Pillar Journal

The Spirit’s Work

In this new age, the Spirit continues to do all His great works but in more profound ways and on a much larger scale. Joel Beeke

The night on which He was betrayed, Jesus spoke to His disciples about the dawn of a new day that would be heralded by the Holy Spirit’s coming to dwell in them (John 14:17). Jesus says in John 16:8, “When he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” [This article is the substance of an address given for the Philadelphia Conference of Reformed Theology (PCRT), 2010, in Sacramento, California and Greenville, South Carolina. I wish to thank Ray B. Lanning for his assistance on parts of this article.]

This new day is the period of time in which God the Holy Spirit dwells in believers and the church in the full measure of His divine Person and in abundant demonstration of His divine power. Sent by the Father and poured out by the Son, the Spirit’s commission is to sanctify believers to be members of Christ, dwelling in them and applying to them what they already have in Christ, namely, the washing away of their sins, the daily renewing of their lives, and all the other benefits purchased for them by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross.

Ten days after Christ’s ascension to heaven, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples gathered in Jerusalem on the feast day of Pentecost. Christ had prepared the apostles for what would happen to the church. So now, as the sound of a mighty, rushing wind filled the meeting place and tongues of fire appeared to hover over every head, believers knew that they were being filled with the Spirit. They began to speak in many languages, “out of every nation under heaven.”

The prophetic words of Christ were being fulfilled: the church was baptized with the Holy Spirit, and her members received power from on high. The age of the Spirit had begun! To understand this phenomenon, let us examine the age of the Spirit from three perspectives: the Spirit’s work in prior ages, the Spirit’s work in this present age, and the Spirit’s work particularly in revival.

The Spirit’s Work in Prior Ages

A superficial reading of the New Testament might lead some to conclude that the presence of the Spirit in the church and in the world was something new. The same mistake is often made regarding what Christ calls “the new covenant in my blood.” It is easy to separate the New Testament from the Old and conclude that a great gulf exists between the two. Some Christians speak of Pentecost as “the birthday of the church,” as if there were no visible church in the world prior to that time. Worse yet, some speak of the Jewish church of the Old Testament as something radically different from the Christian church of the New, as though each had nothing to do with the other.

That is simply not so, for the person and work of the Spirit are introduced to us already at the dawn of time. The earth was shrouded in darkness and a flood of great waters, but Moses tells us, in Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The verb “moved upon” can be translated as “hovering” in the sense of shaking or fluttering, like a bird hovering over its nest. In fact, Deuteronomy 32:10–11 uses the same verb when it speaks of an eagle hovering over its young, tending to their every need. In His capacity as “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Spirit was fully present and active at the beginning to enact the astonishing results demanded by the various creative “fiats” of God. Psalm 104:30 says, “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.” In particular, the Spirit filled the earth, the seas, and the dry land with all kinds of living things. We may thus speak of the biosphere, or realm of life and living things that cover the earth, as the great creation of God the Holy Spirit (cf. Job 26:13).

In our creation, the Spirit was also present as the “Breath of Life,” or the breath of God that proceeded from the Father and the Son. When breathed into the nostrils of the divinely sculpted but lifeless form of man, the Spirit transformed a creature of dust and earth into a living being (Gen. 2:7). Job 33:4 says, “The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.” Thus we owe our life and the life of every other living thing as much to the power and creativity of the Holy Spirit as we do to the hand of our Maker and Father in heaven.

Man is a created being and therefore has no life in himself. He cannot beget himself, nor can he generate or sustain his development to maturity. He cannot keep himself alive or deliver himself from the power of death. For all this we must depend upon the grace of God, and, in particular, upon the work of the Holy Spirit. When God withholds His grace, we decline and die; when He sends forth His lifegiving Spirit, we and all living things are quickened again and flourish by the same power that gave us life at the beginning (Ps. 104:30).

So wherever there is life, the Holy Spirit is at work. David lived in a world pervaded by the presence of the Holy Spirit, for he says in Psalm 139:7: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” But the Spirit is more than power. As a person, He possesses the intelligence and the wisdom of God. As the source of “all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works,” He is at work in the minds and hearts of human beings everywhere. All valid insights into the nature of things, philosophical or scientific; all skills, whether manual, mechanical, or creative; all discoveries, inventions, or works of art; and everything that blesses the life of mankind reveal the presence and work of the Holy Spirit throughout history. The Spirit distributes gifts of statesmanship and craftsmanship that extend beyond man’s natural capacity. Consider the remarkable leadership skills He imparted to Joseph, which Pharoah recognized (Gen. 41:38), and to Daniel, which the kings of Babylon acknowledged (Dan. 4:8–9, 5:11–14). Exodus 31:3–5 tells us that the Holy Spirit filled Bezaleel with knowledge and wisdom to do “all manner of workmanship” for constructing and furnishing the tabernacle. The Holy Spirit also provided some of the early kings of Israel with special capabilities (1 Sam. 16:13), spoke directly to prophets (Ezek. 2:2), and inspired the Old Testament Scriptures through a divine out-breathing and Spiritbearing influence (2 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Pet. 1:21). All these things are gifts of God, which are distributed among us by the work of the Holy Ghost. Without His light, human beings would produce anarchy and self-destruct and be condemned to utter darkness.

As the Spirit of holiness, the Spirit also labors in the world as the moral agent of God, “striving with man” to sustain whatever remains of the light of conscience, to restrain the destructive excesses of human depravity, and to mitigate the effects of the evil that people commit against one another. When we are overwhelmed by reports of the terrible things that humans do, we should consider how much worse it would be without the gracious work of the Spirit. His absence did not bode well for the people who lived in the world before the flood, whom God warned, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” (Gen. 6:3). Withdrawing His Spirit from a man, church, nation, or the world is a sure sign of God’s hot displeasure.

It follows, then, that the Spirit so values the world that He does much more than create political entities and provide Israel with a theocracy. The Spirit also works progressively and cumulatively through historical redemptive revelation, both corporately and individually. Sinclair Ferguson writes: “Isaiah 63:7–14 clarifies this with its reflections on the Exodus, the great paradigmatic redemptive act of the Old Testament. (1) The Spirit is associated with the activity of Moses in working miracles (see Ex. 8:19)…. He is the divine witness-bearer to the redemptive activity of God (Isa. 63:11–12). (2) The Spirit leads and guides the people into the benediction of covenant fulfillment (Is. 63:14)…. (3) The Spirit is the executive of the Exodus-redemption wrought by God the Saviour (Is. 63:8).” [Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press,
1995), 24.]

The Spirit has an essential role in the redemptive life of each individual believer. Knowing that true faith is worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who uses the Word of God as His chosen instrument, we can say that wherever prophecy and revelation exist and wherever the Word of God is received by faith, the Holy Spirit is at work. The fruit of the Spirit delineated in Galatians 5:22–23 was already manifest in Old Testament believers. Whether it be Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the heroes of faith, the martyrs of God, His servants, the prophets, or the believing remnant of the house of Israel, the work of the Holy Spirit was evident in what they believed and how they lived. David said the Holy Spirit was the treasure of his life. Fearing that he might lose this treasure, he earnestly prayed, “Take not thy holy spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11).

Where there is life, the Spirit is at work. Where there is light, the Spirit is at work. Wherever the might of human sin and evil is limited by divine providence, the Spirit strives with men. Where there is faith, the Spirit is at work in the hearts of men, fulfilling both individually and corporately a variety of goals in redemptive history that will lead to His fuller ministry in the Lord Jesus Christ and the present New Testament age.

The Spirit’s Work in This Present Age

If the Spirit has been present in the world from the beginning, and if He has done such powerful and important work since then, how is the present age any different? What is so new about the New Testament? Viewed in one light, the answer is: nothing! The promises of God are as old as the covenant of grace. The way of justification is the same under both testaments. The principles and laws of God’s dealings with mankind remain the same. The purpose of God in exalting His Son and saving His people is unaltered.

But viewed in another light, the answer is: everything! When Christ entered the world to be “delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25), the Spirit’s presence was pervasive and powerful. The Spirit was present in the beginning of His incarnate existence (Luke 1:35), at His baptism (Mark 1:10), at His temptations in the wilderness (Mark 1:12), during His teaching (Luke 4:14), in His miracles (Matt. 12:28), throughout His emotional life (Luke 10:17, 21), and behind His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 8:11). But when Christ’s Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4), the ground moved underfoot. Ferguson writes: “Pentecost publicly marks the transition from the old to the new covenant…. It is the threshold of the last days, and inaugurates the new era in which the eschatological life of the future invades the present evil age…. Thus, from the New Testament’s standpoint, the ‘fulfilment [or “end”] of the ages had dawned’ on those who, through the gift of the Spirit, are ‘in Christ’ (1 Cor. 10:11). That which is ‘new’ in the new covenant ministry of the Spirit is therefore inextricably related to the significance of the Pentecost event.” [Ibid., 57–58.] What was a promise now is fulfilled. What was a hope, expressed in “types and shadows,” now is revealed as a body of substance and a new reality for us to enter and take hold by faith. What was so long hidden, unknown, and unacknowledged, is now revealed and proclaimed to the ends of the earth. What for so long was the privilege of a few blessed souls is now offered to whoever believes on the name of the only begotten Son of God. The outpouring of the Spirit ushers in a new era of character and nature as well as of scope or magnitude.

In this new age, the Spirit continues to do all His great works but in more profound ways and on a much larger scale. As the Spirit of Christ, He affects many more people with a more definite focus. The light showers of the pre-Pentecostal Spirit are transformed into the heavy showers of the post-Pentecostal Spirit, bringing about the conversion of millions over the centuries.

Having sustained the bodily life of man for so long, the Holy Spirit now more abundantly works inwardly in human hearts that were dead in trespasses and sins. His first work in this age of the gospel is to quicken the souls of the elect and prepare the soil of their hearts to receive the good seed of the Word of Christ. The Spirit who for so many ages worked with man to restrain human sin and evil now bombards the consciences of men with convicting power. He crushes resistance to the gospel, puts to flight the lies and errors of the devil, overthrows the citadels of unbelief, and provides the way for the gospel to do its work as the power of God in saving all who believe.

What amazing multitasking the Spirit does in the elect in uniting them to Christ and working out within the order of salvation! Consider only some of A. W. Pink’s chapter titles in his book on the Holy Spirit: the Spirit regenerates, quickens, enlightens, convicts, comforts, draws, works faith, unites to Christ, indwells, teaches, cleanses, leads, assures, witnesses, seals, assists, intercedes, transforms, preserves, confirms, fructifies, and endows (chaps. 10–31). We ought to appreciate and treasure the Spirit’s ministry within us far more than we are prone to do!

Moreover, the Spirit, who for so long has distributed the gifts of God to mankind in general, now takes special care to distribute the gifts of Christ among all the members of His body, the church. He furnishes the church with ministers, elders, and deacons; empowers the means of grace; and equips the people of God to minister to one another and to the needs of a hurting, broken world in the name of Christ. He blesses the witness of the church and extends the mission of the church to every part of the world.

For so long the Spirit worked in hidden ways among a chosen few; now He openly demonstrates His power, working powerfully in the lives of many and helping the church to grow as a kingdom of faith and love and holiness that one day will fill the earth. He does all this in the name of Christ — on His behalf, for His glory.

The Spirit inspires joy, peace, righteousness, and the witness of the love of God in our hearts. He labors among the followers of Christ with the joy and abandon of a hind let loose. It is as if the Spirit consented so long to work in a limited way in obedience to the Father and the Son, but now has that limitation removed. By Christ and under the gospel (particularly when Christ Himself is being gloriously preached), the Spirit now pours Himself out in all His fullness, unleashing His light, His power, His gifts, and His love for the people of God. Truly the age of Christ, the age of the gospel, is the age of the Spirit. And that age is inseparable from revival.

Excerpt from Puritan Reformed Journal Volume 2. Number 2 (2010)
By Joel Beeke