The subject of the Holy Spirit causes confusion for many people. Indeed, more nonsense seems to be spoken in relationship to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit than nearly any other Christian doctrine. So, if we wish to understand the Spirit’s identity and work, we must take special care to do so within the framework and controls of the Bible itself.
Thankfully, the Bible has much to say about the Holy Spirit. While not exhaustive, the following survey of Scripture’s teaching about the Spirit will help to shape our understanding of who He is and what He does.
The Holy Spirit’s Identity
As we come to understand who the Spirit is in Himself, we can begin to understand who He is to us and what He does for us. It is because the Holy Spirit is God that He can bring God’s presence and power into our lives.
A Unique Person
It’s not uncommon to hear people call the Holy Spirit “it,” as He were merely an entity. But the Spirit is not some amorphous power or influence. Rather, He is a person—the third person of the Trinity.
The Holy Spirit is not busy acting on His own accord. What He does is the will of all three persons of the Trinity.
Another common misunderstanding is that the Holy Spirit is the same person as the Father and the Son—that there is one God who appears sometimes as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Spirit. But the Bible clearly says the Father, Son, and Spirit are three unique persons. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, for example, all three are present and distinct: Jesus, the incarnate Son, is baptized; God the Father speaks from heaven; and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus “like a dove” (Matt. 3:16–17). These are three distinct persons within one eternal being, each acting in their respective roles.
Because the Holy Spirit is a unique person of the Trinity rather than an entity, the Bible can speak of us interacting with Him. It is because of the Spirit’s personal nature that He may be grieved (Eph. 4:30), that His will may be resisted (Acts 7:51), and that His work may be quenched (1 Thess. 5:19). It is also His personal nature that allows us to walk with Him (Gal. 5:16) and rejoice in Him (Luke 10:21).
Unified with the Godhead
The interconnectedness of the Trinity’s three persons is mysterious and beautiful. Just as Jesus is one with the Father (John 10:30), so the Holy Spirit is also one with the Father and the Son—so much so that He is sometimes called the Spirit of the Father (Matt. 10:20) and “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9). The Bible says that He is sent by Father and Son alike (John 14:16; 15:26; 16:7). In the words of the Athanasian Creed, though each is a distinct person, “the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.”
Because the Spirit is united in being with the Father and the Son, we can trust that He is also united in purpose. Speaking of the coming Spirit, Jesus told His disciples, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14–15). The Holy Spirit is not busy acting on His own accord. What He does is the will of all three persons of the Trinity.
The Agent of Creation
In the opening chapter of the Bible, we discover the distinct personality of God the Holy Spirit also at work in creation: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). This verse uses the Hebrew phrase ruah elohim to describe the Spirit as the “breath of God,” which the Bible describes elsewhere as a maker and giver of life (Job 33:4).
The Holy Spirit who created the world and breathed out the Word also creates new life in Christian believers.
Because the Holy Spirit possesses eternal power to create and sustain, we know that His personal presence is what we need to go on living. Psalm 104:29 speaks of the creation returning to dust when it is separated from God’s presence. But then it says, “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” The Spirit is the source of our life.
The Author of Scripture
The same breath of God that created the world also created the Scriptures by empowering its human authors to write it down. Paul says that the Scriptures are “breathed out”—theópneustos —by God (2 Tim. 3:16), and Peter writes that Scripture was written as men were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). These authors “spoke from God” the Holy Spirit.
Because the Holy Spirit is behind the creation of the Bible, we can trust that the Bible is the very Word of God. And because He wrote it, we must also trust Him to help us understand it. What the Bible says to us God says to us, and He alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). We would be wise to imitate the man in Psalm 1, whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (v. 2).
The Agent of New Creation
The Holy Spirit who created the world and breathed out the Word also creates new life in Christian believers. When Jesus taught Nicodemus about being born again, He identified the Holy Spirit as the author of that spiritual birth (John 3:5–6). The apostle Paul, too, said, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). Moreover, the Holy Spirit does this redeeming work through His Word, which, as He empowers it, proves to be “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, … discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Every believer has experienced the Spirit’s work in creating new life. Many Christians can relate to the experience of being unsure about God, having no interest in God, and living their lives without God, only to then reach a place of knowing Him, loving Him, and following Him—an amazing transformation that has no explanation apart from God the Holy Spirit forming people into new creations. What the Holy Spirit does as a Re-Creator and Redeemer is the subject of much of the Bible’s testimony to Him and the chief part of what we call His work.
The Holy Spirit’s Work
While the Holy Spirit has work that is tied to every aspect of His identity, His personal and transforming activity in the lives of believers gets the most attention from the New Testament authors. As Jesus was preparing the disciples for His death, the promise of the coming Holy Spirit was central to His words of guidance, counsel, and encouragement to the Twelve (John 16:6–7). Jesus knew that the personal work of the Spirit of God would be the power that could transform all believers.
Because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is unified with the work of the Father and the Son, the Spirit always exalts them both. The redemption He establishes is the same redemption that the Son purchased by His blood.
First, it’s the Spirit’s job to convict the world of its rebellion against God, as Jesus told His disciples: “When he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Where the world has wandered from the truth and is flippant in the face of eternity, the Spirit brings its guilt home in the hearts of individuals so that they may repent. The Spirit helps each of us to say, “The world is guilty because I am guilty, and I need a Savior to free me from my guilt.” It is He who empowers men and women to call on the name of Jesus Christ and so be saved.
Second, Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Counselor, explaining that He would come alongside the disciples, reinforcing all that Jesus had taught so they could declare the truth to the world (John 14:26). Just as the Spirit inspired Scripture, so He counsels us when we read it (John 16:13). Jesus instructed people externally with His words spoken aloud, but the Spirit of Christ lives within believers and establishes His teaching within their hearts.
Jesus also taught that believing in Him and following Him means obeying Him: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). The Spirit thus does more than teach us to understand God’s Word; He also helps us to obey it. We may have the most erudite teaching, the boldest proclamation, and the soundest theology, but we will amount to nothing for God unless He moves us, stirs us, and equips us, for “anyone who does not have the Spirit of God does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9). In the weakness of our flesh, the Spirit helps us, conforming us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:26, 29).
Finally, the person and work of the Spirit cannot be separated from the person and work of Christ. Because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is unified with the work of the Father and the Son, the Spirit always exalts them both. The redemption He establishes is the same redemption that the Son purchased by His blood: “By sending his own Son …, [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk … according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4). And because “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3), we know that where Christ is loved, obeyed, preached, and exalted, the Spirit is at work.
The Spirit’s work is essential to our continued growth in Christlikeness and to our usefulness to God in ministry for His kingdom. We can do nothing for God until God Himself dwells within us and leads us. As we grow in our understanding of the Spirit, let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us, move us, stir us, and equip us for the work God has called us to do.
This article was adapted from the sermon “The Holy Spirit” by Alistair Begg.