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James Montgomery Boice on The Holy Spirit: The Counselor Who Is Just Like Jesus

29 Sep

“THAT OTHER COMFORTER”

JOHN 13-17  VOL 4 JAMES BOICE

A SERMON BY DR. JAMES MONTGOMERY BOICE

John 14:16–18

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

The Christian church reaffirms its faith in the Holy Spirit every time it recites the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” But beyond this rather formal acknowledgment, in large sectors of the church one would be hard pressed to find a reference to the Third Person of the Trinity at all.

J. I. Packer has written of this ignorance: “Christian people are not in doubt as to the work that Christ did; they know that He redeemed men by His atoning death, even if they differ among themselves as to what exactly this involved. But the average Christian is in a complete fog as to what work the Holy Spirit does. Some talk of the Spirit of Christ in the way that one would talk of the Spirit of Christmas—as a vague cultural pressure making for bonhomie and religiosity. Some think of the Spirit as inspiring the moral convictions of unbelievers like Gandhi, or the theosophical mysticism of a Rudolf Steiner. But most, perhaps, do not think of the Holy Spirit at all, and have no positive ideas of any sort about what He does. They are for practical purposes in the same position as the disciples whom Paul met at Ephesus—‘We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost’ (Acts 9:2).” (J.I. Packer. Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 1973, 60).

Why is this? It is hard to say why. But one thing is certain: It is an abnormal situation. It is abnormal from the viewpoint of Christ’s teachings, for Christ clearly taught about the Holy Spirit. He did so in the verses we are studying in order to provide comfort to his disciples and to all who should follow them throughout the church age. Knowledge of the Holy Spirit and dependence upon the Holy Spirit are necessary conditions of doing those “greater things” that he mentions in verse 12. Ignorance of the Holy Spirit’s work is also abnormal from the viewpoint of the author of the fourth Gospel, for he has shown his interest by including many verses about the Holy Spirit in the last discourses.

Personality or Power?

The first point we must settle in our minds in regard to the Holy Spirit is whether the Holy Spirit is a real person, whose work it is to get hold of us and use us, or whether the Holy Spirit is merely some vague power we are to get hold of and use to our benefit. This is important as a mere matter of truth; for either the Holy Spirit is a real person, or he is not. But it is also important on a practical level. If we think of the Holy Spirit as a mysterious power, our thought will continually be, “How can I get more of the Holy Spirit?” If we think of the Holy Spirit as a person, our thought will be, “How can the Holy Spirit have more of me?” The first thought is entirely pagan. The second is New Testament Christianity.

Reuben A. Torrey, who has written an excellent book on the Holy Spirit, carefully spells this out: “The conception of the Holy Spirit as a Divine influence or power that we are somehow to get hold of and use, leads to self-exaltation and self-sufficiency. One who so thinks of the Holy Spirit and who at the same time imagines that he has received the Holy Spirit will almost inevitably be full of spiritual pride and strut about as if he belonged to some superior order of Christians. One frequently hears such persons say, ‘I am a Holy Ghost man,’ or ‘I am a Holy Ghost woman.’ But if we once grasp the thought that the Holy Spirit is a Divine Person of infinite majesty, glory and holiness and power, who in marvelous condescension has come into our hearts to make His abode there and take possession of our lives and make use of them, it will put us in the dust and keep us in the dust. I can think of no thought more humbling or more overwhelming than the thought that a person of Divine majesty and glory dwells in my heart and is ready to use even me” (R.A. Torrey, The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970, 8-9).

We see this difference illustrated in the pages of the New Testament, as we might expect. On the one hand, there is the case of Simon the magician, whose story is told in Acts 8:9–24. He apparently believed in Christ through the preaching of Philip at Samaria, for we are told that he “believed … and … was baptized” (v. 13). But he knew little about Christianity and therefore fell into the mistake of thinking that the Holy Spirit was a power to be purchased. He actually offered the disciples money in order to receive “it.” To this, Peter, who was also in Samaria at the time, responded, “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart” (vv. 20–22).

The other example is from the beginning of the missionary movement involving Paul and Barnabas. Of this we are told that “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ ” (Acts 13:2). In the one case, an individual wanted to get and use God, whom he imagined to be merely a power. In the second case, God got and used two individuals.

Words or Reality?

We must admit that when we begin to talk about the Holy Spirit as a person, we are attempting to put into words something that is actually larger than words. What we are saying is that the Holy Spirit is one member of the Trinity, equal in all ways to both the Father and the Son. But we are not saying that there are three gods, which the term “member” or even “person” seems to imply. There are three persons; but in a way which is beyond our understanding these three are also one. We also confess as the Old Testament does, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4).

In these verses Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit saying, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” This is a great promise, but it is great precisely because of the personality of the Spirit. If the Spirit were only a power, the promise would be in the nature of a compensation—“I am going to be taken from you, but I will give you something to make up for my departure.” This is not what this verse is talking about. It is not a thing that is being given, but rather another divine personality that is being sent. This one must have knowledge, for he will know of the disciples’ distress. He must have feelings, for he will identify with them in their distress and comfort them. He must have will, for he will determine to carry out this commission.

The personality of the Holy Spirit is evident from the Scriptures in other ways also. One commentator has summed up the evidence in the following six propositions:

1. The personal actions ascribed to the Holy Spirit prove his personality. An example is John 14:16–18, for there he is promised as a Counselor for Christians. One other example is 1 Corinthians 12:11, in which he is said to be at work in Christians, imparting those spiritual gifts necessary for the well-being of the church.

2. His distinction from the Father and Son and his mission from both prove his personality. Jesus indicates this relationship by saying, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

3. The coordinate rank and power that belong to the Holy Spirit equally with the Father and the Son prove it. All trinitarian benedictions make this point clearly. Thus, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Or again, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor. 13:14).

4. The appearance of the Holy Spirit under a visible form at the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ and on the day of Pentecost proves it. Of the former event it is written, “And the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ ” (Luke 3:22). Of the second instance it is written, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3).

5. The sin against the Holy Spirit proves it, for this implies offense against a personality. It is mentioned in Matthew 12:31–32.

6. The way in which the Holy Spirit is distinguished from his gifts also proves that he is a person and not merely a spiritual force or power. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 12, after having enumerated the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, the discerning of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, Paul writes, “But all these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, original ed., 1882. Carlisle, PA.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1961, 109).

Here are six separate and conclusive lines of argument showing that the Holy Spirit is a person. But the problem we have is still probably not so much the doctrine itself as our attitude toward him. Theoretically we probably do believe that the Holy Spirit is a person, the third person of the Godhead. But do we actually think about him in this way? Perhaps we do what a woman did who had attended a series of messages on the Holy Spirit at a Bible conference years ago. She listened carefully and then came up to the speaker to thank him for his teaching. She said, “Before your messages I never thought of it as a person.” Apparently she was not thinking of him as a person even then.

Is He God?

The first point that the Lord Jesus makes in his teaching about the Holy Spirit is that he is a person, as we have seen. But what sort of a person is he? Is he an angel? Is he a being superior to an angel but inferior to both the Father and the Son? Or is he equal to the Father and the Son? Is he God? Actually, we have already begun to answer these questions in talking about the personality of the Spirit, but the answer is also taught in the verses that constitute our text.

Here the Lord speaks of the Holy Spirit as “another Counselor.” It is important in understanding Christ’s words to notice that there are two different words for “another” in the Greek New Testament. One word is allos, the word we have here; it means “another just like the first one.” The second word, heteros, means “totally different.” Since there are these two words with two meanings it is always important to know which one is used whenever the word “another” occurs in the English text. It is the first word, the word meaning “another exactly like the first one,” that is used when Jesus speaks of sending the disciples “another Counselor.”

Who is the first Counselor? It is obviously Jesus himself. Therefore, the second Counselor is to be just like him. That is, he is to be another divine being living with them and in them.

Once again, as in the matter of the personality of the Holy Spirit, other parts of Scripture reinforce this teaching. We may summarize the points thus:

1. Divine attributes are ascribed to the Spirit. The word “holy” is itself a divine attribute, at least in its most exalted sense. So also are the attributes of omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10–11; John 16:12–13), omnipotence (Luke 1:35), and omnipresence (Ps. 139:7–10).

2. Works that are exclusively the works of God are attributed to the Holy Spirit. Creation is one example. In the Book of Job we read, “By his breath the skies became fair” (26:13) and “The Spirit of God has made me” (33:4). The Holy Spirit is described as the One who imparts life, another divine work (John 3:6; Rom 8:11). He is the One responsible for the giving forth of the Word of God, the Bible. “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

3. The Holy Spirit is ranked coordinate with God the Father and God the Son. The benedictions cited earlier are examples of this.

4. The name of God is indirectly given to him. The clearest example of this is in Acts 5:3–4, where Peter says to Ananias, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit? … Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” 

Practical Theology

Does it really matter that we know and constantly recognize that the Holy Spirit is divine? Yes, it does, for if we know and constantly recognize his deity, we will recognize and rely on his work. If we do not, then we will foolishly rely on our own limited wisdom, love, strength and other resources, and forfeit that which he alone can provide.

In his writings on the Holy Spirit to which I referred at the start of this study, J. I. Packer asks these pertinent questions: “Do we honour the Holy Spirit by recognising and relying on His work? Or do we slight Him by ignoring it, and thereby dishonour, not merely the Spirit, but the Lord who sent Him? In our faith: do we acknowledge the authority of the Bible, the prophetic Old Testament and the apostolic New Testament which He inspired? Do we read and hear it with the reverence and receptiveness that are due to the Word of God? If not, we dishonour the Holy Spirit. In our life: do we apply the authority of the Bible, and live by the Bible, whatever men may say against it, recognising that God’s word cannot but be true, and that what God has said He certainly means, and will stand to? If not, we dishonour the Holy Spirit, who gave us the Bible. In our witness: do we remember that the Holy Spirit alone, by His witness, can authenticate our witness, and look to Him to do so, and trust Him to do so, and show the reality of our trust, as Paul did, by eschewing the gimmicks of human cleverness? If not, we dishonour the Holy Spirit” (Packer, Knowing God, 63).

The personality and deity of the Holy Spirit, as well as other truths about him, are practical teachings. What remains is that we take them down off the shelf of high theology and put them to work in our lives.

About the Author

Boice JM in pulpit

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 183 in John 13-17: An Expositional Commentary. vol. 4. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 2006.

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