Image: Rev Dr Samuel Davies (1723-61)
The Holy Spirit: the only Effectual Reformer
Many of us are vexed over the state of our nation and our society. Sometimes we might feel like echoing the cry of Jeremiah: “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1) What can we do to stem the tide of evil sweeping the land? “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psa. 11:3) We know that the Lord is upon His throne, and He is in control of history. But the same Lord has been pleased in the past, at his “set time”, to revive His cause and to stem the tide of evil.
When the Lord works
What is the means through which the Lord will do his work of reformation and renewal? He will use human instruments as He did on the Day of Pentecost, at the Protestant Reformation and in the Great Awakening. But it is not left merely to human instruments. There are many in the churches today who are trying to bring improvement in society and who are reaching out with the Gospel, but to little effect. Where are the conversions to Christ, a heightened spirituality in our churches, an effect upon our society? In our eagerness to see a change, have we forgotten something?
Rev Dr Samuel Davies, regarded by some as the greatest preacher that America has produced, in commenting on John 16:8-11, declared: “The Holy Spirit is the only effectual reformer of the world. If he is absent, legislators may make laws against crime, philosophers may reason against vice, ministers may preach against sin, conscience may remonstrate against evil, the divine law may prescribe and threaten hell, the Gospel may invite and allure to heaven, but all will be in vain. The strongest arguments, the most melting entreaties, the most alarming denunciations from God and man, enforced with the highest authority, or the most compassionate tears, all will have no effect, all will not effectually claim one sinner or gain one sincere convert to righteousness.”
When the Holy Spirit comes
Much as the disciples would miss the presence of their Master, He assured them in the ‘Farewell Discourse’ that He would send “another Comforter”. In fact He would return to them in the Holy Spirit: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” (John 14:18) His main ministry would be to believers, but He also has a work to do in “the world”, which would change it radically.
“And when he is come” (16:8). The great mission of the Holy Spirit to the men and women of the world is that He will act as a prosecuting attorney to confront them with their guilt and bring them to see the folly of their ways, and to repent. Without this work all the activity of man is in vain. Besides, this is the only work that will insure a radical change in the sinner and bear lasting fruit in his life.
“And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin”. The word translated “reprove” in the AV has generated a lot of debate. There is no exact synonym in English. “Convict” comes nearest to the meaning. It is to “convince by proof of a fault or error”. The world is at fault regarding sin, righteousness and judgment. The Holy Spirit is going to act like a prosecutor and secure a conviction. He is going to bring the facts to light, make a case for a guilty verdict. The sinner will be exposed and constrained to plead guilty about these three things:
1) About Sin
The world has a wrong idea about sin because it has a false idea of God. Men will acknowledge certain evil acts as sin, but as far as they themselves are concerned they are liable to speak of “my failings”, or “my shortcomings”. We must let God define sin. It is measured by the enormity of the offence against the majesty and glory of God. Sin is an infinite evil because it is against an infinitely good God. It strikes at the very being of God. It is deicide. But the particular sin the world must be convicted of by the Holy Spirit is the sin of unbelief: “because they believe not on me”. The people who constitute the world do not believe in Jesus. If they did believe in Jesus they would believe His statements about their guilt. The Cross of Christ proves all things and it proves among other things the dreadful nature of sin. But they refuse to acknowledge that. And they reject the only remedy there is from the consequences of their sin. This is the sin that will ultimately destroy the sinner. “How shall we escape if they neglect so great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3) This the sinner needs to see.
2) About Righteousness
The world has its own concept of righteousness. This was supremely manifested in the treatment meted out to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Jewish leaders, who were of the world, regarded themselves as righteous and Christ as the sinner. “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” (Luke 15:2) He healed on the Sabbath day. As a result they sent officers to take Him. They took counsel together to put Him to death. Peter, later addressing the Jews, could declare: “But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murder to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life” (Acts 3:14).
Why does Christ say, “of righteousness, because I go to the Father and you see me no more”? In a short time He was to be resurrected from the dead, ascend to heaven and be seated at the right hand of the Father. This would mean His vindication and acceptance with heaven. It would then be seen who was “the righteous One”. This would show up the pretentious claims of the ‘righteous’ Pharisees. There would be a great reversal. When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost he said: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36) We are told that “when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart” (v.37). The Holy Spirit secured a conviction as far as they were concerned. The only acceptable righteousness to be found before God is that which Christ wrought out on behalf of His people.
3) About Judgment
“Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.” The devil is the originator of all lies, falsehood, rebellion and evil in the world. He deceived our first parents and held sway over mankind as a result. Christ refered to him as “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30). Paul calls him “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). Sinners are enslaved by him. He directed his venom towards the Son of Man, and sought to destroy Him. The devil appeared to triumph in the crucifixion of Christ, but what was apparent victory turned into ignominious defeat. His head was bruised (Gen. 3:15). This was foretold by the Saviour: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” (John 12:31). God works by contraries. Manifest weakness was used to make the great reversal of the Cross. “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” (Col. 2:15) The world is now on the losing side and all who maintain their alliance with Satan will be cast out with him. The sinner needs to see this.
1) This is the serious nature of the work of salvation. It is a mighty deliverance from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God. There has to be a convicting work of the Spirit to bring the sinner to despair of his “refuge of lies”, and flee to Christ alone for salvation. A radical change has to take place in repentance and contrition. This is what seems most lacking in evangelicalism today.
2) The calling of the preacher is not to set the sinner at ease and make him happy. His task is to strip him of his self-righteousness and go for a guilty verdict, before applying the balm of the gospel.
3) The work of salvation from first to last is of the triune Jehovah. The Father purposed and planned, the Son executed, and the Holy Spirit applies. Paul may plant and Apollos may water, but God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). All the schemes that we can devise are ineffective without the sovereign work of God. How we need to bend the knee and cry: “Come Holy Spirit, Come.”