The Holy Spirit is the least understood and talked about member of the Trinity. And yet he is of vital importance to our life as a Christian. God the Father seems to be the focus of the Old Testament while God the Son is the focus of the New Testament. But since Pentecost it is the Holy Spirit who has been most active. The Holy Spirit works in the world to bring conviction of sin. He also is at work within believers, working on our sanctification and keeping us connected to God.
Much of the early debate in theological circles concerned the nature of the Trinity and of the dual nature of Jesus. There was not a lot of debate specifically about the Holy Spirit, although he was generally regarded as a member of the Godhead. Throughout much of the history of the church the Holy Spirit was not emphasized because there was not much focus on the experiential aspects of Christianity. But the Protestant Reformation placed a renewed emphasis on the Holy Spirit both in administering God’s grace to the believer and in helping to understand the Scriptures. More recently the rise of Pentecostalism has focused attention on the Holy Spirit.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The Person of the Holy Spirit
There are no passages in the Bible that directly say that the Holy Spirit is God. But there are a number of them that directly imply it. Among these is Acts 5:3-4 where Peter is confronting Ananias about the money he has brought to the apostles. He asks him “how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?” And then he says to him “you have not just lied to human beings but to God.” In this passage we see Peter using the Holy Spirit and God interchangeably.
In Matthew 28:19, in 2 Corinthians 13:14, and in 1 Peter 1:2 we see all three members of the Trinity mentioned together. And the interesting thing with these three passages is that they do not all use the same order. In Matthew it is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians it is Lord Jesus Christ, God, and Holy Spirit. And in 1 Peter it is God the Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ. The New Testament writers seemed to have no issue with equating the Holy Spirit as God.
There is a temptation to see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force, somewhat like the force in Star Wars. But the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force that is at work in the world today. He is as much a person as is God the Father and God the Son.
In Ephesians 1:14 Paul says of the Holy Spirit, “who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.” The Holy Spirit is a ‘who’, not an ‘it’.
In John 14:26; 15:26; and 16:7 Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit as our Paraclete, translated as advocate or comforter. And in John 14:16 he tells his disciples that he would give them another advocate. Jesus was going to send someone like himself to be with them. If Jesus was a person, then the promised Holy Spirit would also be a person.
The Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed was modified in 381 at the Council of Constantinople to address the Holy Spirit. The addition became the orthodox position on the Holy Spirit for all Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The expression ‘and the Son’ in the first line is not accepted by the Orthodox churches. But otherwise they are in agreement.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
In the Old Testament
The name ‘Holy Spirit’ is not used often in the Old Testament. More often the Spirit of God is used to refer to him. Genesis 1:2 is an example of this where we see that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Speaking Through the Prophets
The Holy Spirit was involved in the ministry of the prophets in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 2:2 the prophet says “the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.” And, in 2 Peter 1:21, Peter tells us that “prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Equipping for Service
In the Old Testament we also find the Holy Spirit involved in equipping people for service. God, in Exodus 31:2-3, says “I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills.” And in, Genesis 41:38, Pharaoh says of Joseph, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?”
The Holy Spirit also indwells at least some individuals in the Old Testament. In David’s psalm of repentance, Psalm 51:11, he cries out to God, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” It does not seem like the Holy Spirit was within every member of the community. But he did work within those whom God had anointed to a special task.
In the Life of Jesus
In his incarnation Jesus lived as a human man and was dependent on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was involved in his conception (Luke 1:35), came on him at his baptism (John 1:32), led him into the wilderness where he was tempted (Matt. 4:1), afterwards leading him to Galilee (Luke 4:14), and enabled him to drive out demons (Matt. 12:28).
In the Life of the Believer
The work of the Holy Spirit is most obvious in the life of the believer. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence within us who enables us to live the life we are called to. In the Old Testament period, the Holy Spirit seemed to work in the lives of only a few people. In contrast, the Holy Spirit now indwells all believers. From the moment of their salvation until the end of their life.
The Holy Spirit begins his work in us by bringing about conviction of sin. Jesus, in John 16:8-11, taught that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement. Those who responded to this conviction and surrendered their lives to the lordship of Jesus would experience regeneration, or rebirth, born this time of the Spirit (John 3:5-8).
On my own I am weak and powerless to be the person God wants me to be. But I am not left to accomplish this task on my own; the Holy Spirit is given to me to empower me to the task. In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells his disciples that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you”, and they would then be able to proclaim him to the ends of the earth. Paul, in 2 Timothy 1:7, tells Timothy that the Holy Spirit “gives us power, love and self-discipline.” As I trust in the power of the Holy Spirit in my life, I am enabled to serve God.
As a finite human I am limited in my ability to understand the things of God. But Jesus promised us that “the Holy Spirit . . . will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is our teacher, instructing us in the ways of God. In 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Paul told us that it is the Holy Spirit who instructs us in the things of God with words that we can understand. Spiritual truth is accessible to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.
I am also limited in my ability to pray. I oftentimes do not even know my own heart or how to express to God what I need. Here also the Holy Spirit comes to the rescue. In Romans 8:26-27 Paul tells us that “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” The Holy Spirit serves as our advocate before the throne of God.
The Holy Spirit enables us to live holy lives. The eighth chapter of Romans, particularly the first 17 verses, stress the importance of living by the Spirit. The Spirit teaches and empowers us to live lives as children of God. And Paul says in this passage that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” The Holy Spirit will lead us, but still we must follow him. We must “by the Spirit . . . put to death the misdeeds of the body.” If we do that we will experience real life.
Being led by the Spirit will produce some tangible evidence in our lives. In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” While these characteristics are found in most people, the Holy Spirit will help these virtues to grow and bear fruit.
And, finally, the Holy Spirit equips us for service in the kingdom. The twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians deals with giftedness within the body of Christ. In verse seven Paul tells us that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” and then goes on to provide a sample list of the gifts given to different people within the body by the Spirit. There are two important points made in the verse. First is that the Holy Spirit gives “to each one”; we all are gifted in some way to serve. The second important point in this verse is that the gifts are “given for the common good”; I am not gifted for my own advantage, but for the advantage of the body as a whole.
The Question of Tongues
One of the questions frequently asked concerning the working of the Holy Spirit today concerns the gift of speaking in tongues. Is this a gift that is still available today, or has it ceased?
For those who see tongues as no longer operative today, 1 Corinthians 13:8 is key. While it is difficult to tell from many modern translations, the verb related to tongues is different that the verb used for prophecy and knowledge. The tense of the verbs is also different. This leads some to believe that the one has ceased while the other two will cease. The NASB makes at least the verb differences obvious, “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.” The problem with understanding this verse this way is that in the very next chapter Paul is claiming to speak in tongues more than all of them. So it would appear that as of the writing of 1 Corinthians, that gift had not yet ceased.
Signs Used To Establish the Church
Another passage used to prove the cessation of tongues is Hebrews 2:3-4: “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” All of these signs, as well as tongues, were needed until the church was established, and then they were removed. I think this is a better argument but it also would argue that miracles are no longer happening either.
Practiced by Non-Christians
A third argument against tongues is that speaking in tongues is also practiced by non-Christian groups. I was exposed to a cult during my Navy days that taught people to speak in tongues; it was learned, not a gift. But just because others do it doesn’t make it wrong for us. Non-Christians also sing, teach, proclaim, etc.
1 Corinthians chapters 12 & 14 are the primary passages used to support tongues. Tongues are identified as a gift from God (1 Cor. 12:28), Paul expresses his desire that they all spoke in tongues (1 Cor. 14:5) and was thankful that he spoke in tongues more than all the rest of them (1 Cor. 14:18). There is nothing in the Scripture that explicitly teaches that the gift of tongues was only for a limited duration. And they do seem to have been very much a part of the life of the early church. At least in Corinth.
I see no reason not to accept tongues as a viable gift today. So long as the directions Paul gives in the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians are followed. Tongues should not be practiced publicly without an interpreter. Only a limited number should speak publicly. And tongues should not be used as a sign of advancement in the faith, a so called second blessing.
Systematic Theology Post List
- An Introduction to Systematic Theology
- The God of General Revelation: What Creation Tells Us
- The Doctrine of the Bible
- The Nature of God: What Is God Like?
- The Doctrine of the Work of God
- The Doctrine of Humanity
- The Doctrine of Sin
- The Person of Jesus Christ
- The Work of Jesus
- The Holy Spirit
- The Doctrine of Salvation
- The Doctrine of the Church
- The Doctrine of Last Things
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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- Original Post – June 4, 2018
- Updated – July 30, 2021