Christ's Public Defender

Out of all the names given to the Holy Spirit as he is revealed in Holy Scripture, few are more profound or precious than the ‘Paraclete’ (Jn 14.16). This designation has at one and the same time intrigued, but also excited Christians everywhere as they try to peer into the depths not only of what this means regarding the Spirit’s identity, but also how it is manifested through his ministry.

Different versions of the Bible offer various translations in an effort to capture the essence of what it means. They range from ‘Comforter’ (KJV), to ‘Counsellor’ (RSV, NIV, NLT), to ‘Advocate’ (NEB), to ‘Helper’ (NASB, ESV) and often, when being cited in extra-biblical literature, it is simply transliterated from the original as, ‘Paraclete’ [parakletos: Gk).

Some theologians, such as Sinclair Ferguson, unpack the concept bound up with this word in light of its original usage. Namely, that in the ancient Near East, when someone was called to stand before a court of law to defend themselves, they were entitled to have someone stand with them and act in their behalf. If such a person could afford formal legal representation, they could employ a suitably qualified professional; but if this was beyond their means, they could simply bring their ‘best friend’. So, as Dr Ferguson points out in relation to the way Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit to his disciples in the Upper Room – notably by describing him as ‘another Counsellor’ – he was reassuring his followers of two things. The first, that just as he, Jesus, had been the disciples’ best friend over the past three years, but was now about to depart, so the Holy Spirit would fulfil that role for them after Jesus’ return to glory. But the second implication bound up with Jesus’ choice of words at this point was the fact that since the Holy Spirit had in a profound sense been Jesus’ ‘Best Friend’ from the moment of his conception in the Virgin’s womb, and would be right though to his exaltation, our Lord was providing his faithful followers with the best friend imaginable.

Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, sheds further light on the significance of the Spirit’s being ‘Paraclete’ by rendering it, ‘Christ’s public defender’.[1] He provides the backdrop to this designation by saying, ‘The whole world is hostile to Christ; no one stands by him’.[2] Made all the more graphic, given the imminence of Gethsemane and the appearances Jesus would make before the Jews, Pilate and Herod – alone in the face of the hostile mob bent on settling for nothing less than his execution.

Interestingly, Bavinck opts for this rendition in the chapter ‘Faith and its Ground’ in relation to God’s word in Scripture’s being the ground of faith. In other words, the fact that ‘God has said it’ is the strongest warrant for believing that faith in Christ will never be futile.

He points primarily to the way God’s revelation in the Bible in its totality is the Spirit’s public and objective testimony to Jesus’ being God’s promised Christ. ‘Scripture is the witness, the defender’s public address on behalf of Christ, which he voices and maintains throughout all the ages’.[3]

Bavinck goes on to show how the same Holy Spirit who has provided the objective witness to Christ in God’s special revelation in the Bible, uses this once-for-all revelation to bear witness subjectively in the hearts of believers. Christ as the heart of God’s saving revelation in the gospel is not merely presented as the One we are called to trust for salvation; he is confirmed to us as the One who alone is able to save on the authority of God’s own word.

There are several layers of significance in this great truth. On the one hand it reminds us of the role of Scripture in the Spirit’s work of giving assurance of faith and salvation to believers. Too often, the idea of the Spirit’s bearing witness with our spirit as Christians (Ro 8.16), has been seen as something mystical. But that is to miss the point of what lies at the heart of witness bearing. By definition this can never be reduced to subjective feeling. A judge and jury are not interested in how a person may feel about an incident about which they are called to testify. They want to hear objective facts of what was seen and heard. So too with the Spirit’s testimony in the hearts of those who have put their trust in Christ for salvation. His concern is not to massage their feelings, but to point them to what God has done through Christ and promised in the gospel to make salvation a reality. And he bears this testimony by bringing God’s children back to God’s holy word.

The other major facet to the witness borne by the Spirit in his ministry to the people of God is apologetic. That it, just as he acted as Christ’s public defender when Christ literally stood alone in the succession of trials he faced, so he acts in the same way for Christians everywhere who so often feel beleaguered and alone in the face of an anti-God and anti-Christian world. The Christian message has never been drowned out by the decibels of its opponents’ efforts to shout it down. Because the louder they shout, the clearer God’s voice is heard and the calm credibility of his message is plain for all to see.

This ties in with the Holy Spirit’s wider ministry in the world that Jesus explains in the Upper Room.

When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned (Jn 16.8-11)

Although it is right to see this in relation to the regenerating, convicting and converting work of the Spirit in salvation, there is also a non-salvific aspect to this work in all humanity. Paul’s assertion that the reason God’s wrath is continually being revealed in this present age is because those against whom it is revealed wilfully and persistently ‘suppress the truth in unrighteousness’ (Ro 1.18). They cannot deny the truth that stares them in the face – through God’s general revelation as much as through his special revelation in Scripture – but they refuse to bow to its veracity. And the Holy Spirit, acting as Christ’s public defender, will prosecute the case for Christ against them all the way to the Final Judgement.

There are many times when Christians throughout history have felt the pain of being wrongfully accused by a hostile world. More than that, they have experienced the awful sense of isolation of belonging to a small, despised and often persecuted minority. And their faith may waver. But the same Spirit who, as both Best Friend and Public Defender, stood by Jesus not only to the end, but also through it to his final vindication will stand by us as well. And just as he upheld our Lord through the ministry of the word in those darkest hours, so with the same word he will minister God’s comfort and assurance to his children as well.

[1]  Bavinck, H., Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1 (Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, MI) 2003 p. 588

[2]  Idem

[3]  Idem


Mark Johnston


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