Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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The Firstfruits of the Spirit

Rev. Cornelius Hanko (29 June, 1955)


And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body (Rom. 8:23).

The apostle is speaking of a groaning, a long, heavy sigh that he hears, not once, but repeatedly, even incessantly. In fact, in verses 22 to 27 he speaks of a threefold groaning. He tells us, first of all, that the whole creation groans, even as one in birth pangs. Then he adds in the words of our text that we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan within ourselves. And besides that, he also mentions the unutterable groaning of the Holy Spirit Himself within us, praying for us when we do not know what to pray. He does this to show us the excellency, but also the certainty of our salvation.

Especially the groaning of the creature, mentioned in the verses preceding our text, is closely related to the thought expressed here. The one reason for this groaning, the apostle tells us, is that the creature is subject to vanity, not of its own choice, but because God subjected it under the curse. We are reminded of the observation of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." The sun arises and sets, and returns to where it started. The wind veers to the south and then to the north, and keeps shifting back and forth. The river runs to the sea, but the sea is never full. All things are full of labour, so much so that words cannot express it.

Why all this ceaseless groaning? we ask. The answer is that it groans in hope. God has appointed better things, even for the creatures. For the creature itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. God makes all things new. Therefore the creature waits with uplifted head.

Now he adds in the words of our text, "And not only they, but ourselves also." This refers to believers, for he adds, "but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit." This is not only the 120 or the early church. This includes all believers. We also groan in this body of sin and death. But the cause of our groaning lies in the fact that we have the firstfruits of the Spirit. The Spirit causes us to groan. And the Spirit also causes us to groan in longing, awaiting the adoption to sons, the redemption of our bodies. We are saved unto hope, as he adds in verse 24. Therefore the groaning within us is assurance, the subjective certainty of our salvation. In that confidence we can wait with patience.

The Firstfruits of the Spirit
I. What It Is
II. Its Resultant Groaning
III. Its Blessed Certainty


I. What It Is

There can be no doubt but that the Spirit that is meant here is the Holy Spirit, who was poured out on Pentecost. Sometimes the expression "firstfruits of the Spirit" is taken to mean the gifts of the Holy Spirit rather than the Spirit Himself. But that can hardly be the case here, especially not, because the Holy Spirit Himself is so very much in the foreground in this chapter. This can well be spoken of as a chapter concerning the Holy Spirit. As often as He is mentioned, He is personally referred to and not merely His gifts.

Now concerning this Holy Spirit there are a few things that we must remind ourselves of briefly. First of all, that He is a person, not merely a power. Somehow we often seem to have difficulty with that. We readily realise that the Father is a person, and also that the Son is a person. But when we speak of the Spirit we so readily regard Him as some power, a mysterious power maybe, a power of God possibly, but not a person. We even are inclined to refer to Him as "it" rather than "He." And yet He is very really a person.

Moreover, He is God. He is co-equal with the Father and the Son. He possesses the same divine attributes, lives the same life, and is in every sense God. He is distinguished from the Father and the Son in the fact that He is the Spirit. He is breathed forth from the Father upon the Son and from the Son upon the Father. In Him Father and Son meet in the intimate fellowship of life, for it is the Spirit who brings Father and Son together in covenant friendship.

In this chapter and also in this text, the Third Person of the Trinity is referred to particularly as the Spirit of Christ. Although Christ possessed the Spirit all His life, He receives the Spirit as exalted Lord when He is placed at the right hand of throne of God. This Spirit of Christ is poured out upon the church on Pentecost. He was also in the church of the old dispensation, but not in the measure in which He dwells in us now. Then He was there as the Spirit of promise of better things to come. Now He bestows on us all the blessings, which God has given to Christ as the head of His church.

It is actually only through these gifts that we know of the presence of the Spirit in the church and in our hearts. The Spirit never speaks of Himself. He could, but that is not His task. His task is to take the blessings of Christ and bestow them on the church, that the church may be glorified, and that Christ may be glorified in the church, and all things may serve to the glory of the Father. Thus Christ teaches us in John 16:13-14, "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 shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you."

This Spirit is referred to in our text as firstfruits. This was a well-known figure to the church of the old dispensation especially as it was attached to the Passover and Pentecost feasts. On the Passover, the first sheaf of the ripening barley harvest was cut and presented as a wave offering before the Lord. Undoubtedly Paul had this in mind in I Corinthians 15:20 where he spoke of the risen Christ as the firstfruits of those who slept. On Pentecost the harvest had been gathered in and now Israel took two loaves of bread from the new harvest and waved them before the Lord. These loaves were the firstfruits of the new harvest. And it is undoubtedly this that Paul has in mind in our text. Christ is risen, gone to heaven and now on the harvest feast presented us with the firstfruits of His accomplished work.

Thus the firstfruits of the Spirit means that we have the first benefit of the exalted Christ. That first benefit is the gift of the Holy Spirit as He now dwells in the church. But that first benefit is also an earnest of the full harvest, for God "hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit" (II Cor. 5:5). The Holy Spirit of promise is "the earnest of our inheritance" (Eph. 1:14).


II. Its Resultant Groaning

As the result of these firstfruits, we groan within ourselves. The life of the believer is a life of groaning. On the one hand, the believer discovers that he has these firstfruits of the Spirit in a weak, sinful, mortal body. As far as this present body is concerned, we are of the earth earthy. Paul speaks of that in II Corinthians 5, where he also discusses the groaning of the believer in connection with the earnest of the Spirit. There he adds, "For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life" (II Cor. 5:2-4).

We could also express it this way: the new life of the Spirit is a stranger in this earthly body. It is like a foreigner in a strange land. It experiences the pangs of homesickness, for to be with Christ is certainly for better, for it is spiritual and heavenly. That is not all. This body is subject to corruption. Even at best, supposing we never experience a sick day in our lives, the fact still remains that we have a mortal body. We actually are always dying. But the life that is from above is incorruptible. It is the life of our risen Lord, which longs for the place of its final perfection. We must die to get to heaven, yet we dread death.

Add to that the fact that this body is subject to all forms of imperfection, weakness, pain and suffering. Many are the afflictions of the righteous. The Lord has planned our particular way with our particular trials for each one of us. We know that His grace is always sufficient also. But the fact remains that in the midst of these sufferings we grow.

But even so not enough is said. For there is also the fact that sin wars in our members. The new life of Christ rules, but the old man of sin is powerful within us, and seems to increase in power as time goes on. We have always the complaint of Romans 7: What I will, I do not do; what I do not will, I do. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death.

And consider finally, persecution for Christ’s sake, the sufferings we bear for the sake of His cause and kingdom, and the picture is quite complete.

Who does not sigh, "When all this weary night is past, and I awake with Thee, to view the glory that abides, then, then, I shall be satisfied?"

But there is also a positive side to this groaning. Just because it arises from the Spirit within us, it is not a groaning of despair but of hope and expectation. We await, the apostle adds, the adoption to sons. Not as if we do not possess that adoption to sons already. In a sense, our adoption goes back to eternity, in the counsel of God where our adoption papers were made out.

We can also refer to the cross of Christ, where Christ laid the seal of His own blood on those adoption papers. He laid down His life for His sheep. He died to redeem us unto God and merited for us the rights of sons and heirs of salvation. We have the Spirit of adoption within us, who testifies with our spirit that we are sons. He not only assures us that we are, but He also makes us sons.

But the text refers to our final adoption in the day of Christ’s coming. In that great day we shall be declared righteous in Christ, as a final and eternal verdict. That righteousness includes the final adoption, the right to the inheritance, the appointment of our own special place before the throne.

The apostle further amplifies this statement by adding "the redemption of our body." Our bodies will share in that glory that awaits us. These earthly, mortal, corruptible bodies will be delivered from all corruption. They will be changed in a moment. The dead will be raised and those living will be changed. Corruption will put on incorruption, mortality will put on immortality and death will be swallowed up in victory.

But the text does not merely speak of deliverance, but of redemption. The redemption price will be paid for our bodies, just as a price must be paid to free a slave. Even our bodies have no right to life and salvation. They also are under the curse. But even as Christ paid the price to ransom our souls from death, so He also paid the price for our bodies. And as surely as we now have the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts, assuring us of the redemption of our souls, so surely also our bodies will be redeemed, delivered from corruption and made conformable to the glorious body of Christ. Then renewed in soul and body, we shall be with the Lord in infinite perfection, to praise our God for His wondrous gift.


III. Its Blessed Certainty

This is sure. The purpose of this passage is to assure us of the excellency, but especially of the certainty, of that salvation. Objectively this salvation is sure, because we have the firstfruits of the Spirit which are the earnest of the entire harvest.

We know that this Spirit is not given promiscuously to all. He is not even promised to all. He is given only to those who are in Christ. And those who are in Christ are the elect. So that those who have the Spirit may be sure that they are engraven in the palms of God’s hands eternally. Moreover, the Holy Spirit never leaves us. His coming does not depend on us, but neither does His abiding with us depend on us. No man ever grasps us out of Father’s hand. And finally, the Holy Spirit works all our salvation. He begins, He carries through and He also finishes. He regenerates, He preserves, He glorifies, He renews our bodies. He will surely finish the work.

But subjectively, we also possess this certainty. It is not thus, that all these things are certain objectively, but before our consciousness we can never be quite sure. Paul’s purpose is to teach the very opposite. We have the Spirit. His work is evident within us. It is particularly evident in our groaning, for it is the groaning of hope. It is a hope that putteth not ashamed, because the love of God is spread abroad in our hearts.

And thus we wait. We are saved unto that hope. We live by faith and not by sight. We expect our salvation. This means that to the principle of new life, we live as strangers and pilgrims. We reach out in longing, and sometimes this longing is very strong. This causes us to persevere, and makes us willing to suffer with Christ now that we may be glorified with Him eternally. We persevere in hope. What a blessed gift and indispensable gift of the Spirit. Thanks be to our God! Amen.

The life of Rev. Cornelius Hanko, the author of these devotional sermons on Romans 8, is covered in his memoirs, Less Than the Least.