Who is the Holy Spirit?

I’ve always believed in God (accompanied with occasional doubts over the years), but haven’t always understood who God is; his character, his personality and his personhood. Even though my mother taught me about God and the Bible as a child, I imagined God as being a big bearded man in the clouds because that’s how the cartoons on the tele portrayed him - a kind of Zeus-like figure. Jesus, as I understood it was his son, also with a brown beard and wearing a long white dress with blue trimmings who walked on the earth uttering pithy statements. In the pictures of him, he always had long flowing hair, neatly conditioned and was always playing with birds and forest creatures like some weird effeminate hippy - a complete misrepresentation of the real Jesus. Jesus was a strong and hard working carpenter. He would have had splinters and calluses on his hands from hard work, tough feet, a muscular structure, probably had dark skin from being in the sun and was eventually homeless because he was constantly on the move during his three-year ministry. But what about the Holy Spirit? I had no idea what the Holy Spirit was like. I imagined him as being a white dove because of the illustrated pictures of him in the children’s Bibles - the story of the baptism of Jesus, for example.

Having become a Christian at the age of 16 through repentance and faith, my desire for wanting to know more about God grew, and as I learned more about him, he was nothing like the bearded man I imagined him to be when I was a child. He is very different. The God of the Bible is one God in three persons. They are distinct in persons but not separate. They are of one substance but are not each other. The God of the Bible is neither monotheistic, nor is he polytheistic. The God of the Bible is trinitarian. He is unlike any of the other gods of the other religions. He is not a bearded man in the clouds. God is Spirit. But the whole Godhead has chosen to reveal himself through the person of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19).

I will briefly discuss the Trinity before moving on to investigate who the Holy Spirit is because I think the Holy Spirit is the most misunderstood person in the Trinity. I’ll supply a list of ‘he is…’ facts about him to make things simple.

The Trinity

The Trinity is neither a theory nor a bright idea someone just thought up, it is a doctrine that is clearly taught in the Bible. Although the word ‘Trinity’ doesn’t appear in the Bible, the truths that it attempts to summarise it do. The word helps to systemise facts about the Godhead: that there is one God in three persons. The Bible tells us to study the word of God (Josh. 1:8; Acts 17:2, 11; 19:8; Col. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17), and to prayerfully understand/interpret its meaning (Acts 8:30). Throughout the centuries, theologians have systematically investigated every single verse/passage in the Bible which says something about God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and studied them all in their contexts to try and make sense of who God is. The conclusion that thousands of theologians have come to is that God is trinitarian. By my own personal study of both scripture and church history, I have also come to the conclusion that God is trinitarian—that it is the best way to explain who God is.

Soon after the Apostles died, theologians began disputing doctrines like the Trinity and the person of Christ. Sadly, there were good and bad people leading churches, just like there are today. So, each time a doctrinal dispute arose, the Church would call together a council together to debate and produce ‘creeds’ to provide a clear document stating what the Church believed about God and other biblical doctrines. God was clearly providentially supervising these councils as every creed during the first millennia and a half managed to convey clear biblical truth regarding fundamental biblical doctrines.

There is a noticeable development in articulating the doctrine of the Trinity between the First Nicene Creed (AD 325) and the First Constantinople Creed (AD 381), which was the amended version. Both creeds name the three persons, but the Constantinople Creed states that the Father and Son are of “one substance” and that the Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father and the Son” and that the three “together is worshipped and glorified”. The Eastern Orthodox Church reject the filioque concept - that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. They maintain even to this day that the Spirit proceeds from the Father only. However, regardless of this difference, the Eastern Orthodox Church affirms that God is Trinity as do the Roman Catholics and Protestants. Admittedly, studying historical theology can be confusing and daunting at first—it can even appear to be pedantic over semantics—but with perseverance, it gets very exciting and fascinating.

The creed that is most obvious in its confession of the Trinity is the Quicumque Vult (the Athanasian Creed). Authored sometime in the fourth to fifth centuries, it is historically believed to have been written by Athanasius but the author is actually unknown. The creed clearly relies heavily on the teaching of Athanasius and it helpfully states truths about what the Trinity is and also what the Trinity is not. For example, it says, “the Father is God: the Son is God: and the Holy Spirit is God. And they are not three Gods, but one God…So there is one Father, not three Fathers: one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is afore, or after another: none is greater, or less than the other.” I’d encourage every Christian to read the whole creed and to become familiar with it - it’s especially helpful.

In addition to the creeds, the writings of the early church fathers assert the doctrine of the Trinity. Men like Ignatius, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary of Poitiers and many others maintain that God is Trinity. There have also been, of course, nontrinitarians like Arius, Sabellius and Photinus. But these men were universally condemned as heretics and their teachings as heresies. In recent years, people have formed sects and cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians and Mormons among others because of ‘new revelations’ their founders claimed to have received. Their rejection of fundamental biblical doctrines come as a result of the rejection of certain aspects of God’s word, not as a result of careful study. All they’re doing is ignorantly repeating the same things the heretics of the past have said. However, regardless of past and present heretics and their heresies, the three main Christian sects, namely Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism still affirm the doctrine of the Trinity today.

So, with the support of church history and our freedom to understand and interpret the Bible, we can concede that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are coequal, coeternal, and have been in absolute perfect communion with each other as one God in essence and nature for all eternity. There is one God in three persons. They are distinct but not separate. They are of one substance (homoousios) and have the same will. They do not work independently from each other, but they do work uniquely. The Father did not die and neither did the Holy Spirit; the Son did. But the Son did not do this work independently—it was the will of the whole Godhead.

As a man on earth, Christ remained fully God and maintained perfect unity with the Father and the Spirit at all times. The Son cannot be separated from the Father and the Spirit, he merely added to himself human nature. So, Christ is one person with two natures: he has a divine nature and a human nature. The union between the two natures in the one person of Christ is theologically termed the hypostatic union - it is a fantastically interesting topic to study. Even on the cross, the Son was not separated from the Godhead. The Father was there to punish him and the Spirit was there to minister to him prior to his death. Christ was raised from death by his own authority but also by the authority of the Father.

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always shared and maintained the one and same incommunicable attributes. Here are just some of those attributes:

  • Omniscience (God is all-knowing)
  • Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  • Omnipresence (God is everywhere at all times)
  • Immutability (God cannot change)
  • Eternality (God has neither beginning nor end)
  • Impeccability (God cannot sin and is not subject to temptation)
  • Transcendence (God is above, beyond and outside of creation)
  • Immanence (God is actively involved within creation)
  • Holiness (God alone is sinless, righteous, perfect and pure)
  • Aseity (God contains in himself the cause of himself)

Having said a little bit about God as one in three persons, let’s now consider who the Holy Spirit is and what he does.

He is Spirit

The ancient Greek word for ‘spirit’ is ‘pneuma’. ‘Pneuma’ can also be translated to the English word ‘ghost’. The modern understanding for ‘ghost’ is that it’s the soul of a dead person wandering among us. The Holy Spirit is not a ghost in that sense - he is a divine being that is unseen. Just because we can’t see the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there and isn’t effectively at work in the world. The word ‘ghost’ is not a great term to use today because it carries different connotations because of modern cultural influences. I prefer to use the word ‘Spirit’.

The Holy Spirit is not confined to one place. He is omnipresent, meaning he is everywhere at all times. He is in this world and is also in the heavenly realm. He is infinite just as the Father and the Son are infinite. He has no beginning and no end. Along with the Father and the Son, he is the Creator of the universe. He has always existed and will always exist as God the Holy Spirit: the third person of the triune God.

He is a Person

The Holy Spirit isn’t an impersonal force or some ambiguous energy of God in the world but rather, he is a person. By person, I don’t mean that he is a human being, but that he is a divine being: he is not a something, but a someone. He is God. When the Bible refers to him, it uses pronouns - the Holy Spirit is a ‘he’, not an ‘it’. Some have understood the Holy Spirit not to be a person or a someone, but to be the Father’s way of expressing himself in the world. This, of course, is wrong and is a complete misunderstanding of God and a misinterpretation of the Bible. The Father is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but is a distinct person within the Godhead. The Holy Spirit and the Father were there distinctly and immediately after the baptism of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit, as a person, can therefore be known, heard and understood. We are able to speak to him, pray to him and worship him along with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is someone we can go to for help, we can ask him to save us from our sin and to work in our lives and in our churches for the glory of God. He cares immensely about the world and the Church. The Holy Spirit is the one preparing us for Heaven. He loves righteousness but hates Satan, sin and death. He works perfectly as one substance and essence with the Father and the Son to fulfil God’s perfect providential plan.

He is an Author

Who wrote the 66 books of the Bible? Well, the Bible was written over a course of around 1500 years by approximately 40 men. However, behind the scenes, the real author was the Holy Spirit. I like to compare this to a theatrical play or a film; each actor plays their part in communicating the narrative before the audience to portray a real life and believable story, but the real authors are behind the scenes and are mostly unseen: the writer of the script, the director, the music composer and the producer. They are the ones who create the story. Similarly, the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors to say and write what they did, but they wrote in their own style and certain personality traits of each author is evident as you read the Bible. They were merely instruments used of God to communicate what he wanted us to know.

The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 that the Bible was “breathed out” by God and Peter says the prophets wrote as they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). The Bible was not dictated by God, but the authors were perfectly guided along and their writings were entirely inspired by the Holy Spirit. We find the saying “thus says the Lord” over 400 times in the Bible. So, when we learn that this book is perfect, has no error, is completely and absolutely consistent all the way through, we can only make sense of how this can be when we realise it was the Holy Spirit who authored it. God himself had a story to tell, and it is the Holy Spirit who has revealed God to us.

He is the Creator

When most Christians think of the Father, the first thing that comes to mind is that he is the Creator of the universe, which of course he is. But he is more than that and was not alone in creating everything. New Testament passages such as John 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-20, and Old Testament verses such as Psalm 33:6 reveals Jesus Christ as the Creator too. But when we think about Jesus, we rarely  think of him as Creator - we think of him more often as a Saviour. What about the Holy Spirit? What do you think about when you hear his name? Whatever may ‘pop’ into our minds, he is also the Creator with the Father and the Son.

The most obvious verse which speaks of the Holy Spirit being Creator would be Genesis 1:1-2 - “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” This clearly states the presence and involvement of the Holy Spirit in creating the universe. Moreover, Job in Job 33:4 says that the Spirit of God made him: “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”

When the Spirit is at work within creation, the Bible often describes him as the ‘breath’ of God or as one who is ‘breathing’ out God’s work. For example, the Bible was “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). This was the doing of the Holy Spirit - to breathe something into existence. Moreover, Genesis 2:7 says that God formed man out of the dust of the ground and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. We can confidently assume that this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Even in the work of regeneration (as we will see later), it is the Holy Spirit who gives us new life through Christ. After Christ’s resurrection, he breathed on the disciples and said “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). So, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are working with and for each other in every aspect of life: as one God with distinct roles they created the universe; as one God with distinct roles they redeem sinners; and as one God with distinct roles they will establish a new heaven and a new earth for those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

He is the Helper

We learn in the Gospels that Jesus having become a man received strength and power from the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:14).

It was prophesied in Isaiah 11:2-3 and 42:1 that the Messiah would receive power from the Holy Spirit, and Matthew 12:17-21 shows us that this was fulfilled in Christ. It was the Holy Spirit was the one who told Mary she would conceive as a virgin as he would put the seed in her womb to give birth to Jesus Christ (Luke 1:30-31). At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove and remained with him. Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and was led by him into the desert to be tempted by Satan (Luke 4:1-2). It was the Holy Spirit who anointed him for public ministry as he read from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-19). We see that the whole Trinity was involved in the ministry of Jesus - that God had sent Christ and that he was “given the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34).

So, Jesus clearly experienced perfect communion and unity with the Holy Spirit on earth as he had done in eternity past. Moreover, Jesus had promised the disciples that he would sent them a ‘Helper’ after his death, resurrection and ascension (John 14:16-17) to convict the world of sin (John 16:8-9) and to guide the world to the truth (John 16:13). So, while Jesus is now absent in body, he is present with us in Spirit—by the Holy Spirit. As we are convicted of our sins and are revealed the truth by the Holy Spirit, we see the wonderful love and glory of Christ. The Holy Spirit is our Helper and will be with us for eternity (Romans 8:30). He gives us understanding and guides us to respond in repentance and faith to the revelation of the Gospel.

He is the Church-founder

The Helper came in power at Pentecost which is recorded in Acts chapter 2. As the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, filling them with power for ministry, Peter preached a sermon to a few thousand people and we see thousands of people being converted and giving their lives to the Lord. This was the beginnings of the Church.

The Holy Spirit remained with the Apostles throughout their ministry to plant churches across the world and it is the Holy Spirit who empowers Christians for ministry today. The outcome of people being saved is that they are saved into a community: the Church.

He is the Regenerator

To regenerate something kind of sounds like a complicated industrial or engineering operation. Well, in a way, it is. In the process of being born-again (John 2:1-21), God literally re-engineers our soul, mind, thoughts and desires. The Holy Spirit is the one who initiates this work because of God’s predestined election of his people (Romans 8:29; 9:1-29).

When we repented of sin and received faith to believe in Christ, seemed at first that it was our decision to do so. But it wasn’t our decision to be saved. We are only willing to give ourselves over to the Lord because we have been chosen to become his children (John 15:16; Ephesians 1:4-5). The Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see, our ears to hear and our minds to understand the Gospel and to turn from our old ways to follow the Lord (Romans 8:6). God’s grace has been poured out on us and it is irresistible. This is the work of regeneration (Titus 3:5).

As the famous line in the Charles Wesley hymn says, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed Thee.” It is the Holy Spirit who broke those chains which kept us in bondage to sin to free us to worship the eternal God through the revelation of the redemptive work of Christ. This is wonderful. Redemption is given by the Father, achieved by the Son and revealed by the Hoy Spirit.

The ultimate goal of God is to regenerate the whole of creation (Romans 8:18-30). He will reconcile his people (the Church) to himself, and establish a new heaven and a new earth full of people who have been truly regenerated and have been conformed to the likeness of his Son.

He is the Indweller

What I mean by the Holy Spirit being an ‘indweller’ is not that he hangs out at your house - although he does do that. He is an indweller because he dwells within believers (1 Corinthians 3:16). He sets us apart from the rest of humanity by dwelling in us. He ‘seals’ us for eternity, meaning, he claims on us for himself (Ephesians 3:13).

I remember playing a game when I was at school which was eventually banned called British Bulldog. A group of players had to run from one side of the field to the other trying to avoid being caught by the one or two ‘bulldogs’ (people not actual dogs) in the middle whose job was to try and catch them. If you were caught, you then had to join the ‘bulldogs’ in the middle in trying to catch the remaining players running from one end of the field to the other. The more players who were being caught, the more difficult it became to outrun the ‘bulldogs’. If you were caught you were immediately sealed and branded as a ‘bulldog’ and your whole function in the game changed and your allegiance swapped. A conversion took place. This is what happens to a Christian. We spend our lives running from God and avoiding his desire for our lives until we are shown the irresistible grace of God by the Holy Spirit through Christ. Then, we are converted and sealed for eternity. Our desires and our allegiance changes. We repent of our former lives and commit ourselves to a life of godliness and holiness. We join a different team. We pass from death to life, from darkness to light, from being lost to being found.

When we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, he dwells in us and enables us to persevere as Christians until the day we die or until Christ returns. The Bible also speaks of the conflict that goes on within the Christian: the flesh is sinful and desires sinfulness, but our spirit which has been born again desires righteousness and holiness. The Holy Spirit lives in us to sanctify us and to give us the assurance of eternal life (Rom. 8:1). So, thank the Lord that the Holy Spirit was sent to dwell in us to keep us on the right path.

He is the Sanctifier

The Holy Spirit dwells in a believer in order to sanctify us (1 Thess. 4:3). As fallen human beings we are totally depraved in our sinful nature (Eph. 2:1), so we need divine intervention (Eph. 2:4-5). The Holy Spirit lovingly intervenes and helps us to live obedient lives to God (Phil. 2:13) and to kill our sin while we are on earth even though we cannot achieve perfection until we are glorified at the second coming of Christ (1 Thess. 5:23). The Holy Spirit gives us the desire and the ability by the strength of God to please the Father as we live obediently in continual worship and unity with Christ the Son of God. Sanctification is the work of God in the life of a believer to set us apart for holiness (1 Cor. 6:11). Sanctification requires the Holy Spirit to enable us to work towards holiness through our own obedience in grateful and loving response to the saving work of Christ.

Paul tells the Philippian Church to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12). This verse is extremely interesting because it clearly states that it is the Christian who puts his/her salvation into practice, but conversely, that it is also God who works in us. Without God working in us we would not be able to work out our salvation.

There is a terrible saying often used among some Christians often use which is: “Let go and let God”. It’s unhelpful because it implies that you must “let go” of trying so hard and just let God do all the work for you. It says, “you have proven that you are useless at being like Christ, so let God do it”. It’s true that it is God who enables us to work hard, but we can’t become spiritually lazy as if there are times we should just do nothing. A better quote would be: “Work hard with God”. Sanctification requires both the obedience of the believer to do something, and the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us—to prepare us for Heaven.

He is the Gift-giver

One way the Holy Spirit enables us to “work out our own salvation” is by giving us spiritual gifts. These are gifts we receive when we are converted. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, he gifts us with abilities to fulfil God’s calling for our lives. These gifts help us to more effectively carry out the mission God has given us (2 Timothy 2:21), which is to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 26:19). Some are gifted preachers, teachers and evangelists. Others are gifted with hospitality, serving and with works of mercy (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). The Holy Spirit decides and we obey.

There are also supernatural gifts such as prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues, discernment and the gift of healing among others (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) which some Christians believe to have ceased with the Apostolic age. There are two streams of understanding within evangelicalism when it comes to the supernatural spiritual gifts: cessationism and continuationism.

Christians who believe the supernatural gifts have ceased are called cessationists. I am not convinced with the arguments cessationists make. Personally, I am persuaded by the continuationist understanding of the gifts - that the supernatural gifts have not ceased but are still practiced today. Having said that, I am very skeptical of the extent of the supernatural claims a lot of charismatic Christians make and am critical of how they are practiced in a lot of places. I don’t wish to say more on this because there is much to discuss regarding this topic, but I would like to do is state that the Holy Spirit is the one (or was the one if you’re a cessationist) who gifts (or gifted) God’s people with supernatural and natural ministerial gifts.

I would encourage you to make up your own mind in regards to where you stand with the supernatural gifts, but most can agree that the Holy Spirit gifts every Christian with one or a few of the natural gifts. We can’t all be Pastors, Teachers or Evangelists. Not everyone is gifted with hospitality. Some people are clearly ‘wizards’ at admin work. We each have a role to play within the Church to work as members of one body to serve the head of the Church: the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:27-31).

There is a good article by Sam Storms discussing the continuationist’s point of view on The Gospel Coalition website. I will provide a link to both at the very end of this article.

He is the Prayer Intercessor

Have you ever desired to pray to the Lord but have found it incredibly difficult? Maybe sadness has overcome your ability to concentrate. Perhaps difficult circumstances has left you without words to utter and confusing thoughts. You might even feel a little angry with God about something and find it hard to pray without bitterness. Have you felt weak or depressed before and can’t find the energy to mutter the words to pray? Well, the Holy Spirit is there to help during those moments.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” - Romans 8:26-27

I’d encourage everyone to read further on both the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. It’s a thrilling experience to learn more and more about our God. The more we know about him, the more we grow to know him. Below are some books available to buy and make use of:

Books on the Trinity:

What is the Trinity? by R.C. Sproul
The Good God by Michael Reeves
The Quest for the Trinity by Stephen R Holmes
Delighting in the Trinity by Tim Chester
The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham
Communion with the Triune God by John Owen

Books on the Holy Spirit

Who is the Holy Spirit? by R.C. Sproul
Who on earth is the Holy Spirit? by Tim Chester and Christopher de la Hoyde
Forgotten God by Francis Chan
The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson
The Mystery of the Holy Spirit by R.C. Sproul

Sam Storms’ article on The Gospel Coalition website discussing continuationism: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-i-am-a-continuationist/
Written by: Pastor Gwydion Emlyn

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