What if the Holy Spirit is not a Force, but a Person?

A Guide to Experiencing More of God

What If You Didn’t Have to Choose?

Beach or mountains? If you had to decide between one or the other as a vacation destination, which would you choose? For some, the answer would be a no brainer. You have a definite preference. For others, you may feel tension, because you enjoy both the mountains and the beach.

What about steak or shrimp? How do you choose? For some, easy. Others, tension.

What if mountains and beach, steak and shrimp were not mutually exclusive options?

What if you could have a vacation where the water meets the trail and where surf and turf are offered as one meal?

When it comes to theology and the spiritual life, some of us have believed that we have to make a choice. Just like we may feel a tension between a vacation at the beach or the mountains, we may feel a tension between “Word” and “Spirit.”

Maybe you’ve noticed that entire churches tend to drift into one camp or the other: the Word church and the Spirit church.

  • The “Word” church prizes the intellectual and tends to emphasize the Bible and doctrine to the neglect of the Spirit.
  • On the other hand, the “Spirit” church prizes the emotional and tends to emphasize the present, active ministry of the Holy Spirit to the neglect of the Word.

If the Word church values the rationality of the mind, the Spirit church values the affections of the heart.

But what if we don’t have to choose between the mind and the heart? What if the biblical model of the Christian life is not Word or Spirit, but Word and Spirit?

In Christian theology, the study of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology, which comes from two Greek words, pneuma meaning “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” and logos meaning “word,” “logic,” or “study.” Even in the name of the study of the Spirit, both Word and Spirit are united into one word — pneuma and logos!

I. Love. That.

My proposition is that if we could see these two streams converge into one mighty river— the best of the Word church and the best of the Spirit church — we would have the recipe for spiritual revival and vitality that we haven’t seen in North America since Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening.

We would see streams of life saturating the desert of 21st-century secularism with the rich silt of the gospel.

This is what I long for in my life. This is my deep desire for all of us.

Admittedly, my background is in the Word church tradition where we prize the Scriptures. We value doctrinal study and theological education.

We have the kindling ready. What we need is the Spirit to bring down the fire of his presence and power to bring us alive, or as we say in our church mission statement, “to help us come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace!”

In order to pursue more of the Spirit, we need to at least know more about the Spirit. That is our aim in this post. To know the Holy Spirit.

The Deity of the Spirit

Although there are many places that specify that the Holy Spirit is God, 1 Corinthians 12:4–6 makes this crystal clear:

“4 There are different kinds of [spiritual] gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (NIV)

Attributes

In this passage, it is possible that Paul is describing the Trinitarian work of God in distributing gifts with the Holy Spirit referenced in verse 4, Jesus in verse 5 as Lord, and God (the Father) in verse 6. It is also possible to see these verses as various ways to describe the Spirit: as the distributor of gifts, as the Lord, and as God. Three ways to emphasize how the Spirit does the work of God as Lord among his people.

Both views are in sync with classic, historic Christian orthodoxy.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 AD) states, “We believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.”

Rather than shoehorning diety into the Spirit’s identity, each phrase of the creed corresponds to Scripture. For example, the Holy Spirit is called “the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 3:17, as Paul declares, “the Lord is the Spirit.”

The language of procession comes right from the Bible too. Jesus says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26). The glory given to the Holy Spirit corresponds to the language of God’s glory scattered throughout Scripture as well as Peter’s phrase, “the Spirit of glory” (1 Pet 4:14).

Whichever way we go with how to understand that passage, the deity of the Spirit is not in question.

Furthermore, the attributes of God are ascribed to the Spirit, such as eternality, omniscience, and omnipotence.

In other places in the New Testament, the Spirit is called the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Sonship, the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of Might, and the Spirit of Christ.

One of the most extensive passages concerning the person of the Spirit is found in John 14:16–20, 25–27, where Jesus speaks to his inner circle of disciples on the night before his crucifixion.

16 I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also. 20 In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you…

25 “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.

In verse 26, Jesus calls the Spirit the Holy Spirit, a clear reference to the deity of the Spirit, and in verse 16, says to his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper to be with you forever.”

The English word “helper” is translated from a Greek word, parakletos, which was the term used for an attorney in the first century — a person who would come to someone’s aid in a legal crisis, to help defend as a personal, legal advocate.

Strength

In older English translations, parakletos is translated as “comforter.” The word comforter comes from two Latin words, cum and forte. In fact, if you put these two words together, you can see how they become com-forte(r).

The Latin word cum means “with” and forte means “strength.” For example, in tennis, the strongest, most potent aspect of your game is your forte, your strength.

Yes, we even get the English word fort from the Latin, forte. It is our defense. A stronghold. The place of safety.

In John 14, Jesus is saying that he is the original paraclete.

Presence

Yes, we are weak, but he is strong — he is our forte. When Jesus promises to send another to dwell with us in his physical absence, he indicates that this “other” paraclete, would be the very presence of God to indwell us and endue us with spiritual power. That paraclete is the Holy Spirit.

This presence indicates that the Holy Spirit is not merely a theological concept or a spiritual force, but that the Spirit is a person.

The Personality of the Spirit

When Star Wars debuted over forty years ago, nobody knew it would be such a massive cultural icon. The oft-repeated line of encouragement in the films is famous, “May the force be with you.”

In Star Wars, the force is the controlling “spiritual” power behind the material universe. But the force is impersonal and only really accessible to a few, those with special knowledge and training, known as Jedi’s.

Not a Force, but a Person — not an It, but a He

Conversely, the Holy Spirit, while omnipotent as God, is not an impersonal force.

The Holy Spirit is a person.

In other words, the Holy Spirit is not an “it,” but a “he.”

Again, in John 14, when speaking of the Spirit, Jesus uses the Greek word pneuma, which is a noun with a neuter ending. Yet Jesus uses a masculine pronoun, ekeinos, which is translated not “it,” but “he.” Although proper Greek requires a neuter pronoun to be associated with a neuter noun, Jesus intentionally uses a masculine pronoun to emphasize the personness of the Spirit.

The Spirit is not an it, but is a him. The Spirit is not a force, but is a person.

Personal and Knowable

As a person, the Spirit is personal. He is knowable. The Spirit can be heard and obeyed. The Spirit can be resisted and grieved.

It is the personality of the Spirit Paul is talking about in Galatians 5:16 when he challenges us to “live by the Spirit.” The actual Greek word translated “live” is the word for “walk.” And so in verse 25, he says, “Since we walk by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

The idea is that we, as adopted children of God, indwelt with the Spirit of Adoption, are to live as if walking hand in hand and side by side with the Holy Spirit, as children allowing him to lead and guide so that “we will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:16).

This is consistent with what Paul writes in Romans 8:9, saying,

“You… are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

The “If” that Haunts and Convicts

The implications are obvious and, for some, sobering. The “if” in that verse haunts me. Maybe it haunts you, too.

Some of us know we are not walking with the Spirit. We are far more influenced by the spirit of the age rather than by the Spirit of God. We are not being led by the Spirit, but by our emotions, addictions, and desires of the flesh…

The “if” not only haunts me, the “if” convicts me. It is this conviction that drives us onward to the final aspect of the Spirit we need to grasp.

The Ministry of the Spirit

When we talk about the ministry of the Spirit, we are seeking to understand his unique role in the Trinity, as each of the three persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Spirit, fulfill different functions in the redemptive plan of God.

For example, we read in Ephesians 1:3–14 that God the Father chose to reconcile the elect to himself as adopted children, God the Son suffered the curse of the law in our place so that we could be reconciled, and God the Spirit applies the reconciling work of Jesus to us.

Regeneration

Applying the reconciling work of Jesus begins with what we call regeneration, where the Spirit brings us from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is also called being born again, as we are resurrected spiritually by the Spirit even as Jesus was resurrected physically.

This is the meaning of Ephesians 2:4–5,

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved. (NASB)

The work of regeneration is what gives us new eyes to see our need for Jesus and ears to hear and respond to the gospel as it is spoken.

As the hymn says, “I once was blind, but now I see.”

When, by grace, we see and respond to the offer of the gospel with faith, we are sealed by the Spirit, which is also called the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Union

In this baptism, we are united to Christ, like a dead branch that is engrafted into a living vine. We now share the testimony of the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:20, where he says,

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the [body] I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

In his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit, renown theologian J.I. Packer writes,

“The distinctive, constant, basic ministry of the Holy Spirit… is to mediate Christ’s presence to believers.” (49)

In other words, it is by the Spirit that Christ lives or dwells in the believer.

Sinclair Ferguson, in his book, The Holy Spirit, says,

“The [ministry] of the Spirit is essentially a ministry of uniting us to Christ, and then unfolding to us and in us the riches of God’s grace which we inherit in Christ.” (112)

Indwelling. Uniting. Unfolding riches.

These riches include access to the throne of grace in prayer, the impartation of spiritual grace-gifts, the grace of conviction, the grace of assurance of our reconciliation with God, and the grace of tasting the unlimited nature of God’s complete forgiveness.

Romans 5:5 says that God pours out his love into our hearts “by the Holy Spirit.” What a vivid image of God’s lavish kindness.

He doesn’t just drip it. He pours it!

God is not a miser with his mercy. He is extravagant.

Sanctification

While regeneration, the declaration of our justification and the sealing of our adoption are instantaneous works of God in our lives, the advance of that work in and through us is gradual and progressive.

We call this gradual and progressive work of God sanctification — or sanctifying grace. It is the grace of God that produces the fruit of the Spirit in and through us. This fruit — when we love, experience peace and joy, show kindness, and demonstrate self-control — this is all the result of the indwelling Holy Spirit at work within us and takes place as we consciously abide in Jesus by faith as our justifier and sanctifier.

One of my spiritual heroes, Octavius Winslow, wrote a book in 1840 called, The Work of the Holy Spirit, where he says, “The work of sanctification is pre-eminently the product of the Spirit,” (118) and “not a step can the believer advance without the Spirit.” (28)

As Jesus would say in John 15, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

But how does the Spirit effect this change in us? Winslow helps us understand, saying,

“The Spirit especially and effectually sanctifies by unfolding the cross of Jesus… (127) It is by simple, close and searching views of the cross of Christ that the Spirit most effectually sanctifies the believer. This is the true and great method of gospel sanctification!” (127)

This is the remedy for those of us who feel spiritually dry, cold, distant, and unmoved!

The answer is not to create a flame, but to behold the Savior… for you.

“Let no man dream of true mortification of sin, or real sanctification of heart, who does not deal constantly, closely and believingly with the atoning blood of Jesus.” (129)

Have you? Are you? Will you? This is my pastoral plea. Receive him! Receive him!

Or as Winslow says,

“It is the privilege of a poor sinner to go to Jesus at his worst, to go in darkness, to go in weakness, to go when everything says ‘stay away…” to press through the crowd to the throne of grace, take the hard, the cold, the reluctant heart and lay it before the throne.”

The Ultimate Cornerman

Muhammad Ali is arguably the most famous professional boxer of all time, with more titles and awards than it is possible to list this morning. Although he was the fighter in the ring, he was never alone. His trainer and cornerman, Angelo Dundee, is the one who made Ali float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Dundee described his job as a cornerman as “a surgeon, an engineer, and a psychologist.”

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have someone better than a surgeon-engineer-psychologist in our corner. We have the presence and the power of God, the personal, indwelling Holy Spirit.

As our trainer and cornerman, the Holy Spirit is always there to lead, to guide, to convict, to comfort, to strengthen… and to remind us of our spiritual adoption.

That we have a Savior whose blood has made us clean forever. Accepted forever. Treasured by the Father forever.

Who is the Holy Spirit — Review and Discussion Guide

  1. Why do we call the Holy Spirit a who rather than a what? What difference does it make that the Spirit is not a force, but a person?
  2. Describe the relationship between the Word and the Spirit. Why do we tend to separate them?
  3. Explain the Holy Spirit as part of the Trinity. What is his role in the plan of salvation?
  4. Describe the Spirit’s role as a paraclete.
  5. What is the Spirit’s role in our sanctification?

I write for folks who are tired of moralistic religion and thirst for the scandalous grace of Jesus — www.gracefortheweary.com.

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