J.I.Packer expounds on Jonathan Edwards’ treatise on The Glory of God
Edwards inherited a dispute among the learned: Was God’s goal in creation his own glory, as Reformed theology maintained, or man’s happiness, as Arminians and Deists thought? In his Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World, posthumously published, Edwards resolved this question with startling brilliance. As his son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., put it:
It was said that, as God is a benevolent being . . . he could not but form creatures for the purpose of making them happy. Many passages of Scripture were quoted in support of this opinion. On the other hand, numerous and very explicit declarations of Scripture were produced to prove that God made all things for his own glory. Mr. Edwards was the first, who clearly showed, that both these were the ultimate end of the creation . . . and that they are really one and the same thing. (Sereno E. Dwight, “Memoirs,” in Works, 1:cxcii)
Edwards clinched his case on this by surveying the biblical use of the word “glory” (Hebrew, kabod; Greek, LXX and NT, doxa). Having stated correctly that etymologically kabod implies “weight, greatness, abundance” and in use often conveys the thought of “God in fullness,” Edwards traces the term thus:
Sometimes it is used to signify what is internal, inherent, or in the possession of a person [i.e., glory that belongs to someone]: and sometimes for emanation, exhibition, or communication of this internal glory [i.e., glory that appears to someone]: and sometimes for the knowledge, or sense of these [communications], in those to whom the exhibition or communication is made [i.e., glory that is seen, or discerned, by someone]; or an expression of this knowledge, sense, or effect [i.e., glory that is given to someone, by praise and thanks in joy and love]. (Edwards, “The End for Which God Created the World,” in Works, 1:116)
And the conclusion he offers — on the basis of both biblical texts that speak of glory and of glorifying in these four distinct though connected ways and also analytical argument surrounding this exegesis — is that God’s internal and intrinsic glory consists of his knowledge (omniscience with wisdom) plus his holiness (spontaneous virtuous love, linked with hatred of sin) plus his joy (supreme endless happiness);
and that his glory (wise, holy, happy love) flows out from him, like water from a fountain, in loving spontaneity (grace), first in creation and then in redemption, both of which are so set forth to us so as to prompt praise; and that in our responsive, Spirit-led glorifying of God, God glorifies and satisfies himself, achieving that which was his purpose from the start.
The chief end of man, as the famous first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism memorably puts it, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God so made us that in praising, thanking, loving, and serving him, we find our own supreme happiness and enjoyment of God in a way that otherwise we would not and could not do. We reach our highest enjoyment of God in and by glorifying him, and we glorify him supremely in and by enjoying him. In fact, we enjoy him most when we glorify him most, and vice versa. And God’s single-yet-complex end, now in redemption as it was in creation, is his own happiness and joy in and through ours.
His great goal here and now is to glorify himself through glorifying, and being glorified by, rational human beings who out of their fallenness come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus the emanation (outflow) of divine glory in the form of creative and redemptive action results in a remanation (returning flow) of glory to God in the form of celebratory devotion. And so God’s goal for himself (Father, Son, and Spirit, the “they” who are “he” within the Triune unity), the goal that includes his goal for all Christian humankind, is achieved by means of a singly unitary process, which itself is ongoing and unending.
“We reach our highest enjoyment of God in and by glorifying him, and we glorify him supremely in and by enjoying him.”
The unimaginable endlessness of this reciprocal sequencing that is in truth the end for which God created the world can only be indicated formulaically and analogically (to use a couple of non-Edwardsean terms). This is done for us in a normative way in Revelation 21, and C.S. Lewis most tellingly did it at the close of his final Narnia story, The Last Battle, where the children have been brought through a rail crash into the real Narnia that is to be their home forever. The key sentences are these:
Then Aslan [the Christ-like lion] turned to them and said:
“You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be . . . all of you are (as you used to call it in the Shadowlands) dead. The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
. . . We can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (Lewis, The Last Battle[Penguin, 1964], 165)
This picks up exactly, in mythical-parabolic terms, the point that Edwards, in his more prosaic way, was concerned to make. Amy Plantinga Pauw capsules it as follows:
Because “heaven is a progressive state,” the heavenly joy of the saints, and even of the triune God, will forever continue to increase. . . . Saints can look forward to an unending expansion of their knowledge and love of God, as their capacities are stretched by what they receive . . . there is no intrinsic limit to their joy in heaven. . . .
As the saints continue to increase in knowledge and love of God, God receives more and more glory. This heavenly reciprocity will never cease, because the glory God deserves is infinite, and the capacity of the saints to perceive God’s glory and praise him for it is ever increasing. (Pauw, “The Supreme Harmony of All”: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards[Eerdmans, 2002], 180-181)
Here, finally, is how Edwards himself, in his rather more severe and abstract manner, sums the matter up. (“The creature” in what follows is the believer.)
And though the emanation of God’s fulness, intended in the creation, is to the creature as its object; and though the creature is the subject of the fulness communicated, which is the creature’s good; yet it does not necessarily follow that, even in doing so, God did not make himself his end. It comes to the same thing.
God’s respect to the creature’s good, and his respect to himself, is not a divided respect; but both are united in one, as the happiness of the creature aimed at is happiness in union with himself. . . .
The more happiness the greater union. . . . And as the happiness will be increasing to eternity, the union will become more and more strict [i.e., closely bound] and perfect; nearer and more like to that between God the Father and the Son; who are so united, that their interest is perfectly one. . . .
Let the most perfect union with God be represented by something at an infinite height above us; and the eternally increasing union of the saints with God, by something that is ascending constantly towards that infinite height . . . and that is to continue thus to move to all eternity. (Edwards, “The End for Which God Created the World,” 120)
The two-way street of this unceasing process, says Edwards, embodies and expresses the true end for which God created the world: namely, the endless advancement of his glory, in union with us, through the endless advancement of ours, in union with him.
Those who have in any measure tasted the refreshment and joy of heart that flow from faith in, friendship with, and worship of the holy Three (or shall I say the holy One, or One-in-Three) will latch on to Edwards’s thinking here as a complete answer to any who fancy that the Christian heaven would be static and dull, and will themselves look forward to the awaiting glory with ever-growing eagerness.
Resource: J.I. Packer
from the book:
“A God-Entranced Vision of All Things”
The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards by John Piper and Justin Tayor
In our consideration of these biblical doctrines, our method has been to follow the order and the plan of salvation, so we come now, by a logical sequence, to the great doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Now I cannot begin to talk about this doctrine without pausing for a moment to express again my sense of wonder and amazement at the plan of salvation. I believe that people who are not interested in the plan of salvation as such, are robbing themselves of a great deal. When you try to stand back and look at it as a whole, you must at once be impressed by its glory, its greatness, its perfection in every part; each doctrine leads to the next until there it is, the complete whole.
It is a very good thing in the Christian life to stand back periodically and look at this great plan. That is why I think it is important to observe Christmas Day and Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and to preach on those days. They are convenient occasions for reminding ourselves of the whole plan of salvation. Look at it as a whole, look at the separate parts; but always remember that the parts must be kept in their relationship to the whole.
So it is very important that we should be studying the Bible in this particular way. I would always recommend that you read the Bible chapter by chapter, that you go steadily through it—that is also good. But in addition I do suggest that it is of vital importance to take out the great doctrines that are taught there, and look at them according to the plan or the scheme of salvation. The Church has done this from the very beginning, and it is a tragedy that it is done so infrequently at this present time because if you are content only with reading through the Scriptures, there is a danger of missing the wood for the trees. As you read through, you become so immersed in the details, getting the right translation, and so on, that you tend to forget the big, outstanding doctrines. So the reason for taking a series like this is to remind ourselves thatt
the purpose of the Bible is to tell us God’s plan for the salvation of this world.
Another thing which I must emphasize is this: I know nothing which is such a wonderful proof of the unique, divine inspiration of the Scriptures as the study of Christian doctrine because we see then that this book is one, that it has one message though it was written at different times by different men in different circumstances. There is great unity in the message, one theme running from the beginning to the end. From the moment mankind fell, God began to put the plan of salvation into operation, and we can follow the steps and the stages right through the Bible. And so as we come to consider the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, we are reminded that here again is a doctrine that appears both in the Old and the New Testaments. We find a reference to the Holy Spirit in the second verse of the Bible, and the teaching goes right the way through. This amazing unity, I repeat, is proof of the unique, divine inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures.
So, then, we find that in this great plan the Holy Spirit is the applier of salvation.
It is His work to bring to us, and to make actual in us, in an experiential manner, that great salvation which we have been considering together and which the Son of God came into the world in order to work out. In the Godhead, the Holy Spirit is the executive, the executor. I shall have to come back to this again when we deal particularly and specifically with His work, but that is His great function in the plan.
Now it is a remarkable and an astonishing thing that this doctrine of the Holy Spirit, His person and His work, has been so frequently neglected in the Church—yet that is an actual fact of history. It is quite clear that the first Christians believed the doctrine, they almost took it for granted. Then you come to the early centuries of the Christian era and you find very little reference, comparatively speaking, to this doctrine. That is not surprising, in fact it was more or less inevitable, because the Church was constantly engaged, in those first centuries, in defending the doctrine concerning the Son. The Son of God had become incarnate: He had been here in this world. Jesus was preached, Jesus as the Christ, and, of course, the enemy was constantly attacking the person of Christ. This was the linchpin in the whole of the gospel and if it could be discredited, the whole scheme would collapse. So the attack was upon the person of the Son and the Church had to give herself in defence of that doctrine in order to establish it.
Tragically, the result was that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was comparatively neglected, until the time of the Protestant Reformation. Now it is our custom to say that the Protestant Reformation is primarily the epoch in the history of the Church in which the great doctrine of justification by faith only was rediscovered in the Bible, and that is perfectly true. But let us never forget that it is equally true that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was also rediscovered in a most amazing manner, and the great Dr B. B. Warfield is surely right when he says that John Calvin was the great theologian of the Holy Spirit. With the whole Roman system the Holy Spirit was ignored; the priesthood, the priests, the Church, Mary and the saints were put into the position of the Holy Spirit.
So the Protestant Reformation rediscovered this mighty doctrine; and let us, in Britain, take partial credit for that. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was, beyond any question whatsoever, worked out most thoroughly of all by a Puritan divine who lived in this country in the seventeenth century. There is still no greater work on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit than the two volumes by the mighty Dr John Owen, who preached in London and who was also at one time, during the period of Cromwell, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford. And not only John Owen. Thomas Goodwin and other Puritans also worked out the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It has never been done so thoroughly since, and certainly had never been done before.
Now generally speaking, the position today is that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is either neglected or it tends to be emphasised and exaggerated in a false manner. And I have no doubt at all that the second is partly the cause of the first. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is neglected because people are so afraid of the spurious, the false and the exaggerated that they avoid it altogether. No doubt this is why many people also neglect the doctrine of prophecy, the last things and the second coming. ‘The moment you start on that,’ they say, ‘you get into these extravagances and these disputes.’ So they leave the whole thing alone and the doctrine is entirely neglected.
So it is with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Because of certain exaggerations, excesses and freak manifestations, and the crossing of the border line from the spiritual to the scientific, the political and the merely emotional, there are many people who are afraid of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, afraid of being too subjective. So they neglect it altogether. I would also suggest that others have neglected the doctrine because they have false ideas with regard to the actual teaching concerning the person of the Holy Spirit.
In view of all this, therefore, it is obviously essential that we should consider this great doctrine very carefully. If we had no other reason for doing so, this is more than enough—that
it is a part of the great doctrine of the blessed Holy Trinity.
Let me put it very plainly like this: you would all agree that to neglect or to ignore the doctrine about the Father would be a terrible thing. We would all agree that it is also a terrible thing to neglect the doctrine and the truth concerning the blessed eternal Son. Do we always realise that it is equally sinful to ignore or neglect the doctrine of the blessed Holy Spirit?
If the doctrine of the Trinity is true—and it is true—then we are most culpable if in our thinking and in our doctrine we do not pay the same devotion and attention to the Holy Spirit as we do to the Son and to the Father. So whether we feel inclined to do so or not, it is our duty as biblical people, who believe the Scripture to be the divinely inspired word of God, to know what the Scripture teaches about the Spirit. And, furthermore, as it is the teaching of the Scripture that the Holy Spirit is the one who applied salvation, it is of the utmost practical importance that we should know the truth concerning Him. I am very ready to agree with those who say that the low spiritual life of the Church, today or at any time, is largely due to the fact that so many fail to realize the truth concerning the person and the work of the Holy Spirit.
One other thing under this heading. I wonder whether you have ever noticed, those of you who are interested in hymns and in hymnology, that in most hymnbooks no section is so weak as the section devoted to the Holy Spirit? Here the hymns are generally weak, sentimental and subjective. For that reason, I have always found myself in great difficulties on Whit Sunday. We are lacking in great doctrinal hymns concerning the Holy Spirit and His work. Indeed, there are those who would say (and I am prepared to agree with them) that in many hymnbooks a vast majority of the hymns under the section of the Holy Spirit—these hymns that beseech Him to come into the Church and to come upon us, and to do this and that—are thoroughly unscriptural. That is another way of showing you again that this great doctrine has been neglected, that people have fought shy of it, and there is confusion concerning it.
The best way to approach the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is to start by noticing the names or the descriptive titles that are given to this blessed person.
First of all, there are the many names that relate Him to the Father;
let me enumerate some of them: the Spirit of God (Gen. 1:2); the Spirit of the Lord (Luke 4:18); the Spirit of our God(1 Cor. 6:11). Then another is, the Spirit of the Lord God, which is in Isaiah 61:1. Our Lord speaks, in Matthew 10:20, of the Spirit of your Father, while Paul refers to the Spirit of the living God (2 Cor. 3:3). My Spirit, says God, in Genesis 6:3, and the psalmist asks, ‘Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?’(Ps. 139:7). He is referred to as his Spirit—God’s Spirit—in Numbers 11:29; and Paul, in Romans 8:11, uses the phrase the Spirit of him [God the Father] that raised up Jesus from the dead. All these are descriptive titles referring to the Holy Spirit in terms of His relationship to the Father.
In the second group are the titles that relate the Holy Spirit to the Son.
First, ‘If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of his’ (Rom. 8:9), which is a most important phrase. The word ‘Spirit’ here refers to the Holy Spirit. In Philippians 1:19, Paul speaks about the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and in Galatians 4:6 he says, ‘God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son’. Finally He is referred to as the Spirit of the Lord (Acts 5:9).
Finally, the third group comprises the direct or personal titles, and first and foremost here, of course, is the name Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost.
Some people are confused by these two terms but they mean exactly the same thing. The English language is a hybrid which has borrowed from other languages, and ‘Ghost’ is an old Anglo-Saxon word while ‘Spirit’ is derived from the Latin spiritus.
A second title in this group is the Spirit of holiness. Romans 1:4 reads, ‘Declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.’ A further title is the Holy One: ‘But ye have an unction from the Holy One’(1 John 2:20). In Hebrews 9:14 He is referred to as the eternal Spirit and Paul says in Romans 8:2, ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.’ In John 14:17 He is called the Spirit of truth, and in chapters 14, 15 and 16 of John’s Gospel, He is referred to as the Comforter.
Those, then, are the main names, or descriptive titles, that are applied to Him. But have you ever thought of asking why He is called the Holy Spirit? Now if you put that question to people, I think you will find that they will answer, ‘He is described like that because He is holy.’ But that cannot be the true explanation because the purpose of a name is to differentiate someone from others, but God the Father is holy and God the Son is equally holy.
Why, then, is He called holy?
Surely, the explanation is that it is His special work to produce holiness and order in all that He does in the application of Christ’s work of salvation. His objective is to produce holiness and He does that in nature and creation, as well as in human beings. But His ultimate work is to make us a holy people, holy as the children of God. It is also probable that He is described as the Holy Spirit in order to differentiate Him from the other spirits—the evil spirits. That is why we are told to test the spirits and to prove them, and to know whether they are of God or not (1 John 4:1).
Then the next great question is the personality or the person of the Spirit.
Now this is vital because it is essential that I should put it like this. The person of the Holy Spirit is not only forgotten by those whom we describe as liberals or modernists in their theology (that is always true of them), but we ourselves are often guilty of precisely the same thing. I have heard most orthodox people referring to the Holy Spirit and His work as ‘it’ and ‘its’ influence and so on, as if the Holy Spirit were nothing but an influence or a power. And hymns, too, frequently make the same mistake. There is a confusion about the Holy Spirit and I am sure there is a sense in which many of us find it a little more difficult to conceive of the third person in the blessed Holy Trinity than to conceive of the Father or the Son. Now why is that? Why is there this tendency to think of Him as a force, or an influence, or an emanation?
There are a number of answers to that question. They are not good reasons, but we must consider them. The first is that His work seems to be impersonal, because it is a kind of mystical and secret work. He produced graces and fruits; He gives us gifts and He gives us various powers. And because of that, we tend to think of Him as if He were some influence. I am sure that this is a great part of the explanation.
But, furthermore, the very name and title tends to produce this idea. What does Spirit mean? It means breath or wind or power—it is the same word—and because of that, I think, we tend, almost inevitably and very naturally, unless we safeguard ourselves, to think of Him as just an influence rather than a person.
Then a third reason is that the very symbols that are used in speaking of Him and in describing Him tend to encourage us in that direction. He descended upon our Lord, as John baptised Him in the Jordan, in the semblance of a dove (Matt. 3:16). And again, the symbols that are used to describe Him and His work are oil and water and fire. In particular, there is the phrase in the prophecy of Joel, which was quoted by Peter in Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost, about the Spirit being poured out (Acts 2:17). That makes us think of liquid, something like water, something that can be handled—certainly not a person. So unless we are very careful and remember that we are dealing with the symbols only, the symbolic language of the Scripture tends to make us think of Him impersonally.
Another reason why it is that we are frequently in difficulties about the personality of the Holy Spirit is that very often, in the preliminary salutations to the various New Testament epistles, reference is made to the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit is not mentioned. Our Lord in the great high priestly prayer says, ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3)—He makes no specific reference to the Holy Spirit. And then John says the same thing in his first epistle: ‘And truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ’(1 John 1:3). He does not mention the Spirit specifically at that point.
Then also, the word Spirit in the Greek language is a neuter word, and, therefore, we tend to think of Him and of His work in this impersonal, neutral sense. And for that reason, the King James Version, I am sorry to say, undoubtedly fell into the trap at this point. In Romans 8:16 we have that great statement which reads, ‘The Spirit itself beareth witness with our Spirit, that we are the children of God.’ You notice the word ‘itself’, not ‘Himself’. Again in the same chapter we read, ‘Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us’(Rom. 8:26). At this point the Revised Version is altogether superior since in both instances it gives the correct translation: ‘Himself’, even though in the Greek the pronoun, as well as the noun, is in the neuter.
And thus we have, it seems to me, these main reasons why people have found it difficult to realise that the Holy Spirit is a person. People have argued—many theologians would argue—that the Scripture itself says the ‘Spirit of Christ’. The Holy Spirit, they say, is not a distinct person; He is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the Son, or of the Father, and thus they deny His personality.
How, then, do we answer all this? What is the scriptural reply to these reasons that are often adduced? Well, first of all, the personal pronoun is used of Him. Take John 16:7–8 and 13–15 where the masculine pronoun ‘He’ is used twelve times with reference to the Holy Spirit. Now that is a very striking thing. Jesus says, ‘Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth’ (v. 13)—and so on. And this, of course, is of particular importance when we remember that the noun itself is a neuter noun, so the pronoun attached to it should be in the neuter. Now this is not always the case but it is in the vast majority of instances. It is most interesting and it shows how important it is to realise that the inspiration of Scripture goes down even to words like pronouns! So that is the first argument, and those who do not believe in the person of the Spirit will have to explain why almost the whole Scripture uses the masculine pronoun.
The second reply to those who query the personality of the Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is identified with the Father and the Son in such a way as to indicate personality.
There are two great arguments here; the first is the baptismal formula: ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’(Matt. 28:19). Here He is associated with the Father and the Son in a way that of necessity points to His personality. And notice, incidentally, that this baptismal formula does not say, ‘baptizing them in the names’ but ‘in the name’. It uses the unity of the three Persons—the Three in One—one name, one God, but still Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And so if you do not believe in the person and personality of the Holy Spirit, and think that He is just a power or a breath, you would have to say, ‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the breath’ or of ‘the power’. And at once it becomes impossible. The second argument is based on the apostolic benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost …’—obviously the Holy Spirit is a person in line with the person of the Father and of the Son.
The third reply is that in a most interesting way we can prove the personality of the Spirit by showing that He is identified with us, with Christians, in a way that indicates that He is a person. In Acts 15:28 we read, ‘For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.’This was a decision arrived at by members of the early Church, and as they were persons, so He must be a person. You cannot say, ‘It seemed good to a power and to us,’ because the power would be working in us. But here is someone outside us—‘It seemed good to him and to us’.
The fourth reply is that personal qualities are ascribed to Him in the Scriptures. He is said, for example, to have knowledge. Paul argues, ‘For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor. 2:11).
But—and this is very important—He has a will also, a sovereign will.
Read carefully 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul is writing about spiritual gifts, and the diversity of the gifts. This is what we are told: ‘But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will’(v. 11). Now that is a very important statement in the light of all the interest in spiritual healing. People say, ‘Why have we not got this gift in the Church, and why has every Christian not got it?’ To which the simple answer is that this is not a gift that anybody should claim. It is the Spirit who gives and who dispenses these gifts, according to His own will. He is a sovereign Lord, and he decides to whom and when and where and how and how much to give His particular gifts.
Then the next point is that He clearly has a mind.
In Romans 8:27 we read, ‘And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit’—this is in connection with prayer. He is also one who loves, because we read that ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love’(Gal. 5:22); and it is His function to shed abroad the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).
And, likewise, we know He is capable of grief, because in Ephesians 4:30, we are warned not to ‘grieve’ the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and especially this aspect of the doctrine which emphasizes His personality, is of supreme importance. The ultimate doctrine about the Spirit, from the practical, experiential standpoint, is that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, so that whatever I do, wherever I go, the Holy Spirit is in me. I know nothing which so promotes sanctification and holiness as the realization of that. If only we realized, always, in anything we do with our bodies, the Holy Spirit is involved! Remember, also, that Paul teaches that in the context of a warning against fornication. He writes, ‘Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you …?’ (1 Cor. 6:19). That is why fornication should be unthinkable in a Christian. God is in us, in the Holy Spirit: not an influence, not a power, but a person whom we can grieve.
So we are going through all these details not out of an academic interest, nor because I may happen to have a theological type of mind. No, I am concerned about these things, as I am a man trying myself to live the Christian life, and as I am called of God to be a pastor of souls, and feel the responsibility for the souls and the conduct and behavior of others. God forbid that anybody should regard this matter as remote and theoretical. It is vital, practical doctrine. Wherever you are, wherever you go, if you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit is in you and if you really want to enjoy the blessings of salvation, you do so by knowing that your body is His temple.
‘When through the blood of the everlasting covenant we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God.’
This thought of A. W. Tozer’s is eminently true; for we have no natural right to be with God in heaven; we were numbered among the rebels who in the days before our new birth sinfully banished God from our lives; and we have chosen to go our own way times without number since the day God adopted us into his family. Let us not fool ourselves, we do not deserve the least mercy from God; and as Spurgeon says: ‘all more than hell is mercy.’ We must therefore acknowledge with Toplady:
A debtor to mercy alone, Of covenant mercy I sing.
The wonder is, that though the Almighty has us all in his power, and we have not the slightest claim on his mercy, his goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our life. As we come up out of the wilderness of this world leaning upon our Beloved, God has shown himself to be a God of mercy, rich in mercy, plenteous in mercy, delighting in mercy. No-one would bear and forbear as he has done with us his sinful children. Truly, as the Puritan Thomas Goodwin says: ‘All God’s children are be-mercied!’
ln this article, we shall briefly consider how Goodwin’s fellow Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577-1635)1 experienced and preached on the mercy of God. Without entering into the details of his fruitful Christian life and ministry, we simply record Isaak Walton’s touching testimony to his spirituality:
Of this blest man, let this just praise be given. Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.
‘Our redemption,’ writes Sibbes, ‘is founded upon the joint agreement of all three persons of the Trinity.’ (Works, Volume 1, page 43)2 God the Father is the fountain of mercy; God the Son is the channel of mercy, and God the Spirit is the stream of mercy. From all three, therefore, mercy is conveyed into the souls of the redeemed.(3.49; 4.293)
THE FATHER: FOUNTAIN OF MERCY
Consistent with biblical usage, Sibbes often refers the term ‘God’ to the Father. He is merciful by nature, inclined to pity anyone in misery (3.28). Our misery is the magnet that draws his mercy (3.42). Despite all his august majesty, he abounds in mercy (2.292). Mercy ‘is his nature; it is himself’ (3.28). As the prophet Micah says (Mic. 7:18), ‘he delighteth in mercy’ (3.35). Indeed, mercy is such a sweet attribute in God that all his other attributes would be a terror to us without it (2.292). It is therefore his great purpose to ‘be glorified in showing mercy’ (3.29-30). Everything he does, in both creation and redemption, is ‘all for the glory of his mercy’ (3.31). This, concludes Sibbes, is ‘the true reality of fatherhood,’ the true doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. Whatever, therefore, we may lawfully expect from an earthly father, ‘we may expect from God our Father, and infinitely more’ (6.451), for he looks on us, his adopted children, with the same ‘eternal sweet tenderness’ as he does on his natural Son (6.461).
THE SON: THE CHANNEL OF MERCY
Yet because God is ‘the God and Father of Christ first,’ he becomes the Father of mercy to us only through him. ‘Christ hath all first, and we have all from him. He is the first Son, and we are [later] sons. He is the first beloved of God, and we are beloved in him.’ Whatever mercy we receive, therefore, we must receive it ‘in Christ, and through Christ, and from Christ’ (3.27).
As Mediator between God and us, Christ reveals the mercy of God in a unique way. Because ‘we cannot endure the brightness of the majesty of the Father,’ he chose his dear Son to be our Mediator, and chose us in him to become his sons and daughters. As our Surety-Substitute, who satisfied every demand of his holy justice when he suffered on the cross for our sins, Christ makes God ‘our Father . . . the Father of mercies’ (3.28). This is why the Lord Jesus told his disciples: ‘I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God’ (John 20:17). This too is why Christ now calls us his brethren: he is our Elder Brother, and we are brothers and sisters in his Father’s family (6.450). Surely, Sibbes adds with evident satisfaction, he who chose us in Christ in eternity past will glorify us with Christ in eternity future (4.32; 6.453). Let us then realize that a ‘greater glory of mercy . . . shines forth to fallen man in Christ’ than ever shone on Adam in innocence (Glorious Freedom,3 p. 75).
To rest in God’s mercy, therefore, is to rest in the gospel of Christ, which brings that mercy to us. ‘When faith considers God pictured out in the gospel, it sees him the Father of Christ, and our Father, and the Father of mercies and God of comforts; faith seeing infinite mercy in an infinite God’ (3.37). This is how we should look on God at all times – in Christ. When our conscience speaks to us of sin, when Satan seeks to disturb our peace, when we are engaged in spiritual conflict, and when we come to die, we must look on him as reconciled to us in Christ. Then, and only then, shall we enjoy peace, for it flows down to us in the same channel as his mercy and grace (3.21).
Here is a safe haven into which we may flee under the sense of God’s wrath. So, Sibbes tenderly exhorts us: ‘Despair not, thou drooping soul, whosoever thou art under the guilt of sin; come to the Father of mercies, cast thyself into this sea of mercy.’ To give us double assurance, he adds winsomely: ‘There is mercy for thee if thou wilt come in’ (3.31). When by grace we do gain access, al1 our sins disappear like a spark that falls into the ocean (3.35).
Should we waver or doubt the sincerity of the invitation, Sibbes reassures us that God in Christ ‘is more willing to pardon’ than we are ‘to ask mercy’ (3.36). Just as the father in the parable ran and embraced his prodigal son, so God ‘will come and meet you, and kiss you,’ when you fall ‘at the feet of his mercy,’ and cast yourself into ‘the arms of his mercy’ (3.40). Once we are reconciled to him in Christ, he will as soon cease to love his Son as cease to love us’ (6.641).
In sum, all God’s saving mercies reach us only through his dear Son Christ, who is ‘the great ordinance of God for our salvation.’ He is the treasury in which God stores up for us all his ‘grace and love and mercy.’ The ministry of the gospel opens that treasury to us (Glorious Freedom, p. 84).
THE SPIRIT: THE STREAM OF MERCY
The last link in our enjoyment of the mercy of God is the work of the Holy Spirit. He who actually conveys God’s mercy into our hearts is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. In the covenanted purpose of God, his special role is to dispense the mercy the Father has been pleased to bestow and the Son has purchased with his own precious blood. Consequently, all life, truth, grace, peace, joy, holiness and comfort are from him. (Glorious Freedom, pp. 6-26). He who first filled the human nature of Christ without measure now fills his people with all saving and sanctifying grace.
Even the glorious gospel will be ineffectual without his ministrations. But ‘having by his death and sufferings reconciled us to his Father and purchased the Spirit for us,’ Christ now gives ‘his Spirit to us.’ As there was at first nothing to hinder the gift of the Spirit to the human nature of Christ, so now there is ‘nothing to hinder the blessed gift of the Spirit’ to us his children. Indeed, ‘Christ does his church more good now that he is in heaven, from where he sends the Spirit, than he could do if he were here below, because though his human nature is confined in heaven, his [divine] person is everywhere. And being “ascended now far above all heavens,” he gives gifts more liberally and plentifully, inasmuch as he fills all things (Eph. 4:10)’ (Glorious Freedom, pp. 11, 13, 14).
From this special ministry of the Holy Spirit, Sibbes draws a much needed lesson. ‘The most powerful means that ever was ordained for our good will be dead and heartless if he [Christ] is not there by his Spirit to put life into it . . . We should therefore desire that Christ would join his Spirit to all the ordinances of God and make them effectual.’ It is ‘the sin of this age,’ he laments, that through ‘dead formality’ professed worshippers of God ‘will hear a sermon now and then, look at a book, and perhaps pray morning and evening, but never look up to the living and quickening Spirit.’ Consequently, ‘all they do is dead and loathsome, like salt that has no savour.’ So whenever we hear a sermon or read the Bible, ‘we should lift up our eyes and hearts and voices to heaven and say: “Lord, join thy Spirit, be present with us . . .’ (Glorious Freedom, pp. 16, 17)
But when by the Spirit’s regenerating work and the exercise of saving faith we are joined to Jesus, all God’s mercy becomes ours. Our union with Christ as Mediator by the Holy Spirit is therefore ‘the ground of all comfort,’ for by his mediation all the mercy that lies deep in God’s merciful nature flows out of him into us (3.27).
‘Along with the ministry’ of the gospel, ‘he gives us his Holy Spirit.’ The Spirit knocks at our hearts, attracts us to Christ, and persuades and enables us to embrace him. This is how God descends to our mean and miserable level, with ‘Christ, and grace, the gospel, the ministry, the Spirit, all by way of love to us . . .’ (Glorious Freedom, p. 84)
Experiencing God’s Mercy
While acknowledging both God’s absolute sovereignty in dispensing his mercy and our dependence on his mercy at all times, Sibbes fastens on two particular times when his saints taste that mercy in all its sweetness.
The first is when he pardons our sins. He shows himself to be merciful ‘in pardoning sin freely, in pardoning all sin, the punishment and the guilt [i.e. liability to punishment] and all’ (3.30). Nothing tastes sweeter to the poor and needy believer than pardoning mercy.
The second is when we find ourselves ‘bruised and broken’ by the Fall. At such times, we are so pre-occupied with our distress that we ‘dare not claim any present interest of mercy.’ Our doubts and fears make us like a smoking flax – grace seems to be almost dead in us. Seeing us in this sad plight, our merciful God gives us some hope of mercy from the promise, and examples of those that have obtained mercy before us. This goads us to ‘hunger and thirst after it.’ In his own good time, God sends us his Spirit, who makes way for himself into our heart, and brings deliverance and relief (The Bruised Reed,4 p. 4). The wonder of mercy is that Christ will never break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax (Isa. 42:1-3; Matt. 12:18-20).
Sibbes naturally extends the saints’ experience of God’s mercy to all the chastisements and corrections they receive at their heavenly Father’s hands. These, he says, are always seasoned with comforts, as Lamentations 3.22-23 leads us to expect. In fact, he concludes, everything that ‘comes from God to his children’ in this present life is ‘dipped in mercy’ (3.30).
In true Puritan fashion, Sibbes draws a number of practical lessons from his meditations on God’s mercy. We mention four of them.
The first is that while in the past God showed mercy to his chosen [such as Moses, David, Manasseh and Paul, as Sibbes’ contemporary Jeremy Taylor pointed out to encourage his people], we must believe that it is available to us now. Precisely because he is merciful by nature, and because his mercy lives forever as a boundless store of pity and compassion, we should seek to enjoy his mercy, not through mystical visions, but simply by looking by faith on God in Christ. This alone will banish our terrors and bring us real comfort (3.53). Coming to him in this way will enable us to find him ‘a Father in covenant; not only a Friend, but a Father, a gracious Father’ (6.398).
Secondly, once we have ‘tasted the sweet mercy’ of God in Christ, we should ‘break forth’ in praise and thanksgiving, as naturally as birds sing in spring (3.22-23). With reverent love, we should glory in his sheer unmerited goodness to us (6.452).
Third, we should be merciful to others; for ‘all the sons of this Father . . . are merciful,’ like their Father in heaven (3.40).
Fourthly, whatever depths of misery we may find ourselves in, we should follow the example of King David in Psalm 130 and cry to God out of our depths. Realize, Sibbes urges, that ‘his mercy is deeper than our misery’ (3.36). Even though we may lose father and mother, or our nearest and dearest friends, we still have ‘a Father of mercy’ whose mercies, like himself, can never die (3.42). One day, he will in mercy wipe away every tear from our eyes (2.482).
It is worth pointing out that not only are both Testaments of Holy Scripture full of the mercy of God, every Christian writer of note (like the poor tax collector who cried: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’) casts himself or herself on that mercy. Augustine calls on the Lord as ‘My God, my Mercy.’ The most deeply-felt aria in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me.’ The Arminian Charles Wesley cries out in wonder at the possibility of mercy for himself:
Depth of mercy! Can there be Mercy still reserved for me?
Henry Francis Lyte prays:
God of mercy, God of grace, Show the brightness of thy face.
Even Shakespeare eulogizes this glorious attribute in Portia’s speech: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,’ calling it ‘an attribute of God himself.’
Now, we believe, the heavenly-minded Sibbes basks in that mercy in the immediate presence of his God and Saviour. Do we ever pray: ‘O that we were there! O that we were there!’?