The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, by Gary Deddo
Seeking to understand and know the Holy Spirit is a wonderful, rewarding endeavor that ties in with every aspect of the Christian faith and life. But if ever there was a topic we are likely never to get to the bottom of, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit would qualify. The very name of this Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, already tells us that we’re in pretty deep. But we do have a good amount of insight given us in Scripture that can inform our understanding and help us stay away from pure speculation. God has seen fit to reveal himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and has provided and preserved teaching about the Holy Spirit. Because he wants us to know, trust and worship him, we by faith can dare to pursue understanding on that basis. But we proceed only by God’s grace.
In this essay we will touch on a few key points that address questions that are, first, foundational to our faith in the Holy Spirit and are, second, of more immediate importance given current discussions and debates. Hopefully, this essay will also help keep further explorations and other discussions in perspective. We will not be able to offer anything near a comprehensive view, so regard this as more of a beginning than an ending.
Jesus on the nature and work of the Spirit
I’d like to start by recalling the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus, trying to explain to Nicodemus something foundational regarding the nature and work of the Spirit, says this: “Truly, I say to you, unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus continues, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, you must be born anew [from above]. The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).
Nicodemus wants to understand how God works. Jesus tells him that how God works with us is by the Holy Spirit. But Nicodemus is not exactly satisfied with that answer. He wants to know, if he can, how then the Spirit works. Jesus’ answer to that how question amounts to him saying: How the Spirit works is like trying to talk about how the wind works. We see the effects, but we know very little about it, not even where it was a few moments ago, or where it will end up going a few moments later. The Spirit is not predictable or controllable by us. We don’t and can’t have an answer as to how the Spirit works, the mechanics of it. Apparently the how question is the wrong one to ask. And, given Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus, we can assume that it’s not necessary for us to know either, even to receive the benefits of the working of the Spirit.
Jesus’ “no-explanation” answer does makes sense. How can we possibly put in words, concepts and ideas something about the Spirit given that it is like the wind? You can’t actually predict its movement or say much about it except that “it blows where it wills.” The Spirit has a mind of his own! I think that’s part of our experience. The wind of the Spirit blows where it wills. We did not necessarily see it coming and don’t necessarily see exactly where it’s going to go. So it is with the Spirit.
So why not just stop right there? Well, in some cases I think that might be the right thing to do. There is a lot of speculation taking place, especially about how the Spirit works. However, we are given other words and descriptions in biblical revelation that refer to the Holy Spirit. But not surprisingly, they don’t tell us how the Spirit works nor especially how to bring the Spirit under our control or how we can influence or predict the working of the Spirit. Rather, most of what we are given relates to the nature and purpose and character of the Spirit, not the mechanics of his working. All sorts of problems can be avoided if we simply pay attention to what biblical revelation actually tells us and resist using what we discover in ways that actually disregard Jesus’ own teaching on the limits of our knowledge of the Holy Spirit’s wind-like working.
Sometimes, people think the Holy Spirit gets less attention than deserved — the short end of the stick, as we say, or short-shrift. The complaint that the Spirit is under-represented can be heard both at the levels of theological discussion as well as at the daily and practical level of church life. That’s a perfectly good concern to raise. We should be aware and take to heart all we are told regarding the Spirit. Neglecting any part of biblical witness is not a good idea. Faith seeks whatever understanding of the Spirit we are given, as in any other part of the Christian faith. But we can ask the counter question as well: Is it true that in practice and preaching we don’t properly emphasize the Holy Spirit? If so, in what ways do we fail to give the Spirit sufficient attention? And, what measure or criteria can we use to evaluate whether or not we have under (or over) emphasized the Holy Spirit?
Whether or not we give full attention is best gauged by the norm of biblical teaching. We can look to Scripture to weigh its own emphasis on the Spirit relative to other matters. We can also consider the full range of insights it actually presents us. Then we can compare our own current emphasis and range of teaching to the pattern and proportion found there. While we will not be able to conclude with something like a numerical measurement, I think there will be many indicators in biblical teaching that can greatly assist us in our process of discernment. And of course, we can also borrow understanding on this matter from teachers of the church down through the ages, including our present time as their teaching seems in alignment with biblical revelation considered as a whole.
Now, if there is some kind of deficit, then we’ll also need to explore how best to correct for that lack. We’ll need to discern this issue as well, because there are various ways to correct for it. But some correctives aren’t as useful or faithful as others. And some promoted in recent times have seemed not only speculative but harmful to the health of the Body of Christ. But again, biblical teaching can help us in discerning how best to make any kind of corrective called for.
The basics of revelation concerning the Spirit
Recall that any theology built on biblical revelation must seek first and foremost to answer the question of who the God of the Bible is, for that is its central concern and controlling topic. Biblical revelation is not geared nearly as much to answer the questions of how or why, where or when. So our understanding must also begin by seeking to know first who the Holy Spirit is.
Let’s begin with a review of the most basic truths we have been given about the Holy Spirit. Most fundamentally we are told about the Spirit’s relationship with the Father and the Son. And those relationships identify who the Spirit of God is. Who is the Spirit? The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. The Spirit is one with the Father and one with the Son. Jesus is conceived by the Spirit, he has the Spirit for us ,and he ministers in and by the Spirit even in his atoning work on the Cross. Jesus and the Father send the Spirit to us. The Spirit takes us to the Father through the Son. By the Spirit we are united to Christ so that we share in his life, life in fellowship and communion with the Father. And we share, by the Spirit, in Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the church and in the world.
Notice that what Jesus teaches Nicodemus (and us) fits the overall pattern of revelation about the Spirit throughout Scripture. Nicodemus wanted to know how one can be “born again” or “born from above.” But Jesus’ response indicates that such how questions can’t really be answered in connection with the Spirit! Nicodemus is not told how the Spirit blows to bring us new life. Rather, Jesus’ answer to his how question identifies who is behind the how. But Jesus does describe in a comprehensive way the effect of the working of the Spirit, namely, bringing us a new kind of life.
The Gospel of John goes on to shed even more light on the relationship of the Spirit to Jesus and to the Father which includes the inter-relationship of their missions and ministries. These relationships are especially prominent in chapters 13-17. The central concern throughout this Gospel remains their conjoint relationships. They are inseparable, always being together and always working together.
One in being, united in act
Borrowing now from the more developed doctrine of the Trinity, we can say that the three Divine Persons of the Trinity are “one in being.” This technical phrase helps us to remember there are not three Gods, but only one. So, the Spirit isn’t a separate God that has his own independent mind, his own action, his own plan, and his own purpose. The Spirit is joined in one being and so joined in one mind, action, plan, and purpose with the Father and the Son. Even the name, Holy Spirit, indicates to us the unity of the Spirit with Father and Son, since only God has the name Holy.
The point here is not to let our minds think about the Holy Spirit as an independent operator. That’s one of the biggest mistakes that we can make. Always remember, whatever the Spirit does, wherever the Spirit is at work, that Spirit is the Spirit of the Father, and of the Son, because they are one in being. They do not act separately, apart from one another. They act out of one shared mind, heart, purpose in unity with each other. St. Augustine famously summarized this in the fourth century: “All the works of God are inseparable.”
A number of special phrases have been used down through the ages to convey the oneness or unity of the divine Persons besides saying that they are “one in being.” They are said to “co-exist.” They “co-inhere” in one another. They “in-exist” one another, or they “mutually in-dwell” one another. They “co-envelop” one another, or “mutually interpenetrate” each other. Their oneness of being has been expressed by saying that the whole God is present in each of the Divine Persons. The whole God is present in the Father. The whole God is present in the Son. The whole God is present in the Spirit. That’s all to say: they’re one in being even though they’re distinguishable, we say, in person. An early creed sums it up this way: the Triune God is a Unity in Trinity and a Trinity in Unity.
Sharing all the divine attributes
This means that the Holy Spirit is fully and completely divine and has from all eternity all the attributes that the Father and the Son have. The Spirit is not subordinate or less than the others. All that you can say of the Father, such as being omniscient, holy, omnipotent, eternal, and even being a Creator, can all be said of the Spirit (and can all be said of the Son). Dividing up among the Persons the attributes of God and the actions of God towards creation is ruled out because they are one in being.
That’s a hard rule for us to follow because we have developed poor habits of thinking and speaking in the church, and likely were never taught otherwise. We also like to divide things up and align certain attributes or actions with the Father and others with the Son or the Spirit. A typical way we do this is by saying the Father creates, the Son redeems and the Spirit perfects or sanctifies. We might think the Father is just and holy in comparison to the Son who is merciful and gracious. However, if we take such a division of labor in a strict way, we would be embracing a very inaccurate, even misleading way of speaking about God. The distinct Persons of the Trinity do not have separate jobs or wear different hats or play different roles they accomplish by themselves. God acts as the one being that God is. His being does not fragment in mind, will, purpose or action.
So, to repeat, everything you can say about the eternal nature and character of the Father, you can say about the Son and you can say about the Spirit. They are each all powerful, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, good, merciful, righteous, holy. They are all to be worshiped together because they’re one in being. So we can say of our worship, we worship the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. Or, we pray to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. And we proclaim that the Father has redeemed us through the Son and in the Spirit. The whole God is our Savior.
The unity of the being and so of action, character and attributes of God is one of the most fundamental things to hold on to and to watch out for when we go on to say other things about the Spirit. We want to avoid talking as if the Divine Persons are separate, wear different hats, have divergent purposes, or as if they are operating independently of one another. Simply remembering they’re one in being will prevent a lot of problems down the theological road.
In part 1, we noted that every act of God, whether in creation, redemption or bringing about the perfection of creation itself, is done together as one God. But how then are we to understand those places in Scripture that ascribe certain acts of God to one of the divine Persons? Take, for example, the Incarnation. The Father and the Spirit are never said to be incarnate, as is the Son. Note also that the Spirit seems to descend on Pentecost and indwell the believing church in a way distinct from the Son and the Father. The explanation in these two and similar examples is that all three of the divine Persons are involved together in all the acts of God, but often in different (distinct, unique) ways.
How are the divine Persons distinct?
Scripture leads us to understand that each of the divine Persons contributes to the unified act of God from their own, particular “angle.” We could say that one “takes the lead” in certain actions: the Father in Creation, the Son in atonement, the Spirit in perfecting creation. But we can only say that if we aren't thinking of the three Persons as acting separately, or as being out of phase with the others. The three Persons always act in a conjoint way. Theologians call this the doctrine of appropriation. An act can be appropriated to the Person of the Trinity who takes the lead, as long as the other two are not regarded as having nothing to do with it, but are co-involved, each in their own way.
We should not think that the contribution to an act of God by one of the Persons is what constitutes their being as a distinct Person in the Trinity. For example, it is an error to think that being the Creator is what makes the Father different in Person from the Son, or that being Incarnate is what makes the Son different in Person from the Father. The Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, and the Spirit is the Spirit, whether or not they perform any actions external to their own triune being. The three Persons are distinguished by their internal relationships, not by their external actions. The being of God is not dependent upon God's relationship to that which is external to God.
So, as long as we don’t leave the Son and the Spirit behind, we can say the Father leads in creation. We can also say the Son leads in our redemption. But if we think the Father is absent or has a different view, attitude, purpose or intention for the Cross than does the Son, then we’ve split the Trinity apart, placed them at odds with one another! Even in Jesus’ earthly life, we need to remember that he only does what he sees the Father doing. He only says what the Father is saying. They’re saying things together. They’re doing things together. They’re never separate because they’re one in being.
The work of the Son
It is proper to say the Son takes the lead and that only the Son is incarnate. So, we can affirm that the Son physically suffers on the cross and not the Father or Spirit. Not being incarnate in our humanity, they cannot physically suffer and die. But, if we think the Father is absent or the Spirit has gone on vacation and isn’t around when Jesus is on the Cross, then we’ve strayed way off the theological path. The Spirit and the Father are present with Jesus, each in their own non-incarnate way. So, Jesus says, “Father into your hands, I commend my Spirit.” In the book of Hebrews we read, “how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to worship the living God (Heb. 9:14). They’re all acting together in Christ’s redeeming work. Yes, we can say one leads. But don’t let them fall apart just because one is leading.
The work of the Spirit
We can say that the Spirit perfects. However, we must also say that he perfects human beings with the perfection accomplished by Christ. The Spirit shares with us the holiness and the sanctification of Jesus, himself, in our humanity. He doesn’t give us a spiritualized or divine perfection, a non-bodily, inhuman existence. But rather the Spirit joins us to Christ’s glorified human body, mind and soul. The Spirit makes us to share in Jesus’ self-sanctification. The work of the Spirit is not separate from the work of the Son, but the Spirit does lead in dwelling in us now.
Beware the error of tritheism
Though we can talk about the Spirit leading, we must not think of the Spirit branching off, saying, “Father and Son, you’ve done a good job over there, but now I’ve got to go do something over here that you don’t have anything to do with. It’s my turn to do my own thing.” That’s a mistake. That could only happen if God wasn’t one in being and was three beings—tritheism! We don’t want to go there. We can distinguish between the various contributions the Father, the Son and the Spirit make by the way they take their lead, but we don’t want to separate them or place them in any kind of opposition or in tension with each other. And we don’t want to say that their differing contributions to what they accomplish together are what make them distinct in Person from all eternity.
As so we distinguish but we don’t separate. The divine Persons are one in being and distinct in Person, both in their internal and eternal being and in terms of what they do in creation, redemption, and consummation.
Beware projecting on God
Why do we get tripped up in this? I think there are a number of reasons, but one is that we tend to think of God in ways we think of ourselves. We start with ourselves, then try to get to our understanding of God. Think of how we usually distinguish ourselves from each other. How do I know I’m not you and you’re not me? I note that you have a different body. You’re over there, and I’m over here. You do this, but I do that. You live there, but I live here. You think that’s funny, but I don’t. I want X, but you want Y. We’re different in all these ways, and that’s how we know we are distinct persons.
So we can project this perspective on God, and think that’s how the Father, Son and Spirit are distinguished. The Father is over here, the Spirit’s over there. The Father wants A, and the Son wants B. They each have different jobs to do. We try to distinguished them from each other in the same way we distinguish ourselves. The problem is, God is not a creature like we are. So, you can’t just take the idea of how we distinguish ourselves and apply that reasoning to God. Thinking that way would only work if God was a creature. But he is not.
Names and relations
The essential way we have been given to distinguish between the divine Persons is by means of their different names: the Father, the Son, and he Holy Spirit. These names reveal a difference of their Persons. That is also why we believe there are three, not four or two Persons in the Godhead. The names we are given in Scripture are revelatory of real differences in God. They are not just arbitrary words, concepts, ideas, or conventional labels. So we address God in worship, in prayer, by means of these three names. And in doing so, we follow Jesus’ example and instruction. He uses these names in his relationship to the Father and the Spirit, and directs us to do so as well. So he instructs us: “Pray like this: Our Father in heaven…”
Notice that divine names represent unique relationships. The Father has a different relationship with the Son than the Son has with the Father. And the Spirit has a different relationship to the Father than does the Son. The names identify and reveal to us unique relationships. Following biblical teaching, we can also find distinct designations for the different relationships.
Corresponding to the Father is the relationship of begetting to the Son. Begetting is the special term used to describe more particularly how the Son comes from the Father. The Father begets the Son. Begetting indicates a certain kind of relationship. For instance, in the early church they recognized that begetting is different from making. What is made is of a different kind of thing than the maker. But what is begotten is of the identical kind of being. So we say that the Son is begotten, indicating a unique kind of relationship to the Father. The Son doesn’t beget the Father and the Father isn’t begotten by the Son. They each have a different relationship with each other and that difference of relationship, which is internal and eternal to God, is what makes them personally distinct from one another. The Father begets (is not begotten of the Son). The Son is begotten (does not beget the Father).
The unique names and relationships identify who the divine Persons are. They are who they are in relationship with each other. Without the relationships with each other, they would not be who they are. And they are not interchangeable. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father. Being the begetter and being the begotten one are different and not reversible. There is a direction to the relationships that can't be reversed. You can’t say the Son begets the Father. The Son has always been the begotten Son. The Father has always begotten the Son. The Son is eternally the Son, and the Father, eternally Father. That’s why we can say they are the divine Persons of Father and Son.
But the words/names don’t themselves explain everything. They represent what we have to go on and explain, namely, what they do and don’t mean as far as we can tell. In the case of the Father and Son, we have to rule out, or “think away” as Athanasius said, some aspects of the meaning of the words begotten or begetting as used of human creatures. Among creatures these words include the idea of a time sequence. But when it comes to God, the aspect of time does not apply. God is eternal and so, then, are the divine Persons. So the Father generates the Son from all eternity.
Time sequence doesn’t apply to God. There never was a time when the Son was not. The Son was always the begotten Son of the Father, which is simply to say the Son is eternally the Son and the Father is eternally the Father, begetting the Son. The discipline of theology is to discern where and how words used to refer to God must be used differently from how they are used of creatures. This would be impossible if we did not have biblical revelation to lead us.
The Holy Spirit proceeds (spirates)
Now what about the Holy Spirit? There has always been the Spirit who has eternal relationships with the Father and the Son. We use a special word to talk about those relationships, a word given in the New Testament; we say the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and, or through, the Son (John 15:26). Another word has also been used down through the ages to indicate that unique relationship, “spirates.” These words indicate unique and non-interchangeable relationship. The name and relationship indicate who the Spirit is. The Spirit would not be the Spirit without spirating from the Father and the Son. And the Father and Son wouldn’t be Father and Son without the Spirit proceeding. The relationship of the Spirit is essential to who the Spirit is and so to who the Triune God is.
We likely want to ask, “So how does that work? How does a procession work in God?” We don’t actually know. We can’t say exactly how it is different from begetting or being begotten. Along with the name, Holy Spirit, the word procession indicates that there is a unique kind of relationship of the Spirit with the Father and the Son, one that is different from the relationship of the Son to the Father. It indicates that the Spirit is from the Father and/through, the Son in such a way that the Son and Father do not proceed from the Spirit and are not the Spirit. With this unique relationship, the Spirit is not interchangeable with the other Persons. And it means that the Holy Spirit has always been the Holy Spirit. We affirm in this way that God has always been a Trinity. There never was a time when God was not Triune.
Conclusion: triune relations
The three divine Persons eternally exist in absolutely unique relationships and that is what is essential to their being distinct Persons. That’s it. They have unique relations. Each has a different relationship with the other two. We don’t know how to explain all that, what that means, but we use unique words because there are unique relations. And that’s also why we address them according to their unique names that correspond with the relations. The Father is the Father, not the Son. The Son is the Son, not the Father. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son. We have unique names to indicate the unique persons and they have unique relationships and they’re not interchangeable.
When God through Jesus says, to address him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we’re being told something. The triune name identifies who God is, which God we’re speaking of, and even what kind of god that God is. God is the Triune God. That’s the only God that is or has ever been. God is Father, Son and Spirit. The Father is the Father. The Son is the Son. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. Don’t separate them — they are one in being. But don’t collapse them into one Person with no relationships — they are distinct in Person.
You have probably heard the triune God referred to as one in three and three in one. Though not incorrect, this statement is easily misunderstood. Why? Because it can sound as if we're saying that God is both three and one of the exact same thing. But that makes no sense. God is not one being and three beings; nor is God one person and three persons. To avoid misunderstandings, it's better to say that the triune God is one in being and three in divine Persons. Let's explore what this means as we continue this series on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
Fundamental to the discipline of theology is making sure we don’t talk about God as if God was a creature. This way of disciplining our thinking takes some time and effort to catch on to, and that is why Grace Communion International and Grace Communion Seminary both take great care in teaching people to think about God according to God’s nature. That means, for example, not thinking about God as a big human being in the sky.
God is three divine Persons
The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God is three divine Persons. What does that mean? We begin by noting that God is not a “person” the way we are. As humans, we are images of God, but God is not an image of us. Because divine Persons are not exactly the same as human persons, we have to distinguish them. Were God three persons exactly like we are persons, then God would be three beings, since human persons are separate beings. When speaking about God, we’re not using the word “person” in exactly the same way we do about ourselves.
In speaking of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as divine (not human) Persons, we affirm that these personal names and personal relationships between the three Persons reveal the reality of who God is. God knows himself as Father, Son and Spirit. There are real and eternal relationships in God which Scripture characterizes in several ways including mutual knowing, loving, glorifying, and oneness.
What we think about human persons in living, loving and holy relationship with each other does, to a degree, reflect the truth about God in the sense that God is more like a community of three human persons than like any other created thing. We could switch this around and say that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the original and real Persons, and since we are somewhat like them, we can borrow the term “person” to speak of ourselves as individual human creatures. That said, we must be careful to note that God is not like a single, lonely, isolated individual.
God is one in being
As individual human persons, we do not, and we cannot have the same kind of unity (oneness) with other persons that the three divine Persons have. Their unity is their being — the three divine Persons are one in being. The sense of unity we experience as human persons cannot match that.
The kind of unity of God revealed in Christ was so unique that the church teachers eventually came up with a unique word to represent that one-of-a-kind unity. That word is perichoresis. It is Greek and often is not translated because it has a unique meaning that can’t exactly be translated. It means most literally to envelope one another or to make space for one another. It has also been translated as mutually indwelling each other, or having a coinherence in each other, or in-existing in one another. This language represents Jesus’ teaching that he is “in the Father and the Father is in [him]” (John 14:11). It is also just what we see lived out in the Gospels as we watch and hear Jesus in his dynamic relationship with the Father and the Spirit. This unique unity has also been explained by saying that the whole of God, all three Persons, are present in each of the Persons. So, each in being is fully God even though distinct in Person so that there is a real relationship and exchange going on from all eternity between the three divine Persons. As the Athanasian Creed summed it up: the unity of God is a Trinity and the Trinity of God is a Unity. We can try to put this into a single word: God’s unity is a tri-unity.
Given this tri-unity, everything we can say about the Spirit, we can say about the Father (or the Son), except that the Spirit is not the Father (or the Son). Why? Because the divine Persons mutually indwell one another, and so are equally God — equally and together God. They have an absolutely unique kind of unity so that they are distinct in divine Person but united in being. Unlike creatures, the unity of being doesn’t undo the difference of Person and the distinction of Person doesn’t undo the unity of being. Remembering this will help us get our language squared away so that we don’t grossly misrepresent who God is.
What kind of God is the triune God?
The doctrine of the Trinity, so far as it goes, faithfully identifies who God is. However, its purpose is to protect the mystery of God's nature, not explain it away. That said, when we add up what the doctrine asserts, we are given significant, biblically accurate understanding about the kind of God that God is. It declares that God has his being by being a fellowship, a communion of divine Persons. The biblical witness then shows us that all the relationships that flow from God's being are forms of love. Begetting, being begotten and proceeding are all relationships of loving exchange. This is why we can say with John that God is love. We also can see what Jesus means, and why he says he loves the Father and the Father has loved him from all eternity. It makes sense that Jesus tells us that as the Father has loved him, so he loves us; and that as he has loved us, so we ought to love one another. No wonder then that the ways of the people of God can be comprehensively summed up in the two commands to love God and love neighbor.
The relationships internal and external to God are filled with holy loving. God is a fellowship kind of God — a communion kind of God. God is not a lonely being floating out there from all eternity “looking for someone to love.” God is the fullness of holy love, the fullness of fellowship and communion. Bringing it all together, we can say that the Father and Son have their fellowship and communion in the Holy Spirit.
The triune God who in his being is love, is very different than an isolated individual God who can’t love until there is something else outside of God to love. The God that is fullness of fellowship is very different from one who exists with no internal and external relationships, one in whom there is no giving and receiving, in whom there is no exchange of knowing, loving, glorifying of one another. Such a god would be very different from the God we come to know through Jesus Christ, according to Scripture.
To summarize: the Christian God is a fellowship, a communion. This triune God has his being by being in relationships of holy loving. Those relationships are, in particular, eternally begetting, being begotten, and proceeding — each a unique form of holy, loving exchange. Those are the key words we have in allowing us to point to the amazing reality of who God is. And these are the essentials to remember if we are going to go on and talk about the Holy Spirit.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
If the Holy Spirit first exists in relationship with the Father and the Son, then that is the first thing we need to know, not the Spirit’s relationship to us or our relationship to the Spirit. Those come afterwards. There was a time when nothing other than God existed and the Holy Spirit was perfectly happy being the Spirit of the Father and the Son. The Spirit doesn’t need us to be the Spirit. There was a time when there was no creation. At that time God was the fullness of fellowship in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In answer to the question, who is the Holy Spirit? the simplest answer is that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. That means that whenever we speak of the Father and Son, or hear about them in Scripture, since God is one in being, the Spirit is also involved in some way, whether or not it is explicitly stated. The Spirit always has something to do with the Father and Son. It’s true that we don’t always remember this connection. And we probably should make it more explicit more often.
So, when speaking of the Father or the Son we do not exclude the Spirit, because the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Reference to the Son involves the Spirit, and the other way around. We can’t talk about the Holy Spirit apart from the Son, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. If we assume we can think of one without the other, we’re misrepresenting who the Spirit is, because the Spirit has his being, is the Person he is, by being in an essential relationship. We don’t always spell this all out, and it would be better if we did see and make all these connections. A full understanding will always seek to grasp all the Persons in their relationships.
The who, not how, of the Spirit
When seeking further understanding about God, we tend to look for answers to how? questions, such as, how does God operate his providence over all of history and nature and everything else? It's understandable that we would ask such questions. We want to know the mechanisms, the machinery. We want to know the chain of cause and effect as it pertains to God's acts. The problem is that the how? questions tend to take us in a wrong direction. Instead we need to as the who? questions. We need first to identify the agent responsible for what takes place. And when it comes to who? questions concerning God, the answer often is the Holy Spirit, who is the agent of God's actions. In short, our how? questions are frequently answered this way: By the Holy Spirit! And the reality is this: we can know the who, without knowing the how!
Consider this: does Jesus tell Nicodemus the mechanism of how one becomes born from above? Does Jesus offer Nicodemus a technique? Does he list a bunch of rules that if you do this and that and the other, then bingo, the new birth happens? No. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that, because the Spirit works more like the wind, no such how? explanation can be given. The working of the Spirit can’t be controlled or predicted by us. That’s the nature of who the Spirit is, and so how the Spirit works!
It's understandable that we have many questions — especially about the Christian life. But such questions are actually answered simply by identifying the agency of the Holy Spirit. And that’s it. But we often want more — we want an explanation about some mechanism, technique or about steps to take. We feel that there needs to be a combination of conditions that we fill in order to get the Spirit to work. There is quite a bit of teaching in Christian circles that speculates about and even invents techniques and methods that can be used to fill in the gaps between what Scripture tells us, and what we, like Nicodemus, often want to know — answers to our how? questions that would tell us exactly what conditions we need to fill in order to get the Spirit to work, or to work more effectively. However, shouldn’t we stop where Scripture stops, rather than succumb to speculation or invention?
Many of the current controversies and differences of emphasis between various teachings and ministries actually have to do with their lining up behind a favorite technique or mechanism, or a particular list of conditions needed to get what we’re looking for from the Holy Spirit. The arguments and controversies are most often over which teaching offers the best how to. But when we go down that road, we’ve already forgotten most of who the Spirit is. On that road we easily are tempted to mistakenly assume that God can be divided up, asking such questions as “can you have the Spirit without having the Son?” or “can you have the Son without having the Spirit? Another mistake is to assume that the presence and blessing of the Spirit comes not by grace but by technique or by us fulfilling certain preconditions, leading us to ask “what steps do we need to take before we can effectively have and use the gifts of the Spirit?”
By the Spirit of the Father and Son answers the how? question
When we take into account the full testimony of Scripture, the questions and controversies that arise concerning the Spirit can be addressed. This involves accounting for the very nature and character of the Spirit. That means, for example, understanding that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in being, and thus you cannot have one without the other. The unity of the Persons in being and in action is indicated in biblical revelation. For example, we are told that no one truly proclaims Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). God doesn’t split up, having the Son heading off saying, “Goodbye, Spirit. I hope you catch up later.” God is one in being but also one in action. The three divine Persons act and work together.
Many if not most current controversies have forgotten some of the most fundamental things about who God the Spirit is. But, of course, if forgotten, this is what can happen. Our thoughts can head in all directions and we can end up speculating in order to answer misguided questions. We can just grab random Bible verses and try to throw them together to come up with an answer. When that happens, we end up with different groups gravitating around what they regard as key verses to prove their point, but they have left behind the more fundamental teaching and reality of who the Spirit is. The fundamental thing, the answer to the Who? question regarding the Spirit is often forgotten and so the answers promoted are inconsistent with the deeper more central truth of the Spirit who is one in being and one in working with the Father and the Son.
Biblical revelation about the ministry of the Spirit is often presented in connection with mention of at least one other divine Person. So for example, only the Holy Spirit can break into a person’s pride and enable them to recognize that Jesus really is their Lord and Savior, come in the flesh, as one of us (1 John 4:2). We only have the Spirit because he is sent by the Son from the Father (John 15:26). If anyone is convicted by the message of the gospel it is because the Spirit is at work (1 Thess. 1:3-5). Jesus sends the Spirit to bring persons to an acknowledgment of sin and the need for judgment and righteousness (John 16:8).
As Paul tells us, when the “Spirit of sonship” comes upon us, we cry out “Abba Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:60). Why do we cry out “Abba Father”? If you know who the Spirit is, the answer is obvious. Because God is one in being and one in action. Isn't that amazing? The whole Trinity is involved in that one simple and profound cry of our hearts. When the Spirit acts, he acts in unity with the Father and the Son, bringing our worship all together in the fellowship of the Trinity.
When Jesus says, “Go out and baptize them in the name” (singular) and then gives them the one name: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” we should not be surprised. The name we’re given matches the reality: Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the one name of God. A simple way to say this is that God is the Father-Son-Holy-Spirit-God, as if it is one name instead of three names. It really isn't three separate names, but a threefold name. It is three divine Persons, but we're baptized into one name. Jesus’ instruction makes sense if that is who God is, and so how God acts and has his being.
All our thinking about the Holy Spirit needs to be contained within these Trinitarian boundaries. That will help us interpret Scripture properly, and see more deeply into Scripture so that we come to know the reality ever more profoundly. Rather than taking us away from Scripture, good theology helps us see more clearly how Scripture comes together. Though theology doesn’t answer every question we might have, it does answer the questions God most wants us to grasp and proclaim. Thus, our goal is to help one another read and interpret Scripture in a way that brings all the pieces of Scripture together. Good theology helps us attain this important goal.
Why say anything about the Holy Spirit beyond simply acknowledging him? One reason is to overcome the tendency to disconnect the three divine Persons. We see this in churches where one Person is emphasized to the near exclusion of the other two. But this fragmented approach trips us up in our faith and in our lived relationship to the Triune God. So, our goal is to have an understanding of the Trinity that is faithful to and coherent with the reality of who God actually is in the fullness of all three divine Persons. Our understanding of the Holy Spirit, and our ability to join more fully in what he is doing, will grow as we view him theologically—in relationship to the Father and the Son.
What a theological understanding of the Spirit offers
Theological work aims to fix things on our side, not fix things on God’s side. So, we can grow in understanding even if the reality is not changed by our better grasp. And if we have misunderstandings, it will be good to clear them up. As the Spirit is working it is far better to be aware of that work compared to being unaware. But our better understanding does not make something real or change the nature of the Spirit’s working. God does not all of a sudden become the Holy Spirit when we recognize the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not tied up, unable to do anything until we figure the Holy Spirit out. That would be like saying the wind is tied up until we can figure out the wind. No, the Spirit still works, but we may not recognize it. And by recognizing it we may more fully participate, we become more involved, become more in tune with the truth and reality of who God is. So, we're trying to make sure our understanding matches the truth about who God is such as the Spirit has been revealed to us.
So we need to remember that our understanding may be fragmented but God is not fragmented. Our understanding of the working in the ministry of the Spirit may be fragmented but that doesn’t mean the actual working of the Spirit is fragmented. We're not controlling God by our understanding. If that were the case then God would be dependent upon us. But we want to sort this all out and let our understanding be as full and faithful as can be.
How do we fix a lack of awareness and understanding of the Spirit?
How do we then bring our understanding of the ministry of the Spirit up to speed in a way that recognizes the Spirit is one of the three divine Persons of the Trinity? Some are concerned about the need to speak proportionately about the Holy Spirit. We might say, giving the Holy Spirit equal time or equal emphasis. What’s behind that concern?
There are situations where our faith and understanding of the Spirit is indeed lacking and so lags behind the Father and Son. It might be that this is often the case, the rule, rather than the exception. Wherever we find this situation it ought to be rectified. We should become familiar with all that’s been revealed to us about the Spirit and then pass that on to others. So in those cases additional teaching and focus on the Spirit is called for. (Although this should never be the exclusive focus.) In that way our faith and knowledge of the Spirit will become better aligned with the other divine Persons.
Objections to pursuing the Spirit
In pursuing this kind of correction we may run into some obstacles that contributed to the unbalanced situation in the first place. For, example, some persons might not be interested in the Spirit and so have neglected the topic. Hopefully those in this condition who worship the Triune God will come around and see that the Holy Spirit is no less important than the Father and Son.
Others may not want to know or have much to do with the Holy Spirit because the Spirit seems kind of, well, spooky. We usually don’t want to be around ghosts, especially one you can't control or that you can't identify or you can't nail down, can't make a part of your program and who’s, well, like the wind, (or maybe even a typhoon!). Who wants that? So, some people, may be avoiding the Spirit because they have certain worries. That's not the best reason not to have an interest in the Holy Spirit. Their fears may be based in part (or perhaps in whole) on ignorance or misinformation about the nature of the power and working of the Holy Spirit. Those who have misgivings may not have a good grasp on who the Holy Spirit is. The Spirit isn't like a ghost or something to be fearful of in the sense that it might do us harm. So helping people know that the Spirit is Holy, is good, is crucial.
The best way to do this is to emphasize regularly that the Spirit and has the exact same character and purpose as Jesus. There is no slippage in mind, attitude, or aim between the two. The best way to identify the working of the Spirit is to compare it directly to what we know about Jesus. It is his Spirit. If it doesn’t, feel, sound, taste, and work like Jesus, then it is not his Spirit. Knowing Jesus is how we best discern the spirits, that is, which is the Holy Spirit.
Some could think the Spirit is now irrelevant to our current situation or no long available to us, at least as in the days of the early church. That was back in those days, some may think. That would be another poor reason, however, to have little or no interest in the Spirit. While it’s perfectly acceptable to raise questions about the working of the Spirit today, there is no biblical teaching designed to inform us that the Spirit cannot or will not continue to work as in the days of the early church. Of course this does not mean that the Spirit cannot adjust the mode of his ministry as, in his wisdom, he sees fit from time to time and place to place. He can in his sovereign grace make adjustments.
However, there is no absolute reason that the Spirit could not continue to work today as in the days of the New Testament. But that is up to the Spirit. Those who have dogmatically concluded that the Spirit does not work and cannot work in the same manner have argued from their own experience and on that basis selected and interpreted Scripture to explain their lack of experiencing the working of the Spirit. But such arguments do not have binding authority in the church—and especially upon the Spirit! It might simply be that the Spirit at some times and places chooses to work behind the scenes, mostly undetected even perhaps by Christians—and that’s why the church’s experience of the Spirit is not evenly distributed all the time.
Especially thinking that the ministry and manifestation of the Spirit depends upon us, what we do, what condition we’re in, what we want, or on our level of understanding, is to put the cart way before the horse. If the Spirit is dependent upon us in these ways, then the Spirit does not (cannot?) minister by grace. The ministry of the Spirit then is being regarded as a reward for works. Whatever the Spirit does and however he works, it is all of grace. We do not condition the Spirit to act — he is faithful whether or not we are.
Now some are concerned about abuses and misrepresentations of the Spirit. Indeed, there are legitimate reason for folks to be cautious or concerned. There have been, since the days of the New Testament, abuses, misuses and misleading teaching about the Spirit. There are many cases where an emphasis on the Holy Spirit has contributed to conflict and even church splits. There have been deceitful things said and done in the name of the Holy Spirit. And some things have occurred in connection with an emphasis on the Spirit that are bizarre and in some cases even abusive. But are these good reasons to entirely neglect the Spirit? No. Any good thing can be misused. As an ancient maxim states: abuse does not rule out proper use. So if these things can guarded against, all the while coming to understand and welcome the ministry of the Spirit, I think the way can be clear to address any imbalance. But checks and balances, spiritual discipline and discernment need to be in place provided by wise pastors and elders ministering under the authority of the whole teaching of Scripture. That is a legitimate requirement to guard against spiritual pride and abuse, disunity and division. There are real dangers.
Given all that, however, setting up a goal of equality of emphasis or parity of focus on the three divine Persons is really not the best way to go about making a healthy correction if there is an imbalance or ignorance about the Spirit. There are valid reasons why there necessarily always will be a certain kind of faithful disproportion or inequality of emphasis or focus on the Spirit compared to the other two Persons of the Trinity. The reason has to do with the nature and character of the Spirit himself as indicated by fact that in Scripture there is less biblical information about the Holy Spirit than is provided concerning the Father and the Son.
Though in the Old Testament we find multiple references to the Spirit (e.g. Joel 2:28; Ezek. 11:19) far more consideration is given to God the creator, covenant maker and deliverer of Israel. However, this disproportion does not indicate that the Spirit is less important. In the Gospels there is much more said about Jesus and the Father, though Jesus speaks frequently and definitely about the Spirit, who has an essential part in Jesus' life and message. The same goes for the Epistles where there is plenty of important teaching about the Spirit, with more detail than found in the Gospels concerning our living in relationship with the Spirit. However, the Epistles give more information about the Son and his relationship with the Father, than they give about the Spirit. Note, however, that this disproportionate treatment does not signal an inequality of importance since it is clear that faith in the Spirit and his ministry is not only important, it is vitally connected to the ministry of Jesus.
In the New Testament, rather than being addressed separately, the Spirit is mentioned as being in relationship with the Son (primarily) and Father (secondarily). When Jesus acts he does so in or by the Spirit. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross involves offering himself up in the Spirit (Heb. 9:14). The Spirit “proceeds” from the Father, and is “sent” from the Father (in the Son’s name). However, this way of addressing the Spirit is no reason to overlook what Scripture tells us concerning the person and work of the Spirit. In fact, that there is less information about the Spirit than about the Father and the Son, suggests that we should given even more attention to what we are told, though caution is in order related to seeking “equal time” for the Spirit.
Misguided attempts in seeking to speak about the Spirit
Given that we have less information about the Spirit, we might be tempted to give him “equal time” by extending what we say through the fabrication of long logical chains of argumentation leading to various inferred conclusions. But such speculation about the Spirit, even if it starts with a bit of Scripture, can offer nothing secure, since simple logical inferences even from some true starting point are never necessarily true. In fact, that's where a lot of heresy and bad teaching about the Spirit comes from. Some preachers and teachers have taken a few biblical verses and then attempted to make strings of logical arguments from them, oftentimes not paying attention to other biblical teaching regarding the Spirit. But the conclusions reached are speculative. And in reaching them, a lot had to be added in, such as making someone’s experience (and their understanding of it!) normative for all Christians, in order to establish a purportedly doctrinal statement. But all that additional information and the logical chains developed from them do not amount to reliable Christian doctrine. So, giving the Spirit more attention by generating more information than we actually have been given in Scripture concerning the Spirit, is not a recommended or reliable procedure.
Why is less revealed about the Spirit?
Is there some reason there is less information given about the Holy Spirit in Scripture than is given about the Father and the Son? It seems to me the disproportion ought to be expected because of what we do find out about the Spirit. Given the very nature of the Spirit and the nature of his work, it makes sense that there is less to say concretely and authoritatively about the Spirit than the Father or the Son. Why is that? First, because the Spirit, unlike the Son, is not incarnate. We don't have an embodied revelation of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit remains undetectable himself, but is identified indirectly by the effects of his working (like the wind).
The purpose of Jesus' coming in human form was to be the self-revelation of God. Jesus is the Word of God to us. The Spirit doesn’t have his own incarnation. The Spirit, as a matter of fact, doesn’t have his own independent word. Jesus is the Logos, the intelligibility, the communication, the living interpretation of God to us. In fact, without the incarnate life and teaching of Jesus we would know far less about the Spirit, for the Son reveals to us not only himself, but the Father and the Spirit. The Incarnate Son takes us to the Father and sends us the Spirit. So we approach the Spirit through the mediation of the Son.
Even when the Spirit is present and active within creation, he doesn’t establish his own revelation and doesn’t convey his own self-explanation. The Spirit remains the Spirit. That is, remains unincarnate while present to and within creation. The Spirit’s remaining unincarnate actually serves a positive purpose. It prevents us from reducing God simply to a creature or thinking that we can understand God entirely in terms of creaturely realities. It preserves the transcendence, the spirituality of God. God is not a creature and so we cannot explain God as if God were a creature subject to its ways and limitations. We cannot simply read back onto God the creaturely nature of Jesus.
Now, some people mistakenly think that when the Son of God took on human form, the Father (or God) turned into a man, a creature. Two mistakes here. First, it was the Son of God who became incarnate, not the Father (nor the Spirit). Second, the Son of God did not cease being the eternal, divine, Son of God when he took on human being. He remained what he was, but added to himself a fully human nature and lived a human life. He didn’t stop being something he was and turn in into something else, a man. Early church teachers put it this way: The eternal Son of God, remaining what he was, assumed also a human nature to himself. You can recognize this kind of confusion when, considering the possibility of the incarnation, people ask, “Then, who is running the universe?”
Now how the eternal Son of God can be incarnate in human form is indeed a mystery. We can’t imagine how such a change of that order could be true for human beings. But, remember God is not a creature. Admittedly, it is easier to think of Jesus’ incarnation as his turning into what he was not and ceasing to be what he was. If A becomes B, then it ceases to be A. It's now B. That's easy to think because that’s how most if not all creaturely things work. However, such thinking just doesn’t apply to the truth about who the Son of God is. He remains what he was, the eternal Son of God, assuming a human nature as well.
The Spirit then never did take on a human nature himself. If you ask, “How was Jesus conceived in the womb of Mary?” What's the answer? By the Spirit. The agency of the Spirit is the answer to the “how” question. But this answer doesn’t tell us the mechanisms involved. No mention of DNA. Or what happened with the chromosomes. We don't get that type of explanation. Rather we get an explanation of who, the agent involved who knows how! I suppose if we asked the Spirit and he thought it was important for us to know, the Spirit could explain it to us if we were educated and intelligent enough to grasp it. But apparently, it's far more important to know by whom it occurred rather than how.
But we definitely learn something about the Spirit in this event. The Spirit can interact in time and space, with flesh and blood without being incarnate himself. The Spirit is able to be present and active at the deepest levels of creaturely existence, down to the DNA and chromosomes if need be. The Spirit is not absent but able to be very present to creation. That’s one way God can work directly within creation—by the Spirit. Recognizing that God is the Spirit and the Spirit is God and he remains the Holy Spirit prevents us from thinking of God as merely being a creature but that the Spirit doesn’t have to be incarnate to have a direct ministry to us. As Jesus said, he is sending another Comforter who was with us, but will be in us (John 14:17).
There is another reason we find that makes sense as to why there is a disproportion in the amount of information we have about the Spirit in the biblical portrayal. Again this distinction is not one of importance but of the extent of the revelation. And if what we say and teach about the Spirit depends upon that revelation, then this will make a difference in how much we can say and how much we can understand about the Spirit.
This second reason has to do with the very character of the Spirit and of his ministry. It seems that the whole purpose and character of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is actually to always direct attention away from, not bring it to himself. The ministry of the Spirit, Jesus tells us, is to direct us to Jesus (John 15:26) So he doesn’t come with his own independent message but bears witness to the truth He has heard spoken by the Son. The Spirit does not glorify himself but Jesus by taking his words and declaring them to us (John 16:13-14). And that is the glory of the Spirit!
So, the Holy Spirit isn't saying, “Hey, Jesus, you've had the microphone now for plenty of time. Now, it's my turn to tell people about myself.” No. When the Holy Spirit “gets the microphone,” what does he announce? He helps us recall all that Jesus taught, the truth that he taught. he, perhaps annoyingly, passes up his opportunity to shed light on himself.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t really draw attention to himself. Rather he points away from himself. Why? Because that's his ministry, so that we see who Jesus is, who reveals to us the Father. The early church put it this way. The Holy Spirit is like light and the light shines. And the Holy Spirit shines light on the face of Jesus who has an actual, flesh and blood human face. And when the Holy Spirit’s light shines on the face of Jesus, what do we see mirrored in the face of Jesus? The invisible face of the Father. Isn't that a beautiful thing?
So, the Holy Spirit doesn’t say, “Hey, look at me. Look at me. I'm the light. I'm shining. I'm shining, can’t you see how bright I am?” Not at all. The whole reason for the Spirit’s shining is so that when we look at the face of Jesus, we see the face of the Father. That’s the whole point of the light. The light doesn’t draw attention to itself.
That doesn’t mean the Spirit’s not important, but the contrary! If the light didn’t shine, what would result? We wouldn't see the face of the Father in the face of the Son. In fact, there wouldn't even be a face of the Son incarnate if the Spirit hadn’t been involved in the conception of the Son in the womb of Mary. The Spirit has a coordinated but different mission and ministry than the Son. But that ministry would be somewhat compromised and not demonstrate the true nature and character of the Spirit if it drew attention to itself.
One theologian has said, if you add the biblical picture up, the Spirit is the “shy one” of the Trinity, the “retiring one.” We could also say that the Spirit displays the humility of God because he serves the Father and the Son. Theologian Thomas Torrance brings out this same point regarding the character of the Spirit. Relatively speaking he stays in the background. We conclude from this understanding that the Spirit serves the Father and Son rather than himself. We’d be somewhat impoverished if we didn’t know this. We are learning something about the Spirit when we see that he doesn’t draw attention to himself! As a result, whenever we find revelation concerning the Spirit, what we discover is more about the Father and the Son. The Spirit actually promotes the disproportion of detailed understanding concerning the Triune Persons. Why? Because that's the Spirit's ministry. He says, “Yes, excellent. You saw the face of the Father and the face of the Son. Wonderful. That's what I do. That's why I'm here.”
In this part, we'll explore the Holy Spirit's ministry viewed corporately (in the church) and personally (in individual lives). Let's start with a question: Why does any group or individual repent instead of hanging on to their self-justifying pride? The answer is that the Holy Spirit is at work in them, though that work is often unseen. Let me explain.
The Spirit's often unseen work
We typically do not see the Holy Spirit working in a direct way — most of his ministry among us is deep and internal, working directly with our human spirits (1 Cor. 2: 9-11). Thus, we don't see the Holy Spirit acting. However, we do see the results. When we're repenting, when we're hearing God speak his Word, when we're seeing the face of the Father in the face of the Son, when we're grasping the Word of God, when we're interpreting Scripture as God intends — in all these instances, we’re experiencing the effects (results, outcome) of the Spirit's work. But we're not seeing the gears turning — we don't watch the machine running. It seems the Holy Spirit does not draw attention to himself. You might say he is the shy one, the humble one, the retiring one. TF Torrance calls the Spirit the “self-effacing” one. He does not show us his own face — The Spirit is not worried about that.
Has the Spirit been short-changed?
When we compare the names of the three divine Persons, we find a certain asymmetry. Father and Son are more concrete terms, and are obviously mutually referential. Thus, the Father-Son relationship is easier to think about using creaturely terms. The name of Holy Spirit is different — it does not lend itself as easily to being described using creaturely terms. Father and Son sound much more familiar to us than Spirit. So, has the Holy Spirit been short-changed? Maybe not, though perhaps that's how it's supposed to be. Maybe being given that identifying name is not a mistake.
Maybe the name Holy Spirit is given to prevent us from trying to nail down the Spirit's identity in the same way we might the identity of the Father and the Son. Perhaps this “inequality” is meant to lead us to identify with and pay primary attention to the Father and Son. Perhaps by being named Holy Spirit, we are kept from merely reducing the Father and Son to creaturely definitions, thinking God is Father and Son in the way human beings are. After all, Scripture can refer to the whole Triune God as Spirit. Thus we understand that the name Holy Spirit reminds us of the transcendence and sovereignty of God and the fact that God cannot be reduced to an idol — one made by human hands or minds.
Given the pattern and content of what is said in the Bible concerning the Holy Spirit, we should not expect to be able to have as much to say, or be able to say it in as much detail as we can say about the Father and the Son. Though we expect some disproportion, we understand it does not indicate any inequality of importance among the divine Persons. But why not correct this disproportion by giving greater individual emphasis to the Spirit? The answer is that giving the Spirit individual, independent emphasis would tend to place his ministry in isolation from the ministry of the Father and the Son. Why would that be a problem? Because, as we will see, the Holy Spirit does not have an independent ministry.
The Spirit's ministry — a summary
In summary, we can say that the Holy Spirit's ministry is to deliver to us all the benefits of the work of Christ — the benefits Christ accomplished as the Son of the Father the one sent who was sent from the Father and returned to the Father so that we might know the Father. The work of the Spirit can’t be grasped apart from this work of the Father and the Son. Of course, if we are to understand and fully appreciate the work of the Father and the Son, we must understand the “behind the scenes” work of the Spirit. Thus to fully understand the Spirit's ministry, we must understand the coordinated ministry of all three divine Persons.
How does the Spirit work? Well, speaking a bit facetiously, it's not as though the Spirit says, “Jesus, you did that awesome work on the cross. You took your turn and accomplished that great task. I know everyone will praise you for all you’ve done. But now it’s my time to get to work — I'm going to go off and take my turn to accomplish my own mission, and so make my own addition to what you’ve done.” That misguided thinking regards the triune God as dividing up his work and will into a division of labor, each relatively separate from the others. But that is not the case — the will and working of God can’t be sliced up that way. Doing so splits God into parts and roles as creatures would. That misguided approach obscures the oneness of God in being and in action. A simple way to point to the unity of the working of God — while allowing for distinction of contribution to the one whole work — is to say this: what Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit does in us.
Now when we say that the Spirit takes all of what Christ has done for us in his humanity and delivers it to us, does that amount to little or nothing? No! From the Spirit’s point of view, that is everything! The Holy Spirit cannot accomplish his deepest work except on the basis of what Jesus accomplished for us in the name of the Father. They (Father, Son, Spirit) are one God — they are all together Savior. The Father sends the Son. The Son sends the Spirit. And this was all done so we might have the life of the whole God over us, with us and in us.
As T.F. Torrance has expressed it, it seems that rebellious human beings can share in God’s kind of life, eternal life, only after it’s been worked out in such a way that it can fit us fallen creatures. That means that we first need to be reconciled to God and have our human nature regenerated, sanctified, made new. That’s what God accomplished in the incarnate Son who assumed our human nature. Jesus reconciled and transformed that nature, perfecting it so that the Holy Spirit could indwell us and make us share in Jesus’ sanctified humanity. The Spirit could not come and take up residence in us (“indwell” is the New Testament word) until the Son has completed his incarnate work in our fallen humanity.
No, the Holy Spirit is not being left out or diminished when we say that he takes what the Son has done and delivers and builds it into us. It would be senseless for the Spirit to say, “I need my own ministry apart from the Son.” They are one in being. They are one in act. They are one in mind, one in heart — perfectly coordinated in their ministry to give us a share in God’s own eternal life. Each contributes in their own way.
Understand this: the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) is Savior. The Spirit's part is to lead in working out in us what Christ has accomplished for us in his humanity. That's a marvel. The Spirit does work in us in unique ways. This is why Jesus says it is an advantage that another Comforter come to us, to deliver to us and within us his life by the indwelling of the Spirit — the Spirit who is the Spirit of Jesus, the One who has accomplished everything for us in his human nature.
Perhaps now we can see the problem if, wanting to give the Spirit equal time, we were to say, “Yes, Jesus did this, but the Spirit does that” and focus on “that,” as if it was independent. But there is no independent mission. The three divine Persons work entirely together in an ordered and coordinated way. That insight ought to guide our thinking, our explanations, our preaching and teaching about the Holy Spirit. Describing the joint mission of the three Persons requires mutually referring to one another because the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son and the Spirit of the Father. That's who Holy Spirit is, and his ministry is to work out in us what the Son has done for us. That's an amazing, vital ministry!
Particular manifestations of the Spirit's work
There are particular manifestations of the working of the Spirit — times and ways in which he is active, as it were at the leading edge of what the triune God is doing. The Spirit’s relationship to creation, after Christ’s incarnate ministry, is very dynamic and variable, not static or fixed or mechanical, but personal and relational. We see this at Pentecost. When the Spirit came down that day, no human agency initiated, conditioned or controlled it. Rather, Jesus had promised it in the name of the Father. That’s all that preconditioned that mighty event. And Jesus indicated that this even would be at the Father’s initiative, in accordance with the Father's timing. The church was simply to wait. That’s it.
But why at that particular time? Because Christ in his earthly form had finished his dimension of the saving work that God was accomplishing. So, of course, the Spirit is aware of Jesus’ promise. The Spirit is the one promised by the Son. So, yes, perfectly coordinated, the Spirit showed up on time. But notice what happened when the Spirit descended. The people started talking about the great and mighty things that God had done to accomplish their salvation in Jesus. They don’t just focus on the immediate amazing event they had just experienced! And they were now able to relate to each other in new amazing ways as the Spirit was now working in them in new ways. But notice they didn't just focus on the Spirit, or their experience of the Spirit. Their view was much larger, much more comprehensive of all that God had done, was doing and would yet do.
Pentecost is a primary example of a manifestation of the working of the Spirit that is dynamic, variable, not static, not fixed, not mechanical, but personal and relational. In Paul’s admonitions to not quench or grieve the Spirit, and to be continually filled with the Spirit, we see anticipation of a dynamic interaction with the Holy Spirit. Paul is not thinking of a situation in which the switch to the Holy Spirit is simply now in the “on” position, and then in the “off” position. Paul understands that the Holy Spirit is never a billion miles away — never completely absent, having nothing to do with anything, but then is immediately near, causing everything to happen in an almost magical way. Paul knew it doesn't work like that. Instead, there is dynamic interaction between God’s people and the Spirit. The Spirit can apparently be present in a wide range of ways, or at least in a range of ways that have a wide variety of effects that we can notice.
Paul's admonition to be “continually filled with the Spirit” is a good way for us to understand those places where Paul talks about our relationship with the Spirit. The Spirit should not be approached as if he is a vending machine: put in the right coins, push the right buttons and get your soda or your candy bar or something else. No our relationship with the Spirit is not contractual or automatic; not simply a matter of being “on” or “off.” It's not a mechanical relationship. It is dynamic; like the wind blowing (John 3:8).
The gifts of the Spirit and the dynamic working of the Spirit
Let’s look at another aspect of the manifestation of the working of the Spirit in the church — the gifts of the Spirit. These too involve dynamic interactions. So, Paul encourages churches to use these gifts in particular ways. They should let those with the gift of giving give with liberality; those who give aid, with zeal; those who do acts of mercy, with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:6-8). These gifts of the Spirit can be used well or misused. They are received and then to be used well, rightly, faithfully. That is a dynamic process, not a magical chain of effects impersonally sparked. But it's easier to think of the working of the Spirit in mechanical terms, isn't it? Especially if we think of the Spirit as an impersonal power, energy, like electricity. Just on or off; here but not there; near or far. But God is not like that. I supposed we could say especially that the Spirit is not like that!
There is a dynamic to living in the Spirit. The Spirit is living and moving, acting as an intelligent agent; interacting with us in a deep and personal way. And it seems even acting in many ways of which we aren’t even aware. Often, by the time we’ve become aware of it, the Spirit’s probably already moved on to another thing. Yes, we’re going recognize the activity and say, “Yes! the Spirit was working, we were blessed” and rejoice in that. However, the Spirit may have already moved on to another “project” by the time we acknowledge it. The Spirit is active and moving!
Avoid wrong understandings of the Spirit's working
Because there is a variability, a dynamic ebb and flow to the activity and manifestation and interaction of the Spirit with humanity (both the Church and the world) we must avoid thinking of the Spirit as an impersonal force. We must also not think of him as a genie where we approach the Spirit thinking, “If I’m going to be blessed by the Spirit, I’ll have to do things just right. I’m going to have to rub the lamp exactly three times and say just the right words and then the power of the spirit-genie will work for me or those I love.” But note that his is a very impersonal, mechanical approach to the Spirit. One that is just as misguided is the idea that we must take the initiative or fulfill certain preconditions to please, or to obligate or cajole the Holy Spirit to act. We can think the working of the Spirit is unlocked (or not) by us. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to find teaching like this, suggesting we act towards the Holy Spirit as if “it” was a magical power much like a genie. And what we have to do to get the Spirit to work is fulfill certain conditions just exactly right — then (like magic!) the Spirit is somehow set free (or is obligated!) to accomplish his ministry!
Of course those special techniques promoted by some for activating the Spirit don’t usually involve rubbing a lamp just the right number of times. However, other conditions are laid out, some sequence of events under our control are specified in order to “prime the pump” or “release” the Spirit to work in particular ways. And if the Spirit doesn’t show up, the explanation will be: “You didn’t get things quite right. You weren’t sincere enough. You didn’t have enough faith. You weren’t humble enough. You were stuck in your head and thinking too much. You didn’t “let go” enough to “let God.”
In essence, such explanations say the spirit-genie is not going to come out because you said “abricadabro,” not “abracadabra.” Or you said it with the wrong accent! Or …, or …, or …. Any number of conditions can be specified. And each particular ministry will likely specialize on describing and prescribing exactly which set of conditions are called for as compared to how another ministry is mistaken in the set of conditions it thinks are required. And on the basis of their understanding each ministry will prescribe the real, true, and proper set of conditions that must be met, and spell out how we can then meet those certain conditions called for.
Notice how these approaches put us in charge and make the Holy Spirit dependent upon us, with the Spirit having little say himself when put under just the right circumstances. Such approaches make our relationship with the Spirit legal, contractual, mechanical, conditional — like a genie or mechanical power, the Spirit has no more choice in the situation than electricity does when you plug your iPhone in or turn on the lights. It is a cause-effect relationship from us to the Spirit. Only when the conditions are just right can the Holy Spirit do its work. And when they are set right, apparently “It” (the Spirit viewed impersonally) can’t decide “No, I’m not going to charge your iPhone!”
Let's avoid thinking about and approaching the Holy Spirit in ways that are impersonal, mechanistic, superstitious and magical. Rather let us see and relate to the Spirit for who he truly is — one of the three divine Persons whose work is fully coordinated with that of the Father and the Son.
In thinking about the Holy Spirit and how he works in our lives, it's important to understand that he is a personal agent — as personal as the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit works in sovereign grace according to his nature. Perhaps we're clear as to his grace, but what about his sovereignty?
Don't overlook the Spirit's sovereignty
When we overlook the Spirit's sovereignty, it's easy to think of him as under our control, as though he is a vending machine, electricity, or genie in a bottle. Such misguided thinking places us in a position of sovereignty over an impersonal power, seeking to control it — focused on what steps to take, what techniques to use, what conditions to fulfill in order to get the Holy Spirit to work as we want. When we begin to think that way we are headed toward the error of Simony. Let me explain.
The error of Simony
You'll recall the story of Simon Magus (Simon the Magician) in the book of Acts. He became a convert, but then what did he want to do? As soon as he found out about the awesome power of the Holy Spirit, he wanted to purchase it from Peter. Buy it! Now why did he approach the Spirit in that way? You see, he was formerly a magician (sorcerer). Apparently, his magician's mind hadn’t been sanctified yet. He didn’t know the nature and character of this Holy Spirit. He thought like a magician: “Wow, what power! Power for good. If only I could get hold of it like the power I had as a magician. Then, I could do miracles for the glory of God!”
You see, Simon was still thinking like a magician, looking to possess and control the power of the Spirit. He had switched in his desire for a different power, but he hadn’t yet changed his approach to power. He switched loyalty to the Holy Spirit, but he approached the Holy Spirit in the same way he did evil power. His mind had not yet been converted. Notice he received some very strong words of correction. He was repudiated by Peter with very sharp words, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!” and was told to repent immediately about this because God’s power cannot be used or controlled by us. (Acts 8:14-24).
This is one of the first heresies actually recorded in the New Testament besides denying the divinity of Jesus and his being raised from the dead. This heresy actually has a name, called “Simony.” Simony is the desire to control the Holy Spirit as if it were an impersonal power and not sovereign Holy God. Such a view does not regard the Spirit as free to blow where it wills, as one who works according to Sovereign Grace.
When the specific character and mind of the Holy Spirit is not taken into account, the door is left somewhat open for us to think we can shape the Spirit into our own image and use him/it for our own purposes. However, when known in relationship to the Son and the Father, that door is closed. Simon needed to see, “Oh, this is the Spirit of the Father and the Son” not just an impersonal power. The Spirit shares God’s sovereign and freely given grace. There is nothing impersonal about the power of the Spirit. In fact, we could say the Spirit is the most personal and the most sovereign working of God, not only around us but in us!
The problem with Simon Magus was he wanted to use the Spirit. It wasn’t that he wanted to use it for evil things. He saw the apostles healing people. He said, “I want to have that power.” What was wrong was his entire approach to the Spirit, his whole understanding of who the Spirit is. He wanted to use the power to serve like the apostles, but his desire was to possess and control, to manipulate or to think that the Spirit needed to be conditioned or appeased to bless. That was to think of the Holy Spirit as if it were really an evil spirit.
Thinking he needed to or even could buy the Spirit misrepresents the nature and the character of the Holy Spirit who is at work with the apostles. The apostles received the Spirit as a gift of sovereign grace. You could not buy the Spirit any more than you could purchase God’s grace. They had a whole different kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit than Simon was imagining. They must have been shocked when he came up to them and asked, “Hey, can I buy some of that power too?”
They grasped that he was thinking like he used to, of the Spirit in the same way he had about his former magical powers. They recognized immediately that that was entirely wrong. The Holy Spirit is not just another magical power. This is a huge lesson the church needed to learn at the very beginning. And it still is!
For us to take to heart that lesson is really important as well, since the temptation to Simony never completely disappears. The story reminds us of who the Holy Spirit is in relationship to the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is sovereign and not under our control . The Holy Spirit is also gracious because the Holy Spirit doesn’t need to be cajoled or conditioned or manipulated into working. He doesn’t need to be persuaded. He’s not locked up in some kind of transcendent bottle, waiting for us to get him out. The grace of the Spirit is moving before we even ask or think of it. His ministry is one of sovereign grace, as are those of the Son and the Father. One in being, one in action.
If we have to condition or persuade or somehow exert some influence on the Spirit to work, then actually, the Spirit no longer is operating out of sovereign grace. And we are not thinking of the Holy Spirit, really, but of false spirits not of God.
Ironically, it’s possible to be just as legalistic and contractual towards the Spirit as towards the Father or the Sabbath or salvation. Somehow, it’s possible to claim that the blessings of the Spirit are conditioned by us, are dependent upon us. A magical view or an impersonal view of the Spirit is a form of legal relationship. But the gracious work of the Holy Spirit is a continuation of the gracious working of the Father and the Son. So, the Spirit always works graciously.
How should we approach the Spirit?
That naturally brings up the question as to whether it makes any difference as to how we approach the Spirit. The answer is of course, yes. But whatever difference is made cannot amount to changing the sovereign grace of the Spirit into its opposite! The difference is in our reception, awareness and participation in what the Spirit is graciously and sovereignly doing. Yes, we can resist the Spirit. We can participate or not. We can be more or less ready to recognize and receive the full benefits of the Spirit. But the Spirit is not dependent upon us to initiate and make the first move. In fact the Spirit ministers to enable us to do just those things, even overcoming our resistance as he shares with us Christ’s own responses to the Father in our place and on our behalf. The Spirit moves us, frees us, guides us. And we then can respond.
So, yes, we can describe ways we can participate and ways to grow in our understanding and in our recognition of the ministry of the Spirit. When we do that we’ll respond: “Wow. That was the work of the Holy Spirit. That is incredible. Praise God, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Yes, indeed, that was a marvel of sovereign grace we just saw manifested among us.”
We can participate more fully and be filled with His glory or we can resist it or avoid it. But if we resist, we are resisting his gracious work just like the gracious work of Christ. It’s no less gracious so we shouldn’t think about participating in the life of the Spirit in any other way as if it’s not sovereign grace and the grace that comes from God’s sovereignty. It’s freely given.
But by participating more fully and seeking through prayer to be filled with the Spirit, we are not conditioning the working of the Spirit. We’re not earning his blessing and presence. We’re especially not “channeling it.” We’re not manipulating, controlling or determining the working or manifestation of the Spirit. Rather, we’re simply receiving a freely given gift.
These are important things to remember since we ought always to affirm the gracious sovereignty of the Spirit. This clear understanding will prevent us from committing Simony, from flipping over into that false view, since there will always be temptations to go in that direction. We like techniques and we like to make God predictable. A lot of times when we’re in big trouble, we feel a need to bring some kind of pressure on God to act in this situation. Perhaps we’re desperate. Or maybe we’re curious to discover some technique or some formula or to identify some pattern or secret where essentially, we hold the key.
Especially in times of desperation we want God to be more like a magical and impersonal power. We don’t like the sovereignty of God sometimes because it doesn’t match my will or my speed or my immediate need. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. We’re sorely tempted to be like Simon Magus at certain moments in our lives where, “I just want to know the formula, God, because something needs to happen here and you’re not doing it.”
At that point evil temptation can enter our minds and suggest: “Right, God didn’t show up. And you know why? It’s because it’s up to you and you’re missing it. If you only knew the formula. If only you were holy enough. If only you were sincere enough. If only your expectations were high enough. If only your church was more united. If only you read the Bible more. If only, if only, if only x, y and z had been done, then maybe God would show up.” But every “if only” mentioned that makes us the key says grace isn’t grace. They throw us back on ourselves and undermine our trust, our faith in God. They represent a means to purchase blessings, not participation in and humble reception of the sovereign grace of God.
The working in the Spirit is of the exact same character as the saving work of Christ. And we receive it in the same way, by trusting God to freely give it to us. Yes, there are ways to participate with what the Spirit is doing, but the Spirit will never relinquish his sovereignty nor cease to be gracious and somehow become conditional and set up a legal relationship with us. But we can be tempted, and certain teachings tend to push us in just that direction.
What’s it like to participate with the Spirit?
Who the Spirit is carries a number of implications we can draw out with the help of other insights from the biblical revelation. Let’s explore our participation in this gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Sanctification. The first thing is that the primary ministry of the Holy Spirit is transforming us, sanctifying us and enabling us to share in that new nature Christ shares with us. This is primarily a work in us. Transformation into Christ-likeness then is key. Christian maturity is of central concern in NT teaching. The Christian life is presented there as one of continual growth in faith, in hope and in love for God and that life lived out towards others. And there are many obstacles to be overcome or avoided in taking that journey of spiritual maturity and health. These obstacles are not just internal temptations but also external pressures, ways of living, habits, even mindsets that are not engendered by the Spirit but by “the world, the flesh and the devil.” So, it’s an uphill battle. It is a fight of faith. It is not easy, but it can be joyful and peaceful. It involves dying to the old self over and over again and being raised up in newness of life, being restored. Calvin described the Christian life as mortification and vivification. It involves repentance and renewed faith, hope and love. It involves forgiving and asking forgiveness. The Spirit enables us to share more and more in the new life we have in Christ, so that we live in daily union and communion with him, dying and being raised up every day. He, our crucified and risen Lord, is the center of our life.
Fruit and gifts. There is a good amount of information on the Holy Spirit involving both the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit. These indicate something of the shape of the Spirit’s ministry. The Spirit is a “Giving Gift” as one theologian has put it. When we hear of gifts, we often think of abilities or capacities to do something; to serve in certain ways. But notice that the fruit of the Spirit are also gifts from the Spirit! The fruit point to the qualities of the life of Jesus that the Holy Spirit is building into us. While I won’t review each of them here, remember, their ultimate definition is demonstrated for us in life of Jesus lived out in the power of the Spirit.
I also want to note that one of these fruit-gifts is “self-control.” Self discipline is essential to sharing in the life of Christ by the Spirit. So often it is heard that the Spirit is all spontaneity and “letting go” and “going with the flow” or is aligned with our feelings or with love and these characteristics are then put in direct contrast with our thoughts, mind or truth or with any kind of intentional process or, well, discipline. But this particular fruit of self-control serves as a clear reminder that Christian freedom is on the far side of self-discipline not on the near side. The Spirit can never be used as an excuse for irresponsibility. The Spirit always joins truth with love, freedom with self-discipline, feelings with order or structure, especially with the moral order of right and good relationships. The Holy Spirit brings wholeness to life, not compartmentalization.
The gifts of the Spirit mentioned by Paul refer to the variety of ways members of the body of Christ are enabled to serve one another. We will not take time to explore the individual gifts. But let me point out a problem that often arises when there is a strong focus on these serving gifts of the Spirit. The problem arises when the serving-gifts of the Spirit are separated from the fruit of the Spirit or simply not seen to be in vital connection with them. That dis-junction is a huge mistake. It really amounts to dividing up the ministry of the Spirit into separate parts and pieces. What often happens in that case is that the gifts of the Spirit are exercised in ways that don’t exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. Serving-gifts used without love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, etc. are being misused! It seems that it has often been assumed that if the gifts come from the Spirit, they can’t be misused. But that is plain wrong. Even gifts of the Spirit can be misused. And they often are when not joined with an equal emphasis on the fruit-gifts of the Spirit.
Jesus, fruit and gifts. The primary work of the Spirit is to deliver all the benefits of Christ to us and in us. That includes both the fruit and the gifts. The Spirit doesn’t give us the option of choosing one kind over the other, placing an emphasis on one and neglecting the other. If we look to the life of Jesus, we can see in him there is no disconnect between the fruit of his character and the quality of his ministry of service to others. These are perfectly joined in his humanity lived out in perfect communion with the Holy Spirit. So, when we talk about Christ’s likeness, we’re talking about the fruit of the Spirit which then shapes all his ministry service. Jesus lived by the Spirit. He’s one of us. In his life, we find him using the gifts of the Spirit through the fruit of the Spirit.
Fruit, primary — gifts, secondary. The fruit is primary, is foundational, to the gifts of service. Paul indicates this when he teaches that love is the primary thing when he’s talking about the gifts. What went wrong in Corinth is they went ahead with the gifts but exercised them without love. And the result was damage to the body. We cannot separate the fruit from the gifts. Fruit is essential who we are. The gifts are the manifestations of who we are and who we’re becoming in Christ, filled with his likeness or his sanctification, that is, with his fruits.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the Holy Spirit doesn’t directly give us his own sanctification. He gives us Christ’s sanctification which was worked out in his human nature. The holiness of the Spirit apart from what Christ accomplished for us in his incarnate life wouldn’t fit us directly as human beings. We’d just explode. But the sanctification that Christ has worked out for us in his humanity by the Spirit has become in him suited to us. And that is what the Holy Spirit shares with us!
Love. That’s why, as the Holy Spirit works, we become like Christ, exhibiting the spiritual fruits of his perfected humanity. The primary center of that fruit, as Paul describes it, is best identified as love. In his letter to the Corinthians he makes it clear that such love will work itself out through a desire for unity, peace, harmony and up-building. The working of the Spirit generates no sense of superiority or competition, possessiveness or even self-sufficiency. Paul’s image of being differing members of a united body holds these elements together well.
Paul surrounds his discussion of the gifts of the Spirit with the fruits of the Spirit even though he doesn’t use that term but names the central fruit, love. They cannot be disconnected. Any working of the gifts should be a form of loving and serving others. If the gifts do not serve the unity, peace harmony and up-building of one another, then they’re not gifts of the Spirit. Love like Christ’s is a proper test of the working of the Spirit.
Since the Spirit both works distinctly through individuals but also promotes unity and harmony, we would not expect the movement of the Spirit to set up some kind of hierarchy of super-spiritual over less spiritual persons. The Spirit wouldn’t foster envy and jealousy, moving some to think or saying that “They’re less spiritual than we are” or “Their fellowship is more spiritual than ours.” Nor would anyone be moved to say “I’m less spiritual than they are” or “my gift is more important than yours” or “My gift is less important than yours.” That’s simply not where the Spirit is going to take us.
That’s not what the Spirit’s about. For in that case the fruit and the gifts would be falling apart rather being brought together by the Spirit. But they can never come apart because the Spirit is one in its ministry and its Person. The Spirit will not foster competitiveness of one trying to be more spiritual than another. Unfortunately that’s what was going on in the church in Corinth.
Freedom for others, not from others. Another expression of the separation of the fruit from the exercise of the gifts arises when individuals insist on using the gift in their own way. Such a person may think, “I’ve got my freedom in Christ and that justifies my using this gift however I see fit!” This is what was going on in Corinth. Certain persons were attempting to use a gift of the Spirit without regard for others. And they did so by claiming freedom in Christ. They took freedom to mean they didn’t have to consider how the exercise of their gifts would affect others. But such an orientation is not going to come from the Spirit. The Spirit does not move persons to insist on their own way, even when it comes to serving others. Why not? Because, as Paul tells us (1 Cor. 13) insisting on your own way does not demonstrate Christ’s love. Because the gifts are never to be used apart from the fruit. Paul tells us even he, the apostle, does not exercise all the freedoms he may have. Why not? For the sake of the body, he tells us (1 Cor 9:12).
Not seeking my own “spiritual” experience. There is another way in which we can take up an interest in the Spirit without much regard for others. I realize that this next point could be more controversial than the previous ones. But it needs to be addressed. Some turn to the Spirit primarily to have a strong, moving or powerful personal experience. The assumption seems to be that the ministry of the Spirit is primarily to give us an experience of the Spirit itself. The main result sought is being able to say, “I had an extraordinary experience of the Spirit.” Some, by this means, are perhaps seeking security or greater assurance of their salvation, or perhaps of their spiritual maturity. But a survey of the New Testament does not support that approach. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is not to give us special individual experiences. Rather, it is to enable us to serve and to build up each other — to help and to assist each other, and to deepen the quality of relationships within the Church’s in-reach and its ministry and outreach in service to others.
Yes, we’ll have experiences of the manifestation of the working of the Spirit. But the resulting benefit will not be our saying, “Wow, I had an experience of the Spirit. Now if I could just have another one of those.” We all will have experiences of the Spirit, but they’re going to be experiences of love and service and fellowship and joy and worship that look away from the experience itself. The experience is a byproduct of something else the Spirit is doing in us and for us.
It seems Jesus wanted his disciples to learn just this lesson when they returned from a short mission trip and had worked miracles. They came back elated that in Jesus’ name they were given authority over demons. Jesus cautions them: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
Who we are worshiping and serving is more important than having some kind of experience. A Spirit that is not preoccupied with itself is not likely to want to make us preoccupied with him or even ourselves! A focus on our seeking or having individual experiences of the Spirit can actually disrupt the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ. The Spirit will not want to take us in the direction where everyone is saying: “I had an experience and then I had another experience! Let me tell you about them.” Sharing in this way usually brings out responses such as, “Oh, you had an experience. I wish I had that experience. I want that experience. How could you get that experience and I didn’t have that experience? Wow, God must not like me,” or, “God must like me (because…well, I can’t say this out loud, but I must be somehow more favored than others) since I was given such an awesome experience that others, too, really should have.” Spiritual pride of this sort can slip in when there is a focus on individual experiences of the Spirit.
How then shall we proceed?
Given these concerns, should we simply avoid talking about the Spirit and his fruits and gifts? No, not at all; though let us do so in ways like this: “Wow! Someone noticed some fruit of the Spirit in my life. How did that happen? It must be the work of the Spirit!” Or, “Wow. I actually tried to serve somebody even though I wasn’t sure how, and they benefited in amazing ways that led them to love God more. How did that happen? It must have been by the Spirit! I sure hope by the grace of God I can live in the middle of that more often.”
This appropriate responses are quite different from ones that are based on seeking some sort of spiritual experience — a response I saw quite often in the Charismatic movement in the 1970s. Many who became Christians then were primarily seeking to “get high” on the Spirit (or Jesus) rather than something else. “I just want to get high on Jesus,” I heard some ay. And there were plenty of ministries ready to feed that desire. Certainly, that was a definite move in the right direction. But all too often those whose Christian lives were not much more than going from one “spiritual” experience to another did not experience much of the fruit of the Spirit. The rest of their lives remained pretty much a wreck. There was little fruit and no service. They were having or seeking experiences with the Spirit but there was little sign of life transformation. Some did move on, grow and mature. But others didn’t. They seemed stuck, getting “high on Jesus.” Then, sometimes, they’d go back to getting high on other things, too. Why not? One high is just as good as another, isn’t it? Unfortunately, they were often simply looking for ways to escape their problems or gain some affirmation or attention for themselves. Admittedly, these are complicated situations. The point being, however, that looking to the Spirit for personal experiences really doesn’t acknowledge the real, full ministry of the Holy Spirit who enables us to respond more fully and freely to the truth and reality of God and the Gospel.
In the next part of this series, I’ll make a few more comments about the shape of the ministry of the Holy Spirit that might help us have a healthy approach.
Last time we noted various aspects of the Spirit's ministry to us both corporately and individually. As we now bring this series to a close, let's look at a primary aspect of the Spirit's ongoing ministry which involves enabling us to make a full and proper response to the truth and reality of who God is, and what he has done, is doing and will yet do in our world, church and individual lives.
The nature of our response to God
The Holy Spirit works actively in our lives, both individually and corporately, to unbind our wills, unscramble our minds, and refashion our affections so that we can more fully respond with all that we are to all that God is. The Spirit frees us to be receptive at every level of who we are. However, it sometimes seems that we think the Spirit enables us to respond to God only emotionally. While the Spirit certainly does enable our emotional response (in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, joy, sorrow and repentance), the Spirit (who is called the Spirit of truth in John 14:17; 15:26) also enables us to respond with our minds — with our understanding or intelligence (1 Cor. 14:15). The Spirit also sets our minds free to be obedient to the truth (Romans 2:8). Throughout the New Testament, the heart (emotions, human spirit) and the mind, when healthy, are not split apart. Instead, they are coordinated. Thus the Spirit enables us to respond with all of what we are.
There is no reason to think that the working of God in and among us is divided, as if Jesus addresses our minds, and the Spirit addresses our emotions. We’re not compartmentalized like that. The whole of God (Father, Son, Spirit) interacts with the whole of who we are (body, mind, heart). Note as well that the Son of God, via the Incarnation, assumed our fully humanity — a whole human nature, with all its aspects. We thus understand that Jesus is a full human being with body, mind and heart. In the Gospels we see Jesus responding fully with all that he is to the truth and reality of his heavenly Father and his relationship to him and the Spirit. Jesus obeys in the Spirit and rejoices in the Spirit. He overcomes temptation by the Spirit. He overcomes evil by the Spirit and sets people free. He offers himself on the cross to the Father through the Spirit (Heb. 9:14). Jesus lives his fully human life in and by the Spirit.
Thus, we understand that when the Spirit of Jesus comes upon us, he enables us to respond fully to the truth and reality of who God is and who we are in relationship to God with all we are and have. If there is part of us that is not yet responding, whether it be body, mind or heart, the Holy Spirit works to bring us to the point that we respond in all that we are. The Spirit does not divide us. Rather, he heals and makes us whole, giving us human integrity before our Lord and God.
The objective work of the Spirit in us
So, we should not align the Holy Spirit exclusively with what is subjective (internal or affective) in human experience. Yes, the Spirit works in us, works in our subjectivity, but not as our subjectivity. The Holy Spirit cannot be identified with our subjective states (feelings, emotions, consciences) as if they are identical. There is no denying that the Spirit works in our subjectivity. If not, we would remain in bondage to our fallen, rebellious wills and hard hearts, and our self-justifying and rationalizing minds. However, the Spirit works in us, in our subjectivity, but does so objectively, so that we can respond with our whole being to the truth and reality of who God is and who we are in relationship to him.
The Holy Spirit objects to our false, resistant, self-justifying subjective orientations. He is not the subjective aspect of human beings that can be shaped and formed any way we like, made to say what we want, made to reflect our preferences, prejudices, biases and desires. The Spirit has a particular character, mind, will, purpose, desire and heart, which is identical to that of Jesus. We have no power over the Spirit to recreate him in our image. The Spirit has his own objective reality that works within our subjectivity to open our eyes, minds and hearts to God.
The Holy Spirit, then, is a healer that brings the whole of human being together from the inside out. He does not split us up. He does not say to us, “I’m just in charge of your emotions, your imagination and your desires. What you think and believe and come to know, the rational part, well, Jesus takes care of that. I don’t know anything about that.” No, the Spirit does not divide up human being into compartments. Instead, he harmonizes the internal with the external, sharing with us the reestablished integrity of Jesus’ humanity (which is true humanity).
The Spirit humanizes us
Thus we understand that a key aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to make us more fully human, like Jesus, the one in whose image we were created and are being renewed or transformed (Col. 3:10; 2 Cor. 3:18). The Spirit shares with us the sanctified humanity of Jesus, which makes us fully human, more completely human, more personal, more full of the fruit of the Spirit. True spirituality is mature humanity in full and right relationship with God.
So, we can say that the Holy Spirit humanizes by making us share in the glorified humanity of Jesus Christ. Now in the process of this transformation, the Spirit brings us to have a humility before God in which we confess that God is God and that we are not; that we are entirely dependent upon God; that we need the grace of God and that we must hand over to him all our sin in repentance, and our whole selves in faith. But in leading us to confess these things, the Spirit will not submit us to humiliation. He will not make us feel less than human, or regret that we were ever human, or think that God despises humanity and creaturely limits.
There is a huge difference between humility and humiliation. Putting it this way may be surprising, since there are some who teach that humility in the Spirit comes by way of our humiliation. It is sometimes taught that the ministry of the Spirit not only focuses exclusively on the subjective side of human being, but requires that we set aside our rationality or intelligence, and act in less than human ways, perhaps like an animal or a person who has lost self-control (like a drunk person). It would be strange indeed for the Spirit to lead persons to lose self-control and act in ways beneath human being, since one of the gifts of the Spirit is precisely self-control, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus who came to bring us into conformity with him. Though Jesus was humble before the Father and the Spirit, the Father never treated Jesus in a way that denigrated his humanity. Nor did Jesus respond to God in ways that denied a healthy and whole humanity. In Jesus, humanity was glorified, not denigrated. Jesus showed what it really means to be a human being.
Given who the Holy Spirit is, and what we know of his ministry, we can affirm that the Spirit does not dehumanize or depersonalize us. So when he leads us into humility before God, he does so in a way that is deeply personal — a way that is not alien to our humanity. This humility, which is the fruit of human maturity in relationship to God, is not about being humiliated, being treated as less than a person, as less than fully human — a form of humility that involves a relationship the opposite of the kind of ministry Jesus performed in the power of the Spirit. Abject humiliation does not represent the kind of relationship Jesus had with his heavenly Father.
Even though Jesus' enemies, especially in the end, attempted to humiliate him to the fullest extent they could, the end result was not Jesus' humiliation in the sense of him collapsing into a dehumanized heap of regret and shame for taking on humanity. Rather, Jesus reacted in such a way that we are encouraged to look to him as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus, who is exalted in his bodily resurrection and ascension, and who calls us his brothers and sisters, is not ashamed of us (Heb. 2:11). Jesus, by the Spirit, shares with us his glorified and perfected humanity.
Rather than denigrating us, the Holy Spirit works to humanize us. He does so by enabling us to share in Jesus’ own glorified humanity. To be fully spiritual does not mean becoming non-human, nor does it mean becoming some kind of super-spiritual disembodied ghost, vapor or ethereal gas that is distributed throughout the cosmos. We come to a biblical understanding of true spirituality by observing the life of Jesus lived out in the Spirit. True spirituality is a human being fully responding to the truth of who God is — firing, as it were, on every cylinder, responding totally to who God is and who we are in relationship to him. It means responding to god in praise and prayer, and in every other way of service and love. The Holy Spirit, who is the humanizing Spirit, leads us in this, helping us share in the perfect humanity of Jesus. The presence and working of the Holy Spirit will always demonstrate just that kind of spirituality and not some other. Evil spirits dehumanize and destroy.
What about the Spirit's ministry to those not yet repenting and believing?
So far, we’ve been addressing primarily the Holy Spirit’s ministry in connection with persons who are responsive to the gospel and receptive to Spirit's working. Let's now address the Spirit's ministry to those not yet responding, not yet believing, not yet receptive to the Spirit's work. We can start by asking whether or not the Spirit acts upon those who are resistant, or not yet believing, that is, those who are not Christians. The answer must be yes. No one becomes a believing person except in response to the ministry the Spirit. If no one comes to the Father except by the Son who sends the Spirit, and it is the Spirit who opens eyes, convicts of the need for forgiveness and life in Christ, then no one could become a conscious member of the body of Christ unless the Spirit drew them. The Spirit must work on those not yet believing and responding, or no one would ever become Christian, no one could enter into their salvation. The Spirit goes out after people to bring them to Christ and so to the Father. That is essential to the Spirit’s mission in the world. We can see this in a dramatic way in the conversion of Saul/Paul.
A related question is whether we can say that the Spirit is “in” everyone. While there is not a lot to go on conveyed in biblical revelation, there is sufficient teaching that can enable us to answer this question. If by “in” everyone we mean in the deepest most personal and intensive way that the Spirit ministers, I think we have to say no. Jesus indicates to those who are following him that the Spirit was “with” them, but will be “in” them (John 14:17). Jesus at one point breathes on the twelve the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room. As a result, they have the Spirit now in a way they didn’t previously. But Jesus also tells them to wait for the coming of the Spirit in Jerusalem, indicating that there is more yet to come involving the Spirit. And then the Spirit becomes present at Pentecost in a new and different way. But also notice that there were some who rejected the Spirit and mocked those who received the Spirit. Not all received the Spirit even though He was now present in a new way. So the Spirit can be present in a variety of ways, a range of intensities, and we could say at a number of different levels of depth.
The Spirit inhabiting (dwelling in)
One of the ways of speaking of the Spirit’s presence in the New Testament is through use of the word which can be translated “dwelling in” or “inhabiting.” This coming and indwelling of the Spirit in persons is viewed as the fulfillment of the promise God made through the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 18:31; 36:26), as Peter tells us in Acts 2:17. The biblical notion of the Spirit’s “dwelling in” or “inhabiting” is exclusively applied to those who are believing, receptive and responsive to the leading and working of the Spirit (see Rom. 8:9, 11; 1 Cor. 3:16). This word designates the most intense, personal and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in persons and in the community of believers.
But this special presence of the Spirit does not mean that the Spirit is absent from everyone else. Clearly, the Holy Spirit was with those in ancient Israel, and sometimes in special ways upon the prophets and even some of the skilled tabernacle workmen. But that kind of presence did not represent what God had ultimately promised. That only occurred on Pentecost to those who received the preached word and were receptive of the presence and working of the Spirit. Further, we can see that the dynamic nature of relationship to the Spirit continues even at the deepest level of indwelling. This becomes clear when we consider the teaching that those who are part of the believing body are not to “quench” or “grieve” the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19; Eph. 4:30) but rather are to “be continually filled” with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).
We thus understand that the Holy Spirit can be present to anyone and everyone. The Spirit is God’s presence throughout the creation. But we can also say that the Spirit can work in anyone and everyone. The Spirit’s ministry is to open people’s minds, soften their hearts, open their eyes to truth, unbind their resistant wills and convict them of the need for forgiveness and the life of salvation that comes only from God by grace. The Spirit delivers to unbelieving people the gift of repentance and faith, hope and love. Doing that requires working within them, within their persons, in their subjectivity. So, we can say that the Spirit works in them and is present to them in that way. However, that kind of inner working does not represent the promised indwelling that comes only with receiving Christ by being responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. For the Spirit does not work causally, mechanically, impersonally or coercively so that all necessarily are forced to receive the benefits of the Spirit’s ministry. Those who in response to the Spirit’s ministry receive the Spirit, who are receptive and submissive, then participate (have koinonia, fellowship) in a much deeper way and experience a unique quality of relationship with the Holy Spirit that is manifested in a conversion of heart and mind, a turning to face in a new directions toward God. Such submission and turning is exhibited in repentance and faith in God through Jesus Christ.
In Christ, united to Christ by the Spirit
This seems to explain why in the New Testament only those who are receptive to the Spirit, not resistant, and those who respond with repentance, faith, hope and love to the Gospel of Jesus Christ are said to be “in” Christ, or dwell “in the Lord.” They alone are said explicitly to be united to Christ (1 Cor. 6:17). The relationship of Christ with his people is compared to the marital unity (Eph. 5:23; Rev. 19:7; 21:9; 22:17). The most intensive, intimate, deep and personal unity described in the New Testament is reserved for those who are believing, for those who are members of the body of Christ, united to him as the head is to the body of a living being.
So, by means of the use of certain words and images there is in the New Testament a distinction made between the Spirit’s relationship with those who are receptive and open to the ministry of the Spirit, and those who are not yet responsive. How the Spirit is present, that is whether or not indwelling or inhabiting, will involve whether or not persons are receptive to the gospel and the ministry of the Spirit to receive it, welcome it. How one responds to the ministry of the Holy Spirit does make a difference in the kind of relationship one has with the Spirit.
But such a distinction should not be construed as meaning that the Spirit is not for all persons, is not capable of ministering in and to all persons at the deepest level, speaking to their individual human spirits. The Holy Spirit is “for all” in just the same way that Jesus Christ is for all those created through him. The Father sends the Spirit for the same purpose as he sent the Son. But the Spirit is able to be present in a range of ways. And this fact is represented in biblical understanding and so we have to account for it in our understanding as well.
What about the Spirit in other religions?
What we can say about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in other religions is an extension of what we have just covered. No religion itself can keep the Holy Spirit out or away. The Holy Spirit is God’s sovereign grace at work. The Spirit can be present to anyone and anywhere without becoming polluted, just as we see take place with Jesus’ being present among sinners. And the Spirit is present to bring to bear all the fruits of reconciliation accomplished for all humanity in Christ. So in those situations where the official religion being practiced is resistant (even hostile) to the gospel, the Spirit will be present and working within, but against those points of resistance/hostility.
The religion itself will not be responsible or earn any credit for the presence and working of the Spirit. If hostile, the religion is actually an impediment to the working of the Spirit, an obstacle to receptivity to the ministry of the Spirit of Jesus. However, that does not stop the Holy Spirit from working. The Spirit will work to bring individuals and groups out of bondage to false ideas about God, and false ideas about their relationship to God. The Spirit will minister to open people’s minds and hearts to be receptive to God’s grace, love, faith and hope. The Spirit will draw people to a humble repentance and a dependence upon some kind of grace.
Individuals and groups can be drawn by the Spirit even while remaining outwardly a part of their non- or anti-Christian religious community. In that case, the Spirit will be making heretics within that religion—individuals or sub-groups who in their own minds and hearts take exception to at least some of what they have been told and are taught by the formal religion—as the Spirit leads. These persons may not know that they have become willing to follow the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit may be anonymous to them, especially at first. But they, in their spirits, will have become responsive and receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit of Jesus.
People in this state can be said to have implicit faith, not explicit faith. There can be made an analogy between these people and those of faith in the Old Testament, whose faith in Jesus was not explicit. Although they did not know Jesus by name, nor of the nature of his future work, they nevertheless lived by faith and repentance and trusted in the covenant love and free grace of God to renew it when they broke it. They didn’t know exactly how God’s covenant was going to be fulfilled, but they knew and trusted and hoped it would somehow it would be.
That’s how the New Testament depicts these Old Testament persons of faith. On the other side of their death, they will see how the promises they had hoped in were explicitly fulfilled. These persons, of course, are not excluded from God’s salvation. So too, if through no fault of their own, persons responsive to the even anonymous ministry of the Holy Spirit do not come to have explicit faith, there is no reason to believe that they will not be included in God’s ultimate salvation. Such persons have not committed the absolute and complete repudiation (blasphemy) of the Spirit but have been welcoming and receptive. Their implicit faith will become explicit as soon as it is made possible.
Of course, it is normally God’s will for all who have implicit faith to come to have explicit faith in this life. And after all, is it not true that everyone who comes to have explicit faith, first had, at least for a moment, implicit faith? But faith can become explicit, it seems, only if and when there is a conscious and explicit proclamation of the gospel so that in the hearing of it, it is welcomed and received. And where there is such implicit faith it is always welcomed and received since there has already been a responsiveness to the Spirit that is working even as they hear the explicit Word announced. There are numerous missionary stories that corroborate just this kind of scenario. People have somehow become ready to receive the proclamation of the gospel before any missionary had ever arrived. So when the explicit gospel is proclaimed by the evangelist or missionary, it is recognized as fulfilling what they have been waiting for. Well, we know how this comes about—by the Spirit, that’s how they were prepared.
But it may be the case that in not every instance where there is implicit faith engendered by the Holy Spirit that God brings about an opportunity for that faith to become explicit in this life. Yes, it could be that God sees to it that this never comes about. It could be that in every case where there is genuine implicit faith, God may send dreams or angels or miraculously appearing evangelists (as in Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, shown in the picture below), so that their implicit faith can become explicit through a conscious testimony to Christ. But we cannot know about these situations. And knowing how God works in every case does not practically concern us.
The point here is that we do not need a final theory as to how things will necessarily play out in situations in which we have no part. Rather, our ministry is to serve in ways that count on the working of the Holy Spirit within people so that implicit faith can become joyfully explicit. And in that way, our and their joy and thanksgiving will be increased. They will become members of the body of Christ (Christians) and be able to join in explicit worship and in consciously bearing witness to God so that others can also come to have explicit faith as well. But in any and every case, we can rest assured that God will, one way or another, take care of all those situations where faith is implicit because he is merciful and faithful. God always acts on the basis of his grace operating through the faithful working of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Son and of the Father, sent by both in accordance with their sovereign grace.
With that comment we now end this series on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit with a focus on the Spirit's Person and work. Though the series has not answered all questions on the topic, and the answers given are not exhaustive, hopefully understanding has been gained concerning fundamental questions we have regarding the Holy Spirit.