The Christian Faith in the Modern World

Topic: Revelataion Type: Book Author: J. Gresham Machen 

Chapter 18


In bringing this little series of addresses now to a close, I want to say what a great pleasure it has been to me to become acquainted with you. Our conversations might, indeed, seem at first sight to have been just a little bit one-sided; in them I have done most of the talking. I hope you will not be unkind enough to say that that is the reason why I have enjoyed the conversations so much. I will confess that I do love to talk about these themes with which we have been dealing; but then, you see, I have also enjoyed the companionship I have had with you. These are rather trying days to a man who sorrows when a visible Church that professes to believe the Word of God turns from it so often into the pathways of unbelief and sin; and in such days it is doubly comforting to converse with those who truly love the Gospel of Christ and believe that it alone is the message that is forever new. I do rejoice with all my heart in the Christian fellowship which we have had together, and I trust that God may richly bless you, both in joy and in sorrow, and may by His Holy Spirit cause you always to be grounded upon the rock of His holy Word.

One thing is clear, my friends—the Word of God will never fail. Many, indeed, have turned from it in our day. Religious persecution is going on apace in Russia and in Germany and in Mexico; in those countries unbelief is blatant and unashamed and is endeavoring to stamp out the Christian religion by force. In our country the same tendency, though in less extreme form, is already mightily at work; and the visible Church is often unfaithful to its great trust and in some cases is engaged in driving out real Christian testimony from its communion.

But this is not the first time of discouragement in the history of the Christian Church, and sometimes the darkest hour has just preceded the dawn. So it may be in our day. Let us never forget that the Spirit of God, who inspired the writers of the Bible, is all powerful, and that He can make even dead churches to live.

Then I want to say a word of farewell also to any of you who have disagreed with what I have been trying to say. I appreciate your being broad minded enough to listen to that with which you do not agree; and I do trust that, if I have not been able to convince you of the truth of what I have been saying, God may send you a messenger of His own choosing who is better fitted than I to proclaim to you that truth which I have so imperfectly proclaimed.

It must be admitted, as we come to the last talk of this little series, that the title of the series is something of a fraud. It is not an intentional fraud, to be sure; but still an unkind person might say that it is a fraud. I have certainly not succeeded in treating The Christian Faith in the Modern World in any comprehensive way. Indeed I have made only a bare beginning of treating it. I have spoken of the Bible, from which the Christian Faith is derived, and I have spoken of the Biblical doctrine of God. But I have not treated all the divisions even of that latter topic. I have spoken a little of the Trinity, but can only—in the present talk—touch slightly upon the last part of that great subject; and I have not been able to speak, for example, of the decrees of God at all.

As for the other parts of the system of doctrine that the Bible contains, I have not been able even to make a beginning of treating them. I have not spoken of the Biblical doctrine of man and of sin; I have not spoken of the Biblical doctrine of salvation. I hope to be able to deal with those themes at some future time. Meanwhile I can just bid you turn to God’s Word and read it for yourselves. Doing that, after all, is far more worth while than listening to expositions even though they were far better than mine. May the Holy Spirit increasingly unfold to you the boundless treasures of truth that the Bible contains!

As I utter that prayer, I am brought to the theme that it would be next in order for me to deal with in our little series of talks. That theme would be the teaching of the Bible concerning the Holy Spirit. I have talked to you just a little about the Father, and I have tried to present to you just a little of what the Bible says about the Son, but so far I have not spoken to you specifically about the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Please do not understand by that neglect that I do not think the subject is important.

If only I had time I might naturally treat that subject much more fully than it can be treated now.

Even if I did have more time, I should not, indeed, give as much time to that subject as I should give, for example, to the subject of the deity of Christ. Devout persons sometimes seem to think that there is something derogatory to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, in the fact that theologians and preachers do not devote so much time or space to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as they do to the doctrine of the deity of Christ. These persons are apt, I think, to be particularly severe on the so-called "Apostles’ Creed," for example, because, after it has set forth a number of facts about Christ, the only thing that it says about the third person of the Trinity is just the bare clause, "I believe in the Holy Spirit." Surely that extreme brevity, they will be inclined to say, is derogatory to the third person of the Trinity, who is equal in power and glory to the Father and the Son.

Well, I do not know whether we ought to be so very hard on the Apostles’ Creed at this point. No doubt it is defective—at this point as at a good many other points. No doubt it ought to say something more about the Holy Spirit than just "I believe in the Holy Spirit." But after all the work of the Holy Spirit is especially to witness to the Son and to the Father. So, although the Bible has a great deal to say about the work of the Holy Spirit, the plain fact is that it does not devote so much space to the doctrine that sets forth the truth about the Holy Spirit Himself as it does to certain other doctrines.

So we, in this little series of talks, have already said a good deal about the work of the Holy Spirit—at least one work of the Holy Spirit—when we spoke of the inspiration of the Bible, and if we do not say more about the Holy Spirit Himself that may perhaps be partially excused by the fact that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, important though it is, could be set forth more briefly than, for example, the doctrine of the Son.

The teaching of the Bible about the Holy Spirit is found not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old Testament. The second verse of the Bible speaks of the Spirit of God as active at the beginning. The Spirit of God, that verse says, moved upon the face of the waters [GEN 1:2]. We think also, of course, of the work of the Spirit in empowering the prophets when they came forward with a message from God. In some places the Spirit appears as the giver of some special qualification; but the Spirit also appears as determining a holy life. Take not Your Holy Spirit from me, says the Psalmist [PSA 51:11]. There is a tendency in some quarters to underestimate the richness of the Old Testament teaching regarding the Spirit of God.

But it must be admitted that in the Old Testament we have no clear presentation of the personal distinctness of the Spirit of God. We may have intimations of it, as we have intimations of the doctrine of the Trinity; but for clear teaching regarding it we must turn to the New Testament books.

In the New Testament books that clear teaching is certainly present. At first sight, indeed, it might not seem to be so abundant as we might expect it to be. The deity of the Holy Spirit is everywhere perfectly plain, but the distinct personality of the Holy Spirit does not seem to lie so clearly on the surface. Hence it is not surprising that in discussions of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit the question that is chiefly discussed is different from the question that is discussed with regard to Christ.

With regard to Christ, the distinct personality of the One Who is presented is everywhere perfectly clear, and therefore argument is quite unnecessary about that. The question that needs discussion about Christ is the deity of the One spoken of. Christ appears to a superficial observer not as God but as a man. What needs to be done, therefore, is to show that superficial observer that this man, Jesus Christ, is both God and man.

But with regard to the Holy Spirit it is just the other way around. The deity of the Holy Spirit is everywhere perfectly clear; but what seems at first sight paradoxical, what seems to require discussion, is the true personality of the Spirit. It is clear without any discussion that the Spirit of God is God, but it might seem at first sight very strange that the Spirit of God should be a distinct person within the Godhead.

However—strange though that is—the Bible makes perfectly clear that it is true. A careful reading of the Bible shows that the true personality of the Holy Spirit, though not often made the subject of direct exposition, really underlies and gives meaning to everything that the Bible says about the Spirit of God.

For one thing, the great Trinitarian passages in the Bible really imply the personality of the Spirit. When, for example, our Lord in the "Great Commission" at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew commands the Apostles to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit [MAT 28:19, 20], can He possibly mean that although the Father and the Son are persons, the Holy Spirit is a mere impersonal aspect of the being of the Father or of the Son? The perfect coordination of the three—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—would seem to make such an interpretation extremely unnatural. So it is also with the "Apostolic Benediction" at the end of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all [2CO 13:14]. Here also to deny the distinct personality of the Spirit would seem almost to involve denying the distinct personality of the other two members of Paul’s triad; and since that would of course be out of accord with the Apostle’s whole teaching, it seems perfectly clear that he regards the Holy Spirit as a person just as he regards each of the other two.

But the passage where the personality of the Holy Spirit is most clearly and gloriously set forth is found in the intimate discourses of our Lord with His apostles as those discourses are recorded in the Gospel according to John. Here our Lord speaks of the Holy Spirit it as another Comforter [JOH 14:16], or rather (by what is probably a better translation of the word) another Advocate. The Holy Spirit, then, is in one sense another as over against Jesus; indeed Jesus says that His, Jesus’, departure means the Spirit’s coming. It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you [JOH 16:7]. It would hardly be possible to set forth more clearly than is done in these words the distinct personality of the Holy Spirit. He is not just an aspect of the person of Jesus; indeed, it is said that if Jesus departs He will come.

In another sense, indeed, even according to this very passage, the coming of the Spirit is the coming of Jesus; human analogies break down in the presence of the mystery of the Trinity. One cannot separate what the Son does and what the Father does from what the Spirit does as would be the case with three finite persons.

But, all the same, it remains true that the Holy Spirit does appear very clearly in this precious passage as a true person. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, but not as a mere emanation or a mere force but as a person Who stands in a truly personal relationship with the two other persons in the Godhead. Again and again in this wonderful passage the personal relationship between all three persons of the Trinity is set forth. In one verse at least, our Lord uses the first person plural in speaking of Himself and God the Father. If a man love Me, He says, he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make our abode with him [JOH 14:23]. Here Jesus of Nazareth, a man who walked upon this Earth, joins Himself with God the Father in a fellowship in which one person joins Himself with another. We will come, He says. The human mind is aghast in the presence of that stupendous We. God has certainly revealed to us wondrous things in His holy Word.

In this personal fellowship between the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit? Who is to be sent as another Comforter, appears as a third member of the fellowship. He stands in personal relation both to the Father and to the Son. And I will pray the Father, says Jesus, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever [JOH 14:16]. Here the Spirit appears as being sent by the Father at the instance of the Son. In another place He appears as being sent by the Son, and yet as proceeding from the Father. But when the Comforter is come, Whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, Who proceeds from the Father, He shall testify of Me [JOH 15:26]. All through this passage the relationship between all three appears as a warm relationship of love between persons.

In the light of what our Lord here says, all thought of regarding the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as being merely three modes in which one Person works, or merely three aspects in which one Person may be regarded, is seen to be contrary to the very heart of what the Bible teaches. No. the Bible teaches us certainly that there are three persons in the Godhead.

But, in teaching us that, the Bible never allows us to forget the primary truth that there is but one God. That truth is pressed home in the Old Testament, but it is pressed home just as insistently in the New. When the New Testament teaches that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons, it teaches with equal insistence that these three persons are one God. The New Testament writers never seem to be conscious that one of these two great truths could by any chance be regarded as in contradiction with the other. They are never for one moment conscious of any danger lest when they present the deity and the personality of the Son and of the Spirit they may lead men away from the unity of God. So in the Gospel of John Jesus says, I and the Father are One [JOH 10:30]; yet in that same Gospel He says, about the Father and Himself, We will come; and in that same Gospel He says, I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter. One God, three persons, each person God—so the Bible presents, in majestic harmony what God has graciously revealed to us of the mysteries of His being.

The three persons of the Godhead are, as our Shorter Catechism puts it, "the same in substance, equal in power and glory." But is that so? Are the three persons of the Godhead really the same in substance and equal in power and glory?

One of the early heresies said, No. The Son is of like substance with the Father, said the adherents of that heresy, but not of the same substance. But widely removed indeed was that heresy from the teaching of the Bible. I know the difference between these two expressions—"of the same substance" and "of like substance"—has often been ridiculed as being the difference merely of an iota, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. The Greek word for "of like substance" has a iota in it, and the Greek word for "of the same substance" is that word with the iota left out. What a hair splitting distinction, then, it is said, was that distinction which kept the Church in turmoil for so many years! The whole trouble was over one tiny little iota!

Well, my friends, the unbelief of our day uses a great many arguments, but I doubt whether any argument ever was used in any debate that was much more foolish than this.

Is the difference between the meanings of words really to be measured by the number or the size of the letters wherein the words differ? In that case the difference between "just" and "unjust" for example, would be very slight. Just put the little syllable "un" in front of "just," and you get "unjust." What a very slight difference that is! So I suppose you are not at all interested in the question whether a man says your decisions are "just" or whether he says they are "unjust"! It is merely a difference of that little syllable! Even the word "not" is not a very big word. So I suppose it makes no difference to you whether somebody says you are a liar or whether he says you are not a liar! Why indulge in hair splitting distinctions? Why quarrel over such a little word as "not"?

Well, we do quarrel over such little words and little letters. Little words and little letters sometimes make a vast deal of difference. So that little Greek letter, iota, made a whole world of difference in the great debate to which we have just referred. If Christ is said to be only of like substance with the Father, in the sense in which that early heresy meant it, then we have a miserable mythology that breaks down the gulf between the creature and the Creator, between the finite and the infinite. The Bible does no such thing. There is no such thing as "almost God" according to the Bible. The next thing less than the infinite, according to the Bible is infinitely less.

So the Bible certainly teaches that the Son is of the same substance with the Father, and that He is equal to the Father in power and glory. Only so can He be very God. And it teaches that also with regard to the Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Godhead are according to the Bible, the same in substance and equal in power and glory.

Do you know that triune God as your God, my friends? We pray that you may know Him so. We pray that the Holy Spirit may enable you to believe in the Son, and that, redeemed by His precious blood, you may stand in the Father’s presence for evermore.

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This Page Last Updated: 12/07/98 A. Allison Lewis