The Work of the Holy Spirit
When we consider the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, a strange paradox confronts us. On the one hand, we find a silence in many theological works, with only a passing reference to the subject in connection with the question of the Trinity. On the other hand, we find an increasing interest in the work of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal movement and the subsequent waves of charismatic Christianity have led Christians to a new awareness of the Spirit and His gifts in the lives of believers. Here, the focus centers on the work of the Holy Spirit in us—the spiritual gifts that empower us in our ministries. Much of this interest in the Holy Spirit is motivated by the benefits we gain from the Holy Spirit. However, we have to remind ourselves that the Bible is first and foremost about God and not about us or our spiritual potential. Even the spiritual gifts we receive are God’s gifts (1 Cor. 12:11). Therefore, it is appropriate to study the Holy Spirit and His work from a biblical and theocentric focus.
But here is the challenge: Scripture itself does not present the Spirit in any methodical or structured way. Perhaps this has to do, in part, with a peculiar characteristic of the Holy Spirit: His background position.
The background position of the Holy Spirit
In the Bible, the Holy Spirit does not seek to be the center of attention. He plays a role that involves more of a “background position” in the Trinity.1 The Holy Spirit promotes and mediates the presence and Lordship of Jesus Christ through His presence in our lives. James Packer has aptly said, “The Spirit’s message to us is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always, ‘Look at him and see him, and see his glory; get to know him, and hear his word; go to him, and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.’ ”2 In our sinful world of egocentricity and self-promotion, the beauty of the Spirit lies not in self-display, but in divine selflessness. “For this reason believers are rightly called ‘Christians’ not ‘Pneumians.’ ”3 Thus, the Holy Spirit teaches us humility in giving glory to God the Father through Jesus Christ, His Son.
The Holy Spirit and our knowledge of God
The Holy Spirit also plays a pivotal role in our knowing God. The apostle Paul states that the Holy Spirit searches even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10, 11). He knows God as no other being does. He not only has unique access to God, He is God Himself, a Member of the Triune God. 4 For this reason, the Holy Spirit is uniquely fitted to reveal God and His will to us in a trustworthy and authoritative manner. To know the God of the Bible means that we have to rely upon God who made Himself known to us through His Spirit in His Word. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is the epistemological basis for knowing God.
God’s special revelation and inspiration
The special revelations of God and His will for humanity in Scripture result from the work of the Holy Spirit. All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), and no prophetic word can be brought forth by human invention (2 Pet. 1:20, 21). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 14:16, 17; 15:26), who brings God’s words to reliable remembrance. The Holy Spirit moved biblical writers in such a way that what they wrote in their own words was nevertheless God’s Word and carried divine authority (1 Thess. 2:13). But even though the Holy Spirit inspired biblical writers to record faithfully what God had revealed, the result is not a book primarily about the Holy Spirit but about Jesus Christ, the Son of God (cf. Luke 24:25–27, 44–45; John 16:14; 15:26; Acts 5:32; 1 John 4:2).
The close link between the Holy Spirit and the Bible lies at the foundation of the Protestant principle of authority. According to Bernard Ramm, “The proper principle of authority within the Christian church must be . . . the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures, which are the product of the Spirit’s revelatory and inspiring action.”5 The Bible is authoritative because it is the vehicle through which God has chosen to speak to us through the work of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and Scripture
Calvin has pointed out forcefully that the Holy Spirit confirms the witness and establishes the inviolate authority of the Scriptures. Calvin called this the internal witness of the Spirit (testimonium Spiritus sancti internum).6 This witness is stronger than any human reason. Scripture is thus self-authenticated.7 This assurance does not come by any rational process but rather is received in faith. The Holy Spirit establishes the assurance of the trustworthiness of Scripture in the life of the believer.
To have the sure Word of God is not enough; it must be followed by the embrace of, and obedience to, the Word. Thus, revelation, inspiration, proper understanding, and obedience to the revealed Word, all come from the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, there is no appreciation of, or affection for, the divine message. Without the Spirit, faith and love are missing in our responses to the message of Scripture. We need the Holy Spirit to enable us to understand what He has inspired (cf. 1 Cor. 2:12, 14, 15; Eph. 1:17–19; Ps. 119:18).
The Holy Spirit’s work with Scripture did not end in the distant past. He continues to speak to people through the Bible today, making the Word come alive as He helps us understand the significance and relevance of the biblical text for our lives in the present. “The Spirit was not given . . . to supersede the Bible; . . . the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.”8
By embracing the scriptural Word as trustworthy and true, we are led by the Spirit to accept the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, as our Savior and Lord.
The Holy Spirit and Christ
The Holy Spirit was active and instrumental not only in the Written Word of God but also in the Incarnate Word. The Spirit prepared the way of the Messiah through prophets. More significantly “the conception of the Messiah is Spiritcrafted.”9 The Holy Spirit is the One responsible for the conception of Jesus Christ in the virgin Mary: “ ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ ” (Luke 1:35).10 The result? The One who is thus born is called “that holy thing” (Luke 1:35, KJV), signifying that Jesus is indeed the Son of the Holy One, the Son of God, truly divine and truly human.
Providing the assurance of salvation
The Holy Spirit also gives assurance of our salvation through Jesus Christ. He bears “witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16, RSV). He gives evidence of God’s work in us. “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us” (1 John 3:24, RSV). The Spirit gives us assurance of our adoption as God’s children. He is a Witness and Seal that confirms our standing in Christ (2 Cor. 1:21, 22; Eph. 1:13, 14; 4:30).
The Holy Spirit is the Agent of this sealing and the guarantee that God will bring to completion what He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6). Hence, the apostle Paul states that all of God’s promises are Yes in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20), who “anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (vv. 21, 22). This sealing implies a moral dimension: to walk in the way of holiness that accompanies the sealing of the Spirit.11 Hence, the admonition not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:30–32; cf. 2 Tim. 2:19). In other words, living in the Spirit means a life of spiritual and moral congruity with what Scripture teaches (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17).
The Holy Spirit and new birth
Jesus said, “ ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ ” (John 3:5, 6, RSV). Paul affirms that without the working of the Holy Spirit, we cannot experience regeneration and renewal (Titus 3:5). Indeed, as we are led by the Spirit of God, we become the children of God (Rom. 8:14). The Spirit awakens sinful and dead hearts (Eph. 2:1; Ezek. 36:26, 27) and opens our blind eyes (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:4). He does this by awakening in us an awareness of our sin (John 16:8) and convicting us of our lostness and need for a Savior.
Sanctification and character development
The Holy Spirit desires to make us holy as God is holy. For this reason, He cleanses us from sin and sanctifies us. The apostle Paul writes, “[Y]ou were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11, RSV). The Spirit produces in us lifelong growth in holiness, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit within us—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). He enables us to live victoriously by God’s grace. Our being changed into His likeness “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Sanctification and the joy of obedience come through the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2; cf. Rom. 8:4; 15; 16).
Mission and evangelism
The Holy Spirit also empowers believers for mission and evangelism. He provides the essential strength for the mission of the church (Acts 1:8; Rom. 15:18, 19). The Holy Spirit calls forth persons to be bearers of God’s mission (Acts 13:2, 3). He guides and directs missionaries to specific places to be witnesses for God and to labor for the church (Acts 16:6–8). He equips the believers to proclaim effectively the everlasting gospel throughout the whole world. He leads people to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and to be obedient to the Written Word of God. God has devised that His gospel message should go out into the world through His disciples who have received the Holy Spirit. However, a worldwide mission can be successfully accomplished only if the church is united, and here the Holy Spirit performs another significant theological task.
The unity of the church
The Holy Spirit unites us in many ways. First of all, He brings us to Jesus Christ, our Savior, and unites us with Him. According to Calvin, “the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”12 Being united with Christ “is, in fact, the foundation of all the blessings of salvation. Justification, sanctification, adoption and glorification are all received through our being united to Christ.”13 This work of the Holy Spirit on the individual level leads to a specific community of faith—the church. Having experienced salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, there is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit in the church (2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1, 2). The church needs to be understood as a faith community that is called into being by the Spirit. Thus, individual believers are built into a new spiritual house of God “in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22, RSV). As followers of Christ, we should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3, RSV).
We are also baptized by one Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). The Holy Spirit unites us in baptism into one body; hence the church as a community of faith is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16, 17; Eph. 2:19–22). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit actively supports and sustains the various members of the body of Christ by giving special spiritual gifts. Different gifts, given by “one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11, RSV), work together “for the common good” (v. 7, RSV) so that the body of Christ is well equipped to fulfill its God-given task to proclaim the everlasting gospel to a perishing world. Since the Holy Spirit bestows His gifts as He wills, it is wrong to expect one single spiritual gift to be present in all believers.
The Holy Spirit produces love in our hearts (Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22; Col. 1:8), and this love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14, RSV). In such a loving and spiritual unity, there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek, neither black nor white, neither rich nor poor: all are one in Christ Jesus, through the work of the Spirit (Gal. 3:28).
We often credit human beings in leadership positions with the ability to plant, establish, and maintain churches. We should not forget, however, that at a deeper level the very existence of the church depends upon the Holy Spirit. We may seek unity and peace and do everything to avoid strife and discord among the members of the church; but true and lasting unity ultimately is the Spirit’s work. We are just His humble servants and should not hinder His influence.
The theological foundation for the unity of the church is the work of the Spirit through the Written Word of God that He inspired. The Spirit of Christ who dwells in Christians never leads us to doubt, criticize, go beyond, or fall short of biblical teachings. The Holy Spirit works with the Bible to make it the living Word of God, which can transform our lives.
In summary, the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, working harmoniously with God the Father and God the Son in Creation and our salvation. The Holy Spirit awakens us from spiritual death, brings forth an awareness of our sinfulness and lostness, kindles a desire for change, and leads us to Jesus Christ. He gives us assurance of salvation. He conforms us to be more like Jesus. He keeps us faithful in our walk with God. He enables us to fulfill God’s will and mission. He generated the Written Word of God as our safe guide and only norm for the Christian life and doctrine. He unites the church on the basis of God’s Word.
Thanks be to God for His sublime presence in the Holy Spirit.
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1 Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 104.
2 James I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 66, quoted in Graham A. Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 284; emphasis in original.
3 Cole, He Who Gives Life, 284.
4 On the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit, see Edward Henry Bickersteth, The Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993); Max Hatton, Understanding the Trinity (Alma Park Grantham, England: Autum House, 2001); and Woodrow W. Whidden, Jerry Moon, and John W. Reeve, The Trinity: Understanding God’s Love, His Plan of Salvation, and Christian Relationships (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2002).
5 Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Religious Authority (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 28.
6 John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.7.
7 Ibid., 1.7,4.
8 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), vii.
9 Cole, He Who Gives Life, 151.
10 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New International Version.
11 See Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit, vol. 3 of Systematic Theology (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2011), 185.
12 Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.1.1.
13 Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 80, quoted in Cole, He Who Gives Life, 217.