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THE EFFICACY OF PRAYER FOR OBTAINING THE HOLY SPIRIT.
How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”—Luke xi. 13.
THE great advantages which we have by the Christian religion, are these three:”
1. A more perfect rule for the direction of our lives.
2. A more powerful assistance to enable us to the performance of our duty. And,
3. The assurance of a glorious and an eternal reward.
And all these are contained in that excellent sermon of our blessed Saviour upon the mount: of which this passage in St. Luke is a part, although it was spoken here by our Saviour upon another occasion, and at another time.
Our Saviour begins that sermon with the last of these, as being the great motive and encouragement to our duty—the promise of blessedness, and of a great reward in heaven.
And then he lays down the rule which was the substance of those moral duties, which are contained in the law and the prophets; only he explains and supplies whatever was obscure and defective before, and thereby brings our duty to a greater certainty, and clearness, and perfection, than it had before.100
But, because this would have signified little to us, if we be still unable to perform our duty, and to obey that law which God hath given us, and to the obedience whereof he hath promised so great a reward: therefore, that nothing might be wanting to excite and encourage our obedience, our blessed Saviour, after he had made our duty as strict as possible, lest we should faint and be discouraged under an apprehension of the impossibility, or extreme difficulty of performing what he requires of us, is pleased to promise an assistance equal to the difficulty of our duty, and our inability of ourselves to perform it; knowing that we are without strength, and that nothing is a greater discouragement to men from attempting any thing, than an apprehension that they have not sufficient strength to go through with it, not being able of themselves alone to do it, and despairing of assistance from any other.
And this is the great discouragement that most men lie under, as to the business of religion; they are conscious to themselves of their own weakness, and not sufficiently persuaded of the Divine assistance; like the lame man in the gospel, that lay at the pool of Bethesda to be healed; he was not able to go in himself, and none took that pity on him as to help him in.
Hence it comes to pass, that a great many are disheartened from engaging in the ways of religion; because some spies, those who have only taken a superficial view of religion, have brought up an evil report upon that good land, which they pretend to have searched, saying, as they of old did when they returned from searching the land of Canaan, (Numb, xiii. 31 33.) “We be not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. And they 101brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched, unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof, and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw r the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” Just thus we are apt to misrepresent religion to ourselves, as if the difficulties of it were insupportable, and the enemies which we are to encounter were in finitely too strong for us; not considering, that the Lord is with us, and notwithstanding our own impotency and weakness, yet, by his strength, we may be (as St. Paul expresseth it) more than conquerors.
Therefore, to remove this discouragement, and to put life into the endeavours of men, our blessed Saviour assures us, that God is ready to assist us, and to supply our weakness and want of strength by a power from above, even by giving us his Holy Spirit, which is “a Spirit of might, and of power, and of the fear of the Lord,” as he is called by the prophet; and he is ready to bestow so great a gift upon us on the easiest terms and conditions imaginable; if we will but ask this blessing of him, “how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”
“How much more;” which words are an argument from the less to the greater, by which our Saviour, from the confidence which children naturally have in the goodness of their earthly parents, that they will not deny them things necessary and convenient for them, if they earnestly beg them at their hands, argues Christians into a great confidence of the good-will of their heavenly Father, and 102of his readiness to give “his Holy Spirit to them that ask him.”
The force of which argument depends upon a double comparison, of the quality of the persons giving, and of the nature of the gift.
1. The quality of the persons giving. Fathers upon earth, and our heavenly Father. If earthly fathers be naturally disposed to give good things to their children, how much more may we believe this of our heavenly Father! If they who are but men have so much goodness; how much more confidently may we presume it of God, who excels in all perfections, and whose goodness excels all his other perfections! If they who are evil, that is, many times envious, and ill-natured, and at the best but imperfectly good; how much more God, who is in finitely good, and even goodness itself! If they who are many times indigent, or but meanly provided of the good things they bestow, and if they give them to their children must want them themselves; how much more God, who is not the less rich and full for the overflowings of his bounty, and can never impair his estate, nor impoverish himself by conferring of his blessings and benefits upon others!
2. If we compare the nature of the gifts. If earthly parents, that are evil, be ready to bestow good things upon their children, things necessary and convenient only for their bodies and this life; how much more confidently may we believe the good God inclined to bestow upon his children the best things, things necessary for their souls, and conducing to their eternal life and happiness!
So that, in the handling of these words, I shall,
First, Endeavour to shew what is comprehended in this gift of the Holy Spirit, and how great a blessing and benefit it is.103
Secondly, What kind of asking is here required.
Thirdly, To confirm and illustrate the truth of this proposition, that God is very ready to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.
Fourthly, To remove a considerable objection to which this discourse may seem liable. And,
Fifthly, To make some practical application of it to ourselves.
First, I shall shew what is comprehended in this gift of the Holy Spirit, and how great a blessing and benefit it is. St. Matthew expresseth this somewhat differently: (chap. vii. 11.) “How much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” Which, compared with the expression here in St. Luke, doth intimate to us, that the Spirit of God is the chief of blessings, or rather the sum of all good things. The promise here in the text is not expressed so gene rally as it is in St. Matthew; but our evangelist instanceth in the greatest gift that God can bestow upon his children; the gift of his Holy Spirit, which is indeed the chief of all other, the sum and comprehension of all spiritual blessings; for it contains in it the presence and residence, the continual influence and assistance, of God’s Holy Spirit upon the minds of men, together with all the blessed fruits and effects of it, in the sanctifying and renewing of our hearts in all those particular graces and virtues, which are in Scripture called “the fruits of the Spirit; in righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,” in “sealing us up to the day of redemption,” and in being a pledge of our future inheritance, and of a blessed resurrection to eternal life. All these are mentioned in Scripture, as the fruits and effects of God’s Holy Spirit, and therefore 104it will come within the compass of this promise concerning the gift of God’s Spirit; “How much more shall your heavenly Father,” &c.
And, which I desire may be especially considered, because it will conduce very much to the clearing of some difficulties in my following discourse, by the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, is not only meant the common and transient operations of God’s Spirit upon the minds of men, exciting and disposing them to that which is good; (for thus the Spirit was given to men in all ages from the beginning of the world;) but the special presence and residence, the permanent and continued influence and conduct, of God’s Holy Spirit, as a constant and powerful principle of spiritual life and activity in good men; in which sense the Scripture tells us, that the Holy Ghost resides and dwells in believers, that they “live in the Spirit, and walk in the Spirit, and are led by the Spirit:”” for this phrase, of the giving of the Holy Ghost, or of God’s Spirit, does always (I think) in the New Testament signify either the miraculous and extraordinary gifts conferred upon the apostles and primitive Christians, in order to the effectual planting and propagating of the gospel; (and so it is used, Acts v. 32. where St. Peter says, that the “Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him,” was “a witness of the resurrection and ascension of our Saviour;” that is, gave testimony and confirmation thereto,) or else for the special residence, and continual influence and assistance, of God’s Holy Spirit in and upon the minds of good men. And so we find this phrase frequently used: (Rom. v. 5.) “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us;” meaning, for the strengthening and assistance 105of believers to all patience and long-suffering under the persecutions which attended them; for so the apostle reasons, “We glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us;” that is, for our support and assistance under sufferings. So, likewise, 1 Thess. iv. 8. where defiling of our bodies by lust, is called “a despising of God, who hath given unto us his Holy Spirit;” that is, “to dwell in us:”” for which reason the same apostle calls our bodies “the temples of the Holy Ghost/ and “of God:”” (1 Cor. iii. 16.) “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” And, (chap. vi. 19.) “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you?”
And (1 John iii. 24.) God is said to give us his Spirit to enable us to keep his commandments; “He that keepeth his commandments, dwelleth in him, and he in him: and hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.” And, (chap. iv. 13.) “Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” So that the gift of God’s Spirit doth imply his continual residence in good men; and his powerful assistance of them to all the purposes of holiness and obedience; and not only a transient operation upon the minds of men, by some good motions and suggestions, which is common to bad men, and those who are in a sinful and unregenerate state.
Secondly, We shall in the next place consider, 106what kind of asking, in order to the obtaining of this great blessing, is here required by our Saviour, when he says, “God will give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him.” It must have these three qualifications:”
1. It must be hearty and sincere, in opposition to formal and hypocritical asking.
2. It must be earnest, and fervent, and importunate, in opposition to cold, and faint, and careless asking.
3. It must be in faith, and a confident assurance that God will hear us, in opposition to doubting and distrust.
1. It must be hearty and sincere, in opposition to formal and hypocritical asking. When we pray for God’s grace and Holy Spirit, we must not be “as the hypocrites are,” who pray not so much to be heard of God, as “to be seen of men;” who have no sense of their wants, no hearty desires to obtain those blessings which they beg of God, but only pray out of form and custom, or for ostentation of their piety and devotion. It is not every prayer that is put up to God out of form and custom that will prevail with God, for the assistance of his grace and Holy Spirit; but it must be serious and in good earnest; it must proceed from a true and real sense of our need of God’s Holy Spirit, such a sense as children have of their want of bread when they are pinched with hunger.
2. This asking must be earnest, and fervent, and importunate, in opposition to cold, and faint, and indifferent asking: because this declares the sincerity of our desires. Those things which we are careless and indifferent about, and do not much matter whether we have them or not, we ask them 107coldly, and but seldom; if they be not granted at the first asking, we give them over, and look no farther after them: but those things which we heartily desire, and are truly sensible of our want of them, we will use more earnestness and importunity for the obtaining of them; and if we cannot obtain them at first, we will renew our requests, be instant and urgent for them, and if there be any hopes, never give over till we have prevailed.
And that in this manner we ought to beg of God his Holy Spirit, our Saviour declares in those metaphors which he useth of asking, and seeking, and knocking, which signify earnestness, and diligence, and importunity: (ver. 9, 10.) “I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and ye shall find: knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.” And we have this more plainly declared in the parable before the text, (ver. 5-8.) “And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves: for a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him?” And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not, the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise, and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend; yet because of his importunity, he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.” If mere impudence and importunity in asking, will prevail so much with men, what will not humble and constant supplication obtain from God?” And so our Saviour applies this familiar parable, that, in like 108manner, we should be importunate with God for spiritual blessings, and as it were give him no rest, till we obtain what we ask, “I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you,” &c. Not that mere importunity prevails with God; but as it is an expression of a just sense of our wants, and of a confident persuasion of God’s goodness, so it is effectual to procure the greatest blessings at God’s hands.
3. We must ask in faith, and a confident assurance that God will hear us, in opposition to doubting and distrust; with the same, nay, with greater confidence and assurance than children come to their earthly parents, to ask those things of them that are most necessary for them. And this condition or qualification of our prayers our Saviour doth elsewhere frequently require: (Matt. xxi. 22.) “All things what soever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” And St. James, (chap. i. 5, 6.) directing those who want spiritual wisdom to ask it of God, immediately subjoins, “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering;” that is, not doubting but that God, to whom he addresseth his prayer, is both able and willing to give him what he asks: and whoever comes to God, not having this apprehension of him, “let him not think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord,” (ver. 7.) For upon what ground does he expect any thing from that person, whom he looks upon either as unable or unwilling to grant his de sires?” I proceed, in the
Third place, To confirm and illustrate the truth of this proposition, that God is very ready to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him. And for the proof of this, I shall only use two arguments—from God’s free promise and declaration; and from the comparison which our Saviour here useth in the text.109
1. From God’s free promise and declaration. And besides that here in the text, I might produce several others, but I shall mention only one, which is very plain and express, and conceived in terms as large and universal as can well be devised: (James i. 5.) “If any of you (says the apostle, speaking of Christians) lack wisdom, let him ask it of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Where by wisdom, according to St. James’s notion of it, is meant all “the fruits of the Spirit,” all Christian graces; for so he tells us, (chap. iii. 17.) that “the wisdom which is from above,” that is, which is wrought by the Divine Spirit, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and of good fruits.” Now if God have freely promised so great a blessing and benefit to men, if they earnestly beg it of him, we need not doubt of his faithfulness to perform and make good what he hath promised.
2. The other argument, which I shall principally insist upon, shall be from the comparison which our Saviour here useth in the text: “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” This is a proverbial speech among the Jews, which seems from them to have been derived to the neighbour nations, as appears from that of Plautus: Allerâ manu fert lapidem, alterâ panem ostentat, “He carries a stone in one hand, and holds forth bread in the other.” If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” That is, if he ask that which is absolutely necessary, will he give him that which will do him no good?” “Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?” or if he ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” That is, if he ask that, which, 110though it be not absolutely necessary, yet may be very convenient; will he give him that which is hurtful and pernicious?” hardly any earthly parent, though otherwise never so bad, would deal thus with his children; and can we suspect it of God?” certainly it is much farther from him to deny us, his children, those better and more necessary good things, which we humbly and heartily and earnestly beg of him, in a confident persuasion of his goodness.
“If ye then, being evil (many times bad enough in other respects, and at the best come infinitely short of God in point of benignity and goodness) 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!”
This is a plain and undeniable argument, fitted to all capacities, because it proceeds upon two suppositions which every man must acknowledge to be true.
1. That earthly parents have generally such a natural affection for their children, as does strongly incline them to give them such good things as are necessary and convenient for them, and which will not suffer them, instead of good things, to give them such things as either are no wise useful, or any wise hurtful to them: this is a matter of common, and certain, and sensible experience, which no man can deny.
2. The other supposition, which is as evident in reason as the former is in experience, is this: that God is better than men, and that there is infinitely more goodness in him than in the best man in the world; because goodness in its most exalted degree, and highest perfection, is essential to that notion which all men have of God; and this being a common 111principle, in which men are universally agreed, no man can gainsay it.
Now let but these two things be supposed, that men, though otherwise evil, yet commonly have so much of natural goodness and affection for their children, as to be ready to give them those things which are good for them; and that God is infinitely more liberal and bountiful than men; and it will appear to be a thing highly credible, that this good God will not deny the best of gifts, even his Holy Spirit, to them that ask him.
But, for the farther illustration of this argument, we will consider a little more particularly the terms of the comparison which our Saviour here useth; our earthly and our heavenly Father; temporal and spiritual good things.
1. Our earthly and our heavenly Father; in which terms the givers are compared together. Now there are three considerations in a giver, which make him capable of being bountiful, and dispose him to it.
(1.) That he have wherewithal to be liberal, and can part with it without damage and prejudice to himself.
(2.) That he be good-natured, and have a mind to give.
(3.) That he be related to those to whom he gives, and be concerned in their welfare. Now all these considerations are more eminently in God, and with far greater advantage, than in any father upon earth. For,
(1.) God hath wherewithal to be liberal, and can confer what benefits he pleaseth, without any harm or prejudice to himself. Earthly parents cannot many times be so good to their children as they desire, 112because they have it not to bestow; they can not perhaps feed them plentifully without pinching themselves, nor give them fit provision without impoverishing themselves: but the Divine nature is a perpetual and inexhaustible spring of all good things, even of more than he can communicate; in him are all the treasures of riches, and power, and wisdom, and he cannot by giving to others, ever empty or impoverish himself: when he makes the freest communications of his goodness to his creatures, he does not thereby diminish and lessen his native store.
(2.) God hath infinitely more goodness than men, he hath stronger propensions and inclinations to do good, than are to be found in the best-natured and most generous man in the world. All the goodness that is in the creature is derived from God, who is the fountain and original of it; it is but an imperfect image, and imperfect representation of that excellency and perfection which the Divine nature is possessed of in the highest degree that can be imagined. Men are many times evil and envious (for so the word signifies, “If ye being evil,” πονηροὶ, of an envious, |niggardly, and illiberal disposition); but, at the best, men are of a finite and limited goodness and perfection.
But now no such thing as envy and ill-will can possibly happen to God, who is so rich in his own native store, and so secure of the enjoyment of what he hath, that he can neither hope for the enlargement, nor fear the impairing, of his estate.
(3.) God hath a nearer and more intimate relation to us than our earthly parents, and is more concerned for our happiness. Our earthly parents are but the “fathers of our flesh, “as the apostle speaks, 113(Heb. xii. 9.) but God is “the Father of our spirits.” Nay, in respect of our very bodies, God hath the greatest hand in framing of us; it is he who “made us in secret, and curiously wrought us in the lowest parts of the earth: in his book all our members were written, which in continuance were fashioned:”” (Psalm cxxxix. 15, 16.) so that we being God’s creatures, our bodies the work of his hands, and our souls the breath of his mouth, God is more our Father than he that begat us, and having a nearer and stronger relation to us, hath a greater care and concernment for our happiness.
So that if our earthly parents, who are many times indigent and ill-natured, and are but “the fathers of our flesh,” and that but as second causes in subordination to God, the principal Author of our beings, I say, if they will “give good things to their children;” how much more shall our “heavenly Father,” who is the fountain of all good, and goodness itself, who is our Creator, the framer of our bodies, and “the Father of our spirits,” be more ready to bestow on us the best things we can beg of him?”
2. Let us compare likewise temporal and spiritual good things; in which terms you have the gifts compared together. Now there are two considerations belonging to a gift, which are apt to move and in cline a person to bestow it; if it be such as is necessary or very convenient for the person on whom it is bestowed; and if it be such as the person that bestows it takes great pleasure and delight in the imparting of it.
(I.) If it be such as is necessary or very convenient for those on whom it is bestowed. Such is bread, which earthly parents give to their children; but that is only necessary to the body, and for the support 114of this frail and temporary life: but the Holy Spirit of God is necessary to the life and health of our souls, to our eternal life and happiness. Now our soul being ourselves, and eternity the most consider able duration, God’s Holy Spirit is consequently much more necessary and convenient for us, than any thing that our earthly parents can give us.
(2 ) The Spirit of God is such a gift as he takes the greatest pleasure and delight in the imparting and bestowing of it. What can be more acceptable to God, than that his children should be made par takers of his own Divine nature, and conformed to his image; than that we should be “holy as God is holy, and renewed after the image of him that hath created us in righteousness and true holiness?” than that human nature should be restored to its primitive perfection and dignity, and recovered to that state in which it came out of God’s hands?” than to see the ruin and decay of his own workmanship repaired; and his creatures, that were become miserable by the temptation of the devil, restored to happiness by the operation of the Holy Spirit of God?”
And this is the proper work of the Spirit of God upon the minds of men, to sanctify and renew us, and (as the apostle expresseth it) “to create us again unto good works,” to make us “partakers of his own holiness,” and to restore our souls to that condition that “his soul may have pleasure in us.” What can we imagine more acceptable to God, than that men should be brought to this happy state and temper?” A child does not please his father so much when he desires to be instructed by him in learning and virtue, as we please God when we ask his Holy Spirit of him: for nothing can be more pleasing to him, than to bestow this best of gifts upon us.115
So that the whole force of the argument conies to this: that if we believe that earthly parents have any good inclinations toward their children, and are willing to bestow upon them the necessaries of life, we have much more reason to believe that God our heavenly Father is much more ready “to give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him;” whether we consider the quality of the giver, or the nature of the gift.
I should now have proceeded to the other particulars which I propounded; but I shall only at present make some short reflections upon what hath already been delivered.
What a comfortable consideration is this, to be so fully assured of God’s readiness to bestow all good things upon his children, and even his Holy Spirit, if we ask it of him! and what an encouragement is here to constant and fervent prayer to God, who will not deny us the gift of his Holy Spirit, if we heartily and earnestly beg it of him! and what an encouragement is here likewise to the resolutions and endeavours of a good life, that so powerful an assistance is so freely offered to us, to enable us to “run the ways of God’s commandments!” that God hath promised his Holy Spirit to reside and dwell in us, to be a principle of spiritual life to us, and to enable us to all the purposes of obedience and a holy life!
And what infinite cause have we to bless God for the gift of his Holy Spirit, and to say with St. Paul, “Blessed be God for his unspeakable gift!” That he hath given his Holy Spirit to his church, at first in miraculous powers and gifts for the preaching of the Christian religion in the world, and ever since in such degrees of assistance, as were necessary in the several ages of the church, for the preservation of the Christian religion in the world; that he hath given his 116Holy Spirit to every particular member of his church, for the sanctifying and renewing of our natures, “to strengthen us to every good word and work, and to keep us by his mighty power through faith unto salvation!”
And this sanctifying virtue of the Holy Ghost, enabling us to do the will of God, is more than any miraculous powers whatsoever. So our Saviour tells us: (Matt. vii. 21-23.) “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?” and in thy name have cast out devils?” and in thy name done many wonderful works?” And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Men may do wonders by the power of the Holy Ghost, and yet be shut out of the kingdom of heaven; only they that are assisted by the Spirit of God to do the will of God, shall be admitted into heaven.
And this is matter of greater joy and comfort to us, than to work the greatest wonders, and to have power over devils, to cast them out of the bodies of men: (Luke x. 20.) “Rejoice not in this, (saith our blessed Saviour,) that the spirits are made subject to you; but rejoice in this, that your names are written in heaven.” How is that?” The sanctifying virtue of God’s Spirit is the pledge and earnest of our heavenly inheritance, and that whereby we are “sealed to the day of redemption.”117
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