Understanding the Person/Work of the Holy Spirit

The following is a sermon that is still a work in progress. Lately, our congregation has been seeking direction on how to talk about and understand the person/work of the Holy Spirit. Below is my attempt at starting the conversation and, while admittedly dense for a sermon at times, I feel it necessary to “put it out there”. Let me know your thoughts.

Understanding the Person/Work of the Holy Spirit: Trinity, Revelation, and Christian Speech about God

 1

One of the most challenging dimensions of being Christian has always been learning how to speak rightly about God. This may seem an odd statement, seeing as how many might think that the bigger challenge facing the faithful today isn’t so much how Christians talk about God but rather whether we are willing to join in the work of God in the world. And indeed, when speech and action are framed in opposition to each other in this way, then there is a grain of truth to this. For if speech and action are framed in opposition to each other then speech about God, or Theology, would only ever be a talking about God. And when this is the case, it is indeed inimical to the required embodiment of the Gospel. However, speech and action must not be in opposition to one another in the good work of theology and indeed, inasmuch as it is assumed they can be, one might just the same argue that what is being done then is precisely not theology, but useless chatter about an idol or idols. Theology is at its best when it is a functioning member of the Church and indeed, this is what our initial statement was trying to get at: that the challenge of the church has always been to learn how to speak rightly about God so that she might faithfully embody the true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One area within Christian speech that is in need of attention for our particular local congregation is talk of the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, we live in a time where talk of the Holy Spirit is significantly lacking in some Christian circles and perhaps even in our own. Perhaps in some churches this is due to a worry of falling into certain non-biblical doctrines of the Spirit’s anointing on individuals,[1] whereby the church is called to adopt formulaic approaches to harnessing the Spirit’s power for the purposes of producing signs and wonders. And indeed, there is much to worry about in this trend. However, Scripture and the Christian tradition are clear when they name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so, speaking responsibly about God must include speech about the Holy Spirit. But how do we begin such a process? Do we start with a general idea about a Spirit? Do we start with received wisdom about how such a spirit might operate? No, clearly as Christians we look to Holy Scripture to dictate for us what it means to talk about the Holy Spirit.

But even when we make scripture our standard, where do we begin? Can we simply choose any passage that mentions the Holy Spirit and faithfully get a picture of who and what this Spirit is and does? Or is there a particular dimension within scripture that we must look to first in order to understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit? I want to put forward the latter claim, which to repeat is that we must look to a particular dimension of scripture to understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit as He is mentioned throughout the whole of scripture. And I will do so by first asking a question related to a core doctrine of the Christian faith, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity.

Now, before anyone should become concerned that I am going to enter into all kinds of abstract talk about three persons in one substance and try to find every day realities to stand as symbols and analogies for the Trinity, I will tell you right now that I am not going that route.[2] What concerns us now, as we mentioned at the start, is how to responsibly talk about the person and work of the Holy Spirit as Christians who look to the Bible as our starting point. But, I want to claim that in order to talk about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we need first to understand the way in which the scriptures as a whole paint the picture of God as Trinity. And so, as promised, we begin with a question related to the Trinity:

“How do we know God as Trinity?”

I want to answer this question by making the claim that as Christians, we can only know God as Trinity, and so the Father and the Holy Spirit, by way of God’s perfect, complete, and true revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ. You see, as odd as this may sound to some, you can read the Bible in the wrong order as it pertains to the identity of God. Let me propose that the wrong order can actually look like this:

God –> Jesus –> Holy Spirit

“What is wrong with that?”, we might ask? Is not this exactly the “order” that we have in the scriptures? Is this not the order that the creed of the ancient church follows? Yes, of course. But, let us be careful here, for talk of the Trinity is not talk of THREE God’s that all just show up at different times in scripture. Neither is it one God changing from one mode to another over time, finally culminating in God’s final transformation into the Holy Spirit. Rather, talk of the Trinity, as hard as it is to understand (and indeed, there comes a point where one does have to point to mystery to talk about Trinity), is talk about ONE God, in three persons or three modes of being that exist at the same “time” or are in simultaneity from all eternity. So with that in mind, we need to be careful that we don’t separate the three into three God’s acting all on their own, or one God changing his shape over time, for then we do not worship the one God in three persons attested to in scripture.

So if the above order is wrong, what would be the right order? Well, what if we were to think about God in this order:

Jesus the Son –> God the Father –> The Holy Spirit

What’s the difference? Well, the difference is that, on this latter order, we read all of scripture through the lens of Jesus first when we are trying to think about who God is as Trinity, and that is because Jesus simply is God’s revelation of Himself to us. The New Testament writers are clear that in Jesus Christ, the truest revelation of God has been given. As Hebrews 1:1-3a says:

 “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

Before, God spoke to the ancestors of Israel and testified to them by prophets, but in these last days, God speaks of Himself by Himself in Jesus Christ. Now the question arises, does that mean that when God spoke before that He wasn’t speaking by Himself? No, of course God spoke by Himself, but the difference is that we did not previously see or have revealed to us his exact imprint among us.[3] The situation is different, in light of Jesus. As John 1:14 says of Jesus,

John 1:14  the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.

In Jesus comes the way to know the Father and, as will become clear, also the Holy Spirit. Before, there was talk of God displaying his glory, but notice that as Christians we can only ever look to those texts as pre-figuring the person of Jesus Christ. Our scriptures demand it. We can always say that God was Himself in the Old Testament, and indeed we need to say that in order to not fall into the errors of some who dismiss the Old Testament as lacking any revelation of God. But, there is no question that the New Testament demands that we read the Old with Christ-Centered eyes.

So, in light of all of this, how do we begin speaking responsibly of the person and work Holy Spirit? In following with the approach outlined above, I want to propose that we do so out of the model that Jesus gives us through his words as recorded in scripture. Particularly, I want to look briefly at one verse today. It comes from John 15:26 and it says:

“when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me;”

I picked this passage because of how much it frames us into thinking about what we have just been exploring about the Trinity. Notice how completely this verse is a testament to God as Trinity? The Spirit is being sent to the disciples, by Jesus, from the Father. This Spirit proceeds from the Father, and (here is the most significant part) bears witness to Jesus. In other words, what we have here is God coming to us as The Holy Spirit to give us the power to know and follow after the exact imprint of God’s being, namely, Jesus. And indeed this is who the Spirit is: the Spirit is the power of Jesus Christ to communicate Himself to us and conform us to Himself even while He is no longer in the flesh. The Holy Spirit is not a third God that is different from Jesus who comes to do a work that is completely unrelated from that of Jesus’. Rather, the Spirit is the third person of God’s ONE being who empowers us to become His disciples according to the exact imprint of his being, namely Jesus. Indeed, one could say that it is almost[4] the same thing to say that Jesus empowers us as it is to say that the Spirit empowers us because (remember) it is in the name of Jesus that the Father sends the Spirit to empower and the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one and the same GOD. Said differently and perhaps in a way less subject to misinterpretation, you can never talk about the work of one of the persons of the Trinity without implicating one of the other two. Furthermore, you cannot know the work of the Father or the Spirit without first knowing the name through which the Father sends the Spirit. This interplay between persons John the Baptist attests to (knowingly or unknowingly) when he said to those coming to him to be baptized:

Luke 3:16  “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Can you begin to see the importance of the order in which we think about God? The New Testament reveals to us that God is known exactly as He IS, in Jesus, as Jesus reveals to us the Father (John 14:9) and as Jesus sends upon us or baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.

So where does this all lead us? Are we not still left wondering what the work of the Holy Spirit looks like in our day to day lives? Yes, we are, and I want us to continue to think about this and discuss it more in depth and with greater specificity at a later date. But for now, I want us to receive this warning and challenge: As Christians, who desire to speak faithfully about God, beware the temptation to speak by the spirit of the world rather than by the Spirit of God. Whenever you hear someone talk of the person and work of the Holy Spirit or of God the Father for that matter, or whenever you yourself speak of the Holy Spirit or the Father, ask whether what is being said testifies to Jesus, His life, and His commands for us as disciples. Then, and only then, will you have a chance of knowing if the Spirit being spoken of is the true spirit of God or if it is the spirit of the world.[5] In 1 Corinthians 2:12-16 Paul put what was just said above positively to the Church in Corinth when he encouraged them by saying:

“…We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”[6] But we have the mind of Christ.”

Praise God, for by the power of the Holy Spirit who is sent from the Father, we have been given the mind of Christ.

AMEN.


[1] I am NOT saying that the Spirit does not anoint individuals. Rather, I am saying that there are ways in which we are in danger of talking about that anointing non-biblically.

[2] This is not to say that there is never merit in such an approach. Rather, for the purposes of this conversation, I wish to focus in on the relationship within the Trinity on a more biblically basic level.

[3] Some may point to passages like Exodus 33:11 or Deuteronomy 34:10 to claim that in fact a man had seen God’s true imprint. The truth of the matter is that many commentators will agree that the phrase “face to face” does not denote a mutual visual perception between one another, but rather a more general intimacy. This is further supported when one reads a passage like Exodus 33:20-23 in conjunction with the previously mentioned ones: But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

[4] This “almost” is indeed very important here. I am not a Sabellian/Modalist. As I noted earlier, there are three persons in the one God in simultaneity and in eternity.

[5] Of course even this will not safeguard us from idolatry completely. We can still fall into the trap of bending the story of Jesus to fit our own desires and thereby make “the life of Jesus” a further justification of a false spirit. However, that is a matter to be discussed on another occasion.

[6] This quote comes from Isaiah 40:13 and Paul’s use of it is all the more evidence that it is in Jesus that we know the Father and the Spirit. For, to know the “mind” of the LORD is to know His Spirit and in this passage, it is by virtue of having the mind of Christ that we know both. Or, to answer our question posed earlier, “How do we know God as Trinity”? We do so by the mind of Christ.

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2 comments on “Understanding the Person/Work of the Holy Spirit

  1. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this good paper. I’m especially appreciative of your grounding “Trinity” (and thus Holy Spirit) in Jesus Christ. In a similar way, I understand the scriptures as being grounded in Jesus the Word.

    I’d be interested in hearing a little more detail on what you see as specific errors/pitfalls that stem from not understanding the Spirit first as the Spirit of Jesus, and what you see as specific practices that might stem from this understanding that you’re putting forward.

    Andrew Dyck (aka Theo’s dad)

  2. Thank you for your message. It is a good understanding of the subject matter. God bless.
    Dr. Norman King

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