It has sometimes been argued that the Holy Spirit is an influence or a power, but not a person. Our text should put such thoughts to rest once and forever. You can’t grieve an influence, whereas you can grieve a person. The Holy Spirit is not just a reference to the outworking of the power of God in the world, the Holy Spirit refers to the third person in the Trinity. This is of course a mystery, but we believe it because the Scriptures teach it. The Holy Spirit is God, as is taught in Acts 5:3-4, where the apostle Peter equates lying to the Holy Spirit with lying to God. The Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son, as can be seen in the baptism of our Lord, but also in his relationship to the Son and the Father in John 14:26 and 15:7: proceeding from the Father and being sent by the Son. When you put these things together, that the Holy Spirit is given personal, Divine, and distinct properties, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges with respect to the Holy Spirit.
You don’t take statements like the one in our text and pull them from the context in which they were found. And I don’t just mean that we should look at the verses right before and right behind in order to establish the context. You have to look at the entire book or letter in order to do this properly. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the holy Spirit of God figures prominently. In fact, we meet him for the first time in the third verse of the first chapter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” As we noted when we looked at that verse, the “spiritual blessings” are spiritual because they come from the Holy Spirit. We become partakers of the blessings that come to us in Christ when we become connected to Christ through the Holy Spirit. Thus, the apostle writes in 2:18 that “through him [Jesus Christ] we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.” The Spirit is the link between the righteousness of the Son that brings us into the presence of the Father.
There are some who think that the difference between the OT and NT is that in the OT the Spirit operated upon people, but in the NT the Spirit operates within people. Some take this from our Lord’s saying in John 14:17, “the Spirit of truth . . . dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” Certainly, our Lord was pointing to the Day of Pentecost and all that would follow. And there is a difference between the ministry of the Spirit in the OT and the ministry of the Spirit in NT. But the difference was not that the Spirit did not change people from within in the OT whereas he does that now. People needed to be born again in the OT era just as much as they need new birth now (cf. John 3:3-8). The difference is that before Pentecost, the Spirit was not yet given as the One who mediates the presence of the risen Christ.
This is the point of our Lord’s promises throughout John 14-16, when he prepared his disciples for his departure. Knowing their apprehension and fears, he comforts them with the promise that he is not really leaving them: he will return through the Spirit. “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter [Paraclete], that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth. . . . I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (14:16-18). “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (14:26). “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me” (15:26). “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (16:7). “When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore I said, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (16:13-15). The profound implication of these promises is that the ministry of the Holy Spirit consists primarily in representing Christ in his physical absence and in continuing his ministry on earth. We thus can have no connection to Christ apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
It is thus that Paul prays in Ephesians 3:16-17, “That he [the Father] would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” There is a definite connection here between being strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man and having Christ dwell in our hearts by faith. In fact, some commentators on these verses see these as complimentary aspects of the same reality.
We also see this in the unity that the apostle speaks of in Ephesians 4. In verse 3, he describes the unity of the church as “the unity of the Spirit” and goes on to say that “there is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling” (4:4). The body that is given unity through the Spirit is the “body of Christ” (4:12). The apostle explains why this is true in 1 Cor. 12:12-13, when he writes, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” We come to be partakers of the body of Christ and therefore of the salvation that comes through him when we are baptized into this body by the Spirit. The work of the Spirit is the point of entry into the salvation enjoyed by all who belong to Christ.
This being baptized into Christ is another way of talking about the new birth that our Lord spoke of to Nicodemus. It is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit and it is a necessary work of the Holy Spirit. You cannot experience or enter the kingdom of God apart from it. It is by him that we are washed and regenerated: we are saved “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:5-7).
This language of washing is not a reference to baptism per se, although in baptism it is symbolized. Rather, it is a reference to the promise in Ezekiel 36: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them” (36:25-27). All these verses imply that we are absolutely in no condition to save ourselves. We are dirty and filthy because of our sin, our rebellion against God. We cannot enter his kingdom or come into his presence. And there is nothing you can do to yourself or for yourself that will fit you to come into God’s presence. Indeed, such is our wickedness that we will never even want to enter God’s kingdom or submit to his rule. We do not desire to come to Christ that we might have life (Jn. 5:40). We need God to change us. In particular, we need the Spirit of Christ to come and give us spiritual life and to cleanse us from our sin and to write God’s law upon our hearts.
However, we should not think that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is complete when we are born again. There is an ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. This is indicated in our text, and also in Ephesians 1:13-14, where the apostle describes the work of the Spirit in terms of a “seal” and an “earnest.” The first word points to assurance of our salvation that the Holy Spirit gives to us (cf. Rom. 8:14-16), and the second points to the present experience of our future salvation, the foretaste of the hope of glory. We are not only dependent upon the Holy Spirit for the initial reception of salvation; we are also dependent upon the Holy Spirit for working out our salvation day by day. We need the Spirit to produce in us the daily fruit of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Gal. 5:22-23).
You see this illustrated most clearly in the book of Acts. On the day of Pentecost, we read that the apostles “were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). It was the Holy Spirit who enabled the apostles to speak in the languages of their hearers of “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). Later, when the church faced persecution, after praying for help to preach without fear, we are told that God answered their prayer: “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). We are told that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, which is clearly meant to help us understand the unusual power that he was given in speaking the word with power and in working miracles (Acts 6:5,8). This should not surprise us, because this was also true of our Lord during his earthly ministry: “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all” (Luke 4:14-15).
One thing you notice about these passages is the connection between being filled with the Spirit and speaking God’s truth with authority and power. It is no wonder that Paul will go on to exhort believers to “be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:18-20). Speaking in song and thanksgiving is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
And that brings us directly to our text. Most commentators on this verse connect it with the previous one. Thus, the apostle is saying that a principal way we grieve the Holy Spirit is when we use corrupt and unedifying language. The Holy Spirit influences us to speak what is right, and healthy, and edifying. So when we intentionally speak that which is wicked and unhelpful, we grieve the Spirit. Note the word “and” connecting verses 29 and 30.
We are now in a position to understand the seriousness of this exhortation. “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God.” We are totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit for every blessing of our salvation. We are dependent upon him for entrance into the kingdom of God and we are dependent upon him for living a kingdom life in this world. To grieve him therefore is to cut ourselves off from his blessed influence and power.
Now I am not saying that a genuine believer can lose his or her salvation. Paul is addressing true believers here who are “sealed unto the day of redemption.” Whatever else that might mean, being sealed certainly seems to convey the idea that the salvation of the believer is sure. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). Our Lord himself said that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my Father’s hand. My Father, which gave them to me, is greater than all: no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:27-29).
This does not negate the reality that unsaved people can be influenced by the Spirit to some extent and yet remain unregenerate. This is the kind of person described in Hebrews 6:4-6. Such people can reject and resist the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 7:51). And it is a very fearful thing to do despite to the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:29).
However, the apostle is not addressing the unsaved in Eph. 4:30. The assumption here is that they are saved, sealed unto the day of redemption. If we cannot fatally lose the influence of the Spirit, what is meant here?
It means, first of all, that we are in danger of losing the sense of the assurance of our salvation. I am talking about that inward sense and awareness of the love of God toward us as his children. It is what the apostle is talking about in Romans 8:14-18. He writes, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear: but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be glorified together.”
Note the connection in this passage between obedience (ver. 14) and the experiential enjoyment of belonging to the family of God (ver. 16). The Spirit bears witness to [better, “with”] our spirit that we are God’s children when we are being led by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the body (cf. ver. 13). This is an amazing blessing. Being able to come before God and cry out to him, “Abba, Father!” with assurance that he hears us as a father hears his child is the crowning privilege of our salvation.
Commenting on these verses, theologian Sinclair Ferguson explains, “The fact is that the Christian’s own spirit does display an awareness of sonship . . . amazing though this is. The problem is that this awareness is often weakened, and God’s children may even find themselves doubting their gracious status and privileges. What Paul is saying, however, is that even in the darkest hour there is a co-operative and affirmative testimony given by the Spirit. It is found in the very fact that, although he may be broken and bruised, tossed about with fears and doubts, the child of God nevertheless cries out, ‘Father!’ as instinctively as a child who has fallen and been hurt calls out in similar language, ‘Daddy, help me!’ Assurance of sonship is not reserved for the highly sanctified Christian; it is the birthright of even the weakest and most oppressed believer. This is its glory.” We should rejoice with Ferguson that this assurance can never be totally taken away, but we need also to be aware, as he admits, that this assurance can be weakened. And one of the ways this is often weakened is through sin.
I think this is why, after saying, “And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God,” the apostle goes on to say, “whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Can we be unsealed? No. But our inward sense of this sealing can be strong or weak. And when we sin, when we refuse to walk in the path of obedience, we lose this sense of closeness to God as Father. We sense instead his displeasure. It is an awful place to be, but thank God it is this way, for this is often precisely the way we are brought back to obedience and joy. The true child of God cannot do without the sense of her father’s smile. We would rather give up our sins than lose the sense of his pleasure.
But the apostle is saying, “Don’t go there in the first place. Don’t grieve the Spirit through sin. Don’t grieve him by wicked and worthless speech. Be holy. Speak holy and helpful words. In doing so, you will not lose that sense of belonging to the family of God and will continue to be able to rejoice in your salvation.”
This has been the testimony of the people of God in every age. If you belong to God, if you are truly one of his, then you cannot sin with impunity. You cannot live in sin and be happy about it. It is a mark of the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. King David describes his own experience in this way: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD: and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:3-5). As long as David had unconfessed and unrepented sin in his life, he was miserable, he could not get comfortable. Have you been like that? But then when he got honest with God, things changed. He then experienced the blessedness of forgiveness and justification (32:1-2). Even so it is with every child of God.
But there is another reason implied in this verse for why we should not grieve the Holy Spirit. I take it from the connection between verse 29 and 30. As we have seen, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is especially connected to the ministry of the word in the NT. If you use wicked words, you are undermining this aspect of the ministry of the Spirit in your life.
This is important because we not only have this great privilege of knowing Christ but also of making him known. However, the gospel is only powerful in a saving way when it is accompanied by the witness and power of the Holy Spirit. Our witness is not effective because we are eloquent or brilliant in our gospel presentation. It can only be effective when we are presenting in the power of the Spirit, when he takes our broken words and takes them like arrows shot at a venture and causes them to pierce the heart. This is how Paul himself explained the effectiveness of his ministry among the Corinthians: “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5). In fact, Paul studiously avoided the rhetorical flourishes of popular speakers, afraid lest people would be attracted to a preacher rather than to the Lord.
I sometimes think we do not adequately appreciate just how helpless we are in terms of our witness. There is so much emphasis in our day upon techniques in evangelism that it gives the impression that if we just do it “right” we will win souls. But this is not the impression you get when reading the NT. Yes, we need to speak the word faithfully and humbly and meekly, but in the end we are absolutely dependent upon the Holy Spirit to make our words convincing and powerful to those we speak to. The power resides not in us as the speaker but in God, the author of the gospel.
And this is true in every other aspect of our lives as followers of Christ. We are completely dependent upon the power of the Spirit to strengthen us in the paths of obedience. To grieve him is to undermine our ability to grow in grace. It is to undermine the path to joy and peace and assurance and fruitfulness in the kingdom. We are like a man shooting at his own kneecaps. It is spiritual idiocy. Why would you do that?
Finally, this verse confronts us with the reality that the most important thing to a true Christian is to please God. “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God.” That ought to be the greatest motivation to obedience right there. Don’t sin. Why? Because it grieves God. It grieves the Holy Spirit. Why would you grieve One who has done so much for you and in you? Why would grieve him who unites you to Jesus Christ and makes you a partaker of all saving blessings? The godly man or woman is one who lives before God, and who lives for Him before anyone else. When faced with pleasing human authority or God, Peter responded, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Christian man is the man who lives before an audience of One. He studies to show himself approved unto God (2 Tim. 2:15); he cares little for the approval of men.
Does this describe you? Are you a man or woman who lives before God? Is your religion something you are doing because of what other people think of you, or can it only be explained because of who God is to you and what he has done in you? Are you a person to whom this exhortation means something? Does it move you to obedience and holiness when you hear the apostle say, “And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God”? If not, then you need to examine yourself. Above all things, we need to be men and women who can stand before God, for we shall all do this in the end. You cannot escape it, either.
And therefore, we need Jesus Christ because it is only through him that we have access to the Father, through the Spirit. It is only through the blood of Christ that we will ever be able to stand before God without fear and shame. You cannot live before God and for God as long as you are condemned by him. We need the guilt of our sins to be removed. We need to be released from the grip of sins. We need the redemption from sins that comes through the death of Christ upon the cross. Thank God that the promise is ours that all who come to him and believe on him, trust in him and turn from their sins will be forgiven and receive eternal life in the presence of the Father forever.