Book Review – The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit

Book Review

Buchanan, James. The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2006. First published 1843.

When’s the last time you read a book that confronted you with your own depravity but also overwhelmed you with the grace and glory of God? When you pray for God’s help, are you merely asking Him to give you a little boost, or are you admitting your need for miraculous change in the core of your being? Perhaps you are familiar with Buchanan’s classic treatise on the doctrine of justification. His book on the Holy Spirit is likewise very much in the wheelhouse of Reformed concerns because to study the work of the Holy Spirit is to study the sovereignty of God. Divided into three sections, the book explores how the Holy Spirit converts sinners, what we learn from the conversion narratives in Acts, and what the Spirit does in our life post-conversion. Buchanan’s wisdom jumps off the page, as when he critiques those who would dismiss Jesus’ claim that we must be born again: “With them everything is figurative: we have a figurative fall, a figurative curse, a figurative atonement, a figurative Saviour, a figurative regeneration, a figurative heaven, a figurative hell, in fact, a figurative Gospel. But … figurative language has a meaning; it is employed on purpose to enhance the meaning of plainer words.”

When it comes to understanding Pentecost, Buchanan suspects that we are more interested in the language miracle than we are in the conversion miracle. If the Holy Spirit does not sovereignly apply salvation to your heart, Christ’s work would be this beautiful yet impotent item of no practical value to you. Left to themselves, the people sitting in our churches are not going to wake up tomorrow with a hunger for righteousness; God the Holy Spirit is going to have to step in and give life to what has been dysfunctional and dead. You will likely see your own failures here in print: the unphased person “will dwell on the sins of others, especially if they have provoked its resentment by a sense of wrong done to itself; but on its own sins it flies off to some other and more inviting subject.” Buchanan compares quack medicine – masking the symptoms while ignoring the root cause – to false theology. If a sensitive reader begins to despair of her own hard heart, she should take it as a wonderful sign that God is at work; indifference with zero desire to repent would be the true sign of deadness. There are no degrees of conversion: you are either alive to God or spiritually dead. But while the Holy Spirit changes every single aspect of your life, He doesn’t make every part immediately perfect. Sin remains, but “it no longer reigns; it is there, not now as a tyrant, but as a traitor.” One sign of conversion is a new love for God, for fellow Christians, and “towards all men as God’s offspring.” Buchanan would be distressed by contemporary conservative churchgoers who think it OK to hate non-Christians.

Some biblical converts, such as the Philippian jailor and Saul of Tarsus, were converted from violence. Others, such as the Ethiopian eunuch, were privileged and respectable, but needed the same work of the Holy Spirit. Lydia was successful and religiously devout, but “her heart was closed, until it was opened by the Lord.” Readers are urged to unite in prayer, expecting “great results from the faithful preaching of the gospel.” While Buchanan anticipates our time when he argues back in the 1840s against a Marxist reading of the early church having all things in common, he encourages his readers “to sacrifice their wealth for the support and comfort of their poorer brethren.” The book is filled with quotable one-liners: “Man’s method of sanctification is by the law, God’s method of sanctification is by the gospel.” You will be consistently encouraged towards an extrospective faith that looks externally to Christ not internally at yourself.