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The Holy Spirit and the Heart of Christ, by Dane Ortlund

The Holy Spirit and the Heart of Christ, by Dane Ortlund

JULY 15, 2021

/ Articles / The Holy Spirit and the Heart of Christ, by Dane Ortlund

What is the role of the Holy Spirit?

What does he actually do? There are many valid biblical answers to that question. The Spirit:

  • Regenerates us (John 3:6–7)
  • Convicts us (John 16:8)
  • Empowers us with gifts (1 Cor. 12:4–7)
  • Testifies in our hearts that we are God’s children (Gal. 4:6)
  • Leads us (Gal. 5:18, 25)
  • Makes us fruitful (Gal. 5:22–23)
  • Grants and nurtures in us resurrection life (Rom. 8:11)
  • Enables us to kill sin (Rom. 8:13)
  • Intercedes for us when we don’t know what to pray (Rom. 8:26–27)
  • Guides us into truth (John 16:13)
  • Transforms us into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18)

These are all gloriously true. I’d like to add just one more to this list: the Spirit causes us to actually feel Christ’s heart for us. This overlaps a bit with a few of the operations of the Spirit listed above. But it would be useful to make clear exactly how the Holy Spirit connects to this study of the heart of Jesus. And what I propose, once more with help from Thomas Goodwin, is that the Spirit makes the heart of Christ real to us: not just heard, but seen; not just seen, but felt; not just felt, but enjoyed. The Spirit takes what we read in the Bible and believe on paper about Jesus’s heart and moves it from theory to reality, from doctrine to experience.

It is one thing, as a child, to be told your father loves you. You believe him. You take him at his word. But it is another thing, unutterably more real, to be swept up in his embrace, to feel the warmth, to hear his beating heart within his chest, to instantly know the protective grip of his arms. It’s one thing to hear he loves you; it’s another thing to feel his love. This is the glorious work of the Spirit.

In John 14–16 Jesus explains the work of the Spirit as an extension of his own work. And he says that the time in which he himself has left but the Spirit has come is a superior blessing to his people. Notice carefully the flow of thought in John 16 as Jesus makes this point:

But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:5–7)

What is the advantage of the Spirit coming? The natural reading is that he will rectify something that is wrong. And what is wrong? “Sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6). Apparently the coming of the Spirit will do the opposite: fill their hearts with joy. The Spirit replaces sorrow with joy.

The disciples were sorrowful because Jesus was leaving them. He had befriended them and embraced them into his heart, so they thought that Jesus leaving meant Jesus’s heart leaving—but the Spirit is the answer to how Jesus can leave them bodily while leaving his heart behind. The Spirit is the continuation of the heart of Christ for his people after the departure of Jesus to heaven.

Reflecting on this passage in John 16, Goodwin presses into the marrow of what Jesus is saying to his disciples: “My father and I have but only one friend, who lies in the bosom of us both, and proceeds from us both, the Holy Ghost, and in the meantime I will send him to you. . . . He shall be a better Comforter unto you than I am to be. . . . He will comfort you better than I should do with my bodily presence.” In what way is the Spirit a superior comforter to God’s people? “He shall tell you, if you will listen to him, and not grieve him, nothing but stories of my love. . . . All his speech in your hearts will be to advance me, and to greaten my worth and love unto you, and it will be his delight to do it.”[1] Goodwin then makes the explicit connection to Christ’s heart:

So that you shall have my heart as surely and as speedily as if I were with you; and he will be continually breaking your hearts, either with my love to you, or yours to me, or both. . . . He will tell you, when I am in heaven, that there is as true a conjunction between me and you, and as true a dearness of affection in me towards you, as is between my Father and me, and that it is as impossible to break this knot, and to take off my heart from you, as my Father’s from me.[2]

Have you considered this particular operation of the Holy Spirit?

Remember, the Spirit is a person. He can be grieved, for example (Isa. 63:10; Eph. 4:30). What would it look like to treat him as such in our actual lives? What might it look like to open up the vents of our hearts to receive the felt love of Christ as fanned into warm flame by the Holy Spirit? We bear in mind here that the Spirit will never fan the flames of the felt love of Christ beyond the degree to which Christ actually loves us; that is impossible. The Spirit simply causes our apprehension of Christ’s heartful love to soar closer to what it actually is. One does not worry that binoculars are going to make the ballgame look larger than it really is from seats in the upper deck; the binoculars simply make the players appear closer to their actual size.

Jesus said that he is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). That is a beautiful statement, and even without the Spirit one could respect and even marvel at it. But the Spirit takes those words of Christ’s and interiorizes them at the level of personal individuality. The Spirit turns the recipe into actual taste. That is what Goodwin is saying. All that we see and hear of the gracious heart of Jesus in his earthly life will, during his ascended state, enter into the consciousness of his people as experiential reality. When Paul gets personal in Galatians and speaks of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), he is saying something that no one could say apart from the Spirit.

This is why, in another place, Paul says that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). To grasp the role of the Holy Spirit, according to this text, we must bear in mind that the Greek word underlying understood (oida) should not be restricted to merely intellectual apprehension. This verb simply means “to know,” and as is generally the case with the Bible’s language of epistemology, knowing here is something holistic—not less than intellectual apprehension, but more. It is experiential knowing, the way you know the sun is warm when you stand with your face raised to the sky on a cloudless June day. Paul is saying that the Spirit has been given to us in order that we might know, way down deep, the endless grace of the heart of God. “Freely given” in this text is simply the verb form (charizomai) of the common Greek word for “grace” (charis). The Spirit loves nothing more than to awaken and calm and soothe us with the heart knowledge of what we have been graced with.

Content taken from Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund, ©2020. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers,

Listen to our interview with Dane Ortlund on SBE here.

[1] Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 18–19.

[2] Goodwin, The Heart of Christ, 19–20.

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