The Mysterious Spirit
Have you ever taken a moment to reflect on the state of our culture, sat back, and threw your hands up in the air because it is such a convoluted mess? Let me see if I can give you an example of this. There is a part of our culture that is obsessed with things spiritual. A few years ago, one of the popular shows on television was called “Crossing Over with John Edward.” In this show host John Edward would psychically connect audience members to friends and family who had died. In any movie season we can always count on at least one film dealing with spirits or ghosts or the generally supernatural in some fashion. I remember when I was in high school one of the taboo toys was the Ouija Board in which forces from “the other side” would send messages to players by spelling out responses while everyone’s hand was on the little letter-finder-thingy. (Anyone willing to confess having ever played with one?) We have an almost morbid interest not in death itself, but in what comes next. But, at the same time people are hyped on the supernatural, the prevailing worldview in this culture is anti-supernatural in its naturalistic bent. We see this come out the most clearly when we try and take the message of the Gospel into the public square. Critics of the faith will often reject Christ mostly from an anti-supernaturlist position. “We don’t need God, we have science.” In other words, they don’t believe the message of the Gospel and Scripture generally because the Bible contains miracle stories which, for them, undermine its credibility in their scientific implausibility. Do you see the duplicitousness here? Our culture simultaneously celebrates the supernatural while rejecting it outright.
But don’t think this cultural confusion has passed over the church leaving it singularly unaffected. We see the effects of this most clearly in the church in our confusion about the third person of the Trinity and the next stop on our theological journey: the Holy Spirit. More so than either of the other members of the Trinity, we really do not know how to handle the Holy Spirit. Part of the reason for this lies in His title: Holy Spirit. In King James English He’s called the Holy Ghost which just makes things more confusing. Because we often share in our culture’s puzzlement over what exactly to do with the spiritual realm—do we embrace it or reject it?—we struggle with how exactly to deal with the Holy Spirit. How exactly should we think about this person of the Trinity? Is He really a full member of the Trinity or is He more of a junior member? Is He Jesus but in a post-departure form? I mean, Jesus Himself said in John 14 and 16 that He was sending the Holy Spirit after He returned to the Father. So is He Jesus’ ghost? And what does He do exactly? Is He just the lackey of the Father and the Son? Does He simply do all the things they really don’t want to do? What is the proper shape of an orthodox Pneumatology—doctrine of God the Spirit?
Well, it just so happens that I want to talk about this very thing with you this morning. You see, in spite of the fact that for most folks—even most “trained” theologians—the doctrine of God the Spirit is the least developed area of their theology, in terms of our spiritual formation (that word just pops up all over the place when you start talking about the spiritual life—there it is again), it is one of the most important areas of doctrine. It may be through a solid Bibliology that we are able to know who God is, but it is through our Pneumatology that we are able to understand the Bible properly in the first place. Furthermore, if we are serious in our belief in a triune God, why would we stop short of understanding all three members of the Trinity as fully as possible simply because the third presents us with an intellectual challenge? The simple answer is that serious believers won’t. So this morning we are going to step up to this challenge. As with the last couple of weeks, we are going to take a few moments and unpack exactly who the third member of the Trinity is and why having a good theology of the Spirit matters. To accomplish this we are going to look at the Holy Spirit from two major angles: who He is and what He does. Once these are clearer, we will finish up this morning talking about why this matters.
So then, what exactly is the Holy Spirit? Let’s start here first. Let us devise a rough definition and from there work to describe His identity and function. Perhaps the best way to approach this will be an illustration. Imagine for me that you have a desire to accomplish something. It could be anything, but let’s go with building a house. Most of you are at least somewhat familiar with that process. How do you go about seeing this done? Well, first you come up with a plan of some sort. It is through this plan that you give shape to your vision. Eventually, this vision comes to have almost a life of its own, like it exists independently of you. It doesn’t exist apart from you in actuality, of course, but in its size and import it sometimes seems that way. It is kind of like there are two parts of you: the part that thought up the idea and the vision to see it happen. They are equal in nature in that there is only one you and so the two parts have technically always existed, but in at least one sense it at times appears the vision serves at the behest of the idea generator. In this it is functionally subordinated to the idea generator. Now, let’s take this another step forward. Coming up with an idea and letting the idea form into a vision does not guarantee that anything is going to happen. There has to be a third force here. This is the driving force or energy which puts the wheels to the metaphorical road. This is the part that obtains the relevant permits and inspections and lines up contractors and laborers. This is the part that sees things through to completion. The house wouldn’t have even a hope of existence had you not generated the idea, and it would not have ever gotten beyond the jumbled mess of thoughts swirling around in your head without the vision to set it free to actually become something, but without this third part, the liberating power of the vision is meaningless. And again, like the vision, once this third part gets up and running it seems to take on a life of its own.
Now, extrapolate these three parts back to infinity past such that they have always existed and you have a picture of the Trinity. God the Father is the source of all things. His was the idea to create in the first place. His was the idea to save people from their sins. God the Son is the means by which these things happen. He is the vision to free them so that potential becomes kinetic. Paul makes clear in Ephesians and Colossians that Christ is the medium of creation and the source of our salvation. But it is the Spirit who carries things out. He is the energy, the force, the life which makes reality the Father’s plans. The Spirit is how creation was formed. We see this in Psalm 104:30 when after describing the glory of God in His creation the psalmist declares: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created.” He is the One who takes us from our newly converted but still very much broken state to complete maturity in the image of Christ. This, my friends, is what the Holy Spirit is: the divine energy that takes the things the Father has decreed and makes them happen. Let me make this personal for a minute and then we’ll move on. We are saved by the grace afforded us because of the work of Christ on the cross. But as any honest believer can acknowledge who has been following Christ for very long, while there is an immediate wholeness and fulfillment that come at the moment of conversion, in spite of ups and downs on the journey, they grow more complete in Christ’s image the longer they walk with the Spirit. By the Holy Spirit we become what God intended.
Yet if this is the case, it does not tell us who the Spirit is or exactly what He does. Is the Holy Spirit even a figure with whom we can interact? For me to describe the Holy Spirit as the force, the energy, the life going forth to accomplish the plans of the Father doesn’t really lend much substance to the idea that we can have as personal a relationship with Him as we can the Son. In fact, for many folks it feels a little weird to even refer to the Spirit as a “He.” “It” feels far more appropriate a pronoun for this force than does “He.” The problem with this, however, is that it puts the Holy Spirit in the category of an impersonal force. Well, if we have learned anything at all in the last couple of weeks of talking about God, He is never impersonal. God is intensely personal. God is the embodiment and source of all personality. There is no part of God that is not personal and that includes the Holy Spirit.
So then, how do we know the Spirit is personal and why does this matter? Let’s start with the first part of that question. We know the Spirit is personal, we know the Spirit has a personality, because we can see Him exhibiting this in the Bible. We see the Spirit described as teaching people. In John 14:26 Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come and teach us all things. Earlier in the same passage Jesus calls the Spirit the Paraclete which roughly translates as Helper or Counselor or Advocate. Those are all personal functions. In other words, the Spirit will be our advocate in this life, helping us and guiding us into all truth. When we come into all truth, we will be fully who God designed us to be since He is the locus of all truth. By the Holy Spirit we become what God intended.
This is not the limit of the Spirit’s personality though. The Spirit communicates with God’s people as He did when calling the church in Antioch to commission Paul and Barnabas to missionary service. A couple of chapters later in Acts the Spirit is described as thinking in the sense of making a decision. Impersonal forces don’t think. Paul commands us in Ephesians to not grieve the Holy Spirit which indicates that He can in fact be grieved. Impersonal forces don’t grieve. There are many more examples in this vein but let’s cut this short with one last one. The Spirit, as we saw before Christmas in Romans 8, is the One who confirms our status as God’s people. He is the one who reminds us of who we are…of whose we are. By the Holy Spirit we not only become what God intended, but our identity is confirmed.
Now, why should it matter whether or not the Spirit is personal? In the Disney movie “Fantasia” there is a classic scene (which actually inspired a recent Disney movie) in which Mickey Mouse, the sorcerer’s apprentice, puts on the sorcerer’s hat and uses some magic to make the mops and brooms clean the floors of the castle for him. Things quickly get out of hand and the mops take over, nearly drowning Mickey before the sorcerer returns and sets things right. The mops were powered by an impersonal force. They got the job done which they were set to, but they did so without respect to any of the persons involved. They were called to clean the castle and as far as they knew Mickey was simply another piece of trash to be cleaned up. They didn’t draw distinctions between the job they were called to do and the person they were designed to help. On the other hand, when you conceive of an idea to build a house, craft a vision for it, and set in motion the energy to see it happen, that energy is a personal force. Namely, it is you. You are the one who makes the calls and stays on the contractors and checks on the progress regularly such that it is your vision coming to pass and no one else’s. You are able to discern when things need to keep going in a certain direction and when they need a mid-course correction. You can work with the people involved to make sure they are staying on track. You as the personal force can watch things closely so that the final product is exactly what you intended.
Let’s take this back to the Spirit now. If the Spirit is an impersonal force, if we are merely another cog in the great wheel of history spinning towards the Great White Throne of judgment, then we lose any real sense of value. We then matters to God only in the sense that we are able to advance His cause. If the Spirit is personal, however, our value is increased a thousand-fold. If the Spirit is more like the energy you put into seeing your house built than an automated mop, then it is God Himself who is personally involved in seeing you become complete in Christ’s image. You are possessed of such an inestimably great value because of God’s estimation of you that the Creator of Life Himself is devoted to your reaching your fullest potential. By the Holy Spirit we become what God intended.
This last idea leads me to the other side of the Spirit. You see, just as we had to establish Jesus’ humanity and divinity last week, we must also established the Spirit’s divinity. Given what we said before about some people rejecting all things spiritual because of their anti-supernatural worldview contrasted with those who are nearly obsessed with the spiritual, defining the Holy Spirit as personal is important for the first group, but not the second. Those who are keenly interested in all things spiritual may have no trouble believing God’s Spirit to be personal. Their hang up is accepting Him as equal to God and thus superior to every other spirit. Well, if the Spirit is to be equated with God, then He must share in God’s divine attributes. Indeed He does. The Holy Spirit is described in Scripture to be omniscient in 1 Corinthians 2:10-11, omnipresent in Psalm 139:7-10 (David asks where He can go from God’s Spirit), omnipotent in Luke 1:35-37 (Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit—in other words, the Spirit was the means of the Incarnation), and eternal or infinite in Hebrews 9:14. Additionally, the Holy Spirit is attributed with things elsewhere attributed to God the Father. Jesus told Nicodemus that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless the Spirit regenerates us. When giving his testimony to King Festus in Acts 28 Paul cites words written by Isaiah under God’s direction as spoken by the Spirit. Paul’s words here, by the way, have a huge impact on our understanding of the Spirit’s role in the inspiration of Scripture. Earlier in Acts 5 when Ananias and Sapphira lie about the amount of money they were bringing to the church, they are in the same breath said to be lying to God and to the Spirit. Putting all of this together and we have a picture of a Spirit who is fully equal to God in all respects. This is important for two reasons. Because the Spirit is God He has the power at His disposal to make sure the work He does in our lives makes a difference. And, because He is God, the work He does in our lives is the work God wants done. By the Holy Spirit we become what God intended.
If all of that, then, is who the Spirit is, we need to make clear what He does. So then, what does the Spirit do? Well, we have already answered this in part. The Spirit is the power by which God sees His plans through to fruition. Specifically, it is the Spirit who enables the internal regeneration which is the manifestation of our salvation. Jesus is the One who saves us; the Holy Spirit carries it out. The Spirit is responsible for our sanctification. He is the One who shapes us and forms us into the image of Christ. If our call is to be holy after the fashion of God the Father, it is the Spirit who helps us achieve that. In this, the Spirit is the power by which we know that God is at work in our lives. By the Holy Spirit we become what God intended.
The Spirit is also chiefly responsible with helping us live out the moral commands of God. Even the ancients understood this. When David was pouring out his heart to God in the great confessional Psalm 51, he asked God for help in walking the path of righteousness once again by saying, “take not your Holy Spirit from me.” As I mentioned briefly a bit ago, a solid understanding of the work of the Spirit is vital for us to have a solid understanding of the Bible. The Spirit is both the medium by which Scripture came into being and the medium by which we can understand it properly. If we do not go to the Bible with hearts that are humbly seeking the guiding wisdom of the Spirit, we will never understand the text the way God intended. As evidence of this, consider the countless number of Biblical scholars in our universities who know the contents of the Bible in exceptional detail and yet at best have no relationship with Christ and at worst actively try and keep others from having one as well.
There is one more function of the Spirit worth mentioning here. This is perhaps one of the chief jobs of the Spirit. The Spirit is the person of God who empowers God’s people for ministry. This applies to all of God’s people. Apart from the presence of the Spirit in our lives we are incapable of serving the body as we are designed. This goes for every human who has served at the behest of the Father. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this? The Spirit empowered Jesus’ ministry. The Spirit was involved in His birth as we mentioned earlier. The Spirit was part of commissioning Jesus to ministry at His baptism. The Spirit filled Jesus so that He could minister. Think about this for a minute: if Jesus was filled with the Spirit so that He could effectively minister the message of the kingdom do you think we can get by without Him? Thankfully the Spirit does all the same things for us. The primary means of this is the spiritual gifts which we have talked about several times. Every single follower of Christ is given at least one spiritual gift by Jesus. The Spirit enables the use and flourishing of this gift set for the advancement of the larger body in the direction of the kingdom. Indeed, these spiritual gifts are part of the design God had in mind for us when we were created. In this, by the Holy Spirit we become what God intended. If you are a follower of Christ, then you have a spiritual gift set. He will help you develop these and use them to their fullest potential, but you are not a puppet in this. This is a synergistic process. You have a part to play. If a believer is making no effort to uncover, develop, and use her spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body, that believer is living in disobedience and is not enjoying the abundant life to its fullest degree. In other words, such a person has the fully glory of salvation in front of him but is settling for merely a taste of it.
The evidence of all this Spirit-work is made clear by Paul near the end of his letter to the Galatian church. In 5:22-23 Paul lays out the evidence of the Spirit-led life by listing off nine “fruits” of the Spirit. Look at the front of your bulletin for this passage. Paul says: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: against such things there is no law.” Here’s what Paul is saying: the life empowered, filled, guided by the Spirit of God will naturally grow in such things. Jesus said that you will know a tree by its fruit. If the Spirit is alive and moving in your breast, these nine things will be the result. They can’t, not be the result. These are the evidence of the Spirit’s presence. If you are not growing in these nine things, then you need to examine whether or not the Spirit is a present force in your heart. If, on the other hand, you have found yourself inexplicably feeling God’s peace in situations where such peace doesn’t make any sense; if you find yourself more consistently able to resist temptation; if you are kind to people who you might have otherwise treated with contempt, then you can have great confidence that the Spirit is dwelling in you. You don’t have the ability for such feats of morality on your own. This is the Spirit making you complete in Christ’s image. By the Holy Spirit we become what God’s intended.
So then, let’s put all of this together. Why does it matter whether or not we understand who the Spirit is? Why does it matter whether or not we recognize Him and join Him in His work? It matters because salvation is not available to us except through the work of the Spirit. Jesus said in John 16:8-11 that when the Spirit arrived, He would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Now, the word “convict” carries a lot of negative connotations for us, but literally speaking the word describes a gaining of awareness of something. Unless we come to an awareness of our sinful state, our inability to attain a right relationship with God through our own power, and the judgment coming for those who refuse to recognize any of this, we will never fully experience the salvation available in Christ. It is the Spirit who does all of this. When we understand the Spirit’s work in all of this, we are able to open ourselves to Him and come to Christ with a properly receptive heart.
This is not all though. Living the life to which Christ calls us on a daily basis is an enormous load to bear. It is hard. There are ups and downs and some days it feels like there are a lot more downs than ups. One of the great temptations we face in all of this is to go at it with the mindset that we are on our own; that we are singularly responsible for keeping ourselves in line with God’s standards. This is a recipe for disaster if there ever was one. Because of our sinful nature we are incapable of living up to this standard on our own. Recognizing this is what allowed us to be saved in the first place. The problem is that many of us quickly forget the power that saved us and keep trying to go at it alone. This leads to frustration, disillusionment, and for some, abandonment of the faith. Yet if we simply kept in mind the fact that Jesus promised us a Helper, this need not be a part of our story. When we are aware of the Spirit and understand His role in our lives as followers of Christ, we can operate each day on the full power of God. This is the only power, by the way, powerful enough to enable us to accomplish our mission, to see our vision become reality. This is because when the Spirit is our guide, our vision will be God’s vision and His vision will always come to pass. And God’s vision is for us to become fully the men and women He created us to be to His glory and to our joy. By the Holy Spirit we become what God intended. So let us be among those with a keen interest in not all things spiritual, but in the one Spirit who is truly able to give us the life we long for. By the Holy Spirit we become what God intended.