The Holy Spirit: A Power or A Person?

The Holy Spirit A Power or A Person?


Though a mystery, there is much in the scriptural canon that can be known about the Holy Spirit.

Jo Ann Davidson

The biblical canon is the primary source for any knowledge of the God of heaven. Within its pages, God reveals Himself with a triune identity. His divine nature cannot be fully understood without God the Holy Spirit, along with Jesus and the Father. When the Bible is studied attentively and listened to carefully, this becomes apparent.

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).

Jesus never abandoned His human nature and remains truly God and truly human. He is presently absent from the Earth, yet He is with us according to His promise (Matt. 28:20). Followers of Jesus live by faith in His words through the vicarious work of the Spirit, who mediates the presence of both Father and Son (Eph. 1:13, 14). Jesus called the Holy Spirit “another Paraclete,” who would continue His ministry (John 14:16). This second Paraclete gave intelligible directives to the fledgling New Testament Church just as Jesus had done. Jesus portrays the Spirit as a person as He is.

John underscores this point by using the personal pronoun translated as “he” to render Jesus’ references to the Spirit—whereas Greek grammar normally would use the neuter it to agree with the neuter noun translated as “Spirit.” This personal pronoun, used in the great Trinitarian address given by Jesus (John 14–16) is all the more striking because in 14:17, where the Spirit is first introduced, John uses the grammatically appropriate neuter pronouns. The subsequent shift to the masculine pronoun conveys John’s theology—which the Holy Spirit inspired! The Spirit affirms His personhood with personal pronouns.

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.

The New Testament portrays an intimate relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus. The Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9; 1 Peter 1:11), “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7, NIV), “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:19), and “the Spirit of his Son” (Gal. 4:6)—and is a source of divine power. Many New Testament passages speak of the Son and the Spirit side by side, aligning them in an obvious way: churches walk in “fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31); both can be rejected: “trampled the Son of God . . . insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29); “consolation in Christ . . . fellowship of the Spirit” (Phil. 2:1). Divine directives are given by both: Jesus—“I say” (Matthew 5); and the Holy Spirit—“the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7). Both bring justification: “you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). In the Book of Acts, Pentecost is about both the coming of the Spirit and the Lordship of Christ who sends the Spirit: “‘exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear’” (Acts 2:33).

Many times the Father, Son, and Spirit are linked as collaborators in Their work of grace (John 14:16–16:15; Romans 8; Eph. 1:3–13; 3:14–19). The Spirit-inspired Word of God is the source and norm of the gospel. His revealing work assures of the love of Christ. The Spirit also enables the human heart to see the truth of the gospel and respond. Even more, He molds a believer into the likeness of Christ, bringing sanctification (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2).

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.

Salvation is accomplished on the cross of Christ, but it is applied to each person by His Spirit. The salvific role of the third Person of the Godhead is crucial. If it weren’t for the work of the Holy Spirit, no one would ever be converted. The curse of sin with its resulting alienation from God is a fundamental assumption all through Scripture. Thus, the active ministry of the Holy Spirit in convicting of sin (John 16:8–11) is critical. According to Paul, a person doesn’t naturally seek God: “‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God’” (Rom. 3:10, 11, ESV). That there are people who are searching for God to receive salvation is evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, convicting of sin and righteousness, and drawing to Christ.

In the final analysis, no one rejects Christ because of lack of information and argumentation, but because the ministry of the Holy Spirit has been rejected. Ellen G. White is clear: “Christ declares that the divine influence of the Spirit was to be with His followers unto the end. But by some this promise is not appreciated as it should be; its fulfillment is not realized as it might be. Learning, talents, eloquence, every natural or acquired endowment, may be possessed; but without the presence of the Spirit of God, no heart will be touched, no sinner won to Christ. When His disciples are connected with Christ, when the gifts of the Spirit are theirs, even the poorest and most ignorant of them will have a power that will tell upon hearts. God makes them the channel for the outworking of the highest influence in the universe.”6

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

The Holy Spirit can be grieved: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). He can be resisted: “‘you always resist the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 7:51). He can be lied to (Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:3, 4, 9), thus indicating a Person who can be spoken to. He can even be blasphemed, a grave sin committed against God (Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:29). He speaks (“the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go’” [Acts 8:29]); instructs (“‘the Holy Spirit will teach you’” [Luke 12:12]); reveals the future (“‘the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me’” [Acts 20:23, NIV]); searches (“the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God” [1 Cor. 2:10); calls to ministry (Paul and Barnabas [Acts 13:2]); gives precise instructions (Peter insists, “‘the Spirit told me to go with them’” [Acts 11:12]); and bears witness (“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” [Rom. 8:16]). It is possible to quench Him (“Do not quench the Spirit” [1 Thess. 5:19]); to be assured by Him (“in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance” [1:5]); and insult Him (“insulted the Spirit of grace” [Heb. 10:29]).

Significantly, the Holy Spirit also “makes intercession for us with groanings” (Rom. 8:26). Paul stresses that both Christ and the Holy Spirit intercede for us (vss. 26–34). Intercession can be done only by a personal being. In Acts 9:31, the church is described as living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, suggesting that the Spirit is comforting believers. The Holy Spirit is portrayed as  far more than divine energy or power without personhood.

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 ministry of the Spirit is completely centered in and shaped by the gospel. Redemption is His project. He convicts the world of the truth, brings new birth, helps Christians to be like Christ, and energizes the church as the body of Christ: Jesus promised, “‘when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth. . . He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you’” (John 16:13, 14).

To be possessed by the Spirit is to be empowered by God. To flee from the Spirit is to flee from. God. Encountering the Spirit, we encounter God. The Holy Spirit is the very presence of God taught in both Testaments, with Jesus specifically instructing: “‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans’” (John 14:16–18, NIV).

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).

The Spirit, the Father, and the Son are all revealed as Persons in Scripture, and all three are presented as divine. 2 Corinthians 13:14 includes a Trinitarian benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Each Person of the Godhead brings blessings of grace, love, and fellowship to believers: “‘I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; . . . and . . . whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, As the Lord has said, Among the remnant whom the Lord calls’” (Joel 2:28, 32).

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.



1. The Acts of the Apostles, 52.
2. Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
3. David F. Wells, God the Evangelist: How the Holy Spirit Works to Bring Men and Women to Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987), xii.
4. Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, quoted in Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, In His Image (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1987), 180. Italics supplied.
5. Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), 216.
6. Ellen G. White, “The Gifts of the Spirit,” Signs of the Times 37:11 (March 15, 1910): 3.
7. Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke–Acts: A Literary Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 2:26.
8. Luther's Works, 33:24.
9. Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 131.
10. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke–Acts: A Literary Interpretation, 13.
11. The Desire of Ages, 671. Italics supplied.
12. God’s Amazing Grace, 312. Italics supplied.