High an Holy


LUKE 11:13.—“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children; how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”

THE reality, and necessity, of the operation of the Holy Spirit upon the human heart, is a doctrine very frequently taught in the Scriptures. Our Lord, in the passage from which the text is taken, speaks of the third Person in the Trinity in such a manner as to convey the impression that His agency is as indispensable, in order to spiritual life, as food is in order to physical; that sinful man as much needs the influences of the Holy Ghost as he does his daily bread. “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” If this is not at all supposable, in the case of an affectionate earthly parent, much less is it supposable that God the heavenly Father will refuse renewing and sanctifying influences to them that ask for them.

By employing such a significant comparison as this, our Lord implies that there is as pressing need of the gift in the one instance as in the other. For, he does not compare spiritual influences with the mere luxuries of life,—with wealth, fame, or power,—but with the very staff of life itself. He selects the very bread by which the human body lives, to illustrate the helpless sinner’s need of the Holy Ghost. When God, by his prophet, would teach His people that he would at some future time bestow a rich and remarkable blessing upon them, He says: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” When our Saviour was about to leave his disciples, and was sending them forth as the ministers of his religion, he promised them a direct and supernatural agency that should “reprove the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.”

And the history of Christianity evinces both the necessity and reality of Divine influences. God the Spirit has actually been present by a special and peculiar agency, in this sinful and hardened world, and hence the heart of flesh and the spread of vital religion. God the Spirit has actually been absent, so far as concerns his special and peculiar agency, and hence the continuance of the heart of stone, and the decline, and sometimes the extinction of vital religion. Where the Holy Spirit has been, specially and peculiarly, there the true Church of Christ has been, and where the Holy Spirit has not been, specially and peculiarly, there the Church of Christ has not been; however carefully, or imposingly, the externals of a church organization may have been maintained.

But there is no stronger, or more effective proof of the need of the presence and agency of the Holy Spirit, than that which is derived from the nature of the case, as it appears in the individual. Just in proportion as we come to know our own moral condition, and our own moral necessities, shall we see and feel that the origin and growth of holiness within our earthly and alienated souls, without the agency of God the Holy Spirit, is an utter impossibility.

Let us then look into the argument from the nature of the case, and consider this doctrine of a direct Divine operation, in its relation to ourselves personally.

Why, then, does every man need these influences of the Holy Spirit which are so cordially offered in the text?

I. He needs them, in the first place, in order that he may be convinced of the reality of the eternal world.

There is such a world. It has as actual an existence as Europe or Asia. Though not an object for any one of the five senses, the invisible world is as substantial as the great globe itself, and will be standing when the elements shall have been melted with fervent heat, and the heavens are no more. This eternal world, furthermore, is not only real, but it is filled with realities that are yet more solemn.

God inhabits it. The judgment-seat of Christ is set up in it. Heaven is in it. Hell is in it. Myriads of myriads of holy and happy spirits are there. Myriads of sinful and wretched spirits are there. Nay, this unseen world is the only real world, and the objects in it the only real objects, if we remember that only that which is immutable deserves the name of real. If we employ the eternal as the measure of real being, then all that is outside of eternity is unreal and a vanity.

This material world acquires impressiveness for man, by virtue of the objects that fill it. His farm is in it, his houses are upon it, solid mountains rise up from it, great rivers run through it, and the old rolling heavens are bent over it. But what is the transient reality of these objects, these morning vapors, compared with the everlasting reality of such beings as God and the soul, of such facts as holiness and sin, of such states as heaven and hell? Here, then, we have in the unseen and eternal world a most solemn and real object of knowledge; but where, among mankind, is the solemn and vivid knowledge itself?

Knowledge is the union of a fact with a feeling. There may be a stone in the street, but unless I smite it with my foot, or smite it with my eye, I have no knowledge of the stone. So, too, there is an invisible world, outstanding and awfully impressive; but unless I feel its influences, and stand with awe beneath its shadows, it is as though it were not. Here is an orb that has risen up into the horizon, but all eyes are shut.
For, no thoughtful observer fails to perceive that an earthly, and unspiritual mode of thought and feeling is the prevalent one among men. No one who has ever endeavored to arrest the attention of a fellow-man, and give his thoughts an upward tendency towards eternity, will say that the effort is easily and generally successful. On the contrary, if an ethereal and holy inhabitant of heaven were to go up and down our earth, and witness man’s immersion in sense and time, the earthliness of his views and aims, his neglect of spiritual objects and interests, his absorption in this existence, and his forgetfulness of the other, it would be difficult to convince him that he was among beings made in the image of God, and was mingling with a race having an immortal destination beyond the grave.

In this first feature of the case, then, as we find it in ourselves, and see it in all our fellow men, we have the first evidence of the need of awakening influences from on high. Since man, naturally, is destitute of a solemn sense of eternal things, it is plain that there can be no moral change produced in him, unless he is first wakened from this drowse. He cannot become the subject of that new birth without which he cannot see the kingdom of God, unless his torpor respecting the Unseen is removed. Entirely satisfied as he now is with this mode of existence, and thinking little or nothing about another, the first necessity in his case is a startle and an alarm.

Difficult as he now finds it to be, to bring the invisible world before his mind in a way to affect his feelings, he needs to have it loom upon his inward vision with such power and impressiveness that he cannot take his eye off if he would. Lethargic as he now is, respecting his own immortality, it is impossible for him to live and act with constant reference to it, unless he is wakened to its significance. Is it not self-evident that if the sinner’s present indifference towards the invisible world, and his failure to feel its solemn reality, continues through life, he will certainly enter that state of existence with his present character? Looking into the human spirit, and seeing how dead it is towards God and the future, must we not say, that if this deadness to eternity lasts until the death of the body, it will certainly be the death of the soul?

But, in what way can man be made to realize that there is an eternal world, to which he is rapidly tending, and realities there, with which, by the very constitution of his spirit, he is forever and indissolubly connected either for bliss or woe? How shall thoughtless and earthly man, as he treads these streets, and transacts all this business, and enjoys life, be made to feel with misgiving, foreboding, and alarm that there is an eternity, and that he must soon enter it, as other men do, either as a heaven or a hell for his soul? The answer to this question, so often asked in sadness and sorrow by the preacher of the word, drives us back to the throne of God and to a mightier agency than that of man.

For one thing is certain, that this apathy and deadness will never of itself generate sensibility and life. Satan never casts out Satan. If this slumberer be left to himself, he is lost. Should any man be given over to the natural inclination of his heart, he would never be awakened. Should his earthly mind receive no check, and his corrupt heart take its own way, he would never realize that there is another world than this, until he entered it. For, the worldly mind and the corrupt heart busy themselves solely and happily with this existence. They find pleasure in the things of this life, and therefore never look beyond them. Worldly men do not interfere with their own present actual enjoyment.

Who of this class voluntarily makes himself unhappy, by thinking of subjects that are gloomy to his mind? What man of the world starts up from his sweet sleep and his pleasant dreams, and of his own accord looks the stern realities of death and the judgment in the eye? No natural man begins to wound himself, that he may be healed. No earthly man begins to slay himself, that he may be made alive. Even when the natural heart is roused and wakened by some foreign agency; some startling providence of God or some Divine operation in the conscience, how soon, if left to its own motion and tendency, does it relapse into its old slumber and sleep. The needle has received a shock, but after a slight trembling and vibration it soon settles again upon its axis, ever and steady to the north. It is plain, that the sinner’s worldly mind and apathetic nature will never conduct him to a proper sense of Divine things.

The awakening, then, of the human soul, to an effectual apprehension of eternal realities, must take its first issue from some other Being than the drowsy and slumbering creature himself. We are not speaking of a few serious thoughts that now and then fleet across the human mind, like meteors at midnight, and are seen no more. We are speaking of that permanent, that everlasting dawning of eternity, with its terrors and its splendors, upon the human soul, which allows it no more repose, until it is prepared for eternity upon good grounds and foundations; and with reference to such a profound consciousness of the future state as this, we say with confidence, that the awakening must proceed from some Being who is far more alive to the solemnity and significance of eternal duration than earthly man is.

Without impulses from on high; the sinner never rouses up to attend to the subject of religion. He lives on indifferent to his religious interests, until God, who is more merciful to his deathless soul than he himself is, by His providence startles him, or by His Spirit in his conscience alarms him. Never, until God interferes to disturb his dreams, and break up his slumber, does he profoundly and permanently feel that he was made for another world, and is fast going into it.

How often does God say to the careless man: “Arise, O sleeper, and Christ shall give thee light;” and how often does he disregard the warning voice! How often does God stimulate his conscience, and flare light into his mind; and how often does he stifle down these inward convictions, and suffer the light to shine in the darkness that comprehends it not! These facts in the personal history of every sin-loving man show, that the human soul does not of its own isolated action wake up to the realities of eternity. They also show that God is very merciful to the human soul, in positively and powerfully interfering for its welfare; but that man, in infinite folly and wickedness, loves the sleep, and inclines to remain in it. The Holy Spirit strives, but the human spirit resists.

II. In the second place, man needs the influences of the Holy Spirit that he may be convinced of sin.

Man universally is a sinner, and yet he needs in every single instance to be made aware of it. “There is none good, no, not one;” and yet out of the millions of the race how very few feel this truth! Not only does man sin, but he adds to his guilt by remaining ignorant of it. The criminal in this instance also, as in our courts of law, feels and confesses his crime no faster than it is proved to him. Through what blindness of mind, and hardness of heart, and insensibility of conscience, is the Holy Spirit obliged to force His way, before there is a sincere acknowledgment of sin before God! The careful investigations, the persevering questionings and cross-questionings, by which, before a human tribunal, the wilful and unrepenting criminal is forced to see and acknowledge his wickedness, are but faint emblems of that thorough work that must be wrought by the Holy Ghost, before the human soul, at a higher tribunal, forsaking its refuges of lies, and desisting from its subterfuges and palliations, smites upon the breast, and cries, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”

Think how much of our sin has occurred in total apathy, and indifference, and how unwilling we are to have any distinct consciousness upon this subject. It is only now and then that we feel ourselves to be sinners; but it is by no means only now and then that we are sinners. We sin habitually; we are conscious of sin rarely. Our affections and inclinations and motives are evil, and only evil, continually; but our experimental knowledge that they are so comes not often into our mind, and what is worse stays not long, because we dislike it.

The conviction of sin, with what it includes and leads to, is of more worth to man than all other convictions. Conviction of any sort,—a living practical consciousness of any kind,—is of great value, because it is only this species of knowledge that moves mankind. Convince a man, that is, give him a consciousness, of the truth of a principle in politics, in trade, or in religion, and you actuate him politically, commercially, or religiously. Convince a criminal of his crime, that is, endue him with a conscious feeling of his criminality, and you make him burn with electric fire. A convicted man is a man thoroughly conscious; and a thoroughly conscious man is a deeply moved one. And this is true, with emphasis, of the conviction of sin. This consciousness produces a deeper and more lasting effect than all others.

Convince a community of the justice or injustice of a certain class of political principles, and you stir it very deeply, and broadly, as the history of all democracies clearly shows; but let society be once convinced of sin before the holy and righteous God, and deep calleth unto deep, all the waters are moved. Never is a mass of human beings so centrally stirred, as when the Spirit of God is poured out upon it, and from no movement in human society do such lasting and blessed consequences flow, as from a genuine revival of religion.

But here again, as in reference to the eternal state, there is no realizing sense. Conviction of sin is not a characteristic of mankind at large. Men generally will acknowledge in words that they are sinners, but they wait for some far-distant day to come, when they shall be pricked in the heart, and feel the truth of what they say. Men generally are not conscious of the dreadful reality of sin, any more than they are of the solemn reality of eternity. A deep insensibility, in this respect also, precludes a practical knowledge of that guilt in the soul, which, if unpardoned and unremoved, will just as surely ruin it as God lives and the soul is immortal.

Since, then, if man is left to his own inclination, he never will be convinced of sin, it is plain that some Agent who has the power must overcome his aversion to self-knowledge and bring him to consciousness upon this unwelcome subject. If any one of us, for the remainder of our days, should be given over to that ordinary indifference towards sin with which we walk these streets, and transact business, and enjoy life; if God’s truth should never again in this world stab the conscience, and God’s Spirit should never again make us anxious; is it not infallibly certain that the future would be as the past, and that we should go through this “accepted time and day of salvation” unconvicted and therefore unconverted?

But besides this destitution of the experimental sense of sin, another ground of the need of Divine agency is found in the blindness of the natural mind. Man’s vision of spiritual things, even when they are set before his eyes, is dim and inadequate. The Christian ministry is greatly hindered, because it cannot illuminate the human understanding, and impart the power of a keen spiritual insight. It is compelled to present the objects of sight, but it cannot give the eye to see them.

Vision depends altogether upon the condition of the organ. The eye sees only what it brings the means of seeing. The scaled eye of a worldling, or a debauchee, or a self-righteous man, cannot see that sin of the heart, that “spiritual wickedness,” at which men like Paul and Isaiah stood aghast. These were men whose character compared with that of the worldling was saintly; men whose shoes’ latchets the worldling is not worthy to stoop down and unloose. And yet they saw a depravity within their own hearts which he does not see in his; a depravity which he cannot see, and which he steadily denies to exist, until he is enlightened by the Holy Ghost.

But the preacher has no power to impart this clear spiritual discernment. He cannot arm the eye of the natural man with that magnifying and microscopic power, by which hatred shall be seen to be murder, and lust, adultery, and the least swelling of pride, the sin of Lucifer. He is compelled, by the testimony of the Bible, of the wise and the holy of all time, and of his own consciousness, to tell every unregenerate man that he is no better than his race; that he certainly is no better than the Christian Church which continually confesses and mourns over indwelling sin.

The faithful preacher of the word is obliged to insist that there is no radical difference among men, and that the depravity of the man of irreproachable morals but unrenewed heart is as total as was that of the great preacher to the Gentiles,—a man of perfectly irreproachable morals, but who confessed that he was the chief of sinners, and feared lest he should be a cast-away. But the preacher of this unwelcome message has no power to open the blind eye. He cannot endow the self-ignorant and incredulous man before him, with that consciousness of the “plague of the heart” which says “yea” to the most vivid description of human sinfulness, and “amen” to God’s heaviest malediction upon it. The preacher’s position would be far easier, if there might be a transfer of experience; if some of that bitter painful sense of sin with which the struggling Christian is burdened might flow over into the easy, unvexed, and thoughtless souls of the men of this world.

Would that the consciousness upon this subject of sin, of a Paul or a Luther, might deluge that large multitude of men who doubt or deny the doctrine of human depravity. The materials for that consciousness, the items that go to make up that experience, exist as really and as plentifully in your moral state and character, as they do in that of the mourning and self-reproaching Christian who sits by your side,—your devout father, your saintly mother, or sister,—whom you know, and who you know is a better being than you are. Why should they be weary and heavy-laden with a sense of their unworthiness before God, and you go through life indifferent and light-hearted?

Are they deluded in respect to the doctrine of human depravity, and are you in the right? Think you that the deathbed and the day of judgment will prove this to be the fact? No! if you shall ever know anything of the Christian struggle with innate corruption; if you shall ever, in the expressive phrase of Scripture, have your senses exercised as in a gymnasium to discern good and evil, and see yourself with self-abhorrence; your views will harmonize most profoundly and exactly with theirs. And, furthermore, you will not in the process create any new sinfulness. You will merely see the existing depravity of the human heart. You will simply see what is,—is now, in your heart, and in all human hearts, and has been from the beginning.

But all this is the work of a more powerful and spiritual agency than that of man. The truth may be exhibited with perfect transparency and plainness, the hearer himself may do his utmost to have it penetrate and tell; and yet, there be no vivid and vital consciousness of sin. How often does the serious and alarmed man say to us: “I know it, but I do not feel it.” How long and wearily, sometimes, does the anxious man struggle after an inward sense of these spiritual things, without success, until he learns that an inward sense, an experimental consciousness, respecting religious truth, is as purely a gift and product of God the Spirit as the breath of life in his nostrils. Considering, then, the natural apathy of man respecting the sin that is in his own heart, and the exceeding blindness of his mental vision, even when his attention has been directed to it, is it not perfectly plain that there must be the exertion of a Divine agency, in order that he may pass through even the first and lowest stages of the religious experience?

In view of the subject, as thus far unfolded, we remark:

1. First, that it is the duty of every one, to take the facts in respect to man’s character as he finds them.

Nothing is gained, in any province of human thought or action, by disputing actual verities. They are stubborn things, and will not yield to the wishes and prejudices of the natural heart. This is especially true in regard to the facts in man’s moral and religious condition. The testimony of Revelation is explicit, that “the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be;” and also, that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

According to this Biblical statement, there is corruption and blindness together. The human heart is at once sinful, and ignorant that it is so. It is, therefore, the very worst form of evil; a fatal disease unknown to the patient, and accompanied with the belief that there is perfect health; sin and guilt without any just and proper sense of it. This is the testimony, and the assertion, of that Being who needs not that any should testify to Him of man, for he knows what is in man. And this is the testimony, also, of every mind that has attained a profound self-knowledge. For it is indisputable, that in proportion as a man is introspective, and accustoms himself to the scrutiny of his motives and feelings, he discovers that “the whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint.”

It is, therefore, the duty and wisdom of every one to set to his seal that God is true,—to have this as his motto. Though, as yet, he is destitute of a clear conviction of sin, and a godly sorrow for it, still he should presume the fact of human depravity. Good men in every age have found it to be a fact, and the infallible Word of God declares that it is a fact. What, then, is gained, by proposing another than the Biblical theory of human nature? Is the evil removed by denying its existence? Will the mere calling men good at heart, and by nature make them such?

“Who can hold a fire in his hand,
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite,
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow,
By thinking on fantastic summer heat?”

2. In the second place, we remark that it is the duty of everyone, not to be discouraged by these facts and truths relative to the moral condition of man.

For, one fact conducts to the next one. One truth prepares for a second. If it is a solemn and sad fact that men are sinners, and blind and dead in their trespasses and sin, it is also a cheering fact that the Holy Spirit can enlighten the darkest understanding, and enliven the most torpid and indifferent soul; and it is a still further, and most encouraging truth and fact, that the Holy Spirit is given to those who ask for it, with more readiness than a father gives bread to his hungry child. Here, then, we have the fact of sin, and of blindness and apathy in sin; the fact of a mighty power in God to convince of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment; and the blessed fact that this power is accessible to prayer.

Let us put these three facts together, all of them, and act accordingly. Then we shall be taught by the Spirit, and shall come to a salutary consciousness of sin; and then shall be verified in our own experience the words of God: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man, (New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1871), 123–140.

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