I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Mark Johnston Articles
The stark brevity of the Apostles' Creed's affirmation of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is enough to give many Christians apoplexy in today's church. To their ears it sounds almost insulting to the third Person of the Trinity after having said so much by comparison about the Father and the Son. But then again, perhaps today's church is not the benchmark of orthodoxy when it comes to this doctrine.

Strange as it may seem, as Sinclair Ferguson has said elsewhere, the last three decades of the history of this doctrine have overturned almost two millennia of consensus of belief on who the Spirit is and what role he is pleased to fulfil. The protests of recent generations of Christians - who have been intoxicated by the post-Azusa Street obsession with signs, wonders, tongues and prophecy - that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten Person of the godhead are more than a little misguided.

He is indeed, as former generations would have said, 'the quiet Person of the Trinity', but that is not the same as saying he has been somehow sidelined in the church's belief and practice through the centuries. As we trace out what is said about him in the Scriptures, we discover that it is actually his pleasure to be self-effacing and to direct attention to the Son and to the Father and gladly put himself at their disposal. (One cannot help but wonder if there is any correlation between this shift in shared belief in the church about the Spirit and the confusion that emerged generally in the 20th Century over equality of the sexes and the difference between their roles.)

Another major misconception about the Spirit that has spread over the past hundred years in the church is that he is a New Testament phenomenon. Pentecost has become the paradigm for pneumatology.  To be sure it is right to say that the Holy Spirit steps out of the shadows of biblical revelation on the day of Pentecost; but that is only after a whole gamut of glimpses that are given of him literally from the very start of the Old Testament. For the disciples it was in some ways like being aware of 'an important person' hovering in the background, working away behind the scenes - the headmaster in school, or the CEO of a big corporation: people are aware of his existence, but have never actually met him. But then he steps out of the shadows into public view and all that changes. That is very much what happens as the Day of Pentecost and the sending of the Spirit mark the final stage in the transition period that took God's unfolding purpose from the era of the Old Covenant to that of the New. When it happened, a whole torrent of teaching - both from the Old Testament and from Christ - would have come flooding back to them as all they had learned about God's Spirit took on fresh depths of meaning when they saw him poured out upon the world. At least six major truths about the Holy Spirit would have crystallised in their minds as it did so.

The Spirit of God
For those who think that the Holy Spirit is only found in New Testament history and teaching, it comes as something of a shock to realise that we actually meet him for the first time in the second verse of the Bible. There Moses says, 'Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters' (Ge 1.2).

There is, as exegetes will tell us, the linguistic possibility that the word translated 'Spirit' in this verse could mean nothing more than 'spiritual energy' or 'force', or perhaps be intended as nothing more than an allusion to God's presence; but there are other clues embedded in the text and its context that suggest otherwise: clues that point to his being a Person in his own right.

When God says later on in chapter one of Genesis 'Let us make man in our image...' (1.26) at least must raise an exegetical eyebrow over what lies behind it. The plural of majesty is, yes, indeed a possibility; but as with the whole of God's unfolding revelation there is a 'watch this space' and discover there is more than meets the eye. It becomes even more apparent in Jesus' bizarre use of language in the Great Commission when he says, '...baptising them in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' (Mt 28.19). It sounds like bad grammar; but it is an exquisite revelation of the being of God.

As later New Testament revelation is given, we discover that the Holy Spirit is a 'he' and not an 'it', that he can be 'grieved' (Eph 4.30) - only a person can be grieved - and that he along with the Father and the Son is worshipped as God.

Whys is this important? - Because the Holy Spirit is not merely some power put at our disposal; but he is the great third Person of the Trinity before whom we must bow. He is none other than the Spirit of God revealed.
The Spirit of Revelation
The second great fact about the Spirit that began to crystallise for the disciples at Pentecost and in its aftermath was that he had not only revealed himself on that day; but he had all along been the One who had been making God known through his Word. Even though in a very special sense Jesus had made God known through the incarnation (Jn 1.18), it had been the Holy Spirit as the divine Author of Scripture who had been doing so for millennia beforehand.

Much later on Peter put it this way: 'For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit' (2Pe 1.21). This tallies with what Paul had said earlier to Timothy: 'All Scripture is God-breathed...' (2Ti 3.16) - with theopneustos - the composite Greek word Paul coined for the occasion carrying an overt allusion to the pneuma: the Spirit-breath of God.

In other words, through the ages people had and have been able to meet with God in the pages of Holy Scripture in a way that is real and personal because they are not merely the words of men about God - like every other holy book - but rather the words of God about himself.

It is clear from a closer look at the Old Testament that this was not some doctrine that was only coined by the New Testament writers. We see it most clearly where David says, 'The Spirit of God spoke through me, his word was on my tongue' (2Sa 23.2). In other words, the Bible is nothing less than God speaking by his Spirit in language men can understand.

When we grasp this, we realise that the obsession with the word-gifts of the Spirit that has pervaded the church for over a century is actually a major distraction. The function of tongues, prophecy, words of knowledge and discernment in New Testament times was to meet the need of a rapidly spreading gospel and rapidly expanding church in a unique time when the fullness of God's Word had not yet been given. As any parent is dismayed when their child will not let go of the temporary stop-gap present when the real present has been given, so too God with his children who do not fully grasp what it means to have a Bible!

The Spirit of Christ
One of the most obvious and yet most overlooked aspects of the Spirit and his work is his role in relation to Christ. A simple glance at a concordance to see how often he is mentioned in the Gospels says it all!

It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary (Lk 1.35). It is the Spirit who descends from heaven visibly in the form of a dove at Jesus' baptism and the inauguration of his public ministry (Lk 3.22). It is the Spirit who both empowers and leads Jesus as he launches out into that ministry from the outset (Lk 4.1). So too he plays a part in Jesus' death (He 9.14) and exerts his power in his resurrection (Ro 1.4). The Holy Spirit is Christ's closest companion in his journey to earth from glory right through to the moment of his ascension.

So post-Pentecost, as the disciples looked back over his life and work with the benefit of hindsight, the words Jesus spoke to them in the upper room - which seemed so enigmatic at the time - began to make perfect sense. When he said, 'I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you' (Jn 14.18) he was talking about the coming of his Holy Spirit. Calling him 'the Counsellor' [parakletos] (Jn 14.15) was the key. It was a term often used in a legal context to describe the 'best friend' a person could bring to stand by and support him in court. So it dawned on the disciples when the Spirit came that the very One who had been Jesus' best friend and sustainer during his earthly life and ministry was to be their best friend and sustainer as well! (The fact he is also described as 'another' Counsellor pointed to his being 'another of the same kind' - what he would be to them would be qualitatively the same as he had been to Jesus!)

Why does this little detail matter so much? - In part because it was as perfect man that Jesus found the Spirit's support so vital. Perfect man was never meant to 'go it alone': so what Adam discovered to his cost when he lost the Spirit's sustenance in the Garden, Christ re-proved and restored through his incarnate life and ministry. But it is even more significant when we stop to think of what is the greatest blessing the Spirit can impart: that of Christ himself!

The Spirit of Salvation
Seminarians who begin the 'Doctrine of the Holy Spirit' class in their Systematics course are more often than not surprised by the fact that what is billed as a course about the Holy Spirit actually turns out to be (what seems to them) more about the Christian life. Yet when they look again at the Bible and what it has to day about the Spirit and his work, they realise that this is far and away the most significant element of his work.

It comes out in what Jesus says to Nicodemus: 'I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit' (Jn 3.5). Jesus was making it clear to Nicodemus that his most basic problem in life was that he was spiritually dead and that he needed nothing less than to be 'born from above' (3.7) if he was to truly live.

Left to our own resources and devices, none of us could even begin to grasp either the full depth of our spiritual need, or even the fact that God has fully met that need through his Son. Again that filters through into what Jesus says in the Upper Room discourse. Speaking of the work of the Spirit in conversion, Jesus says:

When he [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;  and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (Jn 16.8-11).
How is a person persuaded of their sin, guilt and liability before God? - Through the Holy Spirit's  work in them. As he shines the light of God's Word into the darkness of their soul he shows them they are under judgement. Of course his work does not stop at that point. It is the same Spirit working through the same Word that causes people not only to see their need, but also to see Christ as their only hope and Saviour and so bring them to be 'born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God' (1Pe 1.23).

Having brought them to new birth he does not then abandon them, but as the sanctifying Spirit he renews and remakes them from the inside out in the image of Christ - a work that he continues until they are taken into glory. So, just as the Holy Spirit was with and upon the Lord Jesus from his conception until his return to heaven, so too he is with all God's children from their new birth until he takes them home. He is the Spirit of salvation!

The Spirit of the Church
Having said all that has been said so far, it comes as no surprise to discover that the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of the Church. Nowhere is this seen more dramatically than in the opening chapter of Revelation and the words of salutation and blessing to the church:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits [or, sevenfold Spirit] before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (Rev 1.4-5).

The existence and spiritual health, well-being and effectiveness of the church of Christ on earth are all inseparably bound up with the Holy Spirit's presence and work in her midst. The church is by definition 'charismatic'!

The dimensions of his presence and work among God's people is woven through almost everything that is said about the church throughout the New Testament. The Spirit produces the fruit of godliness in their life - not only as individuals, but together as God's new community (Ga 5.22-23). He enables God's diverse people to live together in unity in fellowship with Christ (Eph 4.3). He assures us of true faith and salvation (Ro 8.16) and is the one who enables us to pray (Ro 8.26). He provides the gifts and graces we need for service in God's kingdom (1Co 12.1-11).

So it follows, as Paul says to the Ephesians, that the church's greatest need on earth is to 'keep on being filled with the Spirit' (Eph 5.18).

The Spirit of Witness

There is one final and all-important word that Jesus spoke to the disciples about the Spirit and his work that is crucial to our understanding. It is found in what Jesus says to the disciples as he prepares them for his ascension: 'you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth' (Ac 1.8). Many Christians instinctively want to cut that verse in half. They are quite content with the idea of the Holy Spirit coming as the One who imparts power (even if it is only the apostles Jesus has in view, as is strictly-speaking the case). But Jesus does not break the verse this way. The power the Spirit gives - first to the apostles, but also to those who receive the apostolic testimony - is to enable them to bear witness to the Christ! For these disciples, weak and fearful as they were, the Holy Spirit would clothe them with the power and boldness they needed to proclaim Christ to the nations.

So too for all who are disciples of Christ. The whole thrust of the Spirit's work in us is that we might be empowered and emboldened to proclaim Jesus as the Saviour of the world to the world. This is the litmus test of the Spirit's presence in the church. It is not primarily a matter of 'the gifts', or of the style of worship, but this: do we bear witness to our Saviour before a world that is lost without him?

Mark Johnston is Senior Minister of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London.

Recommended Resources
The Holy Spirit and You by James Montgomery Boice
The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson