Previous article in this series: October 1, 2011, p. 13.

In our last article we examined the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, more commonly known as the “unforgivable sin.” They commit this sin who, being in the sphere of the covenant and knowing the gospel of grace, harden their hearts against this gospel, and manifest their hardened hearts by their blasphemous contempt of the Holy Spirit.

No elect child of God will ever commit this sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. God will graciously preserve His own from doing so.

This assurance that God’s elect will never blaspheme the Holy Spirit must not lead us to suppose that God’s children will never, in any way, sin against the Holy Spirit. Scripture speaks of other sins against the Holy Spirit as well, and warns us against them. Israel, God’s covenant nation, vexed His Holy Spirit (Is. 63:10). Not unbelievers, but believers in the church of Christ are warned not to “grieve” or “quench” the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30, I Thess. 5:19).

To inform us regarding these sins, and encourage us to guard ourselves against them, is our goal in these articles.

Vexing and Grieving the Spirit:

Isaiah 63:10 and Ephesians 4:30

Isaiah 63:10 mentions the sinful response of wilderness-wandering Israel to Jehovah’s lovingkindness: “But they rebelled, and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore was he turned to be their enemy, and fought against them.” And the inspired apostle, exhorting the saints to put off the old man and put on the new man, wrote: “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).

To vex the Spirit and to grieve the Spirit are essentially the same thing. The Hebrew word translated “vex” in Isaiah 63:10 means to afflict with pain or grief. The Greek word translated “grieve” in Ephesians 4:30 means to make one sorrow or grieve.

As God’s children, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we do not live a sanctified life—that is, whenever we violate God’s law. Especially our gross, willful sins grieve the Spirit; but any transgression of God’s law, any hatred shown toward God and the neighbor, grieves the Spirit. Four points demonstrate this.

First, consider the confessional teaching of Reformed churches, in the Canons of Dordt, Head 5, Article 5. Article 4 referred to the lamentable fall of David, Peter, and other saints. Article 5 then says (italics mine):

By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.¹

Clearly, the Spirit is grieved by our gross, deliberate sins.

Second, the context of Ephesians 4:30 indicates that we grieve the Spirit not only by gross transgressions of God’s law, but also by sins of the heart, and by sins that arise against our will in us. Living out of the power of the new man (Jesus Christ in us), and mortifying the old man (our depraved nature that we received from Adam), we are to put aside lying and to speak truth (Eph. 4:25); to put aside stealing and to labor (Eph. 4:28); to put aside corrupt communications and to speak what is good to the use of edifying (Eph. 4:29); and to put away “all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking…with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31-32). Notice—not only must we put aside the obvious sins of lying and stealing, but also the heart sins of bitterness and malice. All this is found in the context of the admonition not to grieve the Spirit, for the Spirit is grieved by our failures to live according to God’s law, and manifests His grief by taking from us the conscious enjoyment of fellowship with God, until we repent.

Third, Israel’s wilderness wanderings, to which Isaiah refers, illustrate this point. Time and time again, Israel (not each and every member, but the nation acting collectively) sinned against God’s law. Within forty days of receiving that law, she had Aaron make golden calves to worship. She committed fornication and adultery. She murmured and complained—failures to trust in the one true God, and so a violation of the first commandment. She believed the report of the ten evil spies, and so refused to enter Canaan, being guided by “the angel of his presence” (Is. 63:9), the preincarnate Christ, who guided Israel by His Word and Spirit. All this vexed and grieved the Spirit. Israel’s judgment was that she must wander forty years in the wilderness—her deeper enjoyment of covenant fellowship with God in the promised land was delayed.

Fourth, that we grieve the Spirit by sinning against God’s law is evident from considering the distinctive person and the particular work of the Holy Spirit Himself. As the Holy Spirit of God, proceeding from the Father and the Son, He unites Father and Son together in holy love and fellowship. As the Holy Spirit of Christ, poured out on the church on Pentecost, He brings the church and Christ into deeper and closer union, applying the blessings of salvation that Christ earned for us. As the Holy Spirit, His is particularly the work of sanctifying us, as Answer 24 of our Heidelberg Catechism indicates. When we do not strive to live out of His sanctifying power, but rather out of the power of our old man of sin, the Spirit is vexed (pained) and grieved (made to sorrow).

What Israel did do, and what saints are prone to do, God’s church and saints in every age must not do: we must not vex or grieve the Spirit. We guard against doing so by striving to live out of faith and the sanctified power of the Spirit, by obeying God’s law in love for God and His law, and by delighting in fellowship with Him.

In what sins does the world delight? To what sins are we susceptible? Let us hate and fight them, as those delivered from sin’s corruption! We have the power of Christ, by His Spirit, to do so! And we have incentive—God brought us into covenant with Him!

How to guard against grieving the Spirit, the Spirit Himself indicates in Ephesians 5:1-4:

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.

“As becometh saints”—sanctified by the Spirit Himself!

Resisting and Quenching the Spirit: Acts 7:51 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19

Stephen accused the Jews of resisting the Holy Spir it: “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as did your fathers, so do ye.” And the apostle admonished the saints in Thessalonica, “Quench not the Spirit” (I Thess. 5:19).

To understand these passages rightly, we must see that they do not refer to the Spirit’s subjective work in the heart of God’s children (the work of regenerating, bestowing faith, and sanctifying), but they refer to the Spirit’s objective testimony to Jesus Christ in the preaching of the gospel to all who hear.

That these passages refer to the Spirit’s testimony in the preaching of the gospel is clear from the context of both passages. In Acts 7:52, explaining his accusation that the Jews resisted the Holy Spirit, Stephen said: “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One: of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers.” Likewise Paul, explaining his admonition not to quench the Spirit, says in verse 20: “Despise not prophesyings.”

That both passages refer to the Spirit’s testimony in the preaching of the gospel indicates that resisting the Spirit and quenching the Spirit are related. The relationship is this: the first leads to the second; to persist in resisting the Spirit is to quench the Spirit. Yet they are distinct sins.

To resist the Spirit is to refuse to believe the gospel that is preached by God’s messengers. The Jews of old resisted the Holy Spirit by refusing to believe the word of the prophets. The Jews of Stephen’s day resisted the Holy Spirit by refusing to believe the gospel of Christ. In both instances the Jews manifested their sin of resisting the Holy Spirit by hating and killing Christ and the prophets.

Today also, he resists the Spirit who rejects the gospel. Even nominal churches resist the Spirit by rejecting the teachings of Scripture and refusing to heed the call to repentance and faith.

God’s true children must guard against this sin. Some of God’s children are guilty of this sin before they become confessing Christians, by hating the gospel and persecuting true believers. But even after one professes Christianity, he is still prone to commit this sin. When the preached Word steps on our toes, and we blame the preacher for our pain; when we Pharisaistically think to ourselves that God is pleased with us for certain things we have done, in addition to Christ’s work for us; or when we despise the call to repent from a sin that we love—these are forms of resisting the Spirit.

The opposite of resisting the Spirit is loving the Word of God as it comes through the proclamation of the gospel—readily listening to it, eagerly submitting to it, changing one’s life in accordance with it. To this we are called; and this God’s people will do, by His grace.

It should be clear, then, that by resisting the Spirit man does not frustrate God’s purpose. God never intended to save those who resist the Spirit to their dying day. His will to condemn and destroy them is carried out exactly in the way of their resisting the Spirit. On the other hand, by His Spirit God always turns those of His children who commit this sin, showing that His Spirit is stronger than they are.

Referring to the Spirit’s objective testimony to Christ in the preaching of the gospel, and not to the Spirit’s subjective and gracious work in the hearts of God’s people, these passages themselves oppose the interpretation that Arminians give them. These passages do not teach that God’s grace in the hearts of His people is resistible, or that His will to save His own can be resisted. Arminians put these passages to a wrong use when they explain Acts 7:51 as indicating that one can resist the saving power and work of the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit cannot save that person, and when they teach that I Thessalonians 5:19 implies that man is able to extinguish the Spirit’s power in him, thus losing the grace that the Spirit gave.

Reformed churches and believers reject this idea of the Arminians. Our rejection is stated confessionally in Canons of Dordt, Head 3 and 4, Rejection of Errors, Article 8:

Who teach that God in the regeneration of man does not use such powers of His omnipotence as potently and infallibly bend man’s will to faith and conversion; but that all the works of grace having been accomplished, which God employs to convert man, man may yet so resist God and the Holy Spirit when God intends man’s regeneration and wills to regenerate him, and indeed that man often does so resist, that he prevents entirely his regeneration, and that it therefore remains in man’s power to be regenerated or not. For this is nothing less than the denial of all the efficiency of God’s grace in our conversion, and the subjecting of the working of Almighty God to the will of man, which is contrary to the apostles…. (The article then quotes Ephesians 1:19, II Thessalonians 1:11, II Peter 1:3, DJK.)

God be praised and thanked, that He is sovereign over man, and more powerful than man, and that man cannot prevent God from carrying out His will of salvation!

But may God graciously keep us from resisting His Spirit.

To persist in resisting the Spirit is, we have said, to quench the Spirit. Quenching, or extinguishing, is a process that ends when the thing being quenched is completely gone. Firemen begin quenching a house fire as soon as they arrive on the scene, but only when flames are entirely absent is the fire said to be “out,” and do the firemen leave.

It is possible to quench the Spirit—progressively to extinguish the Spirit’s sanctifying power, so that at some point the Spirit no longer works in a church.

I do not mean that an individual in whom the Spirit works grace can finally manage to make the Spirit stop working grace in him. Just as was true of resisting the Spirit, so quenching the Spirit refers to the Spirit’s objective testimony to Christ in the preaching.

Churches quench the Spirit. The members of the church contribute to this quenching, of course, so that the warning applies to the members of the church. But the admonition not to quench the Spirit came to the entire church at Thessalonica.

The process of quenching the Spirit involves a church’s rejection of the Scriptures as the inspired and infallible Word of God; a church’s departure from right doctrine, worship, and practice; and a church’s intolerance of faithful preaching (despising prophesyings, I Thess. 5:20). In other words, the process of quenching the Spirit is the process of apostasy. Less and less brightly works the Spirit in such churches; the truth is snuffed out, and the godly living that flows from it wanes.

When a church reaches the end of this process, it has become thoroughly apostate. This is to say that when the Spirit is quenched, He ceases working in a particular instituted church. Christ alludes to this when He threatens to remove the candlestick of the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:5), and to spew the church of Laodicea out of His mouth (Rev. 3:16). Once faithful in doctrine and life, these churches enjoyed the presence of the ascended and exalted Christ in His Spirit. But Christ threatens, except they repent, to remove Himself from their midst. He would remove His Spirit from them.

Because a congregation is the sum total of her members, individuals contribute to this quenching of the Spirit by showing that they despise the preaching of the gospel and true fellowship with Christ, and by joining in the clamor of those whose ears itch to hear a false gospel.

True churches, with their truly believing members, must take the warning to heart. God does not tell false churches not to quench the Spirit; for them such an admonition is too late. But let faithful churches and believers not quench the Spirit, and not despise prophesyings!

Guarding against this sin, we strive to maintain our first love—to love the gospel, the proclamation of this gospel, the right worship of God that this gospel demands, and the heartfelt obedience to God to which this gospel motivates us. Guarding against this sin, a church insists that right doctrine be preached, and that God’s law be preached “strictly” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 115). Guarding against this sin, the members of such a church then receive the gospel with joy, and respond in a godly way to the hearing of the law.

As evidence that the Spirit of Christ burns brightly in such churches!

¹ This and the following reference from the Canons are taken from The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005).