God’s personal plurality, revealed in Scripture, presents one of the three Persons within the divine Godhead as the Holy Spirit. When God incarnate, Jesus, came to earth, people could walk with Him, hear His voice, touch Him, and see His footprints when He walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Holy Spirit, however, doesn’t leave footprints. Because He has never been incarnated as Jesus was, the Spirit is more inscrutable, making misunderstandings possible when trying to understand Him. For example, even after his baptism, Simon had to be sharply rebuked by Peter for his wrong thinking about the Holy Spirit (Acts 8). Ellen White is instructive: “The nature of the Holy Spirit is a mystery. Men cannot explain it, because the Lord has not revealed it to them. Men having fanciful views may bring together passages of Scripture and put a human construction on them, but the acceptance of these views will not strengthen the church. Regarding such mysteries, which are too deep for human understanding, silence is golden.”1
Yet, there is much that can be known about the Holy Spirit in the canon. It is critical knowledge because it affects our understanding of God along with any study of inspiration, revelation, sanctification, and even the church. The Holy Spirit is clearly involved with all of these. Paul also counsels to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1, NKJV),2 for not every spiritual power is guaranteed to be the Holy Spirit. That there are false spirits implies, however, there must be a true one. Christians must not let the “depersonalized, nonregenerative pneumatology”3 of liberal theology throttle their thinking.
Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to the wind: “‘The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes’” (John 3:8). Wind cannot be captured or restrained. Though elusive and invisible, it is nonetheless real. Swaying trees, fluttering flags, and dangerous storms make it manifest. So with the Holy Spirit. He is intangible and invisible but more real and powerful than the most ferocious wind. Dorothy Sayers suggests: “why books about the Holy Ghost are apt to be curiously difficult and unsatisfactory—we cannot really look at the movement of the Spirit, just because It is the Power by which we do the looking.”4
The Holy Spirit is referred to in the Bible as “He,” an evidence of His personal nature. Pronouns such as I, you, he, and she are used when speaking about persons. Such pronouns are also ascribed to the Holy Spirit. For example, Jesus speaks of the Spirit this way: “‘When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come’” (John 16:13, italics supplied).
Jesus’ earthly mission is also described as Spirit-initiated and Spirit-oriented. The Holy Spirit was the agent of Jesus’ birth, for Jesus was “conceived. . . of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20); the incarnation of the Son involved the Spirit (Luke 1:35). Later, Jesus’ public ministry was inaugurated by the Holy Spirit at His baptism (Matt. 3:16). Afterwards, He was driven into the desert by the same Spirit (Mark 1:12). Following that, Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14). The Holy Spirit, through whom He was conceived, baptized, and anointed was the divine agent in exorcisms (Matt. 12:18, 24–32; Mark 3:22–30). It was by the “eternal Spirit” that Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice for sin (Heb. 9:14), and by the same Spirit that He rose from His grave (Rom. 8:11). Later, Peter instructed Cornelius that God “anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). Because the Holy Spirit was so intimately associated with the entire earthly life of Christ, He obviously is the one who can correctly interpret and inspire the record of it in Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16).
In addition to personal pronouns being ascribed to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit also speaks and gives instructions. Only a person can act with intentionality. Intentions are limited to personal beings. Abstract forces never “intend” to do anything. Biblical writers present the Holy Spirit with other characteristics of a personal nature, giving Him intelligence and knowledge. For example, “‘He will teach you’” (John 14:26). Hebrews 3:7 presents the Holy Spirit saying what is written in Psalm 95:7 to 11; and again in Hebrews 10:16 and 17 quoting Jeremiah (32:33, 34). In Hebrews 9:8, the Holy Spirit explains a function of the heavenly sanctuary, implying His knowledge of it. The Holy Spirit is also the Author of Scripture: “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). He engaged human writers to record the revelation of God in human language. The Holy Spirit then subsequently speaks and interprets these inspired words to each generation of believers as the canon’s paramount interpreter.
John’s Gospel speaks similarly, for Jesus declares that the Spirit would come “‘in My name’” (14:26); “‘When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father―the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father―he will testify about me’” (15:26, KJV); “‘I will send Him to you’” (16:7); and “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (20:22).
In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is promised to those who repent and are baptized “‘in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’” (2:38, NIV). The Book of Acts includes many reminders that the Holy Spirit is more than an abstract force. He is portrayed as the personal agent who instructs the disciples, granting them the power needed to fulfill the gospel commission given to them by Christ. Lesslie Newbigin insightfully recounts one example: “The events recounted with great care in Acts 10 and 11 are often summarized as ‘the conversion of Cornelius,’ but they were equally the conversion of Peter and of the Church. It was no missionary zeal, and no native liberalism of Peter, which took him to the house of an uncircumcised Roman soldier and placed him in the position of having to tell the story of Jesus in that pagan household. It was the Spirit who put him there, and it was the Spirit who shattered all of Peter’s strongest religious certainties by giving to Cornelius and his household exactly the same experience of deliverance and joy as the Apostles themselves had received. In the presence of the fait accompli Peter, and—later—the whole Church had simply to follow where they were led.”5
When Peter and Cornelius are brought together by the Holy Spirit, more than the conversion of Cornelius occurs. It is also Peter’s “conversion” to the inclusive gospel, which breaks down all barriers, even those between Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female.
A dramatic example of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit is seen as Peter preaches on the Day of Pentecost: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37, NIV) The word translated as “cut” (to the heart) used of the Spirit in Acts 2:37 is the same word used to describe the soldier piercing the body of Jesus on the cross. “Peter’s Pentecost speech not only interprets what has happened, it causes something to happen.”7
In both the Old and New Testaments, God insists that He can foretell the future, and that this is a mark of His divinity (Isa. 41; Revelation 1). The Holy Spirit also declares things to come. In one of Peter’s speeches, he described the Spirit foretelling what would happen to Judas (Acts 1:16). The prophet Agabus also told Paul, “‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns his belt”’” (21:11). The Spirit is plainly portrayed as divine here with the use of the prophetic formula “‘thus says the Holy Spirit.’” In Miletus, Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit telling him that imprisonment and persecution await him in Jerusalem (20:23). There are also various references to the Holy Spirit in Revelation, many of them having to do with the Spirit as the source of John’s prophecy (especially Revelation 2 and 3). Abstract power is not conscious of time.
Martin Luther asserted that the Holy Spirit is the guarantor of truth: “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.”8 A mere abstract power has no intelligence, let alone any understanding of truth. This attribute of the Holy Spirit is vital, as Glenn Tinder notes: “Christians who are very anxious about the fate of God’s truth must have forgotten the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which implies that God does not send his truth into history like a ship that is launched and then forgotten. He is the source at once of the truth human beings face and of the inspiration that enables them to recognize it as the truth and, in a measure, to understand it. If God were not the Holy Spirit, who provides understanding, his Word would be inaudible and the life of Christ without significance. It was not his intent that revelation should be inconsequential. His Word, he assures us, ‘shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.’”9
In the Bible, Christians are taught to believe in the Holy Spirit. We are baptized into His name as well as the name of the Father and the Son. Benedictions in the New Testament include reference to fellowship and communion with the Holy Spirit: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). The Spirit is Someone our prayers come to. Believers are not to pray to “things.” This would be praying to idols, which is forbidden in Scripture.
The gifts of the Spirit are proof that God’s grace has been extended and accepted. It is one of the chief themes in the New Testament. “The emphasis on the Spirit as gift,” writes Tannehill, “indicates that the Spirit’s presence is a powerful experience of God’s grace. Thus the Spirit is not merely a means to an end, but part of the blessings of salvation and is presented as such.”10 The coming of the Spirit marks the expansion of the gospel at Pentecost (Acts 2): among the Samaritans (chapter 8); to the Gentiles (chapters 10 and 11); and to the disciples of John the Baptist (chapter 19). It is the evidence Peter appeals to at the Council of Jerusalem: “God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (15:8, 9).
At these dramatic events, God brought men and women, slave and free, Jews and Gentiles, together in fellowship. Jesus had promised to do it—and He did it through the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit was the highest of all gifts that He could solicit from His Father for the exaltation of His people. The Spirit was to be given as a regenerating agent, and without this the sacrifice of Christ would have been of no avail. The power of evil had been strengthening for centuries, and the submission of men to this satanic captivity was amazing. Sin could be resisted and overcome only through the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power. It is the Spirit that makes effectual what has been wrought out by the world's Redeemer. It is by the Spirit that the heart is made pure. Through the Spirit the believer becomes a partaker of the divine nature. Christ has given His Spirit as a divine power to overcome all hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil, and to impress His own character upon His church.”11
The Holy Spirit enables the ethical life. It is only those who have the Spirit, who have the mind of the Spirit, who are in the Spirit, who are indwelt by the Spirit of God and have the Spirit of Christ, who are able to do that which is well-pleasing to God (Rom. 8:5–13). Newness of life, described as the “newness of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6), is compared to Jesus’ resurrection, for it is the Spirit who makes alive (2 Cor. 3:4–6). Believers are led of the Spirit (Rom. 8:14) having been freed from. the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:1)—and now they walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 25).
The virtues that develop in the new life in Christ are the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–24). The love which is the fulfilling of the law is the love of the Spirit (Rom. 15:30; Gal. 5:22). It is the regenerating of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) that brings newness of life, which defines the life well-pleasing to God. The true believer is indwelt, governed, and directed by the powerful Person of the Holy Spirit. Such a Spirit-filled life will be no mere whitewashing of the present, but a brand-new life! When Paul describes the distribution of spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit, he presents the Spirit as a rational Being making personal choices.
The Old Testament holds out the promise that all God’s people will share in the gift of the presence and power of the Spirit (Joel 2). In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the access both Jews and Gentiles have to the Father “by one Spirit” (2:18). Addressing Gentiles, he specifically referred to their reception of the Spirit: “having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (1:13, 14).
The Holy Spirit is not a nonpersonal power at our disposal. Rather, He is sovereign. We are His auxiliary. Jesus doesn’t promise that the Spirit will help the disciples to bear witness. Rather, He states that the Spirit will bear witness and that, secondarily, we testify: “‘Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you’” (Matt. 10:16–20).
New Testament writers refer to the deity of the Holy Spirit in a notable manner. Only God is holy, yet biblical writers call the Spirit holy no fewer than 89 times—the only member of the Godhead with this title regularly attached. “Glory” is also a divine attribute. Yahweh being “the God of glory” (Ps. 29:3); the Father is “the glorious Father” (Eph. 1:17, NIV); Jesus is “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8); and the Spirit is “the Spirit of glory” (1 Peter 4:14). Similarly, as the Father and the Son give “life,” so the Spirit gives “life” (John 5:21, 26; Rom. 8:2). Jesus also calls God “Spirit” (John 4:24). In the Old Testament, David prays for the Holy Spirit (Ps. 51:11), equating this to the presence of God.
The Old Testament is clear that when encountering the Spirit, one is encountering God. Equally strong is the New Testament testimony that when one encounters the Spirit, one is encountering a Person. The Holy Spirit is included the New Testament references to the threefold God (Matt. 28:19; 1 Peter 1:12). He is divine, and a divine person. Dealing with the Spirit, we encounter the awesome presence of God Himself.
One of the final invitations in Scripture is given by the Spirit: “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come’” (Rev. 22:17). A Christianity neglectful of the Spirit is hardly biblical Christianity at all. No wonder Ellen G. White urges: “Pray that the mighty energies of the Holy Spirit, with all their quickening, recuperative, and transforming power, may fall like an electric shock on the palsy-stricken soul, causing every nerve to thrill with new life, restoring the whole man from his dead, earthly, sensual state to spiritual soundness. You will thus become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust; and in your souls will be reflected the image of Him by whose stripes you are healed.”12
Amen and amen.
Jo Ann Davidson, Ph.D., is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES