The Holy Spirit in Salvation — Conviction; Regeneration; Sealing; Assurance.
"O Lord, how blest our journey, tho' here on earth we roam,
Who find in Abba's favor our spirit's present home!
For where Thou now art sitting by faith we've found repose,
Free to look up to heaven, since our blest Head arose.
In spirit there already; soon we ourselves shall be
In soul and body perfect, all glorified, with Thee:
Thy Father's love sustains us along the thorny way,
Thy Father's house the dwelling made ready for that day.
The Comforter, now present, assures us of Thy love;
He is the blessed earnest of glory there above:
The river of Thy pleasure is what sustains us now,
Till Thy new name's imprinted on ev'ry sinless brow.
Lord, we await Thy glory; we have no home but there,
Where the adopted family with us Thy joy shall share.
No place can fully please us where Thou O Lord, art not;
In Thee, and with Thee, ever is found, by grace, our lot."
Salvation is a term of quite varied meaning in the Scriptures, ranging from the deliverance out of any special strait, as Paul out of prison (Phil. 1:9), the victory over the daily trials and temptations, the redemption of the body, and of the spirit. God is the Saviour of all men — in that He preserves and sustains all flesh. We have the Father as Saviour in that it is His grace and love that gave His Son, and chose us in Him. The Son is Saviour because He laid down His life for us, accomplishing a work which has both glorified God and met our every need. The Spirit is Saviour by virtue of the work of regeneration and all that is connected with it, including the seal and assurance of salvation. This last is what will occupy us tonight.
Before, however, we come to our subject, there is a work of the Spirit in men which, for want of a better term, we may call ineffectual. By ineffectual it need hardly be said that the result only is looked at. It does not result in salvation. There can be no thought — which would surely be blasphemy — of inability on His part; but man hardens his heart and refuses to yield. And yet, even in this God's righteousness is vindicated. As the apostle says, "We are unto God a sweet savor of Christ in them that are saved and in them that perish: to the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life" (2 Cor. 2:15, 16). Solemn thought! Every mouth will be closed and all the universe will bow before God. Well may the apostle add, "Who is sufficient for these things;" not only the service with its arduous trials, but the solemn and eternal results.
We will turn first to a passage in the book of Genesis, chapter 6:3, "And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man." It seems that from the fall to the flood God left man completely to the light of nature, his own conscience and the strivings of the Holy Spirit. No government was established — apparently crime went unpunished — and there were none of the restraints, religious and civil, which He later established. Man was left to himself, save that there was the constant witness of the deity and power of God in His works, and of His goodness in His providential care. Doubtless there was the history of the first sin and its awful consequences, and the mysterious promise of future deliverance through the woman's Seed. Added to this was the faithful testimony of a man like Enoch, who told of approaching judgment upon the ungodly (Jude 14, 15).
These were the instrumentalities used by the Spirit of God in striving with man's conscience: the fall, sin and the judgment of God; His power and goodness leading men to repentance, and the promise of the woman's Seed. There was also the witness of death, well calculated to call upon man to prepare to meet his God. All this work of the Spirit was upon man's moral nature; it was the persuasion, as of a man, only with divine wisdom and yearning, to lead him from the paths of folly.
What was the result of this striving? The earth was utterly corrupt and filled with violence. Every imagination of men's heart was only evil continually. Judgment begat no terrors, mercy and goodness produced no softening: they went on as ever, eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the flood came and destroyed them all.
Without doubt this striving of the Holy Spirit has continued and will continue till the close of the day of grace. New revelations have been given, new restraints imposed — lawlessness has been limited by government. Above all the Cross has come in as the revelation of the justice and love of God — His love to a guilty world. Thus the material, if we may so speak, has been increased, but the striving of the Spirit has gone on ever since; with what result our next quotation will show.
"Ye stiff-necked, and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did so do ye" (Acts 7:51). Stephen had been reviewing the history of Israel under the promises and revelations of God. He had shown that at every fresh step in the unfolding of His purposes of love, God had been met with opposition. Moses had been sent, the people had been brought out of Egypt, had been set in the land, the tabernacle had been established as a divine centre, the kingdom set up under David, a temple built by Solomon. Each step had been taken after failure on their part to enjoy what had been previously bestowed, and each step afforded but fresh occasion for them to resist the Holy Ghost. They despised Moses; they set up the golden calf; turned back, in heart, to Egypt; failed to drive out the Gentiles in the land, when brought there by Joshua; despised the Lord's offering, and compelled Him to forsake the tabernacle at Shiloh. When the temple was built and Solomon's reign of glory had been inaugurated, deeper apostasy marked both king and people, and the darkness deepened till the nation was carried away to Babylon.
Thus the people resisted the strivings of the Holy Spirit. Of course, there were individual exceptions, and multitudes in total who yielded. But the nation as a whole is described as resisting the Spirit.
The same has been true under Christianity. Added light has been given, and greater inducements than could have been conceived to lead men to accept the love of God. And yet the Spirit is resisted today as He was in Noah's day and in Stephen's. Every testimony of God, every providential act is used by the Spirit, but how often in vain. Never is there a special season of effort for souls, never a marked interest and much blessing, but it is accompanied by this awful resistance of the Spirit.
Next to resistance of the Spirit we will look at a still darker form of evil — the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men" (Matt. 12:31).
It was but the next consistent step for a people who had always resisted the Holy Ghost to go further and blaspheme Him. As this is a subject but little understood, and one which has been the source of much suffering to sensitive consciences, it is well for us to see clearly what "the unpardonable sin" is. It is often explained in a way which contradicts the gospel itself, and throws the precious truths of grace into the utmost confusion. A little careful reading of the connection of the passage will show what this awful sin was. I say was, for in a very real sense it is impossible for this sin to be committed now.
Our Lord had been casting out a demon, had been showing the power of the Spirit of God, through whom He performed all his miracles (see Acts 10:38). Beholding this power used to destroy the works of the devil, in the face of this witness, the leaders ascribed it to the devil. "He casteth out demons by Beelzebub." In Mark it is said "because they said He hath an unclean spirit." Thus the rulers called the Holy Ghost the devil. What was left for a people who confounded God and Satan (awful thought), what forgiveness could there be for those who, not in ignorance, but wilfully and deliberately thus acted?
But you will perceive that this peculiar form of blasphemy was necessarily confined to the time when our Lord was upon earth. His works had to be seen, His power over Satan clearly manifest in the miracle, before this climax of wickedness and enmity could find expression. None could commit the sin against the Holy Ghost now.
But ere we close this part of our subject, there is a solemn passage which applies to Christianity as the previous one did to Judaism. "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God . . . and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:28, 29).
This is one of those passages, peculiar to the epistle to the Hebrews, which refers to the sin of apostasy, giving up Christ and going back to Judaism. In the 6th chapter where a similar passage occurs, the apostle enumerates some of the blessings enjoyed by those who made a profession of Christianity. Among other things he says they "were made partakers of the Holy Ghost." A careful study of the passage, as well as the general subject of the epistle, will show that the blessings enumerated were external and not vital. Thus the partaking of the Holy Ghost did not mean baptism or indwelling by the Spirit, but introduction into the full blaze of Christian light, participation in the ministry of the Spirit in the Church, witnessing the powers of the coming age — in short, enjoying all the marvelous blessing into which Christianity introduced out of Judaism.
Now, when one had received all this light, and had professed to follow it, but had his heart unmoved, unbroken, and finally turned back into that from which he had been rescued, he was like ground which in response to rain from heaven yielded but thorns and briars. What hope could there be for such an one? He had trodden under foot the Son of God and openly insulted, as the word is, the Spirit of grace.
It is not my purpose to take the edge off the warnings of God's word, but it is well for us to clearly understand them. Open and deliberate apostasy is here meant, and not falling into sin, grievous and awful as that is. It is a distinct, deliberate and final trampling upon Christ, and is therefore closely allied with the sin against the Holy Ghost. It was a sin to which the Hebrews were peculiarly exposed, I would almost say exclusively, and one possible chiefly when the energy of the Spirit was unchecked, in the first bright days of His work. Now, alas! worldliness has so crept in that there is little need for Satan to lead men to apostatize; he lets them remain in the professing Church and carry the world into it. In those days the lines were sharply drawn and a man was either for Christ or against Him.
Thus we have seen four phases of ineffectual work on the part of the Spirit, because of the awful wickedness of man's heart. He strives, but is resisted; He was blasphemed, and openly insulted. Passing now to brighter themes, can we not say with the apostle, "But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you and things that accompany salvation?"
The first work of the Spirit which is effectual for salvation is the conviction of sin. There is a remarkable passage which so clearly presents this work of conviction by the Spirit, that we must examine it with some care. Our Lord, in His closing address to His disciples, to which we have already referred more than once, after telling them (John 16:7) that it was expedient (to their advantage) that He should leave them and go to the Father, in order that He might send them the Spirit, describes the work of this blessed Person in the world and in saints. As to the saints, we will take that up at another time, merely noticing as we pass that the great work is to guide them into all truth. But as to conviction of the world we will notice how complete it is. I quote the entire passage.
"And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father and ye see me no more; of judgment because the prince of this world is judged" (John 16:8-11). It will be noticed that the entire work of the Spirit, so far as the world is concerned, is conviction or reproof. The light can only make manifest the works of darkness. Until those works are seen and judged, the Spirit can only maintain that testimony, there can be no work as "Comforter." In fact, the word so rendered is hardly that, but the same as the one rendered "Advocate" in the first epistle of John. It is one who undertakes the whole work for another, an agent, if we may use such language.
Are we wrong in thinking of the Spirit as our Lord's advocate or agent here, in His absence, carrying on His work, fulfilling His will? Undoubtedly He is also the advocate for His people too, looking to all their interests and ministering to all their needs. In this way He might be designated "Comforter." But in relation to the world He represents Christ. Just as our Lord, when He was here, by His testimony convinced the world of sin — "Me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil" (John 7:7) — so now the Spirit as His representative, continues this work of conviction in the world at large and in individuals.
This conviction is threefold — of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. Three is the number of complete manifestation, and the result of this conviction is to manifest man fully as he is. No hiding-place is left where he can escape the solemn conclusion pressed upon him by the Spirit of truth. The light manifests him, reproves him, showing him his present state as a guilty man and the future of judgment looming dark in the not very distant background.
From the fall, without doubt, the Spirit of God has been convincing men of sin. He never left Himself without a witness, and what we have seen of the striving of the Spirit shows how conscience was constantly appealed to. But when Christ came, the manifestation of the character of God — going about doing good, in meekness testifying of righteousness and of love — the sin which had up to that time found expression in the lusts of self-will, all comes to a centre. Sin will now be shown as such in one act. Men might argue that in spite of this or that wrong, they were not bad at heart — just as they argue today. But now God gives the opportunity for man to show what he was. "If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloak for their sin" (John 15:22).
In the days of "moderatism" in the church of Scotland, a preacher in the morning said, "If virtue were to appear upon the earth incarnate, ravished by her beauty men would fall down and worship her." In the evening a servant of Christ, occupying the same pulpit, during his discourse said, "Virtue incarnate did come to earth, and men's cry was, 'Away with Him, crucify Him.'" And surely this is true. Christ has come, and into His bosom has gathered all the hatred and wickedness of a world without God. The spear that pierced Him represents man's hatred, man's sin. Blessed be God it opened the way for all the infinite love of God to flow out.
So, now, the Spirit in His work of conviction, brings this one fact to bear upon man's conscience. What has he done with Christ, what has been his thought of Christ? Take an average congregation of hearers; we could not preach to them as murderers, thieves, or grossly immoral. Much of this would fall off from their armor-encased consciences and hearts. But when the personal claims of Christ are presented, when they are asked whether he is to them individually the object of faith and love — all other differences vanish, every man is alike convicted of sin.
Here is common ground for all — the lofty moralist, the delicate, refined woman and the gross sensualist — all are alike concluded under sin, because they have not believed in Christ, Unbelief makes common company of all men. They would not have recognized the common tie in any other way. They can look down upon those inferior in position and lower in morals, but here they are together — all alike in this one fact which God has made the pivot.
But we must guard against a misapprehension which has obtained in some quarters, that now unbelief is the only sin of which men stand guilty before God. Surely in a world reeking with every form of iniquity, it will hardly be necessary to deny this. The argument is, that when our Lord died, He bore and put away all sin, that God does not look upon men as sinners because of what they have done, but simply because of their rejection of Christ.
Surely when the Spirit of God now convicts of sin He does not do less than He did before the cross. The rejection of Christ does not obliterate but emphasizes every other sin committed. Here is a possible atonement for heinous sins: the atonement is rejected and this makes the sins all the more heinous. In the final judgment, the books are opened, in which the record of the life has been kept. The book of life is also opened, and thus we see men are judged both for what they have committed and for their unbelief.
Now, it is the special work of the Spirit, through His instruments, those whom He fills, to bring home to the world its guilt in the rejection of Christ. Looked at in another way, it is the sins we have committed which crucified the Lord. In a very real way the convicted soul realizes this, and amid all the cries of hatred and rage and scorn in the rabble that stood around the cross he can distinguish his own voice. Thus the Spirit convicts of sin. In the case of the Jews, there had been the direct and actual rejection, "We will not have this man to rule over us."
Next, the Spirit convicts of righteousness. I think this is very little understood; the words are very simple and we are apt to use them without attaching any special meaning to them. What is it to be convicted of righteousness, and how does the Spirit convict the world of this? Already His work has been, as we have seen, to convict the world of sin. Manifestly, it would be a contradiction to suppose that the Spirit proved to the world its own righteousness. It has none — only sin.
He convicts of sin, "because I go to my Father and ye see me no more." The whole world is lying in the wicked one — it has no righteousness. The sentence of God is, "There is none righteous; no not one." But the Spirit brings a solemn reminder of where righteousness is. Once it was upon earth, in the person of the blessed Son of God, who always did His Father's will. But we look for it here in vain. All has lapsed, so far as the world is concerned, into the unrelieved darkness of sin. How this links with that previous conviction of sin, Christ is no longer here.
Thus the world is convicted of righteousness in the fact that Jesus is now with the Father. They treated Him as a malefactor, as a blasphemer against God, as a plotter against the stability of government. That was their estimate of Christ. But God has raised Him from the dead and placed him at His own right hand. He has lifted Him out of the lowest shame in which man's estimate had put Him and exalted Him to the highest place in Heaven. The righteousness which the world would not have, God has received into heaven and enthroned it there! What an awful conviction. God could not righteously leave His Holy One under the imputation of guilt. He must declare His righteousness, and so He is raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. What a vindication of the Lord! What a condemnation of the world! Well might the apostle give the resurrection of Christ as God's assurance of coming judgment (Acts 17:31).
There is another and blessed side to this at which we can but glance. If, after His work of sin-bearing was complete, God has raised His Son and glorified Him, is it not a proof that God has in righteousness accepted that work? And that now He can righteously forgive the sinner who believes in Jesus? So He is just, and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus. Thus God's righteousness is manifested in the resurrection and seating of Christ in glory, and that righteousness is for, not against, every soul that believeth in Jesus. But this emphasizes afresh the guilt of a world which rejects Him. It cast Him out when He came, and now, having no righteousness of its own, it still refuses Him who, if it would receive Him, would be made righteousness for it.
For a world that has refused Christ and has no righteousness of its own (righteousness on the throne being the proof of its guilt) there is but one thing left — judgment. So the last convicting work of the Spirit is to bring home the fact of judgment upon the consciences of men. This He does, not merely by warning of a judgment in the future — "as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" — but He brings home the fact that judgment has already been pronounced and inflicted — in the mind of God — upon the prince of this world.
It is not some obscure person who has thus been judged, but the ruler and prince of this world — Satan himself. Little did he think in his plottings, entering into Judas, bringing together all the powers of darkness, that he was but hastening his own doom, and that in the very hour of his greatest apparent triumph, the judgment of God had fallen upon him. True, he was bruising the heel of the woman's Seed, but his own head was crushed by the mighty Victor.
But how much this means for the world. If the prince has fallen under judgment, how can his subjects hope to escape? If the mighty strong man who held all the world as his "goods," has succumbed to the power of a stronger than he, where will poor, puny man hide from the awful doom that awaits him?
Thus the cross declares the judgment, both of Satan and of the world. Not an uncertain thing, as we have seen, in the future, but an accomplished fact in the head and representative of all, the one whom the world had chosen for itself.
Here, again, however, for faith, the very conviction of judgment brings the promise of deliverance. Is the ruler — the one who held me in bondage — judged? Has he, who had the power of death, been annulled? Then is there not deliverance for me, if I do but accept this judgment of the cross and flee, in faith, to the One there smitten for me?
Thus we have the full conviction of the world by the Spirit — of sin, righteousness, and judgment. After this conviction, self-righteousness cannot lift its head. Man without excuse stands, as it were, in eternity and before Almighty God. God the Holy Ghost has brought him there, and the work of conviction is done. Nothing is left but the blackness of darkness forever, or, blessed be God, full salvation.
May I speak of a fact too common, alas, to have escaped your observation? We are living in times of superficial conviction. Souls are not plowed up by the Spirit of God, as He would do. Men say, "Peace, peace," too easily. The sinner is not made to realize the awfulness of his position — a guilty, lost and helpless soul on the brink of eternity. I know this is not considered popular preaching, and that it is hardly thought proper or wise to speak of the hell of eternity that awaits Christ-rejectors.
As a result, the work of conviction is very superficial, and, even when real, of but shallow depth. Souls must be convicted of sin if they are to receive the gospel. That gospel is not a mere piece of logic to be reasoned about: "All men are sinners; Christ died for sinners; therefore He died for me." Cold, heartless, lifeless acquiescense in this is not faith, nor salvation. It is the awakened soul that realizes what it is to be lost that can appreciate, as cold water to a thirsty man, the gospel of the grace of God. Men trim down the solemn fact of man's sin, and thus the Spirit's work of conviction is hindered. What wonder that the professing church is full of unsaved souls.
But let us take an example of this convicting work of the Spirit. I think you will find without forcing, the three features, conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It is the first gospel sermon preached, after the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, by Peter. We might use his own language, "preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven."
First, as to conviction of sin, he brings home to them the fact of their rejection of Christ: "Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain" (Acts 2:23). Here the Holy Ghost brings home the fact of their sin. It was not now a question of this and that transgression, but they had refused to believe on Christ — had rejected Him.
Next, he convicts them of righteousness, because Jesus had gone to the Father: "Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be holden of it . . . Therefore, being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this which ye now see and hear" (Acts 2:24, 33). How clearly God had manifested His righteousness, and vindicated His beloved Son in thus raising and exalting Him to the right hand of power.
Not so prominently, but still clearly there, the Spirit of God had brought home to them the reality of judgment: "I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath, blood and fire, and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come" (Acts 2:19, 20). All nature would quake in the presence of its Judge, and this judgment was imminent.
Thus we have the threefold conviction of sin, and what was the result? "Now, when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles: Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Blessed work! Is there not joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth? and here were three thousand souls crying under conviction — the mighty work of the Spirit of God. Blessed and easy work now for Peter to set Christ before them, and to assure them of free forgiveness in His name, and of the gift of the Spirit. They believed his word and confessed Christ.
Now, this brings us to the next division of our subject: regeneration or new birth. We have dwelt at length upon conviction, but I shall not regret it if it deepen in our souls a sense of the immense importance of this, if souls are to be born to God. Let me quote from Scripture:
"He came unto His own and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him to them gave He power (or the right) to become the sons (or children) of God, even to them that believe on His name: who were born, not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:11-13). We have just seen the convicted Jews receiving Christ. Here we are told that such reception constitutes new birth. Souls are born again, born of God, as His children, who receive the rejected Saviour.
Connected with this passage is the familiar proof text as to new birth. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). He is incapable of seeing, or apprehending the precious reality of God's spiritual Kingdom, because he has not been born again. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" (John 3:5). He has no right, no authority, to enter a scene for which by nature he is unfitted. He must be born of water — surely not baptism. Who could conceive of literal water imparting a nature or giving a title? Ritualism has read baptism into the third chapter of John, and the Lord's supper into the sixth chapter, where eating Christ's flesh and drinking His blood is spoken of; and in neither is there a hint of baptism or the Lord's supper. Born of water is, as we shall see in a moment, born of the Spirit by the word of God; and eating Christ's flesh and drinking His blood is actual appropriation by faith of the value of His atoning death. But such is ritualism in all its forms — it robs us of divine realities and leaves us forms instead; forms all the more misleading for the unstable, because they were instituted by our Lord, and, in their place, are of priceless value.
But let us return to the expression, "born of water and of the Spirit," for just here we will find help in understanding new birth. Water is a constant type in the Old Testament of the Spirit Himself, but always of the Spirit in the vehicle He uses, if I may use such an expression. There are in the New Testament several passages which, taken together, make very clear what this vehicle is.
"Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever" (1 Peter 1:23). Here new birth is ascribed to the living word of God. "Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word" (Eph. 5:25, 26). Here the cleansing and sanctifying action of water is said to be "by the Word." Thus, most clearly, water is a type or symbol of the word of God, and by it souls are born a new.
It is evident that our Lord refers in this passage to the use of water as seen in Ezekiel 36:25, "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness and from all your idols, will I cleanse you." The cleansings under the law were ceremonial and external, and therefore unavailing. The prophet declares, and our Lord repeats, that this was to be real. A cleansing, not by purifying the flesh, but by a new birth, through the Spirit of God.
Returning now to the third of John, we understand our Lord to teach that new birth is absolutely essential for entrance in the Kingdom of God, and that this birth is by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the word of God received by faith. For we saw that those who believed on His name were those who were born of God. Here we see the beautiful suitability of our Lord's presenting His cross and Himself as the object of faith to a man like Nicodemus, outwardly moral, but who needed new birth, and this new birth must be by the Spirit's power making use of the gospel of the grace of God.
So far, all seems and is clear. It is only when men begin to reason about God's truth that a haze falls over it. Does new birth precede faith, or does it follow it? Such questions seek to separate what God has indissolubly joined together. That there are mysteries here, none would question. Does not our Lord say: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8)? Here is mystery, and there must be in divine things. God is sovereign, and His work must be to some extent inscrutable to finite minds. But we must not reduce to the compass of logic these mighty truths. Surely, it suffices to say new birth is a sovereign act of God, that He is first in it, and that it is by the Word through faith.
Can we go further and ask what is the character of this new birth? Undoubtedly we may, when we simply follow Scripture. What, then, is new birth? Looking to the close of the third of John we read, "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life," and this statement is repeated again and again throughout this Gospel, so much so, indeed, that we may safely say eternal life is the theme of John.
Birth is the beginning of man's earthly life — looking upon the impartation and birth as parts of one whole. A child begins, for us, to live when he is born, he receives life at his birth. So, following the analogy, at new birth the man receives life — spiritual life; he begins to live to God, and is now His child.
Connecting this with the verse just quoted, and remembering that faith is an integral element in new birth, we have the simple and self-evident fact that new birth is the impartation of spiritual life, of divine, eternal life, to the soul. I need not add that eternal life does not mean merely immortal existence. Life, in John, is not mere existence. All men are immortal by their very constitution. To say that a man is dead in sins does not mean that he has ceased to exist — far from it — but that he has no relationship with God.
Let us turn to another scripture that completes the thought: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God" (1 John 3:9). How beautifully clear is this! God is the author of new birth. Is He the author of sin? When we ascribe moral character to a life or a person we speak of it as nature. Here we are told that as born of God we have a nature sinless and incapable of sin. The soul is born of God; the divine seed is permanent, and it is incapable of being corrupted. New birth, then, is the impartation of a sinless nature.
You have heard of the familiar illustration which is used to explain the existence of the flesh, the old nature, in the believer also. A nursery-man plants, we will say, a quantity of peach seeds. They grow up, but are seedlings, merely natural growth with a positive tendency to degeneration. For him these trees are worthless, unless they are, as it were, born again — that is, they must have a new nature, a new life imparted. He goes to a tree of approved quality, and from it takes buds which he introduces into the life of the young trees. When vital connection is established, he calls his trees not by the name of seedlings, but by the name of the tree from which the bud was taken. They have become partakers really of the nature of that tree, and though but a tiny bud is all he has to show for it, they are thus called by that name.
We know further, that he soon cuts away the old and worthless part of the tree, leaving the bud to develop and bear its proper fruit. It cannot bear any other, and the whole tree is known by the bud; everything else is an excrescence, to be cut off. Should new shoots start out from the natural root, they have the character, the nature of the original seed, and would bear worthless fruit. This illustrates our Lord's words, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
One further passage claims our attention in connection with the subject of new birth. "According to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7). I have quoted the connection as showing that the subject before the apostle includes more than new birth, going on to heirship, and taking in justification.
The word here is not the same as in the third chapter of John. It is the same word as is used in Matthew 19:28, where it refers to the Millennium, the new surroundings for God's regenerate earthly people. Thus the cleansing in Titus is one which implants a new nature, and looks on to the full surroundings of the new creation. It would, I should say, include new birth and more.
I will merely, ere leaving this branch of our subject, remind you that this new birth is no light thing. It is not profession, nor is it merely repentance, but it is actual birth. Then, too, it is the sovereign, gracious act of God. It is not of the will of man, but of God. "Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth" (James 1:18).
We now come to the subject of sealing, which we may well connect with what has gone before, for God does not leave His work without His stamp upon it. In the passage just quoted from Titus, you notice that we have not only the renewing of the Holy Ghost, but the shedding or pouring out of the Spirit. This leads us to what is now before us.
You have also noticed the prominent place that faith occupies. I need hardly mention this: "without faith it is impossible to please God." I will now quote a scripture, which, beginning with faith, passes on to something else: "In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of His glory" (Eph. 1:13, 14).
Faith, here, has come by hearing the word of truth. The gospel of their salvation was preached and accepted and Christ was trusted in. The souls were saved — justified and accepted before God. He now gives them the Holy Spirit, as promised, as a seal upon the work of Christ. The Spirit comes thus upon every believer, as the divine mark that he belongs to God.
It is beautiful to see how the sealing and the earnest go together. The same is seen in another scripture: "Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts" (2 Cor. 1:22). The seal is the first thing the saved soul gets, and the inheritance is the last — for that is "reserved in heaven for us." But the Holy Spirit, a living, divine person, links these two together.
Another passage in Ephesians illustrates this: "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption" (Eph. 4:30). How often is that verse misquoted and misunderstood by the saints of God. It is made to teach the very opposite of what it means, and simply by the addition of a single word, "away." "Add thou not unto His words lest He reprove thee and thou be found a liar" (Prov. 30:6). By the addition of this one little word this verse is made to teach that by sin we can grieve away the Holy Spirit, and this is embodied in verse and sung by multitudes: —
"Return, O holy Dove, return,
Sweet Messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast."
Could anything be more opposite to the truth? The Spirit abides with us forever, and the very verse tells us that we are sealed "unto the day of redemption." Sad indeed it is to grieve, by bitterness or malice, that Heavenly Guest, but sadder far would it be if He were to leave us, for that would mean the denial of Christ's work, and our eternal undoing.
Blessed be God! He abides with us forever, and binds together, by His presence, the first acceptance of light with its final consummation in glory.
He is called, as we have seen, the earnest of the inheritance. In a passage which looks on to the resurrection glories, the apostle says: "Now, He that hath wrought us for the self-same thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 5:5). An earnest is both a pledge and a foretaste of the inheritance. It was a part payment, which, being accepted, was a pledge that all would be given. To give and receive earnest-money bound both buyer and seller. So the sealing of the Spirit binds — may we say? — our blessed God to fulfil His promise. How poor such language is and yet it shows the security of the weakest believer, who now can sing: —
"And we to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure,
The spirits departed to heaven."
But more: the earnest was a part payment in kind. The full payment would be of the same character as the earnest. So we are said to have received "the first-fruits of the Spirit" (Rom. 8:23). Greatly rejoicing, and yet now for a season in heaviness through manifold trials, as Peter says. The first-fruits of the Spirit remind us of those fruits of the land brought by the spies to their brethren yet in the wilderness. To faith, those fruits were the pledge that the inheritance was theirs but they were also a sample of the fruits yielded by that good land.
So now, the Spirit is the foretaste, here in this wilderness world, of the joys and delights of heaven. Every view of the love of God, every unfolding of His grace, every manifestation of the beauties of Christ, all the sweets of "the fellowship of kindred minds" — these and all else of the precious witness of that Holy One, are foretastes of the coming feast. These Eshcol grapes are but a cluster of fruit from the tree of life in the midst of the Paradise of God, the tree that grows by the River of water of Life, in the Heavenly City, our home.
"Eshcol's grapes the story tell
Of where our path doth lead."
But let us return for a little to this type of sealing, to gather more clearly its meaning and get more of the comfort of it. Looking through our Bibles for Scripture examples, we meet with several that certainly are most suggestive.
When Esther had obtained grace at the hands of king Ahasuerus, and was to undo as far as possible the evil which Haman had already been authorized to inflict upon her people, she was authorized to write a letter in the king's name and seal it with the king's ring, permitting the Jews to resist to the utmost all assaults upon them. This seal gave the full authorization of the king to the letter. It might be written in the faint, trembling hand of the woman, or in the strong hand of Mordecai, but what gave it authority and value was the seal of the king. A gentleman of wealth desires to give a check. His bookkeeper has left the office, and he gets an office boy to fill out name and amount on the blank form. The boy brings the check, written in his cramped, unsightly style, to the master, who signs it with his name. Is the check any less valuable because written by the boy? Would it be worth more if written in the firm, elegant hand of the bookkeeper? Not a cent more. The name of the gentleman authenticates it and imparts to it its full value, for which all his deposit in bank is responsible.
So with the seal of the Spirit. We are, in one way, but poorly written epistles of Christ. With some of us the handwriting is cramped and blotted, and with others faint and trembling; but, blessed be God, His signature is ever the same, the Holy Ghost Himself! This authenticates us. Who dare say we do not belong to God; that we are not Christ's? It is only of those who have not the Spirit that it can he said, "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His" (Rom. 8:9). But, as we have seen, the Spirit's seal is given upon faith in Christ.
A beautiful illustration of this occurs in the Levitical ordinances of the Old Testament. In the consecration of the priests and in the restoration of the leper, the blood of sacrifice was put upon ear and hand and foot, marking the whole man as redeemed (Lev. 8:23; Lev. 14:14). After this application of the blood they were sprinkled with oil — type of the Spirit. Particularly in the case of the leper, we are told that the oil was put upon ear and hand and foot, upon the blood. So the Spirit of God seals us because of the blood, the work of Christ. It is not a matter of personal worthiness or of personal faithfulness, but of the value of the work of Christ. Have we rested in that? Then we are sealed — divinely authenticated as belonging to God — by His Spirit.
This gives special meaning and beauty to the words of king Ahasuerus, which I am glad to quote, because the book of Esther is much neglected by the Lord's people. "For the writing which is written in the king's name and sealed with the king's ring may no man reverse" (Esther 8:8). Think of that, ye trembling saints. Ye are sealed with the King's seal, confessed and owned as His.
A seal also secured from molestation. When Darius issued his hasty edict, based on pride, and Daniel came under its provisions, he could not alter it, for it was signed with his name (Dan. 6:9). Therefore Daniel had to be cast into the den of lions, and the den was closed and sealed with the king's own signet (Dan. 6:17). This was to guard the den from all molestation, whether by friend or foe. No one could tamper with Daniel. What a comfort it is to know that we are thus guarded from all molestation by the presence of God's seal, the Holy Spirit. Everything that comes to us is of His permitting; nothing else can touch us. We are a garden enclosed, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed (Cant. 4:12), for the Lord's own use.
This thought is carried further in another scripture — the sealing of the 144,000 of Israel prior to the great tribulation (Rev. 7). The awful hour of trial was to try the dwellers upon earth. It was to be a time of trouble such as had never been seen in the earth; these saints were to be subjected to all manner of persecution, but not a hair of their heads was to perish, for they were sealed with the seal of the living God.
We, too, have been sealed, and through every form of trial, temptation, assault — yea, failure — we are kept inviolate. Satan may be permitted to sift us as he did Job and Peter, but the seal of the living God is the pledge of our being brought safely through all "unto the praise of His glory."
Once more, the seal was the sign of secrecy. A book sealed could not be opened and its contents read — as in Rev. 5:1, 2; Rev. 10:4; Dan. 12:4, 9. So also the Lord's people are, in one sense, a special people. They are God's "hidden ones." The apostle writes of them, "Therefore the world knoweth us not, as it knew Him not" (1 John 3:1). The world thinks it strange that we "run not with them to the same excess of riot" (1 Peter 4:4). The world cannot understand the secret of our joy, of our strength, of our growth, of our separation; for we are sealed, marked as peculiarly belonging to and understood by our blessed God. Thanks be to Him for His seal. "The Lord knoweth them that are His." Let us let the world read the other side of that seal (see 2 Tim. 2:19).
The seal is, as we have seen, God's authentication of His people. It is His side, as it were. In beautiful symmetry, we have our side — the witness of the Spirit — and with this we close. Sealing is largely for others — for God, may we say; assurance is for us.
I will scarcely do more than quote several passages of Scripture consecutively, with little comment, for I think they will carry their meaning home without words of mine. Turn first to Romans 8:15, 16. "For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children (not sons here, as is usual with Paul) of God."
The Spirit bears testimony along with our own spirits. He has begotten us as children. We are born of the Spirit. He does not leave the child's feeble voice alone. We might often be tempted to doubt the testimony of our own renewed hearts, for the testimony is ofttimes very feeble; sometimes it is but the cry of the child — "an infant crying in the night, and with no language but a cry." But the Spirit unites His mighty testimony with the feebleness of ours. He bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God, and gives His value to both testimonies. Can we then doubt?
The spirit of bondage to fear has left us, and in the consciousness of our sonship and as born of God, we turn in the spirit of adoption to Him, saying in the home language (Hebrew) Abba, that is, Father. How sweet is that word to the Father's ears. Do any of you that is a father ever forget the thrill when you heard your babe's first lisping of that word? "Because ye are sons God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying Abba, Father" (Gal. 4:5).
But the testimony of the Spirit goes further than the assurance of sonship. Let us read another verse: "Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God" (1 Cor. 2:12). Here the full treasure-house of God's gifts of love are thrown open to us, and as we in wonder gaze at one and another the Spirit assures us they are all ours. We know the things that are freely given to us of God; we understand them, and have the full assurance that they are ours.
But how does the Spirit bear this testimony? A passage in 1 John shows us (1 John 5:7-13) which I will read from the Revised Version, as giving us what is known to be the true text, into which some additions have crept in our ordinary versions. "And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three who bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and the three agree in one. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which He hath witnessed concerning His Son: He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in him(self): he that believeth not God hath made Him a liar; because he hath not believed in the witness that God hath borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath the life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life. These things have I written unto you that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God."
What a holy, blessed scripture! The witness of the Holy Spirit, the Truth, with the water, His work in regeneration, and the blood, Christ's work for us. He unites His witness to give us complete certainty. We receive human testimony not half so well authenticated; shall we doubt the witness of the God of truth and make Him a liar? God hath borne witness concerning His Son, that every one who believes in Him hath life. The believer has the witness in his own spirit, but here is the added testimony of the God of truth. He that hath the Son hath the life.
And all this is written in the word of God for our assurance. It is not left to changing feelings, or dubious experiences, or faltering footsteps, in the Lord's path. These could never give assurance. But the living word of the living God, brought home to the soul by the Holy Spirit — that is the witness of the Spirit; and that gives assurance.
Thus, beloved brethren, we have traced in a weak and partial way what I have called the Spirit's work in salvation, or, if you please, the effectual work of the Spirit. We have seen it begin in the deep work of conviction of sin, righteousness and judgment, leading the trembling soul to turn with repentance and faith to that Saviour whom he had so long despised and rejected. We saw that this faith marked the new birth of the soul. This new birth we saw to be characterized by the impartation of a life from God with a sinless nature. We next saw that every believer received the seal of the Spirit — the pledge and sample of our inheritance until the day of redemption — God's mark of ownership, of protection through all this life, and of separation from the world. We have just concluded, by dwelling upon the witness of the Spirit to us, that we are the children of God. May we not take to our homes and wherever we go that sweet assurance? If there be one doubting believer — strange combination! — will you not now take up the Spirit's word, and cry "Abba, Father."
"Father, we commend our spirits
To Thy love, in Jesus' name,
Love which His atoning merits
Give us confidence to claim.
Oh how sweet, how real a pleasure
Flows from love so full and free!
'Tis a vast exhaustless treasure,
Saviour, we possess in Thee!
From the world and its confusion,
Here we turn and find our rest, —
From its care and its delusion,
Turn to Thee, in whom we're blest.
By the Holy Ghost anointed,
May we do the Father's will,
Walk the path by Him appointed,
All His pleasure to fulfil."