What Was the Holy Spirit’s Role in the Incarnation?

The Spirit and God the Son Incarnate

Christ began his ministry in Nazareth by reading the prophecy “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me” and announcing, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:16–21, citing Isa. 61:1). Though all the saints share in his anointing (2 Cor. 1:21; 1 John 2:27), Christ is preeminently the Anointed.1 The psalmist says, “God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows” (Ps. 45:7). John Flavel (1628–1691) paraphrased this text as follows: God “enriched and filled thee, in a singular and peculiar manner, with the fulness of the Spirit, whereby thou art consecrated to thy office: and by reason whereof thou out-shinest and excellest all the saints, who are thy fellows or copartners in these graces.”2

John says that God “gives the Spirit without measure” to his Son (John 3:34 ESV). Christ is the reservoir containing all the living waters that overflow into the lives of his people. Isaac Ambrose (1604–1664) said, “In Christ there is a gracious mixture and compound of all the graces of the Spirit. . . . He received the Spirit out of measure; there was in him as much as possible could be in a creature, and more than in all other creatures whatsoever.”3 Francis Turretin noted that Christ’s reception of the Spirit in his humanity is not “simply infinite,” for his “humanity is finite in itself,” but it is “a ‘fulness of abundance,’ which suffices not only for himself but for others also, so that we all can drink of his fulness (John 1:16).”4

Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 3

Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley

The third volume in Reformed Systematic Theology draws on historical theology of the Reformed tradition, exploring the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation.

When we consider Christ’s anointing with the Holy Spirit, we must remember the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.5 The Son and the Spirit are each distinct persons, both fully God, sharing the one divine essence with the Father. The incarnate Son is both God and man in one person. As God the Son, the Mediator is anointed by the Father to give the Holy Spirit to sinful men. As the human Servant of the Lord, Christ needs and receives the graces of the Spirit to live and fulfill his office, for his deity does not replace a human mind and soul.6

The Holy Spirit and the Revelation of Christ

The Spirit of God is the divine agent of revelation.7 He revealed the old covenant with its holy place and sacrifices, ordering its ceremonies in a manner that pointed ahead to a more perfect way into God’s presence that Christ would accomplish (Heb. 9:8–12). The Holy Spirit also revealed the new covenant, in which he testified that Christ’s one offering would accomplish both the justification and sanctification of his people (Heb. 10:14–17).

When the prophets foretold “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow,” they did so by the revelation of the Spirit (1 Pet. 1:10–12). In them was the “Spirit of Christ” (v. 11), evidently so named because God the Son was already making himself known to God’s people by the work of the Spirit among them.8 Edmund Clowney (1917–2005) said, “Not only does prophecy bear witness to Jesus, but Jesus bears witness through prophecy. . . . The eternal Logos is the source of the prophetic testimony.”9 The same Holy Spirit inspired the apostles and evangelists who proclaimed Christ after his coming (v. 12).

As the human Servant of the Lord, Christ needs and receives the graces of the Spirit to live and fulfill his office.

The Spirit’s ministry is so tied to Jesus Christ that apostolic tests for the authentic Spirit of prophecy are, among other things, whether people are led to confess that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (1 John 4:3) and “Jesus is the Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3). The aim of prophecy is to bear witness to Jesus for God’s glory, “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10).

The Holy Spirit and Christ’s Incarnation

The Holy Spirit formed Christ’s human nature: Jesus was conceived in Mary “of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 1:18, 20). This does not mean that the Holy Spirit is the father of Christ’s human nature; the Spirit relates to the man Jesus simply as his Creator. Christ is one person in two natures, divine and human, and thus relates only to God the Father as his Father.10

The angel Gabriel told Mary, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Christ’s unique conception by a virgin mother was a sign that he is no mere man, but the vanguard of the new creation by the Holy Spirit, the divine glory dwelling among men.11 The Holy Spirit who manifested God’s glory with Israel in its earthly tabernacle and temple (Isa. 63:10–14; Hag. 2:5) prepared the human tabernacle of Immanuel, so that God the Son dwells among men in human flesh (John 1:14; 2:19–20).12

Christ would not be the God-man apart from the power of the Spirit forming his humanity from Mary’s flesh. God’s promises hinge upon this great work. All the Spirit’s saving operations on men and women through Christ spring from his work in this one man, the last Adam. Therefore, let us glorify God the Holy Spirit forever for the virgin birth.

Christ’s miraculous conception by the power of the Holy Spirit was not an isolated event, but rather set upon Christ’s human nature a birthmark, as it were, of constant dependence on and filling by the Spirit. Herman Bavinck said, “This activity of the Holy Spirit with respect to Christ’s human nature . . . began with the conception . . . [and] continued throughout his entire life, even right into the state of exaltation, . . . [for] the true human who bears God’s image is inconceivable even for a moment without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.”13


  1. . On “Christ” or “Anointed One” as Jesus’s official name, see RST, 2:742–44.
  2. John Flavel, The Method of Grace in the Gospel-Redemption, in The Works of John Flavel, 6 vols. (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 2:141.
  3. Isaac Ambrose, Looking unto Jesus: A View of the Everlasting Gospel; or, The Soul’s Eyeingof Jesus, as Carrying on the Great Work of Man’s Salvation, from First to Last (Philadelphia: J. B.Lippincott & Co., 1856), 280.
  4. Turretin, Institutes, 13.12.3 (2:347).
  5. On the Trinity, see RST, 1:876–953 (chaps. 45–47). On the incarnation, see RST, 2:783–865 (chaps. 39–42).
  6. Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 112, 114–15.
  7. See RST, 1:268.
  8. The similarity among “Spirit of Christ,” “Spirit of God,” and “Spirit of the Lord” implies that the first title indicates that the Spirit was sent from Christ in his name (cf. John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). See Poole, Annotations upon the Holy Bible, 3:901, on 1 Pet. 1:11.
  9. Edmund P. Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter: The Way of the Cross, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 58.
  10. Owen, Pneumatologia, in Works, 3:164–65.
  11. See the section on the incarnate Lord’s unique birth in RST, 2:790–94.
  12. Edward Henry Bickersteth, The Holy Spirit: His Person and Work (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1959), 75. Some draw a parallel between Christ’s baptism and transfiguration, noting the Father’s dual commendation of the Son and suggesting that the cloud of glory represents the Holy Spirit (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34–35)—but that is not explicit in the text. See Cole, He Who Gives Life, 163–64; and Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, 102.
  13. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:292.

This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 3: Spirit and Salvation by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.

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