THE WORK OF THE SPIRIT AS THE COMFORTER

Taken and adapted from, “The office and work of the Holy Spirit”
Chapter V, The work of the Spirit as the Comforter
Written by, James Buchannan

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Our blessed Lord intimated to his disciples before his departure, that he would not leave them desolate, or orphans…

…but would send them the Holy Spirit that he might abide with them forever; and he spoke of the Spirit as a paraclete (an expression which has been translated in our version—a comforter, but which admits of being rendered—an Advocate, or monitor), whose office it should be to plead the cause and to secure the welfare of his people in various ways, by helping their infirmities, guiding them into all truth, strengthening them against the assaults of temptation, sustaining them under the pressure of trial, and aiding them in the exercise of prayer. It is the less necessary to dwell on the mere meaning of that expression, because unquestionably in other places the Spirit is represented as executing the office of a Comforter, as when the apostle says, “Now the God of hope fill you with all peace and joy in believing, that ye may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Rom. 15:3.) The peace, and joy, and hope which are here mentioned, are the constituent elements of that comfort which God has provided for his people; and elsewhere they are severally described as being of inestimable value—fruits alike sweet and precious of the riches of his grace; for this peace is called “the very peace of God which passes all understanding;” and this joy is said to be “a joy unspeakable and full of glory;” and this hope is “a living, a lively hope, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast, entering into that which is within the veil.”

It may be useful to direct your thoughts—to the source of this comfort; to the method in which it is bestowed; to the various degrees in which it may be enjoyed; and to the duty which is implied in the apostle’s prayer, of seeking “to be filled with all peace and joy in believing, and to abound in hope.”

I. With reference to the source of this comfort, it is important to remark, that the peace, and joy, and hope in which it consists, are severally ascribed in Scripture to each of the Three Persons in the Godhead, and is represented as flowing to us out of the various offices which they execute under the covenant of redemption.

God himself is the author of this comfort—the inexhaustible fountain of his goodness being the source whence it proceeds; but it is not as the God of nature and providence,—the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of the world,—it is as the God of grace and redemption that he imparts it to his people. It is to God in his covenant relation as God in Christ—the reconciler and the Savior of the guilty, that the apostle refers, when he speaks of him “as the God of hope,” and as “the God of patience and consolation;” and more expressly still in another place, where he says, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.”—As God is the author of this comfort, so it comes to us in and through Christ as the Mediator of the new covenant. He was sent “to preach peace to them that were afar off, and to them that were near.” He is himself ” our peace,” as he is “the propitiation for our sins;” for “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Christ is “the Prince of peace,” and his Gospel is “the gospel of peace;” and he was sent at once to procure and to proclaim that reconciliation on which our peace, and joy, and hope depend: “He hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,”—” to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” And, accordingly, both the Father and the Son are conjoined in the apostle’s prayer—” Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and establish you in every good word and work.”—But this comfort, flowing from God himself as its source, and through Christ the Mediator of the new covenant as the channel by which it is conveyed to us, is applied to our hearts by the gracious agency and inward operation of the Holy Spirit. The apostle prays for the Roman converts, that they might be “filled with all peace and joy in believing, and abound in hope through the power of the Holy Ghost;” and of the primitive believers we read, that they “walked in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.”

The Spirit’s love as a Comforter is manifested in various ways. For first, It was the Spirit with which Christ himself was anointed, and by which he was qualified, in respect of his human nature, for the execution of his great design—” The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, for he hath anointed me to preach;” —secondly, It was the Spirit who dictated the whole of that message of grace and mercy which is contained in the Gospel, for “holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost;” and to him, therefore, is to be gratefully ascribed every consolation which the Gospel imparts, and every hope which it inspires;—and thirdly, It is the Spirit who, by his continued agency in the Church, and his internal operation on the minds of believers, enables them to understand the gracious import, and to feel the blessed influence of the Gospel, so that they are “filled with all peace and joy in believing, and abound in hope through the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Such is the view which is given in Scripture of the source or origin of the comfort that is here spoken of; it is ascribed to each of the Three Persons of the Godhead, and represented as flowing to us out of the various offices which they fulfil under the covenant of redemption; and by this view, two reflections are suggested which may be briefly noticed: the first is— how gracious and lovely is the aspect in which God’s character is presented, when each Person in the Godhead is declared to be so much interested, not only in the safety, but in the comfort and happiness of his people; and the second is—how sweet and comfortable is the dispensation under which we are placed, seeing that it is alike fitted and designed to Jill us with all peace and joy in believing, so that we may abound in hope through the power of the Spirit of God. If, then, the Father be the very God of peace, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; and if his beloved Son be the Prince of peace; and if the Holy Spirit be the Comforter, the Spirit of all grace and consolation; and if the Gospel be indeed, as its very name imports, glad tidings of great joy,—it follows, that however, from the operation of other causes, such as the remaining darkness of their understandings, or the unsubdued corruption of their hearts, or the weakness of their faith, or the strength of their temptations, or the number and weight of their trials, God’s people may sometimes have their peace disturbed, yet, in its native tendency and proper effect, the Gospel is fitted to produce and sustain “a peace which passes all understanding,” and “a joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.” And if any of his people are “for a season in heaviness through manifold temptations,” “walking in darkness, and having no light,” they may rest assured that their want of present comfort arises from no defect in Christ’s Gospel, and still less from any indifference to their real welfare on the part of God;—on the contrary, God is “the comforter of those who are cast down;” and it is only, “if need be,” and with a view to their ultimate good, that he subjects them for a season to this sore discipline,—taking them, as it were, for a little time into the wilderness, that he may there speak comfortably unto them.

II. Having seen that God in Christ is the inexhaustible source of that comfort which is imparted to his people by the agency of the Spirit; it will be of considerable practical importance to consider the means and method by which the Holy Spirit fulfils this precious and endearing part of his work.

It were a dangerous error to suppose that the Spirit comforts his people, by infusing peace and joy and hope into their hearts, without the use of the ordinary means of grace, or separate and apart from his other fruits and operations, as their Teacher and Sanctifier. He acts in this, as in every other part of his work, in a way that is consistent with the laws, and adapted to the necessities of our moral nature; and his work is not divided; its various parts may be distinctly considered, but they never exist separately from each other; they constitute one grand work by which our happiness is secured while our holiness is advanced. The Spirit comforts his people by means of the truth revealed in his Word,—enabling them to understand its import, to feel its power, and especially to apply it, in the exercise of an appropriating faith, to the case of their own souls. That the Gospel, or the truth contained in the Gospel, is the instrumental means by which the Spirit comforts his people, appears from the apostle’s prayer above quoted, for he prays that they might be “filled with all peace and joy in believing;” and from his language in another place, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” David, too, refers to the same means of consolation, when he says, “This is my comfort in mine affliction; for thy Word hath quickened me.”

He begins to impart this comfort at the very time of a sinner’s conversion; for no sinner is converted until he is so far enlightened in the knowledge of Christ as a Savior, and persuaded of the certainty and freeness of the Gospel, as to feel that he may, as a sinner, guilty and helpless as he is in himself, venture, on a scriptural warrant, to put his own personal trust in Christ, and to draw near to God through him, in the humble hope, that ” whosoever cometh shall in nowise be cast out;” and there is enough in these, the simplest elements of Gospel truth, to impart immediate relief and comfort to the sinner’s heart,—insomuch, that, like the Ethiopian treasurer, he may, from that hour, “go on his way rejoicing.” For the Gospel of Christ is really a Gospel—good news, glad tidings of great joy—addressed as it is, not to the innocent, but to the guilty,—and affording, as it does, to every man that is a sinner, and just because he is a sinner, a divine warrant, to return unto the Lord, in the assurance that he will have mercy upon him, even to our God, who will abundantly pardon. But while, from the beginning of his Christian course, the believer may taste and see that the Lord is gracious, and may experience that measure of peace, and joy, and hope, which the simplest elements of divine truth, when rightly apprehended, and really believed, are fitted to inspire; his comfort, like every other fruit of the Spirit, admits of growth and increase, and is advanced in proportion as he acquires larger and clearer views of the truth as it is in Jesus. The believer’s comfort is often, for a time, weak and fluctuating,—just because his views of divine truth are dim and indistinct; but as these become, under the teaching of the Spirit, more clear and comprehensive, his comfort also becomes more settled and stable. Every new view which he obtains of the character of God, as it is displayed in the cross of Christ,—every new proof of his wisdom, and justice, and love, in the work of redemption, and especially in his dealings towards his own soul,—every fresh experience of the power of God’s truth,—must increase that comfort, which even his first faint glimpse of these things imparted to his heart; and it is in this way, and especially by enlightening him more fully in the knowledge of Christ, that the Spirit comforts his people, as we learn from that remarkable prayer of the apostle—” For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” Mark here,

(1.) That even true converts, genuine believers in Christ, are as yet comparatively ignorant of the boundless love of Christ.

(2.) That they must be strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man, in order to form any suitable conception of it.

(3.) That a knowledge of Christ’s love is slowly and gradually acquired in the course of Christian experience; for Christ must dwell in our hearts by faith, and we must be rooted and grounded in love, in order to comprehend it.

(4.) That, after all, they never can exhaust a subject which is in itself inexhaustible: it has a height and a depth in it “which passes knowledge.” And,

(5.) To know Christ’s- love, as the Spirit only can make us know it, is the means of a comfort as full as it is sweet: it is to “be filled with all the fullness of God.” In this manner, the Spirit comforts his people, by disclosing to them the fullness that is in Christ, and the freeness with which his privileges are bestowed; for ” we have received,” says the apostle, “not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things which are freely given to us of God.”

It is of great practical importance to remember, that all genuine evangelical comfort has its ground and warrant in the revealed truth of God; for then it is not delusive and groundless, like the false security of those who say, “Peace, peace, while there is no peace,”— but it is stable, and sound, and permanent, in proportion to the strength of the ground on which it rests.

Again, the Holy Spirit provides for the comfort of his people—by sanctifying them. We read of two kinds of rest which Christ proposes to us in the Gospel; and these two are not only inseparably conjoined in Scripture, but will be found, in experience, to be very intimately connected. The first is the rest of justification or pardon, of which Christ speaks when, addressing the guilty sinner, laden with the burden of his sins, he says, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest;” He will take the burden of guilt away; He will abundantly pardon;—but the second is the rest of sanctification—” Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This comfort arises from the subjugation of our unholy passions, and the substitution, in their room, of the gracious fruits of the Spirit; which are essentially, in their own nature, as peaceful as they are lovely, —and not only conducive to our happiness, but its constituent elements. It is only necessary to enumerate them, and to contrast them with their opposites, to see that, in their own nature, and apart from all arbitrary rewards or punishments, they are essentially and inherently blissful. Mark the contrast, as it is drawn by the apostle—” The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like.”— “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” The mere enumeration of these opposite qualities of character should be sufficient to convince you, that the graces of the Spirit are fitted, in their own nature, to minister to your comfort; and we have the Lord’s own assurance that every beatitude stands connected with one or other of these graces,—when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”

The Spirit comforts us, then, by carrying on the great work of sanctification; but it is no part of his office to comfort us ” in our sins ;” and it is still true, as it ever was, that the wicked are as a raging sea, when it cannot rest; for “there is no peace, saith my God, to the Wicked.”

Again, the Spirit comforts his people, by disclosing to them, and enabling them to discern such marks and evidences of a work of grace in their hearts, as may afford a comfortable assurance of their sonship, and awaken a cheering hope of future glory. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God; and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” Here, too, the Spirit acts as our Comforter, — not by making known our election with an audible voice, or revealing anything that may not be gathered from the Word, when viewed in connection with our own experience, —but simply by producing his gracious fruits, and then enabling us to discern them as so many scriptural marks and evidences of our conversion. For it is the presence of the Spirit in our hearts, evinced by the change which his power produces there, which is the witness or evidence of our sonship: “Hereby we know that we dwell in God; because he has given us of his Spirit,”—and “he that hath wrought us for the self-same thing is God, who also has given to us the earnest of his Spirit,”—and “ye are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession.”

I need not say that it is no part of the Spirit’s work, as a Comforter, to exempt his people from trials; on the contrary, they seem to be subjected to afflictions at once more numerous and severe than are those of the men of this world; for, in addition to disease, and bereavement, and disappointment, which they share in common with others, they are exposed to trials which are peculiar to themselves: some inward, arising from the exercise of their own minds—the warfare in which they are engaged—the discipline to which, if need be, they are subjected, for their trial, and humiliation, and establishment; and others outward, arising from the obloquy and opposition—the ridicule or persecution of the world. But here is the mystery of their peace: it is peace in the midst of trouble,—joy in the midst of sorrow. “In the world,” says the Savior, “ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world ;”—and hence the apostle could say, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”

III. The comfort of which we have spoken, arising from our views of God’s truth, the sanctification of our nature, and the inward witness of the Spirit,—may exist in various degrees, according to the greater or less extent of our spiritual attainments; and this is intimated to us, as well as the duty of seeking for a large measure of evangelical comfort, in the apostle’s prayer—” The God of hope fill you with all peace and joy in believing; that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”

From the manner in which this prayer is expressed, we may learn that there is an intimate and mutual relation betwixt the constituent elements, of which the Christian’s comfort is composed; that there must first be present peace and joy in believing, before we can experience the lively hope which respects our future prospects; as it will invariably be found, that there is no real hope of eternal life hereafter, until we are enabled so to believe the Gospel, as to enjoy some measure of peace now. Those, therefore, who complain of the want of confidence, should be directed, in the first instance, to those simple elements of Gospel truth, which are fitted to give immediate relief and comfort to the sinner; and those, again, who have experienced some small measure of peace, and have been enabled, occasionally, to look forward with something like hope to the future, should be encouraged to seek after larger measures of these blissful feelings;— so that, “being filled with all peace and joy in believing, they may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Ghost.” This is alike their duty and their privilege : it is their duty—since God himself requires them “to give all diligence to make their calling and election sure;” and it is their privilege—for this abundant consolation, and this good hope through grace, are declared to be attainable; and every believer will acknowledge that they are most desirable. And He who is revealed as “the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort,” is not unwilling to give the Spirit to them that ask him; nor is the Spirit unwilling to impart his consolations,—for he is ” the good Spirit” —” the Spirit of all grace,”—who is “grieved” when his consolations are slighted, and ever ready to bind up the broken-hearted,—to comfort all that mourn.” But while we are encouraged by these considerations to expect and seek for a larger measure of peace, and joy, and hope, than we have yet experienced, we must ever remember that they are to be sought for in the way of duty, and in the use of the ordinary means of grace. It is, first, by faith—by believing the testimony of God in the Gospel; and secondly, by “diligence in duty,” giving all diligence to make our calling and election sure; and thirdly, by prayer for ourselves and for others;—it is by these and similar means that we may expect to realize what the apostle supplicated on behalf of his converts, when he prayed for them— “The God of hope fill you with all peace and joy in believing; that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”

And now on a calm and comprehensive review of all that has been said concerning the Work of the Holy Spirit, both in the Conversion of Sinners, and in the Edification of His people, how appropriate to the case of every reader, whatever may be his character, are these prayers of David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me by thy free Spirit.” “Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy Spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness.”

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