Rev. Rossow’s Reflections on “the Spirit of Truth”

In the fifteenth chapter of his gospel St. John quotes Jesus as saying, “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” (v. 26). Soon afterwards, in the sixteenth chapter of the same gospel, the same phrase “the Spirit of truth” appears again. Quoting Jesus, John says, “Howbeit 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 show you things to come” (v. 13).

In these verses Jesus ascribes two alternate names to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the three-in-one God. The first is the name “Comforter” (“Helper” in the ESV). The second is “the Spirit of truth.” The latter name is the focus of this brief study. There is a world of meaning in that alternate name, and it is the goal of these comments to flush out—and to flesh out—some of that meaning.

In the context of the verses in which the phrase “the Spirit of truth” occurs, it seems virtually impossible to “spiritualize” the phrase. But in the context of our times, it is perhaps necessary to emphasize that the phrase is a name, a person not an abstraction. It is C. S. Lewis who has frequently pointed out that contemporary people tend to reduce the literalness, concreteness, or specificity of God’s words and deeds to make them less challenging to our capacity to believe in them. People may regard God’s truths revealed in Scripture as non-literal, non-factual, non­specific, unhistorical, vague, abstract, indefinite, insubstantial, “wishy-washy,” “cloud-9ish.” So please note that the word “spirit” in the phrase “the Spirit of truth” is capitalized, even as we capitalize the name of a person such as Robert or Elizabeth. (The same is true of the other name for the third person of the Trinity occurring in the same verse: “Comforter” is capitalized.) The point is that the word “Spirit” in the biblical verses under consideration is not to be understood merely in the lower-case sense of that word. For example, we might say of a group of college administrators who initiate an honor system in their institution that they are motivated by “a spirit of truth.” Or we might wish that “a spirit of truth” prevailed among more politicians, referring to their “disposition” or “commitment” to truth. But the meaning of “spirit” in the examples above is not the meaning of the designation “the Spirit of truth” in the Bible passages we are presently considering. Abstractions like “disposition,” “commitment,” “attitude,” “environment,” “context,” and so on cannot be substituted for the word “spirit” in the two passages cited from John’s gospel.

No, “Spirit” in those passages is a person, a truth evidenced not only by the capitalization of the word but also by other words associated with “Spirit” in the citation from John’s gospel. The “Spirit” is sent by Jesus and the Father. The “Spirit” comes, proceeds, speaks, testifies, shows, hears. Frequently, “Spirit” is the antecedent of the pronoun “he.”

Do I digress? Possibly. But it strikes me as a necessary digression. At any rate, let us proceed to the goal of this study, mining the substance of the phrase “the Spirit of truth,” namely, the numerous reassuring meanings contained in that designation.

I.  In this name “the Spirit of truth” it is the word “truth” that is loaded with meaning. To begin with, it testifies to the character of the Holy Spirit, to His honesty, His integrity. He will not lie or misrepresent. He will not fool or deceive. He will not dilute truth. He will not engage in untruths or half-truths. He will not exaggerate, pretend, flatter, or obfuscate. He says what He means and means what He says. He will not err or make mistakes. What He speaks will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He speaks with authority. In other words, the Holy Spirit is trustworthy, dependable, reliable, 100 percent so. We can count on Him. We can depend on Him. The obvious wordiness of the preceding description (ordinarily a stylistic flaw) is an effort to capture all the shades of meaning in the word “truth” when that word is used to describe character.

II.  Secondly, “the Spirit of truth” is a way of describing the substance of the Holy Spirit’s witness, the content of what He says. In the Scriptures He speaks truths (plural). His words convey historical events, facts, laws, rules, standards, principles, ethics, maxims, wisdom, proverbs, counsel, warnings, promises, doctrines, prophecies, parables, miracle accounts, poems, prayers—above all, a message of sin and salvation from sin (commonly called Law and Gospel). Again, wordiness becomes a tool by which we attempt to capture all the facets of the Holy Spirit’s witness. It would not be inappropriate to call the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truths.” All of these truths constitute a body of truth to which we appropriately ascribe the title “the Christian religion” or “Christianity.”

All of these truths are true because they come from “the Spirit of truth.” And because these truths are true, we can rely on them, depend on them. They reveal the mind and heart of God, His repugnance for sin, His love of sinners, and His plan for our rescue from sin. Even more, they contain the power to effect in us the response of acceptance to that plan for our rescue. They are “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:15). To that we now turn.

III.  Thirdly, the phrase “the Spirit of truth” has above all a Gospel meaning. It clarifies that what the Holy Spirit communicates ultimately—and climactically—is “Truth,” not only truths. “What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus, either inquisitively or cynically, either philosophically or contemptuously, prior to Jesus’s crucifixion. The answer to Pilate’s question lay in the words Jesus had spoken to His disciples in the upper room the night before, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Ultimately, “truth” (like “spirit,”) is more than a word, more than an abstraction. “Truth” is a name. “Truth” is a person, Jesus Himself. We could capitalize another word in the phrase “the Spirit of truth” and make it “the Spirit of Truth.”

“‘Truth’ is a name,” we said above. “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet asked. The word “name” when applied to the three persons of our one God means more than the word “name” in our customary usage today. “Name” at one time meant more than a combination of phonetic sounds and more than an arrangement of alphabet letters by which we address a person. When applied to God a “name” tells us who He is and what He does. It combines person and role. When God from the burning bush commissioned Moses to convey a message to the Israelites, Moses, in effect, replied: Who shall I say is commissioning me? What is your name? God’s answer? “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (Exodus 3:14). In this passage a name, I AM, clarifies that God is and who He is. When the angel Gabriel surprised a virgin named Mary with the news that she was to be the mother of the incarnate Jesus, he added, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). In this passage a name, Jesus, also communicates what Jesus does. When we call upon the name of the Lord, we are accessing both the person and the saving acts of our Lord. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). God’s name tells us His identity and His vocation, so to speak (i.e., saving people). Curiously, the word “Word” in the Bible carries this double meaning. Most often the word “Word” refers to what God says. Less often—but surprisingly often—the word “Word” refers to the person of Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Almost immediately John tells us what Jesus, the Word, does. “All things were made by him” (John 1:3). Even though we are usually unaware of it, there is a vestige of a name’s double function in some of the names people have nowadays (e.g., Smith and Taylor, designating not only a person but also—once upon a time—his vocation).

In God’s plan the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth,” is the person of God who conveys to individual people Jesus, “the Truth,” who He is and what He has done. The Holy Spirit communicates to people both the person of Jesus and His saving acts (His incarnation, His baptism, His keeping the Law of God in our place, His death and damnation in our place, His resurrection, His ascension, His return for us on the last day, etc.). The Holy Spirit not only tells us about these saving acts, but He also manufactures in us the response of faith, of trust, in these saving acts resulting in the gift of eternal life for us in the company of the triune God.

What is most amazing is that “the Spirit of Truth” channels to us not only the truths about Jesus but also Jesus, the Truth, Himself. In some mysterious but real way Jesus is in us. He resides in our body. For that matter God the Father does too. Jesus once said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23). Even the one whose specialty is the accomplishing of this indwelling of God through the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, even He takes up residence in our body. “What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). AChristian’s body becomes the house of the triune God! Suddenly, another name of Jesus, Immanuel, assumes a more intimate and tender meaning than we ordinarily ascribe to it: God is with us even to the extent of being in us.

“The Spirit of truth,” only four words, but what a message they pack. They tell us that the Holy Spirit is truthful and honest. They tell us that He communicates truths, especially, the truths of our eternal salvation through the person and work of Jesus Christ. And they tell us that He conveys the Truth, Jesus Himself, into our very being. “What comfort this sweet [phrase] gives!”

Francis C. Rossow

Dr. Francis C. Rossow is a professor emeritus of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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