse, or neglect, to help discharge this duty.
Where ever the truths of God’s Word are preached there the Holy Spirit is present to make it effective. Without this nothing would be accomplished by all the preaching that could be done, for “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). “The carnal,” that is, the natural, fleshly, “mind is emnity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). In distinctively spiritual things we have no will to chose that which is good. Where the Spirit of the Lord operates there alone comes liberty, the power of spiritual choice (2 Cor. 3:17), — for, as we have seen, no one can say, believingly that Jesus is the Christ but by the Holy Ghost.
The Gospel call, though always accompanied by the Holy Spirit with all His converting power, is not irresistible. Men always have the power of resistance. “And ye would not” is the lament which even wounded omnipotence must often make. But this call is never wholly in vain. Some are always won for God’s Kingdom. So that with the Lord’s invitation there goes, hand in hand, a constant gathering of souls as recruits for the Lord’s army. Wherever God’s Word is preached forces are set into operation, forces of attraction or repulsion. As a result, there is soon a separation of elements. These who are only embittered and hardened withdraw, or appear only to oppose; those who are attracted, who begin to recognize in what God offers in His message that which fits to the needs of their souls, come out more and more decidedly on God’s side. A community of God’s children is established. All, let it be constantly borne in mind, the result of the operation of the Spirit of God, brought to bear on the minds and hearts of men through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and the administration of the Divinely ordained sacraments.
It is impossible to draw positive lines of distinction between the successive steps of the Holy Spirit’s work in men’s hearts. Indeed, many of them are going on concurrently. Sometimes there is a certain reaction; a certain operation of God’s Spirit on our spirit produces a result, and that result opens the way for still larger results. This is particularly true with that step which we call enlightenment. The first step is a call to the spiritually dead. With this call there always goes what is often called a prevenient grace; the deadness, the inertness, the positive attitude of repulsion is, for the time being at least, removed. It is made possible for the one to whom the call comes to accept. At first he sees spiritual things much after the fashion of the blind man who, after Christ’s first application, saw men as trees walking. He has at least a vague impression of the awfulness of his sinful condition. And a faint and faltering vision of the good things offered him. There is the possibility at least of his asking, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?
We might call this an enlightment. In comparison with the unutterable darkness which prevailed before it would not be without justification; but it is enlightenment only as the mastery of the alphabet opens the way to the great field of literature. The child that has just laboriously learned to read a few sentences in its primer has not gone very far in comparison with a Shakspeare or a Goethe; but these men began in this way, and without it they could not have reached their later estate. So with our Christian life. The first faint, flickering consciousness of sin; the first dimly seen vision of Jesus as a Saviour; the first faint heartbeat of a desire to be rid of the darkness and to live in the light; this is the beginning of enlightenment. If this laying hold of Christ is real it will suffice to save, for it is not the strength of the grasp, but the object grasped, which saves. Yet, this initial step should be followed by successive steps continuing while life lasts; the result of which is an ever growing appreciation of the preciousness of the Gospel, the fulness of God’s love, the perfection of Christ’s righteousness, and the blessedness of the life hid with Christ in God. So that it can be said of us, as of the Ephesians: “Ye were sometime darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord” (5:8).
The result of this life of ever growing faith and knowledge will be a life brought more and more into conformity to the pattern Christ has set before us in word and example. Of this we shall have more to say later, but let us remember that it is written that those, and those only, who “are led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God (Rom. 8:14). And this leading has special reference here to the Christian life.
Brethren, these are no abstract, speculative truths of which we are treating; they are vital to the Christian life, vital as the rain and the sunshine are to vegetable life. They are truths which have to do with the genesis of the Christian life, but they are not only for our Christian childhood, but vital yet for the ripest Christian manhood and womanhood. Are we vitally interested in them?
I doubt not that the early disciples, in spite of their lack of understanding, and exhibitions of weakness, had as large a measure of the Holy Spirit when they stood on Olivet as the average Christian of today; but they went back to Jerusalem to wait, and watch, and pray for His larger coming. We have no right to expect a new Pentecost, that was a miraculous gift for a special purpose; but every needed measure of the Holy Spirit God is anxious to bestow. Are we anxious to have Him? Do we pray for His coming? Do we use the Word through which He operates, and thus give Him a chance to answer our prayers? Do we yield to His gracious solicitations? This is the only way to growth in grace.
“Gracious Spirit! Love Divine!
Let Thy light within me shine;
All my guilty fears remove;
Fill me with Thy heav’nly love.
“Let me never from Thee stray;
Keep me in the narrow way;
Fill my soul with joy divine;
Keep me, Lord, forever Thine.”
By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.
- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
- Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
- Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
- Copyright: CC BY 4.0