First of all, far be it from me that I make any hard and fast claims about what the Holy Spirit does or does not do. The Holy Spirit is God, and therefore all we can know about Him is what has been revealed to us. Since the role of the Spirit seems to be rather “subjective” in the Bible, making definitive claims seems rather immodest.
What this should not do, however, is hinder us from considering the role and work of the Holy Spirit as revealed in the Bible. I recognize that this is a difficult subject for many and one fraught with problems. I also recognize that there are many in the church who are rather dogmatic about what the Holy Spirit does or does not do, and many approach the subject fearfully (if at all), fearing retribution of some kind.
I do not want this to be the case here. I welcome and encourage any and all discussion that helps me and others to be more aligned with what the Scriptures teach on the Holy Spirit: that’s what this is entirely about.
As it is written:
Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily (Colossians 2:8-9).
Please remember this not only in terms of modern philosophical presuppositions but also in terms of denominational doctrines. By necessity, we will be bringing up some things taught in denominations, but please do not automatically draw parallels where none may exist. All denominations take some right ideas of Scripture and twist them in various ways, the Holy Spirit certainly notwithstanding; abuse of a truth does not negate a truth.
And that gets me to the last concern. A lot of people do not want to think about the role of the Holy Spirit, perhaps may seek to discount the value of understanding the Spirit, or in other ways show great discomfort with the subject because of how denominations have abused the role of the Holy Spirit. This also fosters extremism: people will go to the opposite side of the spectrum in their opposition to denominational teachings.
If we are going to be workmen without need to be ashamed, we cannot shrink from any Biblical subject (2 Timothy 2:15). We should also not cling to an extreme merely because it justifies our opposition to another doctrine; instead, we must seek out the truth, and then understand how the truth demonstrates the error of other positions. That is what I am trying to do here: to best understand, on the basis of the Scriptures, the role and work of the Holy Spirit.
The Role and Work of the Holy Spirit, I: The Gift of the Holy Spirit
As we begin our discussion, we recognize that the Holy Spirit is part of the Godhead; He is identified as part of YHWH in many Scriptures, not least in 2 Peter 1:20 and 2 Corinthians 6:16.
One of the primary issues we must tackle involves the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. When Peter stands before the Jews on Pentecost, and they seek to know what they must do to be saved (Acts 2:37), Peter responds:
And Peter said unto them, “Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him” (Acts 2:38-39).
What is this “gift of the Holy Spirit”?
It has been argued historically (even by myself) that the “gift of the Holy Spirit” here represents an objective genitive, that is, the gift is the gift that the Holy Spirit gives. That gift has generally been identified as “salvation.”
Yet where, in the New Testament, is the gift of salvation something granted by the Holy Spirit? Granted, the Holy Spirit is part of God, but the Bible tends to make clear which Person does what, and nowhere else do we see the Holy Spirit Himself having such a place. Salvation is granted by God the Father through Jesus the Son (John 3:16, etc.). It is not the Holy Spirit’s work, per se, to give salvation.
Therefore, that argument really does not work. The “gift of the Holy Spirit” seems to be a subjective genitive: the Holy Spirit is the gift itself.
But what does that mean? Does this mean that the believer is given the gift of the Holy Spirit when they are baptized and brought into the Church?
I believe, based on all the evidence in the Scriptures, that the answer is unhesitatingly yes. In fact, the Scriptures seem to indicate that it is mandatory for the believer to have and reflect this gift.
There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death; but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace: because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be: and they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. But if any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwelleth in you, he that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall give life also to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwelleth in you (Romans 8:1-11).
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary the one to the other; that ye may not do the things that ye would. But if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law. And they that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof. If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk (Galatians 5:16-18, 22-25).
Romans 8 and Galatians 5 tie into one another nicely. Both passages indicate that believers are set apart because they “walk after” the Spirit. But this cannot be construed as merely doing what the Bible says, for Paul indicates that to no longer be in the flesh but to be in the Spirit requires “the Spirit of God” to be in you (Romans 8:9; it should be added that the Holy Spirit is identified as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ in that He is part of the Godhead; verse 11 shows that we cannot just identify the Spirit here as the Father or the Son, but is the Holy Spirit proper). In verse 11, the future quickening of the body in the resurrection is entirely dependent on having the same Holy Spirit as was with the Lord in His ministry (cf. Luke 4:1, 14).
When one has the Spirit and is led by it, one will manifest the Spirit’s works, that is, the fruit of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 2:22-24. Such are the manifestations of the Spirit in one’s life. Does this mean that the believer has no role to play? Absolutely not. The Spirit does not overwhelm or conquer the free will of the believer, no more or less than the Father or the Son. As the believer must “open the door” to let Jesus in, according to Revelation 3:20, the believer must work toward manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. The believer must be willing to be led by the Spirit, striving to obey God’s will. But this does not mean that the Spirit has no role to play in assisting the believer in manifesting that fruit.
We also have the metaphor of the Temple in the New Testament. Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 present the metaphor “church as temple,” indicating that the Spirit is “in” the church just as God’s presence was within the First and Second Temples of Israel. Yet 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 indicates that the metaphor of believer as temple is just as appropriate:
Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
While the Greek does use second person plurals in this discussion, it is because Paul is addressing a plurality of persons: “body” is singular, indicating that each body is a temple, and the Holy Spirit therefore “is” in each body.
When we consider the witness of these three Scriptures, it is hard to see how we can interpret Acts 2:38-39 in any other way than that the Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism.
Yet many questions abound. Does this mean that the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is in the same measure as the Apostles? No. In Acts 11:16-17, when recounting the conversion of Cornelius, Peter describes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them “as at the first, when He came upon us.” This clearly shows that what happened to the Apostles on Pentecost was not a normal event, and was not continuously repeated.
God always recognized that He was going to give the gift of the Spirit in a greater measure in the first century than He would later on; the gift given at baptism is not the same as what the Apostles had, or even the same that enabled the believer to speak in tongues. Acts 2:39 talks about how the gift would be given to all future generations. Acts 8:14-16 shows that the Apostles needed to lay hands on people for them to demonstrate many of the gifts of the Spirit.
This brings us to the passage that most often is provided, 1 Corinthians 13:8-10:
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.
While many in the denominational world attempt to lessen the force of Paul’s words, I fear that too many try to overemphasize them. Paul provides this passage in the context of a discussion of love within an even greater context of the use of spiritual gifts. These three are just three of many other gifts mentioned, as is evident from 1 Corinthians 12:4-11:
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit: to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, in the one Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as he will.
In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, we have the “gifts” of words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healings, workings of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues.
Even if we say that speaking in tongues and its interpretation have ceased, along with prophecy and new knowledge, and even if we grant that miracles only come by God’s operation without direct human knowledge, we still have “words of wisdom,” “faith,” and “discerning of spirits” (cf. 1 John 4:1).
Beyond this, we have Romans 12:4-8 and 1 Peter 4:10-11:
For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same office: so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another. And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.
According as each hath received a gift, ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God; if any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God; is any man ministereth, ministering as of the strength which God supplieth: that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, whose is the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Here we have other “gifts” enumerated, and many of them are still in use today: ministry, exhortation, teaching, mercy, speaking, and the like.
We recognize that it is the ultimate in impiety to assert that we, by our own strength and ability, have been able to provide of all of our means. If someone came among the brethren and started to say that he, all by himself, was able to have a great marriage, to have great kids, plenty of resources, and the like, we would lament for that soul, considering how self-deceived he is. We all recognize that we are who we are by God’s grace: our sufficiency is not within ourselves. Left to our own devices, we humans fail and go the wrong way (Proverbs 14:26, Jeremiah 10:23). We recognize that, as Christians, we are to give all glory to God.
But how can we say that the man spoken of above is self-deceived and yet go on and assert that we can show compassion, teach, preach, exhort, minister, etc., by our own power and ability? Is that not just as much, if not more, self-deception? Does not Peter say that we should do such things to God’s glory?
However comfortable or uncomfortable it may be for us, both Peter and Paul testify that our abilities are God-given gifts. Just as the master provided talents to the three servants in Matthew 25:14-31, so our Master has provided gifts to us to use in His service.
And what is the agency of these gifts? How do we obtain these gifts? Many of the same gifts that belong to the Spirit are enumerated in these lists of gifts. The conclusion seems inescapable: ministering, exhortation, teaching, preaching, showing compassion, etc., are gifts of the Holy Spirit that is in us.
Let none be deceived: we must still show compassion, preach, teach, exhort, minister, and the like. But we must recognize that if we are in the Body of Christ, and if we seek to give God all the glory, we must humbly confess that we have those abilities thanks to the gifts of God given through the Spirit to each of us so that we can work in Him.
Therefore, while we may not have the same measure of the Spirit as was given in the first century, and the Spirit is not empowering Christians with the use of certain gifts as before, the Spirit is still “in” us and providing us with the gifts of God according to His mercy and direction.
And so now we have the million dollar question. How is the Spirit “in” us? I have heard the phrase “literal indwelling” used many times, and I am still not quite sure what this means. How can the Spirit “literally indwell” in anyone? He is Spirit! He certainly is not physically in us in any way that we would understand the idea. But, as He is Spirit, He is “in” us as the Spirit would be in us.
What does that mean? I have no idea. Far be it from me to try to provide some ontological understanding of the inner operation and presence of that which is spiritual. The means by which it takes place is indeed one of the “secret things” of God (Deuteronomy 29:29).
But the Scriptures testify that the Holy Spirit is indeed “in” us in some spiritual sense, that is, if we indeed belong to God, according to Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 3; 12, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12 as quoted above.
But how can a singular Holy Spirit be “in” every believer? Again, I do not know, but I trust the revelation of God in His Word. In Acts 2:1-4, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the twelve Apostles, and they all manifest the Spirit individually simultaneously. If the Spirit can do that, then the Spirit, through some spiritual means beyond our understanding, can “be” with each individual believer.
From the Scriptures, it would seem that the believer, upon being baptized and added to the Body of Christ, receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is then “in” him. This would not be a “literal indwelling,” but some spiritual presence that is not easily understood, if at all. The Spirit is the agent of the gifts that God bestows upon Christians, and seems to have a role in leading the Christian in his walk with God.