Truths about the Holy Spirit
It is sufficient that God’s word speaks much of the Spirit, for the only warrant we need to study a truth is that God teaches it in his word. However, to strengthen our motivation to study this topic deeply, let us consider reasons why it is crucial that we study the Holy Spirit.
1. To know the Spirit is to know our God.
The Holy Spirit is God. Therefore, to study the person and works of the Holy Spirit is a great opportunity to know God in a better way. Nothing is more valuable, transforming, or life-giving than the knowledge of God (Jer. 9:23–24; 31:33–34; John 17:3). In particular, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, who especially brings us into communion with the Father and the Son (2 Cor. 13:14; Gal. 4:4–6). Millard Erickson writes, “The Holy Spirit is the point at which the Trinity becomes personal to the believer.”1 Christ promised that when he ascended to heaven he would not leave his disciples as orphans, but would come to them and dwell in them with the Father—all by the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–23). Wayne Grudem observes, “The work of the Holy Spirit is to manifest the active presence of God in the world, and especially in the church.”2
2. To know the Spirit is to know our salvation.
Man cannot discover the wisdom of God, but God reveals his salvation by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9–16). Man by his own power cannot see or enter into the kingdom of God, but God brings sinners into the kingdom by causing them to be born again by the Spirit (John 3:3–5). No one can confess Jesus as Lord without the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). Thus, in the Nicene Creed, the church confesses that the Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of life.”3 Just as the Father especially ordained salvation and the Son accomplished salvation, so the Spirit applies salvation to people’s lives.4 The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 29) says, “We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us (John 1:11–12) by his Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5–6).”5 The doctrine of the Spirit is crucial to knowing how God saves sinners and knowing whether or not you are saved.
3. To know the Spirit is to understand sanctification, the process of spiritual growth in holiness.
Sanctification is “of the Spirit” (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2). William Perkins (1558–1602) said, “The Father sanctifies by the Son and by the Holy Ghost; the Son sanctifies from the Father and by the Holy Ghost; the Holy Ghost sanctifies from the Father and from the Son by Himself immediately.”6 Owen said that sanctification is “the universal renovation of our natures by the Holy Spirit into the image of God, through Jesus Christ.”7 He noted, “All this increase of holiness is immediately the work of the Holy Ghost.”8 It is by the Holy Spirit that the people who belong to Christ are made holy (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 6:19–20), overcome sin (Gal. 5:16), pray (Rom. 8:15; Eph. 6:18), receive illumination (Eph. 1:17–20), are transformed into Christ’s glory (2 Cor. 3:17–18), and magnify Christ in life and death (Phil. 1:19–20). If we listed every aspect of the Christian life, beside each item we could add, “by the Spirit.”
4. To know the Spirit is to balance the Christian life.
Christians and churches are prone to become imbalanced in their preaching and experience. We must maintain a proper balance between knowledge of doctrine and experience of spiritual life. This is the balance of the word and the Spirit. To overemphasize the word or the Spirit results in the coldness of intellectualism or the confusion of emotionalism, either of which can harden hearts so that people fall away into skepticism. J. van Genderen (1923–2004) and W. H. Velema (1929–2019) wrote, “The Word does not exist apart from the Spirit. It is the Word of the Spirit. The Spirit does not come without the Word. He is the Spirit of the Word. Whenever the Word is believed, it is entirely due to the work of the Spirit, who opens the heart to it.”9
5. To know the Spirit is to worship God rightly.
Our worship should be Trinitarian, just as we are baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). We worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God.10 Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) wrote, “There is an order in the Godhead, but no degrees . . . therefore we must give equal worship to all the persons.”11 Furthermore, an appreciation for the Holy Spirit’s work is essential to worship. Under the old covenant, God’s people worshiped in a physical temple using a complex system of rituals through which the Spirit revealed Christ (Heb. 10:1). In the new covenant, the outward rituals have given way to simplicity as the church worships through Christ, with access to the Father, and in one Spirit (Eph. 2:18). It is the Spirit who binds us together in unity and peace despite our personal, ethnic, and social differences so that the church is one body of worshipers (1 Cor. 12:12–13; Eph. 4:3–4). The Spirit fills us with truth and joy so that we sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to the Lord (Eph. 5:18–20). Therefore, the knowledge of the Spirit protects the simplicity, unity, and spirituality of worship.
6. To know the Spirit is to appreciate historic Christian orthodoxy.
From the beginning of the church, Christians have treasured the fundamentals of right doctrine (“orthodoxy”) and confessed it in their creeds. In the Apostles’ Creed, the Christian confesses, “I believe in the Holy Ghost.”12 The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is rooted in the Scriptures, was developed in the early church, and was renewed and made all the more fruitful in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) called John Calvin (1509–1564) “the Theologian of the Holy Spirit.”13 Warfield said, “The developed doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit is an exclusively Reformation doctrine, and more particularly a Reformed doctrine, and more particularly still a Puritan doctrine.”14 Therefore, to neglect this doctrine is to neglect our Christian and Reformed heritage.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is full of man’s inability and God’s sovereignty.
7. To know the Spirit is to be equipped to speak to our culture.
Science has provided us with much technology but no answers to life’s deepest questions. People desire to experience something transcendent and glorious, but our nations are adrift without direction from moral standards or divine wisdom. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit equips us to show people that Christianity offers true knowledge and genuine spiritual experience. As Erickson writes, “In a culture that stresses the experiential, it is primarily through the Holy Spirit’s work that we feel God’s presence within and the Christian life is given a special tangibility.”15 As long as people view Christianity as a mere social institution, system of beliefs, or set of behaviors, they will not recognize its uniqueness. George Smeaton (1814–1889) wrote,
Wherever Christianity has become a living power, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has uniformly been regarded, equally with the atonement and justification by faith, as the article of a standing or falling Church. The distinctive feature of Christianity, as it addresses itself to man’s experience, is the work of the Spirit, which not only elevates it far above all philosophical speculation, but also above every other form of religion.16
8. To know the Spirit is to be prepared for spiritual warfare.
The Christian life consists of a battle against enemies that we can conquer only by means of the Spirit as our supernatural ally. When Christ engaged in direct combat with the Devil in the wilderness, Jesus did so as a man “full of the Holy Ghost” (Luke 4:1). Our great offensive weapon in the battle against the unseen powers of darkness is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17), the same weapon Christ used. The only way for us to make effective use of the armor of God is by “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). Though this world is full of evil spirits that would draw us away from Christ, John wrote, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
9. To know the Spirit is to feel our dependence.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is full of man’s inability and God’s sovereignty. The Lord’s word to Zerubbabel remains the banner that flies over all Christian endeavors: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). While the doctrines of sovereign grace empower human activity (Phil. 2:12–13), they undermine the independence of man’s proud spirit. A. W. Pink (1886–1952) warned, “In the great majority of cases, professing Christians are too puffed up by a sense of what they suppose they are doing for God, to earnestly study what God has promised to do for and in His people.”17 As Irenaeus (fl. 180) said, we are but “dry earth,” and the Holy Spirit is the “water from heaven . . . [and] dew of God” that we must have in order to bear fruit pleasing to God.18 John Dagg (1794–1884) said, “No believer, who has any just sense of his dependence on the Holy Spirit, for the divine life which he enjoys, and all its included blessings, can be indifferent towards the Agent by whom all this good is bestowed. . . . And to him, therefore, the study of the Holy Spirit’s character and office, will be a source of delight.”19
10. To know the Spirit is to know Christ.
This is so because of both the triune nature of God and the plan of salvation. In the Trinity, the Son and the Spirit are distinct in their personalities but inseparable in their being and activity. So closely united are they in all their works that Paul could write of Jesus Christ, “Now the Lord is that Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17). Furthermore, God has so ordered salvation that the Spirit comes to apply what the Son has accomplished (John 16:13–14). The great work of the Spirit is union with Christ: “He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17). Calvin wrote, “The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”20 This union in the Spirit is the means of our personal communion with Christ. Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711), echoing the Heidelberg Catechism, wrote, “The Holy Spirit makes believers partakers of Christ and His benefits. . . . This union results in the mutual use of possessive pronouns. ‘My beloved is mine, and I am His’ (Song of Sol. 2:16).”21
- Erickson, Christian Theology, 772–73.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 634.
- The Three Forms of Unity, 7
- William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. John D. Eusden (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968), 1.14.1–2 (149).
- Reformed Confessions, 4:357.
- William Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbol, in The Works of William Perkins series eds. Joel R. Beeke and Derek W. H. Thomas, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014–2020), 5:305.
- Owen, Pneumatologia, in Works, 3:386.
- Owen, Pneumatologia, in Works, 3:393.
- J. van Genderen and W. H. Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics, trans. Gerrit Bilkes and Ed M. van der Maas (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 767.
- Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbol, in Works, 5:322
- Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 112.
- The Three Forms of Unity, 5.
- Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 vols. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2008), 5:21.
- Benjamin B. Warfield, introduction to Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri de Vries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946), xxxiii.
- Erickson, Christian Theology, 773
- George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, foreword by W. J. Grier (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 1./li>
- Arthur W. Pink, The Holy Spirit(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1970), 8.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.17, in ANF, 1:445.
- John Dagg, Manual of Theology, 2 parts (Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1859), 1:235.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.1.1.
- Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992–1995), 1:184. See the Heidelberg Catechism (LD 1, Q. 1; LD 20, Q. 53), in The Three Forms of Unity, 68, 84.
This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 3: Spirit and Salvation by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.
God wants us to learn about and consider the Trinity. Here are 10 things you should know.
According to the entire witness of Holy Scripture, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not three gods. Nor are they some confederation of the one God with lesser gods. These three are the one God.
To be converted as a Christian is to have changed your thinking and your believing about Jesus Christ, and to be changed into a person who is no longer an enemy of God but a beloved child of God.
Fred Sanders explains why the doctrine of the Trinity is essential to the gospel, highlights why Trinitarian analogies are of limited value, and responds to the charge that three-in-one is inherently illogical.