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The Holy Spirit, Regeneration, and Sanctification - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology

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One of the most confusing topics in theology is the operation and work of the Spirit. This is a detailed overview of the work of the Spirit in the believer from beginning to end, and details the OT as well as the NT work of the Spirit. (Taken in outline form from J. Buchanan’s “The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit”)

The Spirit’s Work in the Conversion of Sinners

God, entering into a covenant with fallen man, engaged Himself to redeem a chosen people unto holiness. Christ, the Mediator of this covenant between God and man, sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven in order to send forth His Holy Spirit to these fallen men, and to birth them into a living hope. Such a birth is “from above” (John 3:3), and the direct result of the intervention of the Spirit of God upon the hearts of wicked sinners. A spiritual change must take place in order for the sinner to come to faith, and to believe on the work and power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Spirit of God is the author of this spiritual change. This spiritual change is wrought by spiritual means employed by the Holy Spirit. Just as there is a remarkable event in conception and birth of a human being, so even to a greater degree there is a spiritual “event” of sorts that parallels birth, but into the realm of the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. This is the liberation, or emancipation of the soul from spiritual bondage and death.

Regeneration is the term used for this spiritual change wrought upon the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit sent forth from Christ’s throne. It is absolutely necessary that regeneration takes place in order for a man to be released from his fallen and depraved state to the Kingdom of God. Christ, in John 3, rests upon the reality that man is so depraved and fallen that his spiritual birth must take place first before he ever perceives or understands of the spiritual realities of the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3, 5). In this way, the Spirit’s work is crucially important in delivering and changing the heart of these men so that they may believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. This event, that spiritual change, is impossible with men, but possible with God. Without a manifestly true change on the mind of the person by God, they cannot believe, nor experience any deep significant trust on Christ. No unregenerate man, then, can see the kingdom of God unless God wills he should see it and converts him to be able to see it. From all this, it is manifest that redemption itself proceeds on the principle that God must allow admission to His kingdom first, and to apply a spiritual principle that quickens the soul to life.

The work of the Spirit of God is, in its own place, as needful and important as the work of Christ Himself. Christ said in John 16:7, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.” Jesus Christ dispensed the Spirit of God only after His ascension and enthronement. This certainly does not mean that God never dispensed the Spirit at any other time, but rather, it does prove, quite conclusively, that the special sending of the Messiah in His place would be something that had never happened before. Christ would, from the throne of God, send the Spirit to take the place of His corporeal presence for a time until His next return. The Spirit, then, is the agent by which the work of God is completed and accomplished on earth in this interim time. Jesus said, “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high (Luke 24:49).” Also, in Acts 1:8, Jesus states, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Such a power was the direct affect of Christ’s kingly enthronement and subsequent order of the redemptive plan. This is the very reason why John records, “But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:39).” Not that the Spirit was not present or working, but that He was not dispensed by the enthroned Messiah; for Christ had not died, been buried, been raised from the dead, and seated at the right hand of God.

The design of the Spirit’s work is found in John 16:8-11. Here Christ teaches, “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” The Spirit is to do this by shedding abroad the gift of His work in the hearts of men convincing them of the truth of Jesus Christ and His work. He principally does this through the Word of God and through the preaching of the Word of God (and this was the reason the Apostles were to wait for the power of the Spirit to accomplish this at Pentecost).

What is the process by which a sinner is converted and changed? The Bible explains that the origin of salvation is planned by the love of the Father (Eph. 1:3-10), and its ultimate issue is declared to be the “salvation of His people,” or “their obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Between these two points, though, there is the work of the Spirit. 2 Thessalonians 2:13 says that, “because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” men are saved. Without the Spirit of God, the work of Christ Himself would have been in vain. Through belief in the truth, the Spirit of God sanctifies men unto God. Such an act is seen in cases with Lydia at the preaching of the Apostle Paul, “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).”

The first part of the Spirit’s work is to convince a sinner of His misery. John 16:8 says, as noted already, that the Spirit, “when He has come, He will convict the world of sin.” Though the Spirit convicts men of not just one sin, but their state as a sinner before Him, this is not enough to transform the soul. Conviction (such as with Esau and Cain) is not enough unless one is born from above, and repentance and faith all accompany such a work. However, in conviction, the work of the Spirit in pressing men to view themselves as sinners is accomplished in light of the Law of God and the character of God as a Holy being. As Paul says, “I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death (Romans 7:9-10).” After this, the Spirit presses the sinner to look to Christ alone who can save the soul through His death and resurrection. In this way, the Spirit of God brings a sinner to feel and understand his need of a Savior.

After the Spirit has convinced a man of his sin and misery, He next enlightens his mind in the knowledge of Christ. Here the Spirit teaches him the person, character, offices, and the work of Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Galatians 3:22).”

It may be said and commented that even though there is a conviction of sin, and that men are made enlightened to the reality of the person, office and work of Christ, that they may not be saved. Felix trembled before Paul, and many were made partakers of the Holy Spirit and of the blessings of the age to come as recorded in Hebrew 6, but these were, in fact, still lost (Acts 24:25; Hebrews 6:1-8).

The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit may be said to be the groundwork of all His other operations. It is through the truth (which must be known and believed) that the Spirit fulfills all the functions of His office in the minds of men. By enlightening the mind, He lays the groundwork for the conviction of conscience. He is the enlightener of God’s people, and imparts spiritual illumination to their minds. This obviously implies a previous state of spiritual deadness and darkness, which is the natural state of all men. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” This darkness is universal to all men born as progeny of Adam. This darkness is not just the absence of light, but also a blindness of mind. When men are converted, the veil of darkness is taken away (1 Cor. 3:14-16) and the glorious light of the Gospel of Christ shines upon their minds (2 Cor. 4:3-4).

As the “enlightener of the soul”, the Holy Spirit is the revealer of truth, and the Author of the Scriptures which are used as the instrument of His work. The efficacy of the Word depends completely on the work of the Spirit, and His gracious actions upon men. He seeks to enlighten, quicken and invigorate by the light of the Word of God. The subject of these operations is the conscience. This moral faculty is arrested by divine truth to the reality of its sinful state and need of saving grace. This is the direct operation of the Spirit’s use of the law. The law is the schoolmaster that brings the sinner to Christ (Gal. 3:24). Sin, then, becomes vile in the mind of the enlightened conscience. The Spirit convinces of the fact of sin, that we have done this or that; of the fault of sin, that we have done ill doing on account of sin; of the folly of sin, that we have acted against reason and our true interest; of the filth of sin, that by it we become odious to God; of the fountain of sin, the corrupt nature; and lastly of the fruit of sin, that its end is death.

Those who are currently under the conviction of sin would do well to remember the following: 1) beware how you deal with your convictions and remember that you are responsible to God for the treatment of them. 2) Instead of stifling your convictions and suppressing them, rather try to find out the evils of your conscience, and of your nature in particular. 3) Since you have a sight and sense of sin, you should endeavor to find out its consequences according to God’s law. 4) Be very aware of false security and false grounds that you may have a self-confidence in. 5) Be sure to reject sins that are peculiarly tempting and resist them. 6) Acquaint yourself with the complete remedy that can be found in Jesus Christ and the Gospel for the misery that you are in, instead of attempting to cover up certain aspects of sin and never dealing with the root cause of the heart problem. 7) You should strive to close with Christ as soon as possible having a true interest in the Gospel. 8) If you are convicted of sin and wickedness, and have a true sense of repentance being worked into your heart by the Holy Spirit, you should turn to the language of repentance – prayer – and confess your sin and need of grace before Christ.

When dealing with the work of the Spirit, there is also a preparatory work that He may do upon the soul of an individual in the work of conviction and instruction before He changes their heart. Extent, duration and the result of such work differ in degrees between men, for they are constitutionally different in makeup. There is a preparation of mind that takes place, to set the mind in a proper frame before conversion. Such a work, as John Owen says, is preparing, preventing, working, co-working and confirming the Gospel in the one engaged by the Holy Spirit. That which fights against such preparation is deemed unbelief, carnal security, rebellion, and the world’s basic disposition of enmity fighting against God.

Conversion is not a partial work on any one part of the human faculty, but a change in every faculty and the whole man – a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 states clearly, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” However, this change does not immediately perfect the sinner as if they have no further sanctification to endure. Rather, it places them in opposition to the life they once lived and have been translated from one life to another; from one kingdom to another. Colossians 1:13 describes this translation, “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.”

Conversion rightly consists in a sinner being brought intelligently (not by blind faith) to some knowledge of God’s truth imparted to the mind, which in turn grants understanding. Here the sinner affirms what he understands by assent and then at the final end of conversion he engages in real trust. There has to be an actual, intentional closing with Christ and His benefits. He must believe that Jesus is the Christ. He must believe his sin condemns him by God’s law and he is in eminent danger of eternal ruin. He must believe he has been made willing to come to Christ, and that in this willingness he desires to heed the teachings and commandments of God as stated in the Word of God. Faith is a principle instrument in bringing men from darkness into light. 1 John 5:1 says, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him.” Real spiritual faith is needed, not dead faith (James 2:17).

Sinners are made willing to come to Christ. Every sinner’s heart is resistant to the truth. In this way they “resist the Spirit” as Stephen said, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you (Acts 7:51).” This does not mean that the sinner can overpower the work of the Spirit, but that the outward preaching of the Gospel is always and continually resisted by the sinner’s depraved and wicked heart. However, once the Spirit determines to change a sinner’s heart, that heart will be changed by sovereign grace. The sinner is made willing to close with Christ by the Gospel call by the power of the Spirit and His effectual calling and change of the sinner’s heart. Ezekiel 36:26 is plain on this point, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” This is obviously far more than a moral change or an amendment of life. It is a transformation of the whole faculty of the sinner into holiness.

The result of the Spirit’s work on an individual sinner is the creation of a new being or state of relationship. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” When a sinner is saved by the work of the Holy Spirit he is then united to Christ, as the Scripture says, “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death (Romans 6:5).” This union with the Lord Jesus Christ is the life-giving power and sustenance of a sinner. The sinner receives life through the spiritual Head of the church being attached to the organic vine. Christ explains this union and its benefits in John 15:4-5, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” This new creature has acquired new life, a new view of himself, new affections for the things of God, new views of the world around him, and new spiritual insight that he did not possess before. His desires and aims are entirely new, and he now has the desire to continue the communion he has with God, and to acquire larger views of His perfections. He says with the psalmist, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (Psalm 42:2).” He has new enjoyment, new habits, new experiences with the world, and a new conflict in his soul in which he fights with the world, his flesh, and the devil against sin. You may ask yourself, “Am I in Christ?” It may be more helpful to ask, “Am I a new creature?”

In probing the doctrine of regeneration, it is inevitable that we come upon the subject of the regeneration of infants. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the French Confession all state that children are included in the Covenant of Grace and can be saved and regenerated by God. The reason this question is brought to light is that men are justified by faith alone and infants are incapable of faith in this regard. Can they, then, be saved? The Scriptures state that there is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved. Can these infants be saved by that name when they never hear that name and may die young in infancy? It is true that children, however young, even infants in their mother’s arms, are fit and capable subjects of divine grace. God is a God of families and generations that has enacted a Covenant revolving around federal headship that immediately includes the children of a given covenant family. For example, Jesus Christ deals with children in Luke 18:15-16, “Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him and said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.” Jesus says that these children are of such, or belong to this Kingdom. The Gospel of Mark adds, “And He took them up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them (Mark 10:16).” By Jesus’ action of taking up and blessing them demonstrates they are fit subjects for grace, as well as the reality that the imposition of hands on a given individual was the usual sign by which the communication of the Spirit was shadowed forth.

Instances of the Spirit’s work on children and infants abound. Jesus Christ was formed in the womb of Mary by the Spirit (Luke 1:35), and in the case of Jeremiah God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5).” John the Baptist was “filled with the Spirit” even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Covenant children, then, should be admitted to baptism (as the confession state mirroring the biblical warrant of infant inclusion in the covenant), and are fit and capable of being divinely regenerated by the Spirit of God.

The work of the Spirit in regeneration on infants should not be confused with baptismal regeneration, which is a Roman invention. The Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful on this subject. Children are not baptized in order to acquire an interest in the covenant, rather, they have an interest in the covenant already because of the nature of the covenant and then are baptized as a result. Abraham, for example, had an interest in the covenant first, and then circumcision was added as a sign and seal of his interest in it. The point of interest for the children lies in the covenant promise “I will be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee (Genesis 17:7).” Children in this regard are baptized with the New Testament covenant sign as a sign and seal of their engrafting into Christ – or regeneration, remission of sins, and of their engagement to be the Lord’s. One should not confuse the Westminster Confession of Faith’s teaching that not all who are baptized may be regenerate. It carefully guards against this language without diminishing the reality of the conferred grace in the sacrament. It also guards against the Roman Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato, of communicating saving grace in the rite itself with no regard to parent or child at all, but inherent in the power of the priest’s work in administering the rite.

Part 2: The Spirit’s Work in the Conversion of Sinners

The example of the Philippian Jailor (Acts 16:19-34):

After reading the narrative the reader will notice the three stages, first, as a careless sinner, then as a convinced sinner, and then a converted man. There are two points to remember in terms of his careless estate. First, he imprisoned the Lord’s servants for preaching the word of God, and second, he was ready to thrust himself on his own sword and kill himself (this demonstrated his practical atheism). He then went from being a careless sinner, to a convinced sinner in that he fell to his knees before Paul and Silas and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” This demonstrates a change in his nature from the practical atheist to the convicted heart of one who needed God’s mercy. At this point he was convinced of the danger of eternal damnation, but not converted. He did not ask, “How can I be saved?” but rather, “What can I do to be saved?” Every natural mind thinks it can “do” something to be saved. Paul then had to explain the way of salvation on how one is saved. Believing on the Lord Jesus was the requisite but the jailor would not be able to attain this unless he understood what he believed in.

The means by which the jailor was converted was the Gospel of Jesus Christ demonstrating the truth of Christ’s work in his death and resurrection. Paul and Silas went back home with the jailor and explained the way of salvation to the entire household. The substance of this is not recorded. They exhorted him in the simple statement they made in the jailhouse to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. This would focus on the truth of His person. They said, “you shall be saved,” which is a personal faith that must be excited. This Gospel was the suitable agent and explanation that Paul and Silas explained to the entire household. He rejoiced and his entire house was baptized under his solemn admission to federal headship over them. After all this instruction, he demonstrated a real, simple and scriptural faith.

We learn from all this that men in their unconverted state are careless. While they are careless, God is pleased to make some solemn and awakening dispensation of providence to arouse them to see their need of Christ and the utter depravity. Such a work of conviction is wrought in the conscience by the power of the Holy Spirit, and then they are enlightened to the truth. Through this the Spirit changes their heart, and they are converted. The Gospel, then, is the only effectual instrument designated to convert a sinner, and its power lies in the manner in which the Holy Spirit uses it for the benefit of the elect.

The example of the Dying Malefactor (Luke 23:32-43):

In this example, a thief was converted in a most precarious position – hanging on the cross next to Jesus Christ. We do not know anything about this man’s religious background, or what may have transpired before he was caught as a thief. It could have been that he heard some of Christ’s teaching while picking pockets, or learned about the Teacher from Nazareth while at a dinner party. In any case, the Scripture is silent on what he may have known about religion.

The dying thief was a man whose crimes exposed him to the highest penalty of death under the Roman system. This man, though, was so vile, that even while he was hanging there with his “friend”, these two thieves reviled the Lord and made His crucifixion that much more serious and painful. After a time of reviling we read that this thief began to have a change of heart. He says to his other friend who did not experience this change, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation (Luke 23:40)?” The thief went from reviling to defending Christ. He acknowledges that his punishment is justly deserved, but that Christ had done nothing wrong. What made this change in him? In order to answer this, we must retrace the thief’s steps. What could the thief have known about Christ since he was condemned with him and they were all sentenced to be crucified together? The thief surely would have heard Pilate’s pronunciation before the crowd that Christ was found innocent before him (Luke 23:27). This is directly related to the thief’s words that they deserved to be crucified but Christ had done nothing to deserve this. He would have been a witness to Christ’s prayer, that those crucifying him should be forgiven. What if the thief thought about the character and humility of Christ? Christ could not be any sort of common sufferer. There had to be something more here. He would have also heard the enemies of the Savior speaking about the Savior at the foot of the cross. “He saved others…” he would have heard. “Let him save himself if he is the chosen of God” he would have heard. “If you are king of the Jews save yourself and us” he would have heard. This no doubt the thief recalled when he said to Christ, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He believed, by faith, that Jesus was the Christ, and the King, able to save sinners, as He had saved others before. He, in the manner of prayer, asked Christ o “remember him,” and he had the fear of God as exemplified by his statement to the other thief – “Do you not fear God?” After all of this, Christ then acknowledges this sinner’s conversion and says, “I tell you the truth, today you shall be with me in paradise.” At conversion, then, the sinner receives all the rights and privileges of adopted sons of God, just as this thief on the cross.

The example of Paul (Acts 9:1-22):

The Apostle Paul’s conversion is probably the greatest record of a conversion in the Bible. In respect to his pre-conversion state of mind on religious matters, he was a Jew of Jews and a Pharisee of Pharisees (Acts 26:4). He was more zealous for the law than any of his fathers (Galatians 1:14), and in touching the law, he says he was blameless (Philippians 3:4). In respect to his views of Christ and the Church, he was not only an unbeliever, but also a violent persecutor of the Christian Church. He desired to exterminate the following of Jesus Christ. He was happy to consent to the death of Stephen when the Jews stoned him to death for standing up for the Lord Jesus Christ. Afterwards, the Scriptures tell us that Saul of Tarsus was wreaking havoc on the church. He had violent affections against the truth of the Gospel and desired to see the church exterminated from the face of the earth.

Saul’s conversion was a result of the truth of Jesus Christ by the vision and the voice of the Savior. It was aided by a demonstration of the power of the spirit when he least expected it. When Saul was arrested by the Christ on the road to Damascus, no doubt, he unmistakably understood who he was dealing with. This was “the Lord.” Christ questions him as to why he is persecuting the church. Saul simply asks what he should do. There is no great dialogue, or systematic theology presented to him. Rather, from what he already knew about Christ, in an instantaneous moment such truths were made alive to him and the practical application of those truths as well. Paul would have, at this point, though that this Jesus must have risen from the dead, is sitting at the right hand of God, and that he could not fight God. Later, he was further instructed by Ananias (verse 6), and this Ananias would tell him what he ought to do. No doubt further instruction was given. The Spirit of God then took that information, as well as what he already knew of the Old Testament and caused Paul to process it and he was converted. His whole conversion hinged on his belief that Jesus was the Christ. As Paul says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief (1 Timothy 1:15).”

The example of the Ethiopian Treasurer (Acts 8:26-40):

The Ethiopian Treasurer demonstrates the example of how an ignorant, but sincere and devout inquirer, can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. There are many things which could have hindered him from coming to faith; his homeland – which was miles away from the truth of the Gospel which was just beginning to spread in Jerusalem; his wealth – for it is hard for rich men to enter the kingdom of heaven; and rank and influence – he was an attendant to the Ethiopian Queen Candace. Can this Ethiopian change his skin? Although he was ignorant in the things of God, by his devout attitude to the Scriptures and his travels to the Jewish synagogue, we find he is a proselyte to the Jewish faith, and he had come to Jerusalem to worship. The narrative tells us he was reading Isaiah which shows his diligent inquiry to gain a true knowledge of faith from the Old Testament Scriptures. However, we know he had not yet acquired the truth about Jesus. Philip was sent to him to explain the passage he was reading, which was the 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah and the message of the Suffering Servant. So Philip preached Jesus to him. “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God” was a simple and straightforward test of his sincerity of faith. The proof of the authority he placed himself under was his desire to be baptized. He was not ashamed to be attached and unified to the Christ.

The example of Cornelius (Acts 10):

Cornelius was already a devout believer and his conversion was more of an advancement in religion than a specific conversion. He was by birth a Gentile, and by profession a roman soldier. He was a proselyte to the Jewish faith and believed in, and worshipped, the One True God. As he conformed to Jewish worship, so it is evident that his prayers were addressed to the God of Israel. Acts 10:4 states, “And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.” Here it may be inferred that he must have been a genuine believer and a justified man as in the same case of Abraham. He was justified awaiting the promised Messiah and may be regarded as a believer. For we know the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination before God. He simply had not had the opportunity to believe in the Christ as “come already,” and this was the task of Peter to explain this to Cornelius and his household. The centurion here was in a time of transition from the Jewish to Christian faith. This would be a move from an imperfect sight of the Messiah (through types but by faith) to a more perfect sight of Him. He was a Jewish proselyte and from this he became a Christian convert.

Peter gave Cornelius and his household a summary of the Gospel, with appropriate evidence to the fact of Christ’s authority and kingship. He gave them God’s proclamation of peace through the salvation found in Jesus Christ alone. The promised Messiah of the Old Testament is this Jesus Christ that Peter was preaching and that Cornelius believed in. He was baptized as a result of his faith in Christ, and the text tells us that he glorified God, he and all his household. The Holy Spirit has transferred Cornelius from Old Testament faith to the New Testament Christ.

The example of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15):

The ordinary means by which the Holy Spirit converts sinners (as we have seen through each of these instances) is through the Word of God. This is true to a more detailed experience for Lydia, the Gentile businesswoman from Thyatira. In this narrative Lydia is a beneficiary of the direct, sovereign operation of the Spirit of God on her heart. She was attending a prayer meeting when she was enraptured with the message of Paul. Without prayer, it should be remembered, we have no reason to expect blessings from God. The text says that the Lord opened her heart while Paul was preaching. This implies her heart was shut against the truth of the Gospel even though she may have been a devout Jewish proselyte (for why would she be praying?).

Lydia’s heart was under the same influence of darkness that every other sinner experienced. She was among those that are “futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Romans 1:21).” Her heart was closed until it was opened by the Lord, “whose heart the Lord opened…” The Spirit used this narrative to demonstrate the truth that He uses the instrumentality of the Word to affect the change in a sinner’s heart. “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).” After the preaching of Paul, God opened her heart and she understood the gospel. In response to this gospel she was baptized and placed herself under the authority of Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. This was her obedience worked out in salvation.

The example of Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14-15):

The account of Timothy demonstrates the work of the Spirit throughout the life of a child of the covenant. He was raised on religious education in early life, and from the pious care of his parents. From a child he had known the Old Testament scriptures. 2 Timothy 3:15 says that, “from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” His mother was a Jewess and so she taught him the Old Testament even though his father was a Greek.

The case of Timothy demonstrates three lessons of the work of the Holy Spirit upon a soul. First, it shows that little children are capable subjects of divine grace. We also learn that a sound religious education early in life is often blessed as a means of saving conversion to God. We also learn that true religion is sometimes implanted in the soul of a child at a very early age, and continues to grow, bring forth fruit, and be strengthened even though for a time it may be unperceivable.

The example of the conversions at Pentecost (Acts 2):

In this amazing narrative three thousand souls were saved in one day of preaching. Acts 2:41 states, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” There were devout religious men there, as well as those who persecuted the Savior previously and had Him put to death. These were “devout men” from every nation, according to the narrative. Here we find, then, a variety of characters assembled from all over the Dispersion of the Jews gathered before Peter and his sermon.

It is interesting to note that before Peter preached, the assembly was in fervent prayer in the upper room awaiting the power from on high. 120 disciples waited for this by the Lord’s command, and it is usual for revival to take place after a devout time of extended prayer. The Spirit descended on them for service after this time of prayer, and fulfilled the promise of Christ to the disciples at that moment. The disciples, then, received the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit for service, and they were immediately employed upon speaking in other tongues, and preaching, which generated great concern from the crowd. Peter then, by this attraction, takes the opportunity to address this lost crowd, and tell them about Jesus Christ. So we see that these people experienced three stages here: 1) the miraculous gift of the Spirit in tongues, 2) a work of conviction in their hearts, and 3) the work of real conversion through the preaching of the word. The direct means to their conversion was Peter’s sermon.

Peter’s sermon demonstrated that Jesus was the Christ. It also demonstrated the guilt of those who put Him to death, and the sinfulness of men in their rejection of Him. The Gospel was freely offered to them after Peter’s exposition of quoted Old Testament texts, and his present application of the history of Christ just occurring throughout the Jerusalem area with the Messiah Jesus Christ. They were “cut to the quick” by the Spirit and inquired as to how they may be truly saved. This was done through the internal work of the Spirit on this crowd of people, which were not all saved. Those who were saved were baptized with the transitional New Covenant seal – baptism, and fruit followed their true conversion. Acts 2:42 says they “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” They also continued in brotherly love toward one another, having all things in common voluntarily.

The example of Revivals (such as in Acts 2:17-18):

Though the church is regularly accustomed to look for slow and common operations of the spirit through church history, every now and again the Spirit sovereignly sends revival. True religion is the product of this revival and solely depends on the work of the spirit of God in blessing the people of God. Revival had been seen in the Old Testament such as in the days of Seth, and of Josiah (Genesis 4:26; 2 kings 23:19ff). Two things define true revival in religion: 1) a general impartation of new spiritual life, vigor and power to those who are already the people of God, and 2) a remarkable awakening and conversion of souls. Such revivals in the New Testament church surround Pentecost, the Reformation of the 16th Century, the local revivals of 1623 and 1641 in Ireland and England under James Ussher, in 1630 in Scotland under John Livingston, in 1638 in Scotland in Glasgow under the National Covenant, in 1643-48 under the Westminster Assembly, in 1734 under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and in 1812 under Reverend M’Bride. Would we wish that the Spirit would pour out such a revival of religion again.

Part 3: The Work of the Spirit in the Edification of His People

The Work of the Spirit as the Spirit of Holiness

The general work of the Spirit resides in two main classifications in relation to the Church: 1) the regeneration and salvation of individuals, and 2) the edification of His people in further growth under the Gospel. This second part is what we turn to at this point. Sanctification is the work of the spirit, and its beginning starts with conversion and grows from that point. Even after the believer is born again, the work of the Spirit continues in the progressing and growing sanctification of the soul. From the new birth there shall be new life. Christ is emphatic in demonstrating the fruit bearing aspect of the believer in Matthew 7:16-20, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? 17 “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” And likewise He says, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit (John 15:2).” Such a change comes from a true change of the heart.

Sanctification and the continuance of spiritual life depends upon the gracious operation of the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 says, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Romans 8:9 also says this, “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” This operation of the Spirit is by His will operating in us, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).”

This walking in the Spirit maintains a constant conflict with indwelling sin and seeks to crucify the remnant of remaining sin still in the soul. Paul says in Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.”

Yet, every motivation of goodness in the believer, and each motion to good works are done by the Spirit’s power and His action in motioning the soul to work rightly. Galatians 5:18 states, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

The Work of the Spirit as the Spirit of Adoption

The Spirit of Adoption imparts a reverence and godly fear to God’s character in the heart to every true believer. It is a different spirit than that of the world that holds a spirit of fear towards God as a righteous Judge. Now, the believer is able to see Him as a loving Father. Paul explains, “because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father (Galatians 4:6)!” This Spirit of adoption implies a hearty sense of gratitude and a principle of supreme love to God, such as a child feels towards a forgiving and affectionate Father. The Apostle John says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).” This spirit also implies a warm brotherly love toward all those who are members of God’s family. This is a new affection that springs from a new relationship we have in Christ which unites converts with others as part of the organic body. Ephesians 5:2 says, “And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us.”

This kind of adoption presses the believer to trust God as their Father for all things, even the things to come in the future as a child relies on his parents. It is committing our trust to His sovereign providence for our good. Christ says, “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him (Matthew 6:8).” Such a comfort in this way should be building to a full assurance of faith, though various degrees of comfort may be given to a given child of God at any given time. Remedy for fear in providences that surround God’s children in this way is simply to return to the simple faith that one had the moment they were converted. The simple trust that God works all things for our good. Romans 8:28 is clear to this, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

The Work of the Spirit as the Spirit of Prayer

The truth of the Old Testament is just as alive in the New Testament. The spirit of God aids us in prayer. The Psalms alone are a wonderful testimony to the prayer of the saints all through the Old Testament. In the New Testament promises of the Spirit’s work in prayer come forth like a mighty rushing wind. Zechariah 12:10 promises, “And I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced.”

The Holy Spirit helps us to pray. He does not pray for us, rather, He moves and motions in us prayers up toward the throne of grace. Romans 8:26 speaks directly to this and the Spirit’s operation around this work, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” He enables us for prayer in respect to our needs, necessities, wants, sins, and shortcomings. He makes known to us the rich provision of His grace to us and demonstrates to us our privileges in Christ. He works in us dispositions and desires to pray well in order get the needful deposits of grace waiting for us at the throne. He aids us in attaining spiritual graces through prayer for the service of the ministry. He even stirs us up against infirmities to prayer (sloth, laziness and lethargy) by causing us to watch against those hindrances and overcome them by His grace and through the teachings of the Word of God.

Prayer is a solemn exercise that is engaged in by the use of spiritual power from the Spirit of God. As Jude 1:20 directs us to be “praying in the Holy Spirit.” It is beyond our natural power to accomplish sanctification on our own, and this demands the exercise and operation of the Spirit’s grace in us for victory in everyday living.

The Work of the Spirit as the Comforter

God Himself is the Author of all comfort and communicates comfort to the believer through the power of the Holy Spirit. This work of God is given in Romans 15:13, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The early Christians were blessed by this hope and comfort that comes from God, “And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied (Acts 9:31).”

Such comfort by the Spirit comes by the truth of the Word. Believers are able to feel its power and understand its importance to their lives personally. They are taught about the boundless love of Christ for them, that they are strengthened in the inner man by the Spirit of God, that they may be rooted and grounded in love gradually through the Christian life and walk, and that they can truly know how God cares for them in order to be “filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19).” Such a comfort comes directly by the Spirit’s sanctification upon their souls, without which, they would never know any of these things to any great measure past intellectual assent. It is the Spirit that works them into their hearts and minds.

The Spirit also helps the believer to be assured and comforted by the reality of his salvation. Ephesians 4:30 tells us, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Such a sealing is through the Word of God impress upon the heart and mind. 1 John 4:13 demonstrates that our adopted constitution is known through His abiding in us and sealing us, “By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” By this adoption, we are made His forever, and the Spirit indwells all his children for all time.


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Reformed Theology at A Puritan's Mind