What Does it Mean to “Grieve” the Holy Spirit? (Eph. 4:30)
In Ephesians 4:30, we are commanded, “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.”
This exhortation well accords with the Spirit’s being a person, even the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, for a stone or a blind, impersonal force cannot be grieved. Only a person, one possessed of reason and will, one who can think and choose as a moral agent, can be grieved.
This grieving of the Spirit must also be understood in the light of His Deity. Someone is grieved if they suffer sorrow or pain. Man grieves at the loss of a loved one. Believers grieve over their sins. We experience mental pain and sadness. But this does not apply to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, who is possessed of an infinite and unchangeable blessedness that admits of no diminution. In understanding the grieving of the Holy Spirit, we must not ascribe any imperfection to His glorious majesty.
So what then is it to grieve the Holy Spirit? First, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we do things that He hates. Here it is helpful to think of one human being grieving another: a child irritating his parents, a neighbour doing something you cannot stand, a foolish man speaking in a way his wife detests. And what is the one thing we do that grieves the Spirit? Sin and only sin. The Spirit loathes, detests and abhors the evil that we think and do. He hates our iniquities because they are contrary to His character as the spotlessly pure One, the One who is the personal consecration of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. The Spirit abhors our transgressions because they oppose His work in us. His purpose with us and activity in us is to sanctify and cleanse us. So He cannot but loathe our filthiness, our perversity in jumping back into the mire of iniquity. He is the One who leads us according to the Word in paths of righteousness, crying, “This is the way; walk ye in it.” So He detests our unfaithfulness if we (for a time) leave the way of obedience and walk in sin.
Second, we grieve the Holy Spirit when, because of our iniquities, He withdraws the sense of His gracious presence from us, until we are brought to repentance. We can understand this too from the realm of human relationships. You have an acquaintance who uses foul language; you admonish him; he fails to repent; you separate from him. Or you have a son still living in your home who walks openly and impenitently in gross sin, bringing great misery and distress upon your family. After your repeated and earnest rebukes fall upon deaf ears, you tell him that he must leave your home and get a house of his own.
The Holy Spirit is God’s love and covenant friendship in us personally. What does He do, when He sees us walking impenitently in sin? He hates it and withdraws from us His sweet presence, for the Spirit only fellowships with us as we walk in the light. He cannot continue to grant us comfort and peace while we live in sin, as if God approved of our wickedness and was not terribly offended, as if the Holy One of Israel has communion with unrighteousness!
You see this don’t you? You understand the seriousness of disobedience? You do not want to grieve the Spirit or see your children do so. How awful it is to grieve the Spirit: for Him to hate the way we live and to withdraw His comforting presence from us!
We read of God grieving in the days before the flood. Sin developed, especially through mixed marriages between the sons of the church and the daughters of the world (Gen. 6:2), and so God was “grieved” in His “heart” (6). He hated their wickedness (5) and sent the flood.
The other period particularly known for God’s being grieved is that of Israel’s wilderness wandering. “How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert!” (Ps. 78:40). “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” (95:10-11). Isaiah 63 speaks of the same period and specifically states that the ‘Holy Spirit’ was grieved: “But they rebelled, and vexed [i.e., grieved] his holy Spirit” (10).
But what about those things which are said to grieve the Holy Spirit in the immediate context of Ephesians 4:30? Notice that the text begins with “And,” linking it to the preceding verse: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (29). Foul speech, obscene language and malicious words are “corrupt,” that is, putrid and rotten. Such talk grieves the Holy Spirit because He is the Spirit of life and purity. He cannot dwell at peace with one who speaks this way; He hates corrupt conversation and withdraws.
Some point out that the word “corrupt” in Ephesians 4:29 also carries the idea of “worthless.” Why use worthless, corrupt and rotten talk, when you could be “edifying [others by your speech], that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (29)?
It is not only corrupt speech (Eph. 4:29) that grieves the Holy Spirit (30). Lying (25) grieves the Spirit, for He is the Spirit of truth. Sinful anger (26-27) grieves the Spirit, for He is the Spirit of self-control. Stealing (28) grieves the Spirit, for He is the Spirit who works and enables us to labour honestly. The verse after our text lists other sins which grieve the Spirit: “bitterness,” “wrath,” “anger,” “clamour,” “evil speaking” and “malice” (31). These things are abhorred by the heavenly dove and drive Him away from our breasts.
Notice that these sins are sins against our brothers and sisters in the church. Do not lie, “for we are members one of another” (25). Do not steal but work in order to help those who are in need (28). Use wholesome, not corrupt, speech “that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (29). Instead of “bitterness,” “malice,” etc., we must be “kind one to another” (31-32). Thus the prohibition of sinful anger (26-27) especially deals with our fellow saints in the church. If you go to bed at night without confessing the evil of wrath against your brother or sister, you are not only giving place to the devil (26-27), you are also giving him room to work destruction through you in the church, the body of Jesus Christ. And you are grieving the Spirit, the Spirit of love and communion.
At this someone might protest, “I was bitter only towards my sister; I spoke harshly only to my brother; I sinned only in a particular area of my life. I did not realize that the Holy Spirit was involved. I did not intend to grieve Him!” You did not intend to, but you did. We must use the truth of Ephesians 4:30 (in its context) to fight against our iniquities, realizing that it is not only that corrupt speech and all these other things transgress the law but also that they grieve the blessed Spirit. Surely, we do not wish to treat the Holy Spirit unkindly or disrespectfully, or displease Him. We do not want Him to withdraw or depart from us with the comforts of the gospel of Christ. We need Him. We pray for His presence with us. We love Him as God’s Spirit and Christ’s representative, who makes us enjoy the blessings of the covenant of grace.
The result of grieving the Holy Spirit is not the loss of salvation, for this would overthrow the preservation and perseverance of the saints. We are God’s inviolable property—past, present and future—”ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (30). The Spirit, personally, is this seal.
The result of grieving the Holy Spirit is the loss of our assurance. This is the rationale of the text: “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Grieving the Spirit results in His withdrawing from us His gracious operation of assurance as a seal (cf. Covenant Reformed News XII:8-9). Thus lying (25), sinful anger (26-27), stealing (28), corrupt speech (29), “bitterness,” “wrath,” “anger,” “clamour,” “evil speaking” and “malice” (31), as well as other sins, especially those against our fellow believers in the church, grieve the Spirit and cause us to lose our assurance.
Do you have assurance that you belong to Jesus Christ, that He died for your sins, that you were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, that you are His forever? If you do not, there is something wrong. Have you been grieving the Spirit by sinning against the saints? Repent, child of God, and believe in the power of the cross of Christ for forgiveness and sanctification!
When we grieve the Spirit, the Spirit grieves us; we are grieved too. You respond, “But Ephesians 4:30 does not say this!” Ah, but it logically follows. When we grieve the Spirit, He withdraws from us. Remember that He is the Comforter! Withdrawal of the Comforter means we lose comfort and thus experience sorrow and pangs of conscience—grief! Loss of assurance is itself grief. No longer convinced of the Father’s hearty love for you; not sure if you are His child; walking in spiritual darkness and coldness; what else is this but grief! It is grief too for your family, your fellow saints and your church’s office-bearers, who are to look after your spiritual health. Ultimately and by sheer grace, the Spirit brings us to the wholesome grief of true repentance!
When Christians become deeply backslidden, especially if, for example, they sinfully stop attending church for some time, their whole lives become ones of grief. The Bible remains unread; they lose all joy from the communion of the saints. They are filled with guilt, losing all comfort and becoming deeply miserable. Sometimes they even waste their time and make things worse by going to secular psychologists, who try to alleviate their guilt in humanistic ways rather than pointing them to the cross of Christ. The grieved Christian may even sink to the depths of blaming God: “Look at the mess I’m in, and He does not do anything for me!” What about the atoning death of His Son? Is this not the central thing that He has done for us? “Why does He not assure me of His love?” He has written it in blood in the Scriptures, which tell us that His love is experienced as we walk in the light. “But He does not hear my prayers!” But what are you asking for? What about coming to Him with words such as these: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” The Father’s arms are stretched out for you; the fatted calf is ready; you will experience once again the formerly grieved Spirit as a seal of assurance and the blessed Comforter!
Rev. Angus Stewart
(Covenant Reformed News, vol. 12, nos. 12-13)