Understanding the Holy Spirit

Flame, light, Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is a being who unfortunately elicits a great deal of controversy in the Christian community. Part of this almost certainly flows from the Spiritual and emotional connection Christians have with the Spirit. We are after all, indwelt by the Spirit of God, the Spirit is our helper and comforter. As such, our understanding of who the Spirit is and how the Spirit works is extremely important for us so when we encounter fellow Christians with different beliefs about the nature and workings of the Holy Spirit emotions can run high and the ground can be fertile for heated disagreement.

There is no doubt that the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit is of immense importance for the Church and for each individual Christ follower. The Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and we ought to strive to grow in knowledge, understanding, and relationship with the fullness of God revealed in Scripture, this certainly includes striving for growth in our knowledge of and relationship with the Holy Spirit.

The importance of this topic does not however, give us the right to be uncharitable to our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we may disagree. Some aspects of this doctrine are essential to the Christian faith, in others there is freedom to disagree but in all these things we are called to grace, peace, love, and charity. It is impossible in this article to address every aspect of the person and work of the Holy Spirit; likewise, it is impossible to answer every question raised about particular aspects of this doctrine. Instead we will endeavor to establish some basic and essential Biblical truths that can serve as a guide for ongoing discussion. Once these essential truths have been laid out, we will present a few principles derived from these essential truths that can serve as a grid through which you can examine the particular controversial aspects of understanding the work of the Spirit in the Church today.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit has at times been described as the “shy member of the Trinity.” This is likely because scripture’s focus on the Spirit is generally found in the context of the work of the Spirit which, as we shall see momentarily, is Christ-centered in its orientation. A few statements about the identity of the Spirit can and should be made nonetheless.

1.     The Spirit is God

The Holy Spirit is one of three persons of the Trinity and as such, the Spirit is God. The nature and character of the Spirit then, are of the same essence as the Father and the Son. This means that any attribute of God must necessarily be applied to the Spirit. The Spirit then is eternal, unchanging, all-knowing, perfect in righteousness and holiness, and of one mind and will with the Father and the Son.

2.     The Spirit is Relational

The Holy Spirit is not an abstract or obscure being but is personal and therefore relational. The Spirit of God is in some sense the person of the Trinity with whom we Christians have the most intimate relationship. The Spirit indwells us, guides us, comforts us, encourages, and guides us through all of life.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

In examining the teaching of Scripture on the role of the Holy Spirit, two activities consistently rise to the surface and demonstrate themselves to be the foundation of the Spirit’s work in the age of Christ. 1. The Exaltation of Christ, and 2. The Application of the Work of Christ. Every activity of the Holy Spirit referenced in Scripture fits within one of these categories. We will consider each of these broad categories in turn (as well as many of the other activities of the Spirit that fall under these categories) and examine the Biblical and theological warrant for this framework for understanding the role of the Holy Spirit.

1.     The Exaltation of Christ

The overwhelming testimony of the New Testament is that the Spirit comes to make Christ and his work known and to lead people to faith in Christ. Among the most thorough discussions of the coming of the Spirit is Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-17. The culmination of Jesus teaching and his parting words to his disciples are saturated with the theology of the Spirit. Consider some of Jesus words concerning the coming of the Spirit and the nature of the Spirit’s mission, but don’t just look at these references, examine them in the full context of this section of John’s gospel.

 Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in John 14:26 as “the one whom the Father will send in my name.”[1] In 15:26 he says that “He will bear witness about me.” In 16:7 Jesus says that He will send the Holy Spirit. In verses 8-9 he says that the Spirit will convict the world “because they do not believe in me.” Jesus concludes this section of teaching on the sending of the Spirit by saying “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Lest you think it is only in John’s gospel that teaches the centrality of Christ in the work of the Spirit, in 1 Corinthians 12:3 Paul writes, “no one speaking in the Spirit of God can say ‘Jesus is accursed’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” And in Acts 1:8, Jesus says concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be MY witnesses.”

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis but it seems undeniable that at the center of the Holy Spirit’s work is the exaltation of Christ. The Spirit has come that Christ might be known! In the Spirit’s work of revelation in the inspiration of Scripture the person and work of Christ is being put on display. In the indwelling of believers, the person and work of Christ is what the Spirit is continually drawing us toward. In the gifts of the Spirit Jesus is the focus, gifts are given that Christ might be known and that His gospel might be believed.

2.     The Application of the Work of Christ

This second aspect of the role of the Holy Spirit is not unrelated to the first. The Spirit comes not only to make the work of Christ known but to make the benefits of Christ’s work a reality in the lives of His people. This reality is abundantly clear in the letters of Paul. Of particular significance is Romans 8 in which Paul’s letter shifts from a thorough discussion of the fallen state of man to an exposition of the application of the work of Christ. In his discussion of the application of redemption Paul can scarcely finish a sentence without mentioning the Holy Spirit.

In v. 4 he tells us that the requirement of the law is fulfilled in those who walk “by the Spirit.” In v. 9 he refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ.” And in v. 13 he describes our sanctification in terms of putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit.”

The Spirit is the author of faith in Christ, the Spirit is the sustainer of faith in Christ, the Spirit is the agent of our union with Christ, the Spirit is the one that is transforming us into the image of Christ, the Spirit is the source of our righteous deeds in Christ, the Spirit is our advocate on Christ’s behalf, and the Spirit is the voice that reminds us again and again that we are Christ’s and he is ours.

Consider the words of John Calvin, the great reformed theologian who is in many ways the father of Presbyterianism and who has often been called ‘the theologian of the Spirit’

“The whole comes to this that the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually binds us to himself…Hence the Spirit is called the Spirit of sanctification, because he quickens and cherishes us, not merely by the general energy which is seen in the human race, as well as other animals, but because he is the seed and root of heavenly life in us…Therefore, as we have said that salvation is perfected in the person of Christ, so, in order to make us partakers of it, he baptizes us “with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” (Luke 3:16), enlightening us into the faith of his Gospel, and so regenerating us to be new creatures. Thus cleansed from all pollution, he dedicates us as holy temples to the Lord”[2]

Or the words of Martin Luther from his Small Catechism:

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”[3]

But this is not merely a reformed understanding of the primary work of the Spirit. The early Church Father Basil of Caesarea writes of the Spirit, “The source of sanctification, a light perceptible to the mind, he supplies through himself illumination to every force of reason searching for the truth.”[4] Methodist theologian Albert C. Outler writes, “For Historical Christianity, the plainest meaning of the Holy Spirit’s ‘office’ is: God at work in the living present revealing to us the meaning of the Christian past, centered as it is in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.”[5]

It is clear that Jesus Christ is at the center of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in countless ways offering comfort, assurance, encouragement, guidance, strength, and gifts to the people of God but nowhere in Scripture are these activities divorced from the Spirit’s Christ-centered mission.

Principles for Understanding the Present Work of the Holy Spirit

This survey of the person and work of the Holy Spirit provides us with some essential principles which must guide us as we navigate the difficult and controversial topic of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit.

1.     The Nature of God

The Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Trinity, shares in all the attributes of God. In Question 4, the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is God?” and answers, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”[6] It is essential that we recognize that God does not change, therefore the Holy Spirit does not change, and that God’s nature is characterized (at least in part) by truth so the nature of the Holy Spirit ought likewise to be characterized by truth.

In light of this, we can be certain that any activity of the Holy Spirit will be entirely consistent with the character of God and will be entirely consistent with the revelation of God in His Word. Furthermore, we can be certain that any activity of the Holy Spirit will be entirely true in every sense of the word.

2.     The Christ-Centered Spirit

As has been established, the role of the Holy Spirit is deeply Christ-Centered. The Spirit is at work to magnify the glory of Christ and to transform people into the image of Christ. As Martin Luther puts it, “Let us, then, learn to recognize the Holy Spirit—to know that his mission is to present to us the priceless Christ and all his blessings; to reveal them to us through the Gospel and apply them to the heart, making them ours.”[7]

We can therefore conclude that any activity of the Holy Spirit will be consistent with the purpose of the Spirit’s work revealed in Scripture; it will serve to magnify Christ, to make Christ’s gospel known, and/or to apply the benefits of redemption to the people of God.

Going Forward

With these principles and this understanding of the Holy Spirit, we can approach the more difficult aspects of the Spirit’s present ministry in a doctrinally robust and Biblically consistent way. When faced with topics such as the present dispensation of the gifts of tongues and prophecy or with the question of discerning the guidance of the Spirit in life’s decisions we can filter our questions and experiences through this grid. A few practical questions can be helpful when determining whether something is a genuine work of the Spirit or something else. 

  1. Is it consistent with the teaching of Scripture? Coupled with this question, one should ask, how has the Church historically and predominantly interpreted difficult passages related to the work of the Spirit?

  2. Does it further the Spirit’s work of exalting Christ and his work?

  3. Is this work necessary in order to accomplish the Spirit’s mission? Coupled with this question, one should ask, is this working or experience of the Spirit internally or externally focused?

These questions may not provide every answer in every situation but they will carry us a long way toward clarity, consistency, and Biblical submission. They will also work to protect us from common errors in understanding the person and work of the Holy Spirit. As we go forward, let us be patient, gracious, and loving toward one another, and let us strive to be faithful to the Spirit’s revelation of himself in Scripture. Let us do these things with a spirit of charity, recognizing that even when we disagree, the Spirit is at work to bind us together as one body in Christ.

[1] All Scripture References taken from, The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (Crossway, 2001).

[2] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion,  Book 9 Chapter 1.

[3] Luther, Martin.  Small Catechism, Section 2, Article 3.

[4] Basil of Caesarea, de spiritu sanctu, IX, 22-3; in The Book of Saint Basil the Great on the Holy Spirit.

[5] Outler, Albert. The Christian Tradition and the Unity We Seek, (Oxford University Press, 1957), P.54.

[6] Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 4.

[7] Luther, Martin. Sermon – The Gift of the Holy Spirit: Acts 2:1-13, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/luther_martin/misc/012_holy-spirit.cfm

Ethan Tonne