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Who Is the Comforter?

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Who is the Holy Spirit and what is His role in redemption? These questions have been especially important since the rise of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements in the last century. Along with a renewed interest in the person and work of the Holy Spirit has come increased confusion. In this series, R.C. Sproul cuts through the complexity, getting to the heart of the Bible's teaching regarding the third person of the Trinity.

From the series: The Holy Spirit

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Need for a Comforter

  2. article

    Our Comforter in Life and Death

  3. blog-post

    How to Distinguish the Holy Spirit from the Serpent

The Need for a Comforter

When He commissioned Joshua to conquer the land of promise, God repeatedly told him not be afraid (Joshua 1). Joshua did not need to fear because God was going to be with him every step of the way. It is significant that the command most frequently found on the lips of Jesus Christ was "Fear not." Men are prone to fear because they live under the shadow of death. Even more, because Christians are called to bear witness to their Lord, knowing that such witness will bring them the disfavor of men, there is reason to fear.

In our affluent society we have too many who will neither take a stand nor expose themselves to situations which cause one to be afraid. We do not often experience fear because we have insulated ourselves from the distresses of life by our prosperity. We are not afraid because we fail quite often to stand up for Christ, and thus don't frequently encounter opposition. If we are going to see any kind of reformation and revival in our day, we need to become a people who understand reality, who know what fear is, and who have learned true courage in the face of that fear. The greatest gift Jesus sent to His church was the Holy Spirit. In John 14:16, Jesus described the Spirit as "another Comforter." Jesus Himself is our first Comforter, and the Spirit is another. If we are really involved in the battle, we know we need all the comfort and reassurance we can get. If we are truly involved in the work we shall know discouragement, and we shall need all the encouragement we can get.

What is comfort? In modern English, comfort means consolation. The idea would be that God comes to console us and bind up our wounds after the battle. While this is true enough, it is not the meaning of the Greek term found in John 14:16. Comfort is derived from the Latin cum and forte, meaning "with strength." The Comforter comes not to console us after the battle, but with strength and power to fortify us before and in the midst of the battle.

Because Jesus has already overcome the world (John 16:33), we can be of good cheer, and we can fight fearlessly as those who are "more than conquerors" (Romans 8:37).


Our Comforter in Life and Death

Larry Edison

In one form or another, I have heard cries of the heart many times over the years. People hurt deeply. We live in a world where, for believer and unbeliever alike, there is pain, heartache, and the experience of tragedy. It is all so very confusing for us as Christians.

“Where is God when I hurt so bad?” “I feel so alone — ultimately I am the only one who can face this illness. Sure, I am glad that my husband and children are close, but I am the one who is sick, and I know I will have to go through this alone.”

I wish God were right here with me. It hurts so bad. How can He make me feel better if He is so distant and far away; “out there?”

The pain causes us to struggle and doubt the promise that Jesus is with us and even in us. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

At first glance, it appears that He is elsewhere. Our theology even teaches that Christ is gone. Our Creeds affirm the biblical truth of the ascension; that Christ “sits at the right hand of the God the Father.”

So where is He when we need Him? Where is He when we feel alone? Is it realistic to think that God wraps us in His arms to keep and encourage even as a parent would for their hurting child? If we are His children, and God is truly our Father, can’t we properly expect God to provide comfort and consolation even as our parents would (especially since parental love is but a taste or reflection of the love of our heavenly Father)?

This last Christmas we celebrated the gift of Emmanuel — “God with us.” Would God come to be with us only such a short time, and then leave us alone and stranded?

Like a “scene 2,” a further unfolding of the promise of Emmanuel is found in words given to Jesus’ disciples: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16).

He warned His confused, and later, frightened disciples, that physically, He would leave. He would ascend from the earth into the heavens. Yet, He would not leave them alone. He would not leave them “God-less.” Even more, this would be a good thing; though, at the time, they could not imagine so. While with us, Christ faced barriers or limits. He could not be everywhere at the same time in his human nature. So, how much greater is it that, once ascended and crowned as King, He sent His Spirit who knows no such boundaries or limitations? He came as “another” of the same (this is the idea behind the wording). He came as another Helper or Counselor. He came as another Emmanuel to be with us and in us forever — so we would not have to be alone.

Notice the words of the Apostle Paul as he reminded the Galatian Christians of what and who we have as a result of God’s Spirit living with us, and more, living in us: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6).

The Holy Spirit is actually the Spirit of Christ Himself. When Christ gave us His Spirit, He was giving Himself. The Spirit is not given as a second round as if this were a tag-team wrestling match and Christ needed a break. The Spirit has come to share with us all the benefits that Christ earned for us. The Son and the Spirit are so closely identified that the Spirit Himself can be called the Spirit of the Son and the “Spirit of Christ”(see Phil. 1:19; 1 Peter 1:11).

We are not left alone. He is a promise that makes a world of difference — God is not just with us, but in us. And even more, He is in us and has wrapped His arms around us in such a way that we can cry with relief, “Daddy, Daddy” (Abba). I can rest knowing I am in the arms of the Spirit of God Himself.

There have been times I simply have not known how to pray. As a pastor, I can feel weak and confused when I am called on to pray for someone who feels desperate. I remember when I was hospitalized for a week going through test after test for my own heart problems. Every day it seemed that the doctor found something else wrong. I remember one nurse coming in saying, “I am sorry, I am so sorry,” as she learned of my unusual heart disease. In the forefront of my own thinking was the death of my Father whose heart failed when he was just 29 years old. By the time I went in for my pacemaker-defibrillator implant, I was not sure how to pray. I found great comfort knowing God’s Spirit who was in me and very much with me, was also interceding for me in ways I could not grasp.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26) .

God’s Spirit in and with us means we are not alone, and whether on the mountain tops or in the valley of the shadow of death, He is there to sustain us and plead our case. We can rest knowing that truth.

How to Distinguish the Holy Spirit from the Serpent

Sinclair Ferguson

How do we distinguish the promptings of the Spirit of grace in His guiding and governing of our lives from the delusions of the spirit of the world and of our own sinful heart? This is a hugely important question if we are to be calm and confident that the spirit with whom we are communing really is the Holy Spirit.

John Owen suggests four ways in which the Spirit and the serpent are to be distinguished:

  1. The leading of the Spirit, he says, is regular, that is, according to the regulum: the rule of Scripture. The Spirit does not work in us to give us a new rule of life, but to help us understand and apply the rule contained in Scripture. Thus, the fundamental question to ask about any guidance will be: Is this course of action consistent with the Word of God? 
  2. The commands of the Spirit are not grievous. They are in harmony with the Word, and the Word is in harmony with the believer as new creation. The Christian believer consciously submitted to the Word will find pleasure in obeying that Word, even if the Lord's way for us is marked by struggle, pain, and sorrow. Christ's yoke fits well; His burden never crushes the spirit. (Matthew 11:28-30)
  3. The "motions" of the Spirit are orderly. Just as God's covenant is ordered in all things and secure, (2 Samuel 23:5) so the promised gift of that covenant, the indwelling Spirit, is orderly in the way in which He deals with us. Restlessness is not a mark of communion with the Spirit but of the activity of the evil one. Perhaps Owen had particular members of his congregations in mind when he wrote: 
We see some poor souls to be in such bondage as to be hurried up and down, in the matter of duties at the pleasure of Satan. They must run from one to another, and commonly neglect that which they should do. When they are at prayer, then they should be at the work of their calling; and when they are at their calling, they are tempted for not laying all aside and running to prayer. Believers know that this is not from the Spirit of God, which makes "every thing beautiful in its season." 
  1. The "motions," or promptings of the Spirit, Owen says, always tend to glorify God according to His Word. He brings Jesus' teaching into our memories; He glorifies the Savior; He pours into our hearts a profound sense of the love of God for us.

How, then, does the Spirit act on the believer? The Spirit comes to us as an earnest, a pledge, a down payment on final redemption. He is here and now the foretaste of future glory. But His presence is also an indication of the incompleteness of our present spiritual experience.

Owen here writes in sharp contrast to those who spoke of release from the influence of indwelling sin and struggle through the liberty of the Spirit. Precisely because He is the firstfruits and not yet the final harvest, there is a sense in which the indwelling of the Spirit is the cause of the believer's groaning: "We ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8:23) The presence of the Spirit brings us already a foretaste of future glory, but also, simultaneously, creates within us a sense of the incompleteness of our present spiritual experience. This, for Owen, is how communion with the Spirit—understood biblically—brings joy into the life of the believer and yet a deep sense that the fullness of joy is not yet.

This excerpt is taken from The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen by Sinclair Ferguson.

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