“Grieve Not the Spirit”: Sins Against the Holy Spirit (1): Their Doctrinal Significance*

*The articles appearing under this theme are the substance of a lecture given in the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland on January 12, 2011.

The Holy Scriptures refer to various sins against the Holy Spirit. In addition to the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, more commonly known as the “unforgivable sin” (Matt. 12:31-32Mark 3:29Luke 12:10), we are told that Israel “vexed his (God’s, DJK) holy Spirit” (Is. 63:10); that Ananias and Sapphira lied “to the Holy Ghost” (Acts 5:3); that the Jews of Stephen’s day, as well as their fathers, did “always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51); and that he who treads underfoot the Son of God, and counts the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, does “despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). These passages all refer to historical instances of sin against the Holy Spirit. Two other passageswarn us not to sin against the Holy Spirit: “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30) and “Quench not the Spirit” (I Thess. 5:19).

In every instance, those who commit these sins against the Holy Spirit are those who have heard the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, and who know intellectually that the Holy Spirit is Christ’s agent of salvation. That is, to commit these sins implies that one knows of the Holy Spirit.

One of these sins—the unforgivable sin—can be committed only by those who have not received the gracious, sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. We know this, because God forgives every sin of each of His children, and so preserves them from committing the unforgivable sin. Yet those who commit the unforgivable sin are in the sphere of the covenant. Jesus mentions this sin as He rebukes the unbelieving Jews; and the writer to the Hebrews mentions it, realizing that among the Jewish Christians is an unbelieving element.

Other of these sins against the Holy Spirit, only God’s children can commit. Grieving the Holy Spirit is an instance of this. The warning ofEphesians 4:30 is addressed to God’s church, and therefore to every member of the church. Also, as we shall later see, to grieve the Spirit presupposes that one has received the grace of sanctification.

There are also sins against the Holy Spirit that both God’s children and the reprobate in the sphere of the covenant can commit. An instance of this is the sin of lying to the Holy Spirit. While Ananias and Sapphira were not children of God (we read that Satan filled Ananias’ heart, Acts 5:3), this does not mean that God’s children could not lie to the Holy Spirit. Another in-stance is the sin of resisting and quenching the Spirit, of which not only individuals, but entire congregations could be guilty. We examine these sins against the Holy Spirit, both to grow in our understanding of the Holy Spirit, and to learn to guard against these sins.

The church’s confession regarding the Holy Spirit

Implied in these texts is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit that all Christians confess in the ecumenical creeds, and that Reformed believers confess more specifically in the Reformed and Presbyterian creeds. These creeds do not treat the doctrine of the Holy Spirit exhaustively, but they do set forth the basic teachings of Scripture regarding the Holy Spirit.

The ecumenical creeds include the Apostles’ Creed, which simply states, “I believe in the Holy Ghost.”¹ The Nicean/Constantinopolitan Creed is more expansive: “And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the prophets.” More comprehensive yet is the Athanasian Creed, which states in Articles 5-6: “For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.” The Athanasian Creed proceeds to say that the Holy Ghost, with the Father and the Son, is uncreated, infinite, eternal, and almighty; in all respects He is equal with Father and Son. Then in Article 23: “The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.”

As to the Reformed and Presbyterian creeds, the Heidelberg Catechism teaches in question and answer 53 (Lord’s Day 20):

What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost?

First, that He is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Secondly, that He is also given unto me, makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all His benefits, comforts me, and shall abide with me forever.

Setting forth the doctrine of the Trinity, Article 8 of the Belgic Confession teaches that the Godhead consists of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, each of whom is distinct from the other in His incommunicable properties, and each of whom is co-eternal and co-essential. Then Article 11, entitled “The Holy Ghost is true and eternal God,” says:

We believe and confess also that the Holy Ghost from eternity proceeds from the Father and Son; and therefore is neither made, created, nor begotten, but only proceedeth from both; who in order is the third person of the Holy Trinity; of one and the same essence, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son; and therefore is the true and eternal God, as the Holy Scripture teaches us.

Chapter 2, Article 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceedeth from the Father and the Son.

The Canons of Dordt repeatedly mention the Holy Spirit as the one by whom Christ saves us, but do not develop the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as such.

In these creeds, the church confesses three distinct things regarding the Holy Spirit. Each of these three things is taught in the texts that refer to the various sins against the Holy Spirit.

Truly and eternally God

These creeds teach that the Holy Spirit is truly and eternally God. The Athanasian Creed and the Reformed creeds teach this on the very surface. The Nicene Creed indicates it by saying of the Holy Ghost that He is the “Lord and Giver of life,” and that He is to be worshiped. The Apostles’ Creed teaches it by implication, leading us to confess our faith in “God the Father, Almighty,” and “in Jesus Christ,” and also “in the Holy Ghost.”

The divinity of the Holy Spirit is explicitly taught in the passage that speaks of Ananias’ lie against the Holy Spirit, Acts 5:3-4. In verse 3, Peter accuses Ananias of lying “to the Holy Ghost,” then says in verse 4: “thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” To lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God, because the Holy Spirit is God.

The Spirit’s divinity is also implied in Hebrews 10:29: “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” Treading the Son of God underfoot, counting the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, and doing despite unto the Spirit of grace are not three distinct sins, but three aspects of one and the same sin. This sin is at the same time sin against the Son of God, and sin against the Spirit of grace, because Son and Spirit are equal. They are equal, because they are both God.

Reformed believers must not only confess this divinity of the Spirit with their mouths, but also love it in their hearts. Being divine, the Holy Spirit is able to work the blessings of salvation in us. And being divine, He is the object of our worship.

A distinct person of the Godhead

Furthermore, these creeds teach that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person in the Godhead. Each creed does so by distinguishing the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. And, with the exception of the Apostles’ Creed, each does so by speaking of the personal property of the Holy Spirit: He proceeds from Father and Son.

Exactly in that they speak of sins against the Holy Spirit, the passages noted at the beginning of this article teach that He is a distinct person of the Godhead. Sin is always committed against persons. My sinful treatment of an animal, or sinful use of an object, is not sin against that animal or object; it is sin against my neighbor (the animal’s owner), and against my creator and Lord.

That one could lie to the Holy Spirit indicates that the Spirit is a person. We lie to people who could or do have a covenant relationship with us, and who understand our language. Such is true of rational, moral beings—humans and God.

Also, that the Holy Spirit is vexed or grieved indicates that He is a person. These words are a figure of speech, by which human emotion is ascribed to the Holy Spirit. They teach that He is able to express sorrow or grief (or happiness and joy) in accordance with the way we act (sinfully or obediently). This also indicates that the Holy Spirit is conscious of Himself—something that characterizes persons.

Over against the heresies that deny such distinction of persons in the Godhead, Reformed believers must confess that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person in the Trinity. Throughout its history, the Christian church has battled the heretical idea that God is one in person as well as in being. Some have taught that the Spirit is nothing more than the power of God. Others taught that the one-person God works throughout history in such a way that in the Old Testament He showed Himself as Father; during Jesus’ earthly ministry, as Son; and in the New Testament as Holy Spirit—like an actor who plays three different roles throughout the three acts of a play. Such is the heresy of Sabellianism, which Article 9 of our Belgic Confession specifically condemns.²

Do these heresies seem so remote? Remember that in denying the doctrine of the Trinity, the Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cults necessarily deny this doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

In order to carry out His work of saving and sanctifying us, the Holy Spirit must be a distinct person. Only as such can He speak by the prophets (I Pet. 1:11), know and make known the mind of God (I Cor. 2:10-14), and guide us into all truth, comfort us, and abide with us forever (John 14-16).

Sanctifying God’s church and children

The ecumenical and Reformed creeds also teach that the Holy Spirit is involved in the work of salvation. The Nicene Creed said that He is “the Lord and Giver of Life” and that He “spake by the prophets.” And the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that He “is also given unto me, makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all His benefits, comforts me, and shall abide with me forever.” Specifically, the Holy Spirit sanctifies. Speaking of the division of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism says that the third part consists of “God the Holy Ghost and our sanctification” (Lord’s Day 8, Q&A 24). This sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is a fundamental aspect of His making us “by a true faith partaker of Christ and all His benefits.”

That He sanctifies—makes us holy—explains the first word of His name: Holy Spirit. Being God, He is personally holy. But the word “Holy” in His name refers especially to His work of hallowing, consecrating, bringing us into holy fellowship with the holy God.

This sanctifying work the Holy Spirit performs in the church as a whole, through the means of grace, as He calls the church unto the fellowship of God’s dear Son, and makes the church Christ’s one, holy, catholic church. In leading the church into the knowledge of the truth, in purifying her, and in working through the official preaching of the gospel, the Holy Spirit is as a fire, which we must not quench. I Thessalonians 5:19makes this point.

The Holy Spirit also performs this sanctifying work in the individual child of God personally, by destroying sin’s dominion over that one, and causing him more and more to love God’s law and live according to it. God’s children, in whom the Holy Spirit works, grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) when they live as though they are yet ruled by sin.

A doctrine according to godliness

I Timothy 6:3 and Titus 1:1 teach that true doctrine is “according to” or “after” godliness. This means that true doctrine always leads to godliness. God desires that His people be a holy, godly people. To that end, He would have us know true doctrine.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is a specific instance of this. Our confession of the Holy Spirit as truly God, a distinct person in the Godhead, and the agent of Christ to bestow the blessings of salvation on us must manifest itself in a sanctified life in which we honor the Spirit’s work in us.

To that end, we desire to understand better what these various sins are, that we might guard against them. Next time, God willing, we will begin this examination.