The Role and Work of the Holy Spirit, III: Functions of the Spirit

We have been considering what the Scriptures reveal about the role and work of the Holy Spirit. In previous editions we saw how God continues to give the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, and some of the contours of how that gift is manifested. We also considered one of the main roles of the Spirit– His work of revealing God’s message to mankind, and how it is that the Spirit is still able to assist believers in their understanding of that which was previously revealed.

It remains for us to consider other functions of the Spirit as listed in the Bible beyond that of revealing God’s message. Some believe that the work of revealing God’s will is all that the Spirit does. Nevertheless, let us consider what the Scriptures have to say.

The Spirit as Intercessor

As it is written:

And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

If we accept the surface meaning of the passage, it is clear that one of the functions of the Spirit is to intercede for Christians, petitioning God on their behalf.

Yet this interpretation is often criticized. Some would reject the idea that the Holy Spirit is under consideration in this passage, believing that “the Spirit” is the spirit of each person. This view does not make good sense of the passage: where do we get the idea from Scripture that our spirit has a mind independent of our own minds? If our spirit is part of us, how can “the Spirit” help “us” in our weaknesses? Do we believe that our own individual spirits have greater knowledge than ourselves? How can our individual spirits be considered a singular “he” that makes intercession “for the saints”? This line of reasoning ends up causing more difficulties than it is worth.

Others would cast doubt on the Spirit’s role in intercession, claiming that only Christ can intercede for Christians. Yet the Scriptures make it plain that this is not the case. Yes, Jesus is our only Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), but mediation and intercession are not the same things. This is made abundantly clear from 1 Timothy 2:1-5, where Paul exhorts believers to make “intercessions” for all men while confessing that Jesus is our one Mediator. Furthermore, both Christ and the Spirit are described in the Scriptures as parakletos, which means “advocate, comforter, intercessor” (Thayer’s; cf. 1 John 2:1, John 14:16).

The best sense of this passage is to accept it at face value: the Holy Spirit is active as an intercessor in prayer on behalf of Christians. What a comforting thought– the Spirit prays on our behalf for things that we may need that we do not even recognize!

The Spirit and Sanctification

As it is written,

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, for that God chose you from the beginning unto salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied (1 Peter 1:2).

From these passages it seems evident that the Holy Spirit has a role in the sanctification of the believer.

The word sanctification is the Greek hagiasmos, meaning “consecration, purification” (Thayer’s)— the idea of being made holy, being separated out. It is the process by which a Christian is taken from sin and death and conformed to the image of the Son. Paul speaks toward the Spirit’s role in this process in Titus 3:4-6:

But when the kindness of God our Saviour, and his love toward man, appeared, not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Paul says that we are saved through the “washing of regeneration” in baptism, which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12:13 as being “in one Spirit,” and the “renewing of the Holy Spirit.”

We have confirmation of this idea in Romans 8:1-11, where Paul establishes that those who are redeemed in Christ are those who set their minds on the Spirit and who “have” the Spirit “dwelling in” them. In Galatians 5:17-24, we must “walk by the Spirit” and manifest His fruit.

So how does the “sanctification of the Spirit” work? Its precise nature is not revealed. We can be sure that the Spirit is not going to work on the unwilling– the believer must strive toward holiness and godliness, striving to walk by the Spirit and to manifest His fruit. It is certainly feasible that the Spirit might assist the believer in doing so. It cannot be ruled out.

The Spirit’s role in sanctification is sufficiently significant to become part of the rather “Trinitarian” introduction of Peter’s letter: we are foreknown to God to obedience and cleansing in Jesus Christ in the sanctification of the Spirit. When we consider Romans 8:1-11 in connection with this, it would seem that the believer’s consecration to God is made evident by the reception of the Spirit: by this he is made separate from the unbelievers who have no such blessing. We are set apart by having the Spirit and walking by the Spirit. We can see, therefore, that the Spirit has a significant role in our sanctification.

The Scriptures describe many features of the Spirit that involve His presence with the believer and connection with God, but these seem to represent the actual functions of the Spirit: agent of God’s gifts to believers, revelation, intercession, and sanctification. As we can see, there is no good basis upon which we can simply identify the Spirit with the Word; the Word, preeminently, is Christ the Son (John 1:1, 14), and while the Spirit reveals the Word, the Spirit also intercedes and works in sanctification.

Quench not the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

The role and work of the Holy Spirit involve matters of great contention and dispute, and it is important for us to be able to set aside our prejudices and our post-Enlightenment rationalist worldviews and attempt to understand what the Scriptures reveal. We must not be afraid that we will appear too much like denominationalists, or too little like them– our concern must be that we honestly and accurately represent what God has said regarding the Spirit. We must not quench the Spirit, but appreciate Him and the work which He has accomplished and which He continues to accomplish. Let us give due consideration to the role and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and give praise and glory to the God who provides Him to His children!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Role and Work of the Holy Spirit, III: Functions of the Spirit

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