The work of the Holy Spirit as Comforter is not always understood among God’s people, with the result that they do not enjoy the comfort of the Holy Spirit as they should. When the church of Christ is strong and spiritually healthy and is edified by the Word of God, then the people of God walk “in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 9:31).
The importance of the Holy Spirit’s work as Comforter is clear from the four-fold promise of Christ to His church on the night of His betrayal. In that hour of great need Christ promised His disciples that He would send them the Holy Spirit as Comforter. That promise was so important for the disciples, as well as for the future safety and help of His church, that He repeated the promise four times (John 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7). The Heidelberg Catechism reflects this emphasis of Christ when it summarizes the whole purpose of all the Holy Spirit’s work with the words, “. . . that he may comfort me, and abide with me forever” (Lord’s Day XX, 53).
That name, “Comforter,” is a translation of the Greek name, “Paraclete,” a word which has come into our English language even though it is not commonly used. That name is so rich in meaning that it is very difficult to translate. An idea of this difficulty can be gotten by looking at the different English versions of the Bible. Almost every version has a different translation: “Advocate,” “Counselor,” “Teacher,” “Helper,” and all of these different translations are part of the meaning of the name “Paraclete.” The translation “Comforter” is probably best in that it covers all the others. A Paraclete or Comforter, then, is someone who stands by us (cf. Phillips Translation), who comes to help us in our need. Advocates, counselors, teachers, and helpers are all different kinds of Paracletes. Christ Himself is called our “Paraclete” in the sense of “Advocate” in I John 2:1.
The Holy Spirit is all of these things to us and many more besides, and is, therefore, our Comforter in the highest sense of the word. When we are weak, weary, and fainting, He helps us (Ps. 143:7, 10). When we are “without one plea” before God and unable to lift our heads, He is our Advocate and Intercessor (Rom. 8:26). He counsels us when we are afraid, in trouble, or in danger (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29, etc.). When we fail of words to confess the Name of Christ, when we know not what we should ask for in our prayers, and when our worship falls short of God’s praise, He teaches us and gives us words to speak and sing (Matt. 10:19, 20, Rom. 8:26, Phil. 3:3). He shows us the way and restores us when we wander (Ps. 51:11-13). He is the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord (Is. 11:2). Thus He is our Comforter.
In sum, this means that the comfort which the Holy Spirit gives is not some vague, ill-defined sentiment, nor even some fitly spoken words, but His own presence, gifts, and works. His first and great work of regeneration is the beginning of comfort, His last work of raising and changing our bodies is the crown of our comfort. He comforts us by calling us, by giving us faith, by converting us to God, by sanctifying us, and finally by glorifying us. In other words—the words of the prophet Isaiah—the Lord comforts us through the Spirit by making our wilderness like Eden, and our desert like the garden of the Lord (Isaiah 51:3).
How significant all this is for us as we seek comfort for our poor, comfortless souls! If the presence, gifts, and mighty works of the Spirit are our comfort, then certainly there is no possibility of comfort when we scorn His gifts, despise His works, and refuse to make our bodies His temple. If we are to have comfort and assurance we must not seek some special revelation, but through the Spirit seek these graces of the Spirit and pray for conversion from our sins, for faith, and for a new, godly, and sanctified life. They are the comfort of the Holy Spirit in which we must walk.
The first gift the Holy Spirit gives us when He comes to us with comfort and assurance is His work of weaning us away from our old comforts and comforters, whatever they may be. He shows us that human help is vain, and that there is no consolation in the lying philosophies by which men live. He does this by revealing our sins and the depravity of our whole race to us till our spirits are overwhelmed. When he has finished this work in us we cry out, as so many cried to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, “Men and brethren, what must we do?” Nor is this a work which He does only once, but again and again through our lives.
That gift of sorrow for sin is the beginning of comfort because it is through that that the Spirit shows us our need for all His rich gifts of salvation. And having shown us our need, therefore, He also fulfills that need by giving all His gifts. Just as quickly as the Apostles responded to the cries of the multitude on Pentecost, by speaking of repentance, baptism, and the remission of sin, so quickly does the Holy Spirit respond to these cries by giving us those graces and blessings of which the Apostles spoke, and others besides.
All of those further gifts of the Spirit add up to one thing, the fullness of Christ Himself. The Heidelberg Catechism says that it is the peculiar office of the Holy Spirit “to make me, by a true faith, partaker of Christ and all his benefits” (XX, 53). For this reason He is called in Scripture “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9) or the “Spirit of the Son” (Gal. 4:6). Not only is He given to Christ and sent by Christ, but it is His work to reveal Christ. And, therefore, Christ is comfort which the Holy Spirit gives us both for body and soul.
Jesus Himself tells us that the Holy Spirit as Comforter will not come with His own special baptism and works, such as the Pentecostals seek, but only with Christ: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father shall send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit tells us of Christ’s work on earth, on the cross, in Hell, and in heaven. He teaches us Christ promised, Christ come in the flesh, and Christ coming again. He brings to our remembrance Christ humiliated and Christ exalted, and shows us the wonder of the work that Christ has done both for us and in us and the glory of Christ, our Prophet, Priest, and King. And even this He does not do with His own words, but with the words of Christ as they are recorded in Holy Scripture. As Jesus says in another place, “He shall testify of me” (John 15:26).
This testimony of the Spirit, however, is not just a verbal testimony, but an application and gift of Christ to us. He does not just tell us about Christ’s work as the great Shepherd of His people, but opens our ears that we may hear His voice and teaches us to recognize that voice of the Son of God. He does not just speak about the suffering of Christ, but causes us to look upon Him as the one Whom we have pierced, so that we mourn for Him as one mourns for an only son (Zech. 12:10). He fills our hearts with Christ’s own resurrection life. He bathes us in the blood of Christ and feeds us with Christ’s own broken body till our filth is washed away and our souls satisfied. He pours the cup of the wine of Christ’s blood for us to drink that our eyes may be bright with the joy of salvation and our spirits refreshed by the grace that is in Him. Through Him Christ lives in us and we in Christ.
This is true of all the work He performs. In regeneration it is the blood of Christ which He sprinkles on our hearts to soften and renew them. In conversion He speaks with the voice of Christ to turn the raging waves and dispel the storm clouds of our rebellion. In sanctification He separates us from sin by setting the cross of Christ between our old sinful nature and the new man. He glorifies us in the last day, by allowing us to hear the voice of the Son of God, that hearing we might live. Thus He is our Teacher and Counselor, our Advocate and Intercessor, our Helper and Comforter.
This manifold work of the Spirit is the reason why the Spirit is called in Scripture the “Promise” (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4, 2:33). All of the promises of the Word of God are fulfilled to us by the work of the Holy Spirit, just as Christ fulfilled them for us by His work on the cross. Those promises which we enjoy through the Spirit are our only comfort.
For all of this work the Spirit is abundantly qualified. He has power to speak with the divine voice of Christ because He also is God of God’s. He is able to show me that all work of Christ is God’s work, approved and blessed by the Majesty on High, for He is able to show me the very heart of God Himself, all His secrets and all His purpose, as the One Who searches the deep things of God (I Cor. 2:10). No one is better able to apply to us all the work of Christ, for He is the One through Whom Christ offered Himself (Heb. 9:14), Whose power raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 8:11), and Who was given to Christ at His exaltation (Acts 2:33). As far as my need is concerned, He knows that also and better than I do, for He created me in my mother’s womb and searches my soul and spirit (Ps. 139:7, 15, 23).
For this work He is poured out upon the church to abide with her and in her forever. Without the constant care and presence of the Spirit the church has nothing, and especially in our present weakness and sin we cannot live apart from Him for a moment. By dwelling in us and making our bodies His own temple He is able to provide the help we need at all times. His care for us is like
that of a godly mother, who with sacrificing love studies the characters of her children, watches over their souls while they themselves have no thought of it, nurses them in sickness, prays with them and for them, so that they may learn to pray for themselves, bends a listening ear to their trifling griefs, and who in and through all this spends the energy of her soul with warnings and admonitions, now chiding, then caressing, to draw their souls to God. (Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, Funk & Wagnalls, 1900, p. 535).
Through that care, the Spirit’s gift of Christ to us, we have the assurance of our salvation, and comfort on all sides (Ps. 71:20, 21).