Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 07/25/1999
"And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."
Starting with v. 25 of chp. 4, Paul gives us a series of very specific instructions to help us learn to walk worthily of our calling. We are to speak not falsehood but truth (v. 25), be angry and [yet] sin not (v. 26), work with our hands rather than stealing (v. 28), use not rotten words but nourishing ones, as we saw last week (v. 29), and deal with each other not in bitterness but with kindness (v. 31-2). In the midst of these exhortations, v. 30 sticks out like a sore thumb: "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." What does it mean? How in the world is it related to the rest? To answer the second of those questions is to find the answer to the first.
Why does this cryptic exhortation not to grieve the Spirit occur here? We would have expected it to be at the end as a climax to the whole series. But instead the "and" (KAI) relates it specifically to v. 29. While no doubt any sin grieves the Holy Spirit, this is apparently especially true of those sins that have to do with the abuse of our ability to speak. It is unwholesome, rotten, unedifying words that are specifically what grieve Him.
This connection might seem strange at first, but the more we think about who the Holy Spirit is, the more appropriate it becomes. The Holy Spirit is the member of the Trinity who inspired Scripture, who spoke through the prophets. Therefore He cares about words, especially that they be used to glorify the Son--for that is the Spirit's ultimate purpose. The Holy Spirit is that member of the Trinity who imparts the spiritual gifts won by Christ for his Church, gifts whose purpose is edification. So we can expect Him also to care particularly about whether our words are edifying. The Holy Spirit is that member of the Trinity whose purpose is to reveal and glorify the Son, the LOGOS, the Word. So He can be expected to care particularly about whether our words point to the Word in such a way as to build up the Church. When they do not, this is the saddest thing for Him.
What then grieves the Holy Spirit? Well, because He is holy, any sin does. The sin committed, of course. But also the sin contemplated, for the Spirit indwells us, that is, has immediate, intimate access to our hearts. And the good neglected grieves Him too, for every good and perfect gift comes from above. But especially and particularly, the Holy Spirit is grieved by unwholesome speech coming out of the mouths of believers. We saw last week that "unwholesome" in v. 29 is SAPROS, which literally means "rotten," and which is used of meat that has gone bad, fruit that has spoiled, clothes that have worn out. SAPROS words then are words that will make the hearer sick instead of nourishing him, that do not "cover" their subject decently and with decorum. When what we say makes the Church or our fellow believers sick rather than building them up and nourishing them in the faith, this is the particular thing that Paul says will grieve the Holy Spirit.
What then are some examples of these rotten words that have such a profound effect on the Third Person of the Trinity? They would include of course words that are not true. But even worse I think are words that fudge the truth, "spin" it to our advantage. A Christian "spin doctor" must make the Spirit very sad. Worse still would be when the truth is spoken, but not in love. Truth is powerful, but it can be a weapon for harm as well as a tool for good. This much I think is obvious. But what about words that are boring? Surely we bring no honor and glory to Christ by making him seem boring! Or what of words just used to fill up space, words without thought? What all these forms of "saprosity" have in common is that they are words, true or not, that tear down rather than building up the Body of Christ. Why? Either because they misrepresent Christ or because they have missed an opportunity to give Him the glory that is rightly His. What could make the Spirit sadder than that?
What a staggering and sobering fact this is: the fact that we can grieve the Holy Spirit of God! Let us not be misled by the much misunderstood doctrine of divine "impassability," which is sometimes interpreted to mean that God has no feelings. It is true that, unlike us, God is not subject to passions. But there is in His personality something that corresponds to our emotions. He loves; He cares; and our response to that love matters to Him. The way we treat the other children whom He loves matters to Him. So let us take heed to this serious verse, and let us follow Calvin's excellent advice:
"Endeavor that the Holy Spirit may dwell cheerfully with you as in a pleasant and joyful dwelling, and give Him no occasion for grief."
But let us also not forget the converse: If we can grieve the Holy Spirit, then we can also delight and please Him. What George MacDonald said of the Father is true also of the Spirit: He is easy to please, though hard to satisfy. And to the extent that we love God, we will want to please Him. According to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, this is "the differentia of Christian ethics," that our ethic is based not ultimately on Rules (though we have them as a guide and they are useful as such) but on a Relationship. Rules have their place in the Christian life, but they are not the focus. As Lloyd-Jones put it, "When a Christian sins, what he should be most conscious of is not so much that he has done wrong, or even broken God's law; what should really trouble him is that he has offended against love." Practically then, our focus should not be first on how we can conquer this sin or that; we will make much more progress in doing so when our main focus is on Him, on how much we love Him because He first loved us and gave Himself for us. This indeed is to walk worthily of Him.
If a man does not stumble in what he says, he is perfect, says James. How is this possible? Remember--be conscious of--the fact that, as Thophylact summarizes it, "If you say a word that is unwholesome and unworthy of the mouth of a Christian, it is not man that you grieve, but the Holy Spirit of God."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams