Thinking Hard About the Holy Spirit (The Hard Questions Series)
This post is part of a series of articles asking and thinking deeply about hard questions. For more information about the series and where I’m coming from you can read the introduction.
The Holy Spirit is one of the most controversial aspects within Christianity. Even great men disagree about the Holy Spirit, so I definitely do not claim to have a complete answer. However, this will not dissuade me from at least asking questions about Him.
I want to do this with reverence and humility: there is much that I still have to learn about God and His Holy Spirit. I think the same goes for all of us, no matter how many degrees we acquire or how many years we spend studying the scriptures.
[NOTE: I always hope and even assume my readers will read any Scriptures that I cite. Please take the time to look up the references, both to verify what I say and to challenge yourself with new perspectives on Scripture. Perhaps you know it by memory, but there may be a word or context either of us never caught before.]
How does the Holy Spirit interact with Christians today? Does He still give revelations? And if so, are they on par with the revelations found in the Bible? Does the Holy Spirit ever bypass Scripture and impart insights and knowledge directly into people’s minds and hearts? Does He give gifts like He gave to the apostles, such as tongues and healing? Is Scripture as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago? Will He ever tell someone to do something which contradicts Scripture?
Here’s what we know about the Holy Spirit:
- He is part of what we call the Trinity and therefore God (Matt. 28:19)
- He inspired the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21)
- He was sent to (in some way) “replace” Jesus (Jn. 16:7)
- It is to our “advantage” that Holy Spirit came (Jn. 16:7)
- He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement (Jn. 16:8)
- He will guide us into all Truth (Jn. 16:13)
Let’s unpack these ideas further…
1. The Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity
Christians believe in a God-head of three distinct persons loving and honoring each other with such unity that they work as One holy and inseparable Entity (Deut. 6:4; Jn. 10:30, 17:21; Colossians 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:5). Three-in-one; both a community and an individual. Love being the “bond” which holds them together, and thus love is a major characteristic of God (Gal. 5:14; 1 Jn 4:8). We call this Godhead, for simplicity’s sake, “the Trinity.”
As usual, Timothy Keller says it best:
“The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two…. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them.” — Tim Keller, The Reason for God, 224
Each divine Person cares so much about each other’s desires and concerns that no one of them has to say “You do this.” Each of them perfectly loves the others voluntarily. This dance Keller describes, is the pulse of authentic Love, the rhythm to which every person ought to set their life-dance.
An open-minded, fresh reading of Scripture would indicate that there is some deference of the Spirit to the Son and ultimately to the Father. There are many interpretations and assumptions that could be made about this.
What is obvious from Scripture, though, is that all three are equally God and equally eternal and they equally delight in each other. So apparently, it is not a matter of divine hierarchy, but of divine roles. To my limited mind, even this seems unnecessary. Will the Son ever rebel against the Father? Will the Holy Spirit really turn rogue and start spewing His own words? Since they have the same desires, there will never be a contradiction between them. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, they generally seem to embrace separate roles.
The Holy Spirit is fully God and part of the Trinity and thus deserves to be worshiped as such.
Some of us feel uncomfortable doing this because we have been taught that the Holy Spirit will not “speak of himself.” I believe this, being King James English, is better understood as the Holy Spirit will not “speak on His own.” In other words, He will only speak the words Jesus tells Him, who also, in turn, only says and does whatever the Father tells Him to say or do. It does not mean the Holy Spirit will never talk about Himself.
“Don’t worry,” Jesus says, “He’s only going to say what I say.” Because One of the Trinity would never consider making Himself independent of the other two. The Trinity speaks as One because They are One.
Jesus was not diminishing Holy Spirit’s God-ness, instead, He was reassuring the disciples that the Trinity all say the same thing. He was legitimizing the Helper.
Jesus goes on to say that having the Holy Spirit come is better than if Jesus stayed. Why is this? Because Holy Spirit lives inside of every believer, but Jesus had limited Himself to one body. Holy Spirit’s indwelling was literally Jesus everywhere. This is, obviously, better.
Think of the Holy Spirit—the Helper, the Spirit of Christ, the Comforter — as the “Modesty of God.” Because He moves and transforms lives, yet always points to the Father and the Son. Do not imagine the Father and Son looking down on the Spirit as some divine “less-than.” Instead, imagine the Spirit shining and beautiful but preferring not to be noticed.
My Mom wonderfully portrayed this modesty. Beautiful, caring, and hospitable — she definitely deserved any glory she received, yet she always seemed embarrassed by the attention. I think that is the atmosphere of the Trinity. Not one of jealousy and contempt, but of delight from the Father and Son and modesty from the Spirit.
(The concept of the Trinity is so established, in fact, that nearly every time “God” is mentioned in the old testament, it uses the Hebrew word “elohiym,” which is plural. Literally translated, Genesis 1 would say “In the beginning, Gods created the heavens and the earth” and Deuteronomy 6 would say “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our Gods, the LORD is one.”)
2. The Holy Spirit inspired Scripture
R.T. Kendall nailed it when He said that many believe in “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Bible” (40 Days with the Holy Spirit).
The Scriptures are a work of Holy Spirit: they do not replace Him. Nowhere in the Bible does it say Scripture replaces the Holy Spirit. Nowhere. This is akin to saying that a Lover’s letter, a Parent’s note, or a King’s decry replaces the Lover, Parent, or King, which is absurd.
Which has more value: The Author or the book? Which can you know in a Trinity-reflecting relationship: The Person or the thing? Can you have a loving relationship with a “thing”? We usually call that idolatry.
This idea can be scary because it requires attentive and genuine relationship. And relationships are hard! They usually involve much failure as you learn what pleases the other person and how they communicate. It would be much easier to approach my faith like a literature course or a math problem. I can handle general rules and formulas from which I extract some sort of meaning, but relationships transcend rules and formulas. They take time, energy, commitment, patience, and a serving heart.
People might also be scared because they feel this undermines the value of Scripture. But it doesn’t! It does the opposite! The Bible has value because Holy Spirit inspired it. Therefore, if I claim Holy Spirit told me to do something contrary to Scripture, then Holy Spirit is speaking out of both sides of His mouth which is deceptive and duplicitous — not characteristics of God. Satan is the deceiver. Therefore, if someone ever has an idea to do something contrary to Scripture, you can be sure it is not the Holy Spirit talking, even if it feels right at the time!
However, there are things about life which Scripture does not explicitly address.
In these areas, I think we should seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and follow Romans 14, which says, in essence, that some people have weaker consciences and no one should force their convictions on others nor let their freedoms cause others to stumble.
Romans 14 is not talking about issues explicitly explained in Scripture, nor does it give credence for any man to wallow in His weakness.
Take alcohol for instance. Scripture explains drunkenness is sin; drinking alcohol, however, is not. Some Christians feel the liberty to drink, while others do not. Neither one should tell the other what to do nor should the one who drinks tempt the other to defile his conscience by drinking, or worse, by getting drunk.
Because each believer or community has different backgrounds, present circumstances, and future callings, each must personally lean on the Spirit for guidance regarding such issues (which includes receiving much counsel from wise people!). This will result in differing beliefs about those things not explicitly commanded in Scripture. That’s okay.
We must not look down on people who interpret and apply Scripture differently than we do. We must strive to be at peace with all men. This means we must learn how to love and get along with people we disagree with — which is really hard.
The Holy Spirit has already made clear, through Scripture, what is across the board for all believers. Another part of His role is to help us see and correctly interpret such broader issues. Since the Holy Spirit lives in every believer, community is important for proper interpretation.
3. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment
Holy Spirit also convicts (or convinces) the world of sin. Once we repent of our sin, He begins to convince us of our righteousness in Christ. Once we understand our identity as righteous children of God, He convinces us to carry out justice on the kingdom of Darkness because “the ruler of this world is [already] judged” (Jn. 16:11; for more on this, see Chapter 10 of Jonathan Welton’s book, Eyes of Honor).
4. Holy Spirit leads us into all truth
Some people think when Jesus said the Helper would “guide you into all truth,” He was speaking of how Holy Spirit would inspire the New Testament writers. Although very true, this is not entirely what Jesus was talking about. He spoke this in John 16 as part of a much longer discourse to His disciples. The whole passage is to all the disciples and by extension, the church universally.
It would be inconsistent to pick out a few verses or passages and say, “This applies to the whole church, but that doesn’t.” Furthermore, it would be presumptuous to assume such a role. We must suppose, then, Jesus meant the Holy Spirit would guide all Christians into all truth both through Scripture and personal revelations.
5. The Holy Spirit gives revelations
I think the word “revelation” scares some people because of its quacky connotations. The dictionary definition of “revelation” is simply “the act of revealing or disclosing.” In a theological sense, it means “a manifestation of divine will or truth” (The American Heritage College Dictionary).
Although my oldest brother goes by the name Marcel, his full name is actually Ernest Marcel. I have just given you a revelation; you have just received one.
When I wake up in the morning and God reminds me that He is good, I could tell my sisters “I have had a revelation! God is good!” But since this type of language sounds pseudo-spiritual and trite, it is much more pleasant and practical to simply say “I know in my heart that God is good.” Nevertheless, this is still a revelation from God.
Think about the time when you were praying and reading your Bible and all-of-a-sudden you were convicted about the deep-settled pride in your heart? How would you describe such an experience? “God revealed my pride”? Exactly! He gave you a revelation!
Let’s take it deeper. We know Holy Spirit is God and as God, He knows everything about everybody.
One day you wake up with Pete on your mind. So you pray for Pete. Maybe you wake up with Pete on your mind and an unsettled feeling. So you pray for Pete and maybe give him a call to see how he’s doing. One night you wake up in a cold sweat thinking about Pete. This is the Holy Spirit speaking to your spirit. Pray for Pete!
I know of guys who, having struggled through pornography themselves, have sat down beside other guys and had a sense the friend next to them also struggles with pornography. “Hey man, I know what’s going on. Let’s talk.” Is usually what they say next. I have friends who have come to victory because of such attentive boldness by other men.
Perhaps one day I am walking down the street and I hear an inner voice or a feeling say “I want to heal that man,” or “I want that lady to know I love her as a daughter. Please tell her for Me.” How do we respond? Are we even listening? If we are not listening, then we must start. We must learn which thoughts are God’s and which are not. If we are not responding, then we are disobeying. Either we obey or ignore and disobey. Do we really want to ignore and disobey God?
People who object to the idea that the Holy Spirit continues to reveal things and give gifts, often quote 1 Corinthians 13 which says “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (13:9-10). Essentially, they say listening to the inner voice of the Spirt and His gifts were imperfect, but the Scriptures are now completed and perfect, so we no longer need to try to understand the Spirit or receive His gifts. Hurrah!
This objection always surprises me because 1 Corinthians 13 is clearly talking about the eternal value of love, whereas knowledge, tongues, and prophesies will eventually end because they will not be needed. In no way is Paul referring to the Spirit or the Scriptures. (Interestingly, those who use this verse to say the gifts of tongues and prophesy have ceased, usually continue exercising and emphasizing the gift of knowledge.)
Another objection often comes from the last chapter of Revelation, where John essentially curses anyone who adds to or takes away from the Revelation. But that’s just it! He is talking specifically about the book of Revelation. It was centuries until John’s revelation (guided by Holy Spirit, I’m sure) was made the last book of the Bible.
Again, let me make clear: I am not suggesting the Holy Spirit will ever again add to the Bible. He most definitely will not contradict Himself by contradicting the Bible because the Bible was His idea. Since He is God, He has no mistakes to correct. I am saying that there is no Scriptural support to suggest revelations and spiritual gifts have ceased. In fact, the very opposite is overwhelmingly supported in the New Testament.
I think discussions of the Holy Spirit scare or unsettle many Christians. I understand this because I have seen Him — at least His name — exceptionally abused, even by Christians. It would be easier to simply belittle the Holy Spirit and ignore Him.
But to live in fear is to submit to satan. Again and again throughout Scripture God says, “Do not fear!” Furthermore, Paul says the Spirit we have inside us is not one of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7) and we should not quench or despise what He, the Holy Spirit, says (1 Thess. 5:19-20). You may have many objections about my conclusions regarding Holy Spirit, but, for Christians, fear cannot be one of them.
If anything is demonic, fear is. To make decisions out of fear or base convictions out of self-preservation is to give your future into satan’s hands. Is this really what you want, or are you ready to step out and fully trust God, the whole Trinity?
Let me know, along with your other thoughts or questions, in the comments below.
If you are interested in reading more about the Holy Spirit, check out these resources below:
In the last chapter (Ch. 14) of The Reason for God, Tim Keller gives one of the most beautiful and awesome descriptions of God I have ever read or heard. It’s hard to describe, so just go read it for yourself.
Another great resource that I came across while revising this article is a piece called “The Place of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity” by John Piper on the Desiring God website. It’s short and free, but deep.
I recommend reading either “Holy Fire” or “40 Days with the Holy Spirit” both by R.T. Kendall. I have not read either books entirely, but I trust Kendall’s respect for Scripture and passion for God. I do appreciate the passages I have read.
Kendall talks about a “divorce” of Scripture from the Spirit that has happened within the Western church. This has created two groups, one focusing entirely on Scripture but belittling the Spirit and the other focusing on the Spirit but belittling Scripture. He stresses the importance of remarrying the Scripture to the Holy Spirit, as it were.
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