Baptist History Homepage

Philadelphia Baptist Association
Circular Letter
The Office Work of the Holy Spirit
By Rev. William White

The elders and messengers of the Philadelphia Baptist Association,
To the churches they represent, send Christian salutation.

Beloved brethren, — As it has been our custom to address you annually in an epistolary way; in conforming therewith this year, we have deemed it expedient to continue an investigation of the office work of the Holy Ghost. In our last year’s epistle, relation is had to the work of the Spirit in qualifying the apostles to discharge the great duties entrusted to them; but we shall confine ourselves to that part which relates to preparing those that were given to Christ to redeem, for the fruition of happiness in the presence of God. When we speak of the Holy Ghost, we mean the third person in the divine essence, to whom many significant titles are applied, the consideration of which, will probably be edifying. He is called the Holy Spirit, Psalm li:11, and Ephesians i:1-3; intimating’ thereby, that such is the purity of his nature, being purity in the abstract, that there is an absolute necessity that those who would enjoy the fellowship of the Spirit, Philippians ii:1, should be holy, not using the members of the body, which is the temple of the Holy Ghost, 1 Corinthians vi:19, in the service of sin. He is also called the Spirit of holiness, Romans iv:1, because he implants a principle of holiness in all the elect; and forasmuch as there is not any thing amiable or lovely in God's dear children, but what is the fruit of the Spirit, Galatians v:22. Eternity is ascribed to him, and, therefore, he is called the eternal Spirit, Hebrews ix:14, to show that he is not God by office, or in a figurative sense only; but that, as he possesses eternity, one of the attributes of the divine nature, he is truly and properly God. He is called the Spirit of grace, Hebrews x:29, because the holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of the Spirit of God, make known all the gracious designs of Jehovah towards his people; and because he implants gracious affections, and applies the blessings of grace to the subjects of it. He is called the Comforter, John xiv:16, by reason of that support which pious men derive from him, when under affliction. He is styled the Spirit of promise, Ephesians i:13, with relation to his bringing the promises to our view, applying them to us, so as exactly to suit our particular cases, and enabling us to take consolation from them: or, because the marvellous descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was the fruit of promise, as well as the indwelling and aid of the holy Spirit to believers, to whom it is promised, that he shall abide with them forever, John xiv:16. He is. called the Spirit of the Lord, 2 Corinthians iii:17, and the Spirit of Christ, Romans viii:9, denoting that he comes in consequence of covenant stipulations, for which cause Christ is said to receive gifts for men, Psalm lxviii:18, and to shed forth the Spirit, Acts ii:32., and to send the Comforter to abide with the disciples, John xvi:7; and lastly, he is called the Spirit of glory, because he gives a foretaste of it -- assures us of our right to it — and prepares us for the complete enjoyment of it.

In treating further on this subject, we shall show, 1st, That the children of the Lord only, are made partakers of the Holy Spirit in its operations on their hearts. And 2dly, What is effected by the Holy Ghost in such. Many well meaning persons have certainly handled this subject very injudiciously: and we are convinced, if they would but for a moment consider, they must see into what difficulties they are involved; and that if they have a system of doctrine at all, they must systematically become Armenians, as it is impossible to hold the precious doctrines of grace upon such ground. It is not uncommon for many, from whom we might have expected better things, after treating upon some of the sublime doctrines of the gospel, in applying their subject and addressing impenitent and unrenewed sinners, to tell them God’s most holy Spirit has been striving with them from their infancy up, and that hitherto his attempts have been unsuccessful. If such doctrine is according to godliness, brethren, you will readily discover that the sinner, and not the Spirit of God, is omnipotent; and that from henceforth, instead of saying confidently, that the dead shall hear his voice and live, John v:25, we must always add, provided men will condescend to let the Holy Spirit work, since then, and not till then, shall they be quickened or made alive. Such doctrine, is evidently in direct opposition to the Scriptures of truth; for the sinner, prior to regeneration, is always represented as passive, and therefore is declared to be dead, Ephesians ii:1, and is said to be born; to be begotten. As the creature begotten, cannot be said to be active prior to his existence, or be the instrument of its own existence, these expressions fully show, that it does not depend upon the favorable reception the divine Spirit meets with, that the work of grace is effected in the soul. The work of the Spirit is called a creation, Psalm li:10, 2 Corinthians v:17, in allusion to an almighty agent giving existence to the system of nature, both with respect to matter and form. As there was no pre-existing matter to form the present material world, and consequently infinite power was necessarily engaged in producing it, these phrases evidently show, that the sinner is not an effectual agent to hinder the work, and that nothing can possibly frustrate that grace which creates the soul in Christ Jesus to good works. In addition to what has been said it will be sufficient to observe, that the language of holy writ is absolute: "They shall be my people," 2 Corinthians vi:16; "they shall be willing," Psalm cx:3; "which were born, not of the will of the flesh," John i:13; "all that the Father giveth me shall come," John vi:37 "the dead shall hear my voice," John v:25.

Some urge the strivings of the Spirit, as essential to constituting a judicial right in God to punish the finally impenitent. This may suit well enough for those that believe in general redemption and universal provision; but how it suits with the Calvinistic scheme, (which we believe to be founded on the word of God,) we cannot comprehend. Such doctrine is one of the greatest insults that can be offered to the Divine Being. It supposes that the infinite Jehovah, intends no good to the sinner, but on the contrary has determined to make him miserable; not having sufficient reason to make him so, and knowing that he has no power nor inclination to receive Christ and his benefits, yea, that God. himself does not intend that he shall, he will make him some insincere offers of salvation, and afford him, what some persons call, common operations of the Spirit, which he knows will be entirely ineffectual; and, after this pretence of trying to save him, very gravely tells him, that for his not letting the Spirit convert him, he must be miserable to all eternity. It would be hard to say worse of the great God, than what is said of him in the above sentiment; for, therein he is charged with hypocrisy and cruelty — hypocrisy, for his only making pretence to commisserate the case of the sinner and afford him relief; and of cruelty, since, on such principles, men are not punished as offenders, but simply as creatures. It makes God proceed therein, not as the moral governor of the world, but upon the ground of arbitrary or despotic authority. You will readily perceive, brethren, that it is not merely the want of faith and repentance, that is the procuring cause of the sinner's destruction, but a want of moral rectitude, of coming up to the requirements of the divine law; and, therefore, there is no need that God should seek an occasion against him, forasmuch as there is sufficient reason that he should punish men, even if no Saviour had been provided. As for common operations of the Spirit and days of grace, these are links of the same chain, and are necessary to help the legal preacher along: but though they may be necessary to the system of the Armenian, they are equally unscriptural. As to the first, there is no mention made of them in any part of the sacred oracles — they have existed only in the fancies of men; and the latter opinion, which that much abused scripture, Luke xix:42, is used to support, is far from being substantiated thereby. The text in question, had respect simply to the treatment of Christ as the promised Messiah; for the rejection of whom, after his mission had been attested by so many miracles, the city of Jerusalem was doomed to a dreadful overthrow, and the Jewish commonwealth wholly ruined: but the text has no relation whatever to the day of their salvation being past; for it is manifest, that many of those very persons, of whom it has been said that their day of grace was past, were afterwards converted under the preaching of Peter. See Acts ii.

But let us inquire further, upon what the abettors of this doctrine build their theory. It is certain, that these sentiments have been chiefly gathered from observing a kind of legal exercise, which more or less exists in the hearts of unregenerated persons who sit under the gospel, and especially if the ministry be powerful and alarming; and also from some passages of holy writ, which have been amazingly misunderstood.

As to the first, it may be properly called the workings of natural conscience; such is the evidence which divine truth brings with it to the mind, searching the hearts of the children of men, bringing to light their enmity against God, and their immoral conduct generally. Hence, sinners, merely by the light of reason, perceiving that God's holy law condemns them, and that the penalty of it is no less than eternal misery, are at times very uneasy. Paul says, "the Gentiles which have not the law are a law unto themselves," and that "their thoughts accuse or excuse each other, their conscience in the mean time bearing witness." By way of inference, he adds, "which show the work of the law written in their heart," Romans ii:15. Here the apostle plainly accounts for the above-mentioned feelings of unregenerate persons, which he intimates do not come from the immediate operations of the Holy Ghost, but from the law, some faint traces of which continue in the mind: and that it is conscience, and not the Spirit of God, which bears testimony to their actions, the result of which is, that their thoughts accuse or excuse one another. Is it any wonder, therefore, that persons sitting under a gospel ministry, hearing the word and beholding the ordinances, and enjoying withal a pious education and the godly example of religious parents, (for it is unregenerate persons of that class who feel most uneasy,) should sometimes, when under some qualms of conscience, enter upon some legal duties? The same matter is forcibly illustrated in the case of Felix, Acts xxiv:25. It is said, Paul "reasoned," (not a word about the strivings of the Spirit;) that the subjects were "righteousness, temperance, and judgment," (very suitable indeed to alarm a rapacious, rioting, and wicked governor;) that he, as is usual with such, trembled at the thought of a day of retribution: and the whole of this is attributed to Paul, and not to the Spirit. It has been a prevailing opinion, that these feelings are peculiar to youth; but then it must be remembered, that it is only in such (as has been before observed) as, enjoy religious instruction. And as for others, however young, they appear to be as insensible as those in mature age who live carelessly. Itmay be again remarked, that such as have lived all the early part of their lives without religious instruction, when, in the course of divine Providence, they are cast under a powerful ministry, become as much disturbed, at times, as persons do in youth. From all which we may infer, that these feelings are not from the Spirit of the Lord, working in persons in early life, and trying to make them Christians, who, not being able to effect it, at length, when old, leaves them as persons out of the reach of mercy — and, as some tell us, because their day of grace is past; for we find that many, very many of that description of persons, are afterwards converted to God, and live sober and religious lives.

Those texts which have been understood as countenancing the striving of the Spirit in all men, we shall consider so far as the bounds of a letter will admit. We are frequently reminded of John xvi:8, as a text in point, to prove the doctrine; but, by consulting the context, it will appear, that the apostles were the subjects of the promise, and that it did not relate to the workings of gracious affections in them by the Spirit, (for these they enjoyed before,) but the. effusion of the Holy Ghost, which they were to wait for in Jerusalem, that they might "be endued with power from on high," Luke xxiv:49. By "the world," is primarily intended the Jewish nation, a vast multitude of whom were then at Jerusalem keeping the feast; by the fulfilment of Christ's promise, in the outpouring of the Spirit, they were reproved for, or convinced of sin, not only in putting Christ to death, but of not believing on him, as the Messiah — of righteousness, either his personal rectitude, being no impostor, or more especially that it was he who was the subject of Daniel's prophecy, of whom it was foretold that he should "bring in everlasting righteousness," Daniel ix:24; and of judgment, because, by the outpouring of the Spirit, complete evidence was given that he was really risen from the dead, and consequently thereby giving assurance of his coming to sit in judgment on them, Acts xvii:31.

Nor can Hebrews vi:4, be brought to prove the doctrine. As the being made partakers of the Holy Ghost there intends, not his regenerating influences, but merely gifts, or ministerial abilities. Such was the case with Balaam and Judas. Christ says, "Rejoice not that the devils are subject to you; but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven," Luke x:20. When St. Paul says, that "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal," 1 Corinthians xii:7, he has respect to gifts, and not to grace; for by the "every man," is meant the gifted persons in the church of Corinth; and his design is to show, that although their gifts differed widely, yet they were given by the same Spirit for the edification of the church, and would be profitable to the body.

But it may be objected, that the holy Spirit is said to "strive with man," Genesis vi:3; to be resisted, Acts vii:51; and vexed, Isaiah lxiii:10. Wehave no inclination to deny that the Spirit may strive, be resisted, and vexed in a certain sense; but not in the sense in which the words are commonly used. It is manifest that the Spirit in the apostles and prophets is intended, when said to strive, to be vexed, and resisted by the impenitent. As to the first, the Spirit in Noah was intended; and in this sense it is the apostle Peter affirms, (1 Peter iii:19,) that Christ preached to those antediluvians who are now in prison, because that his Spirit was in Noah as a preacher of righteousness, and they were strove with in the ministry of the word. When it is said that the children of Israel vexed his holy Spirit, as in the above text, it is also added, which he put in him (Moses), by whose right hand they were led. And it is also plain, that the same thing is intended in the Acts. For Stephen, in charging the Jews with resisting the Holy Ghost, observes, they did as their fathers had done before them, who persecuted and slew the prophets which slowed the coming of the Just One, of whom (says he) you have been the betrayers, and murderers, thereby resisting and rejecting the testimony of the Holy Ghost as they did. A parallel passage with those mentioned is Zechariah vii:12, "Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts hath sent in his Spirit by the former prophets."

We have now, brethren, briefly noticed the principal places in holy writ, which have been supposed to countenance the strivings of the Spirit in all men: and taking it for granted that what has been said is sufficient, we shall now proceed to show some Scripture arguments, to prove that the Holy Ghost is given to the elect only.

By the good work begun in the people of God, (Philippians i:6,) most unquestionably must be meant, the operations of the Spirit of the Lord in their souls. But if so, how can we be assured that it will be performed until the day of Christ, if, according to the above-mentioned sentiment, this work does not always prove victorious — is not always completed — yea, is absolutely relinquished and the subjects of it suffered to perish eternally? Surely, upon this hypothesis, the apostle's reasoning is very inconclusive, and the argument advanced with a design to encourage, must have had quite a contrary effect for they would reply, How can this be, when you constantly assure us that this work may be, and often is, frustrated? All evangelical obedience, being the fruit arising from the holy Spirit, is made the evidence of adoption; "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God," Romans viii:14. But in case men may possess the divine Spirit, and yet be lost, then the evidence of adoption is vague and uncertain; and it follows, that the having of this Spirit in his influence is no evidence at all, and the reasoning impertinent. The apostle to the Galatians speaks of receiving the Spirit by the hearing of faith (or the gospel which is so called), Galatians iii:2; but if God ordinarilyuses the gospel, through which to communicate the gifts and graces of the Spirit, then every man has not the Spirit, forasmuch as the gospel is withheld from many nations of the earth. In the epistle to the Romans, the having of the Spirit is made the criterion of belonging to Christ, Romans viii:9, "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of his." But if every man has the Spirit, it is no criterion at all, or else every man is a Christian, an adopted child of God; but the apostle, making it a test ‘by which to try our standing, supposes clearly that some have not the Spirit of Christ, and therefore are not his. The same apostle to the church of Corinth, (1 Corinthians ii:14, 15,) draws a line of distinction between the natural and spiritual man; but if all have the Spirit, there can be no distinction; in vain does he talk of a spirit of discernment in divine things, wherein they differ from other men; and he must surely have been mistaken, when he said the things of the Spirit of God are foolishness to such; but if we understand him as making a clear distinction between the believer and unbeliever — the one having the Spirit of God and the other not — then there is a beauty in his reasoning, and not else. But, brethren, it is of no use to multiply quotations in a case so plain; we shall therefore only make an observation or two on the following passages, and leave them to your meditations. Paul to the 1 Thessalonians iv:8, says, "Who also hath given unto us his holy Spirit." John, in his first epistle says, "Hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us," (1 John iii:24,) "Hereby know we that we dwell in him and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit," (1 John iv:13.) You will remark, brethren, that the above are addressed to the churches of Christ and consequently to all believers composing them, and not to men of the world at all. Now, when he says, he hath given it us, it is clearly implied, that he has not given it to others; and as our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost, and we know, by the indwelling of the Spirit, our union to Christ; therefore, let us never part with this precious test of an interest in the favor of God. But to crown all, and to show with certainty, putting the matter beyond all doubt, that every man has not the Spirit of the Lord, in Jude i:19, it is expressly said, "These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit."

We come to show what is effected by the Holy Ghost in the elect, all of whom are effectually called to the knowledge of God and finally saved. All the elect are called the mystical body of Christ, of which he is the Head; and it is not only said that the church (complete) is the fulness of him that filleth all things; but it is also affirmed, that there is a fulness in him, Colossians i:19, out of which all his people receive grace for grace. Therefore, provision has been made in Christ for all that were given to him; and as they are justified by his blood and saved from wrath through him, so also, by the holy Ghost which Christ sheds forth, they are completely emancipated from the tyranny of the prince of darkness, and made meet for the inheritance among the saints in light.

The first work, in order, effected by the holy Spirit, is regeneration, which consists in an infusion of spiritual life into the soul. In this work, the creature is wholly passive; so that, instead of doing any thing of a preparatory nature, in order to invite the Spirit to undertake and effect it, men, on the contrary, are represented as "dead in trespasses and sins," Ephesians ii:1, as having hearts full of "enmity against God," Romans viii:7. From this principle, thus implanted, flow all those holy affections, such as faith, hope, love, and humility, which are usually denominated graces of the Spirit, because they originate from him and are all of grace. Notwithstanding the spiritual man, thus begotten, is perfect with relation to parts, he is not so in stature; for those graces become more vigorous under divine cultivation, which we shall have occasion to notice hereafter. This work is instantaneous; some examples of which we find in the New Testament, as in Paul's conversion, that of the jailor, and of the three thousand under Peter's sermon. Conversion and regeneration are distinct from each other, and by no means the same thing, and the former is an effect of the latter; the former being brought about through the gospel preached as means, whereas the latter is immediately from the Spirit of God, without any instrument whatever. The divine Spirit does, by the word, effectually convince of sin, causing the regenerate soul to loathe it — makes known the amazing depths of misery into which it has been plunged by the fall — gives a discovery of divine justice as demanding the punishment of the guilty; and it is in consequence of these views, that so much alarm is created, and such dreadful apprehensions of divine wrath are felt. It is peculiarly the office-work of the Spirit to discover the Lord Jesus, in all his glory and fulness, to such; "He shall take of mine and show it unto you," John xvi:14; "No man can call Jesus Lord, but by the Holy Ghost," 1 Corinthians xii:3. So that regenerated sinners, beholding the plenitude of grace that is in Christ, and made sensible of their extreme need of him, by discovering more and more their spiritual poverty and weakness, being thus taught of the Spirit, they come to Jesus, John vi:45. A soul deeply convinced of and viewing the divine perfections, would of not have courage sufficient to approach unto God, were it not for the gracious promises in the word to the weary and heavy laden; but in vain does the convinced sinner essay to take hold upon the promise, until the Spirit of promise (Ephesians i:13) make an application of them to him. How desirable is it to experience a manifestation of divine favor, and to enjoy those raptures which Jehovah sees meet to bestow on many of his people when first initiated into gospel liberty! The apostle says, "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us," Romans v:5. Many are the powerful temptations that assault us, so that by reason of contending passions for victory over us, and the prince of darkness presenting sin in its most alluring form, we feel our weakness and frequently despair of making head against them. But behold, we are "strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man," Ephesians iii:16. Yea, when our way seems hedged up on every side, so that there seems no way to escape, and error, like a flood, carries all before it. Yet, says the prophet, "the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against the enemy," Isaiah lix:19. Mixing with the world and being necessarily engaged in temporal concerns, we often get into a lukewarm state and experience spiritual languor and the consequence, a loss of the sensible presence of God. But the divine Spirit disengages us from time-things, dissipates our coldness, invigorates our souls, and, after showing us that it is easier to lose than to regain those divine joys, transports us with a view of the unchangeable love of God. Having lost a spirit of prayer, so that the heavens seem as brass above, and the earth as iron beneath us, at the same time a preached gospel making no impression, and the holy Scriptures seeming like a sealed book, this divine Spirit "helps our infirmities with groanings which cannot be uttered," Romans viii:26: and giving efficacy to the word preached and read, we can once more take delight in public and secret devotions. It is by the agency of the Spirit our perception of divine things is enlarged. It is truly desirable that we should not be always children tossed to and fro by the sleight of men, but on the contrary become acquainted with the mysteries of the gospel — be built up in our most holy faith and become firmly established thererein: these favors are conferred by that Spirit which leads into all truth, John xvi:13. An assurance of faith comes from the divine Spirit. Upon this assurance our comfort much depends, and as there are different degrees of it, and each degree his work, we ought to remember with thankfulness that "the Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God."

Lastly: The work of sanctification must be carried on in us, in conformity with which the apostle prays, (1 Thessalonians v:23,) that the believers of the church of Thessalonica might be sanctified wholly in "spirit and soul and body," and "be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." This work consisteth in the mortifying of our inbred corruptions, so that our sinful affections become more and more weakened, and we are set apart, (as the signification of the term is,) to the service of God. Therefore, as this work progresses, sin loses its dominion over us, (Romans vi:14,) and we are made conformable to the death of Christ, (Philippians iii:10,) the "old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin," (Romans vi:6,) and "changed into the image of the Lord from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord," 2 Corinthians iii:18. The instrument used in sanctification is the divine word, which has a transforming effect: "Sanctify them through the truth: thy word is truth," John xvii:17; "That he might sanctify and cleanse it (the church) with the washing of water, by the word," Ephesians v:26: the preaching and reading of which, under the influence of the divine Spirit, furnishes such powerful motives to obedience, and to forsaking of sin, — setting the one in so abhorrent a point of view, and the other in such an amiable light, that the soul falls in love with and embraces the service of God, and flees from sin as the most deadly evil. Hence it is that the word has different effects, as awaking our fears, exciting our hopes, abounding with threatenings, promises, warnings, reproofs, expostulations, exhortations, tender and pathetic addresses, lively descriptions of the glory of the person and offices of Christ, and of the Joys of the heavenly world; all which, set home upon the heart by the divine Spirit, produce fruit unto holiness and the end everlasting life. How comfortable must the reflection be to the Christian, that all the changes he meets with in this world, whether in spiritual or temporal things, are closely connected with his sanctification! To this we must attribute sickness and pain, poverty and disgrace, personal and relative afflictions, severe tempations, spiritual desertion, trials which faith and patience meet with; and, what seems most of all astonishing, that even their very backslidings, by being made the instruments of their correction, are made use of by the divine Spirit, who brings light out of darkness, order out of confusion, and causes "all things if work together for good to them that love God," (Romans viii:28.) This work of sanctification is not, like regeneration, instantaneous; nor is it perfect during life, but more or less of the body of sin still remains; but so as that it does not reign over us, but disturbs our peace, and creates in us much self-abhorrence. But the crowning work of all is the sealing of the Spirit, by which we "are sealed to the day of redemption," Ephesians iv:30. This consists in the enjoyment of a calm and tranquil mind, waiting with composure for our great change, and giving evidence to others with ourselves, that we have "a house not made with hands eternal in the heavens," and having a longing desire to be at home with the Lord.

And now, dear brethren, having treated on the office-work of the Spirit, and merely touched on the most important points, to help your meditations, we close this epistle, by earnestly intreating you to labor after a greater sense of your need of his influences, and not to grieve, by an unholy life, this sanctifying and sealing Spirit. And that you may, under his influence, become exemplary for purity of doctrine, zeal in his service, and uprightness in your lives, is the sincere prayer of your brethren who represent you in this our associate capacity.
Signed in behalf of the whole.
SAMUEL JONES, Moderator.

[From Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, 1803.]

Pennsylvania Circular Letters
Baptist History Homepage