Work of the Holy Spirit in the Conception of Christ

Work of the Holy Spirit in the Conception of Christ

John Owen
Book 2, ch. 3, pp. 160-167.

Work of the Holy Spirit with respect unto the head of the new creation—the human nature of Christ.

The dispensation and work of the Holy Ghost in this new creation respect, first, The Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, in his human nature, as it was to be, and was, united unto the person of the Son of God. Secondly, It concerns the members of that mystical body in all that belongs unto them as such. And under these two heads we shall consider them.

His work on the human nature of Christ.

First, therefore, we are to inquire what are the operations of the Holy Ghost in reference unto Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. And these were of two sorts: 1. Such as whereof the person of Christ in his human nature was the immediate object. 2. Such as he performs towards others on his behalf; that is, with direct respect unto his person and office.

How this work could be, considering the union of the human nature unto and in the person of the Son of God.

I. But yet, before we enter upon the first sort of his works which we shall begin withal, an objection of seeming weight and difficulty must be removed out of our way; which I shall the rather do because our answer unto it will make the whole matter treated of the more plain and familiar unto us. It may, therefore, be, and it is objected,

“That whereas the human nature of Christ is assigned as the immediate object of these operations of the Holy Ghost, and that nature was immediately, inseparably, and undividedly united unto the person of the Son of God, there doth not seem to be any need, nor indeed room, for any such operations of the Spirit; for could not the Son of God himself, in his own person, perform all things requisite both for the forming, supporting, sanctifying, and preserving of his own nature, without the especial assistance of the Holy Ghost? nor is it easy to be understood how an immediate work of the Holy Ghost should be interposed, in the same person, between the one nature and the other.”

And this seeming difficulty is vehemently pressed by the Socinians, who think to entangle our whole doctrine of the blessed Trinity and incarnation of the Son of God thereby. But express testimonies of Scripture, with the clear and evident analogy of faith, will carry us easily and safely through this seeming difficulty. To which end we may observe, that, —

1. Assumption of the human nature into union, the only act of the person of the Son towards it.

1. The only singular immediate act of the person of the Son on the human nature was the assumption of it into subsistence with himself. Herein the Father and the Spirit had no interest nor concurrence, εἰ μὴ κατ’ εὐδοκίαν καὶ βούλησιν, “but by approbation and consent,” as Damascene speaks: for the Father did not assume the human nature, he was not incarnate; neither did the Holy Spirit do so; but this was the peculiar act and work of the Son. See John 1:14; Rom. 1:3; Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6-7; Heb. 2:14-16; which places, with many others to the same purpose, I have elsewhere expounded, and vindicated from the exceptions of the Socinians.

2. Personal union the only necessary consequent of this assumption.

2. That the only necessary consequent of this assumption of the human nature, or the incarnation of the Son of God, is the personal union of Christ, or the inseparable subsistence of the assumed nature in the person of the Son. This was necessary and indissoluble, so that it was not impeached nor shaken in the least by the temporary dissolution of that nature by the separation of the soul and body: for the union of the soul and body in Christ did not constitute him a person, that the dissolution of them should destroy his personality; but he was a person by the uniting of both unto the Son of God.

3. All other actings of the person of the Son in and on the human nature voluntary.

3. That all other actings of God in the person of the Son towards the human nature were voluntary, and did not necessarily ensue on the union mentioned; for there was no transfusion of the properties of one nature into the other, nor real physical communication of divine essential excellencies unto the humanity. Those who seem to contend for any such thing resolve all at last into a true assignation by way of predication, as necessary on the union mentioned, but contend not for a real transfusion of the properties of one nature into the other. But these communications were voluntary. Hence were those temporary dispensations, when, under his great trial, the human nature complained of its desertion and dereliction by the divine (Mat. 27:46); for this forsaking was not as to personal union, or necessary subsistence and supportment, but as to voluntary communications of light and consolation. Hence himself declares that the human nature was not the residential subject of omnisciency; for so he speaks, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32). For the exposition given by some of the ancients, that the Lord Christ speaks not this absolutely, but only “that he knew it not to declare it unto them,” is unworthy of him; for no more did the Father so know it, seeing he hath not declared it. But this was the opinion only of some of them; the more advised were otherwise minded. He speaks of himself with respect unto his human nature only, and thereunto all communications were voluntary. So after his ascension, God gave him that revelation that he made to the Apostle (Rev. 1:1). The human nature, therefore, however inconceivably advanced, is not the subject of infinite, essentially divine properties; and the actings of the Son of God towards it, consequential unto its assumption, and that indissoluble subsistence in its union which ensued thereon, are voluntary.

4. The Holy Spirit the immediate efficient cause of all divine operations.

4. The Holy Ghost, as we have proved before, is the immediate, peculiar, efficient cause of all external divine operations: for God worketh by his Spirit, or in him immediately applies the power and efficacy of the divine excellencies unto their operation; whence the same work is equally the work of each person.

5. He is the Spirit of the Son and of the Father

5. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Son, no less than the Spirit of the Father. He proceedeth from the Son, as from the Father. He is the “Spirit of the Son” (Gal. 4:6). And hence is he the immediate operator of all divine acts of the Son himself, even on his own human nature. Whatever the Son of God wrought in, by, or upon the human nature, he did it by the Holy Ghost, who is his Spirit, as he is the Spirit of the Father.

6. How all the works of the Trinity are undivided.

6. To clear the whole matter, it must be yet farther observed that the immediate actings of the Holy Ghost are not spoken of him absolutely, nor ascribed unto him exclusively, as unto the other persons and their concurrence in them. It is a saying generally admitted, that Opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. There is no such division in the external operations of God that any one of them should be the act of one person, without the concurrence of the others. And the reason of it is, because the nature of God, which is the principle of all divine operations, is one and the same, undivided in them all. Whereas, therefore, they are the effects of divine power, and that power is essentially the same in each person, the works themselves belong equally unto them: as, if it were possible that three men might see by the same eye, the act of seeing would be but one, and it would be equally the act of all three.

But the things we insist on are ascribed eminently unto the Holy Ghost, on the account of the order of his subsistence in the holy Trinity, as he is the Spirit of the Father and the Son; whence, in every divine act, the authority of the Father, the love and wisdom of the Son, with the immediate efficacy and power of the Holy Ghost, are to be considered. Yea, and there is such a distinction in their operations, that one divine act may produce a peculiar respect and relation unto one person, and not unto another; as the assumption of the human nature did to the Son, for he only was incarnate.

And such are the especial actings of the Holy Ghost towards the head of the church, our Lord Jesus Christ, in this work of the new creation, as we shall demonstrate in sundry instances.

The body of Christ formed in the womb by the Holy Ghost, but of the substance of the blessed Virgin.

First, The framing, forming, and miraculous conception of the body of Christ in the womb of the blessed Virgin was the peculiar and especial work of the Holy Ghost. This work, I acknowledge, in respect of designation, and the authoritative disposal of things, is ascribed unto the Father; for so the Lord Christ speaketh unto him: “A body hast thou prepared me” (Heb. 10:5). But this preparation does not signify the actual forming and making ready of that body, but the eternal designation of it: it was prepared in the counsel and love of the Father.

As to voluntary assumption, it is ascribed to the Son himself: “Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same” (Heb. 2:14); he took upon him a body and soul, entire human nature, as the children, or all believers, have the same, synecdochically expressed by “flesh and blood.” “He took on him the seed of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16). But the immediate divine efficiency in this matter was the peculiar work of the Holy Ghost: “When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost” (Mat. 1:18). “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (Mat. 1:20). “The angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

1. The person working is the Holy Ghost. He is the wonderful operator in this glorious work. And therein the power of the Most High was exerted; for “The power of the Highest” is neither explicatory of the former expression, “The Holy Ghost,” as though he were only the power of the Most High, nor is it the adjoining of a distinct agent or cause unto him, as though the Holy Ghost and the power of the Most High were different agents in this matter. Only the manner of his effecting this wonderful matter, concerning which the blessed Virgin had made that inquiry, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34) is expressed. “The Holy Ghost,” saith the angel, “acting the power of the Most High,” or in the infinite power of God, “shall accomplish it.

2. For his access unto his work, it is expressed by his “coming upon her.” The importance of this expression, and what is signified thereby, hath been declared before. And it is often used to declare his actings with reference unto the production of miraculous works: “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you” (Acts 1:8)—“He will so come upon you as to put forth the power of the Most High in you and by you, in gifts and operations miraculous;” for he is said to come, with respect unto his beginning of any marvelous operation, where before he did not work to the like purpose.

3. The act of the Holy Ghost in this matter was a creating act; not, indeed, like the first creating act, which produced the matter and substance of all things out of nothing, causing that to be which was not before, neither in matter, nor form, nor passive disposition; but like those subsequent acts of creation, whereby, out of matter before made and prepared, things were made that which before they were not, and which of themselves they had no active disposition unto nor concurrence in. So man was created or formed of the dust of the earth, and woman of a rib taken from man. There was a previous matter unto their creation, but such as gave no assistance nor had any active disposition to the production of that particular kind of creature whereinto they were formed by the creating power of God. Such was this act of the Holy Ghost in forming the body of our Lord Jesus Christ; for although it was effected by an act of infinite creating power, yet it was formed or made of the substance of the blessed Virgin. That it should be so was absolutely necessary—

The Necessity of Christ being formed from the substance of Mary.

(1.) For the accomplishment of the promises made unto Abraham and David, that the Messiah should be of their seed, and proceed from their loins.

(2.) So was it also on the account of the first original promise, that the “seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head:” for the Word was to be “made flesh” (John 1:14); to be “made of a woman” (Gal. 4:4); or “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3); and to take upon him “the seed of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16).

(3.) To confirm the truth hereof is his genealogy according to the flesh given us by two of the evangelists; which were neither to the purpose nor true if he were not made of the substance or flesh of the blessed Virgin.

(4.) Besides, all our cognation [i.e. kindred relationship] and alliance unto him, whence he was meet to be our Saviour, suffering in the same nature wherein we have sinned, do depend hereon (Heb. 2:14); for if he had not been made like us in all things, sin only excepted, if he had not been partaker of our nature, there had been no foundation for the imputing that unto us which he did, suffered, and wrought (Rom. 8:3-4). And hence these things are accounted unto us, and cannot be so unto angels, whose nature he did not take upon him (Heb. 2:16). This, therefore, was the work of the Holy Ghost in reference unto the human nature of Christ in the womb of his mother: By his omnipotent power he formed it of the substance of the body of the holy Virgin—that is, as unto his body.

And hence sundry things do ensue:—

Christ not hence the Son of the Holy Ghost according to the human nature.

1. That the Lord Christ could not on this account, no, not with respect unto his human nature only, be said to be the Son of the Holy Ghost, although he supplied the place and virtue of a natural father in generation; for the relation of filiation dependeth only on and ariseth from a perfect generation, and not on every effect of an efficient cause. When one fire is kindled by another, we do not say that it is the son of that other, unless it be very improperly; much less when a man builds a house do we say that it is his son. There was, therefore, no other relation between the person of the Holy Ghost and the human nature of Christ but that of a creator and a creature. And the Lord Christ is, and is called, “The Son of God” with respect only unto the Father and his eternal, ineffable generation, communicating being and subsistence unto him, as the fountain and original of the Trinity. Filiation, therefore, is a personal adjunct, and belongs unto Christ as he was a divine person, and not with respect unto his human nature. But that nature being assumed, whole Christ was the Son of God.

Difference between the assumption of the human nature by the Son and the creation of it by the Holy Ghost.

2. That this act of the Holy Ghost, in forming of the body of Christ, differs from the act of the Son in assuming the human nature into personal union with himself: for this act of the Son was not a creating act, producing a being out of nothing, or making any thing by the same power to be what in its own nature it was not; but it was an ineffable act of love and wisdom, taking the nature so formed by the Holy Ghost, so prepared for him, to be his own in the instant of its formation, and thereby preventing the singular and individual subsistence of that nature in and by itself. So, then, as the creating act of the Holy Ghost, in forming the body of our Lord Jesus Christ in the womb, doth not denominate him to be his father, no, not according to the human nature, but he is the Son of God upon the account of his eternal generation only; so it doth not denote an assumption of that nature into union with himself, nor was he incarnate. He made the human nature of Christ, body and soul, with, in, and unto a subsistence in the second person of the Trinity, not in his own.

3. It hence also follows that the conception of Christ in the womb, being the effect of a creating act, was not accomplished successively and in process of time, but was perfected in an instant. For although the creating acts of infinite power, where the works effected have distinct parts, may have a process or duration of time allotted unto them, as the world was created in six days, yet every part of it that was the object of an especial creating act was instantaneously produced. So was the forming of the body of Christ, with the infusion of a rational soul to quicken it, though it increased afterwards in the womb unto the birth. And as it is probable that this conception was immediate upon the angelical salutation, so it was necessary that nothing of the human nature of Christ should exist of itself antecedently unto its union with the Son of God: for in the very instant of its formation, and therein, was the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14); and the Son of God was “made of a woman” (Gal. 4:4); so that the whole essence of his nature was created in the same instant.

Thus far the Scriptures go before, and herein it is necessary to assert the forming of the body and soul of Christ by the Holy Spirit. The curious inquiries of some of the Schoolmen and others are to be left unto themselves, or rather, to be condemned in them. For what was farther in this miraculous operation of the Holy Ghost, it seems purposely to be hid from us in that expression, Δύναμισ Ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι—“The power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.” Under the secret, glorious covert hereof we may learn to adore that holy work here, which we hope to rejoice in and bless God for unto eternity. And I suppose, also, that there is in the word an allusion unto the expression of the original acting of the Holy Spirit towards the newly-produced mass of the old creation, whereof we spake before. Then it is said of him that he was מְרַחֶפֶת‎, as it were “hovering” and “moving” over it for the formation and production of all things living (Gen. 1:2); for both the words include in them an allusion unto a covering like that of a fowl over its eggs, communicating, by its cognate warmth and heat, a principle of life unto their seminal virtue.

The conception of Christ, how ascribed to the Holy Ghost, and how to the blessed Virgin.

It remaineth only that we consider how the same work of the conception of Christ is assigned unto the Holy Ghost and to the blessed Virgin; for of her it is said expressly in prophecy, הָעַלְמָה הָרָה‎, “A virgin shall conceive” (Isa. 7:14)—the same word that is used to express the conception of any other woman (Gen. 4:1). Hence she is termed by the ancients Θεοτόκος and Dei Genetrix; which last, at least, I wish had been forborne. Compare it with the Scripture, and there will appear an unwarrantable καινοφωνία [innovation, novelty] in it. So Luke 1:31. The words of the angel to her are, Συλλήψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ, καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν—“Thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son;” where her conception of him is distinguished from her bringing of him forth. And yet in the ancient creed commonly called the Apostles’, and generally received by all Christians as a summary of religion, it is said he was “conceived by the Holy Ghost,” and only “born of the Virgin Mary.

Answer. The same work is assigned to both as causes of a different kind—unto the Holy Spirit as the active, efficient cause, who by his almighty power produced the effect. And the disputes managed by some of the ancients about “de Spiritu Sancto” and “ex Spiritu Sancto” were altogether needless; for it is his creating efficiency that is intended. And his conceiving is ascribed unto the holy Virgin as the passive, material cause; for his body was formed of her substance, as was before declared.

Reasons of the espousal of the blessed Virgin to Joseph before the conception of Christ.

And this conception of Christ was after her solemn espousals unto Joseph, and that for sundry reasons; for, 1. Under the covering of her marriage to him she was to receive a protection of her spotless innocency. And besides, 2. God provided one that should take care of her and her child in his infancy. And, 3. Hereby, also, was our blessed Saviour freed from the imputation of an illegitimate birth, until by his own miraculous operations he should give testimony unto his miraculous conception; concerning which before his mother could not have been believed. 4. That he might have one on whose account his genealogy might be recorded, to manifest the accomplishment of the promise unto Abraham and David; for the line of a genealogy was not legally continued by the mother only. Hence Matthew gives us his genealogy by Joseph, to whom his mother was legally espoused. And although Luke gives us the true, natural line of his descent, by the progenitors of the blessed Virgin, yet he nameth her not; only mentioning her espousals, he begins with Heli, who was her father (Luke 3:23). And this is the first thing ascribed peculiarly to the Holy Spirit with respect unto the head of the church, Christ Jesus.

The actual purity and holiness of the soul and body of Christ from his miraculous conception.

From this miraculous creation of the body of Christ, by the immediate power of the Holy Ghost, did it become a meet habitation for his holy soul, every way ready and complying with all actings of grace and virtue. We have not only the depravation of our natures in general, but the obliquity of our particular constitutions, to conflict withal. Hence it is that one is disposed to passion, wrath, and anger; another, to vanity and lightness; a third, to sensuality and fleshly pleasures; and so others to sloth and idleness. And although this disposition, so far as it is the result of our especial constitutions and complexion, is not sin in itself, yet it dwells at the next door unto it, and, as it is excited by the moral pravity of our natures, a continual occasion of it. But the body of Christ being formed pure and exact by the Holy Ghost, there was no disposition or tendency in his constitution to the least deviation from perfect holiness in any kind. The exquisite harmony of his natural temperature made love, meekness, gentleness, patience, benignity, and goodness, natural and cognate unto him, as having an incapacity of such motions as should be subservient unto or compliant with any thing different from them.

Hence, secondly, also, although he took on him those infirmities which belong unto our human nature as such, and are inseparable from it until it be glorified, yet he took none of our particular infirmities which cleave unto our persons, occasioned either by the vice of our constitutions or irregularity in the use of our bodies. Those natural passions of our minds which are capable of being the means of affliction and trouble, as grief, sorrow, and the like, he took upon him; as also those infirmities of nature which are troublesome to the body, as hunger, thirst, weariness, and pain—yea, the purity of his holy constitution made him more highly sensible of these things than any of the children of men—but as to our bodily diseases and distempers, which personally adhere unto us, upon the disorder and vice of our constitutions, he was absolutely free from them.


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