We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son].
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
The person of the Holy Spirit is the hardest for many people to understand. Except for a brief appearance in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16 ESV), we never see Him. Though people declare that the Holy Spirit spoke to them, we never hear his exact words. We understand God the Father as the creator of the world. We know that God the Son, Jesus Christ, died for our salvation. But exactly what God the Holy Spirit does is less well defined.
The biggest discussion about who the Holy Spirit is and what He does is found in John 14-16. Most other times the Holy Spirit is mentioned, it is in connection with some other point.
Despite these difficulties, there are things that we can learn from the Bible regarding the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit Is God
The New Testament uses the repeated formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14, 1 Peter 1:2). Since we have definite proof that both the Son and the Father are God, the only conclusion to draw is that the Holy Spirit is also God.
When Ananias lied about the price of a piece of property sold, Peter asked why he thought it right “to lie to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3 ESV). In the very next breath he said, You have not lied to man but to God (Acts 5:4 ESV). In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote, You are God's temple (1 Corinthians 3:16 ESV) and continues the though later by writing, Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you (1 Corinthians 6:19 ESV). Using the Holy Spirit and God interchangeably shows us that the Holy Spirit is God.
Further, the Bible shows us that the Holy Spirit has the same attributes as God. He created the world (Genesis 1:2, Job 26:13, Psalms 104:30). He knows everything like God does (1 Corinthians 2:10-11, John 16:13). He has the power to change people (John 16:8-11, Matthew 19:26). He has existed and will exist forever (Hebrews 9:14; 1:10-12).
It is easy to see why the writers of the Nicene Creed declared, With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
The Holy Spirit Is a Person
This is the really hard part. We have artwork showing the Father as an eternal mighty man. The same artists try to give us a likeness of what we think the Son looked like when He was in the form of Jesus. Even though these pictures don’t give us complete pictures of what either are like, those pictures stick in our minds and give us a reference point.
Not so the Holy Spirit. The only picture of Him in the Bible is the form of a dove that descended on Jesus at His baptism. We lack a human-looking picture of the Holy Spirit so we struggle to think of Him as a person. Many people think of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal powerful force that comes from the Father into the world.
However, the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is a person. The Greek language in which the New Testament is written always uses “He” and never “it” to refer to the Holy Spirit. He speaks (John 14:26), He has a will (1 Corinthians 12:11), He has emotions (Ephesians 4:30), and He can be lied to (Acts 5:3-4). Though you may not have a human picture in your mind, think of the Holy Spirit as a real person.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
There are many things done by the Holy Spirit, but we are going to focus on those that impact the life of a believer.
- Conversion. The Holy Spirit convicts people that they have sinned (John 16:8). He makes a person new in Jesus (John 3:3, 5-6; Titus 3:5).
- Guidance. The Holy Spirit helps us understand the truth of the words God has spoken (John 14:26; John 16:13-14). He will also give us specific directions when necessary (Acts 16:6-10).
- Sanctification. The Holy Spirit gives us the power we need to live holy lives (Romans 8:9-14).
- Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised believers a baptism in the Holy Spirit that is different than water baptism (Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:4-8). Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven 120 believers were baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-12). This experience was repeated in the early church (Acts 8:14-17; Acts 10:1-7).
- Power to do the miraculous. Jesus said that we would do the same miracles that He did (John 14:12). Throughout the history of the early church, His followers performed many miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit gives the ability to work miracles when God wants them done (1 Corinthians 12:3-12).
A Note on Terminology
Depending on your background, you may be familiar with a Bible version or study material that speaks of the “Holy Ghost.” In the Greek language in which the New Testament was written, one word means both “ghost” and “spirit;” context helps determine which is meant. When the King James Version of the Bible (still widely used in the English-speaking world) was made in 1611, the two English words were used interchangeably. The KJV gave us the term “Holy Ghost.” Since modern English usage treats “spirit” and “ghost” as different concepts, all modern translations use “Holy Spirit.” Some Christian groups that use the KJV Bible will sometimes continue to speak of the “Holy Ghost.” They do not mean a ghost as we commonly use the term today. To avoid confusion, we use the term “Holy Spirit” as do most English-speaking Christians.
A Note on who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]
People in the West or whose churches were started by missionaries from the West will be used to seeing the phrase “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The original Nicene Creed did not have this phrase. Some theologians in the West began to use this phrase in their writings. It first made its way into the Creed in Spain in the late seventh century. It spread in the West until the part of the church headquartered in Rome officially added it to the creed in 1014. The Eastern Church, headquartered in Constantinople, rejected this addition. This issue (along with political ones) led to the official split of East (Orthodox Churches) and West (Roman Catholic Church—the Protestant churches that arose later were part of the Western tradition) in 1054.
In general, we can say that the Eastern churches focus on the essence of God’s being while the West is centered on God’s activity.
The issue at stake here is complicated, but here is a simplified Eastern argument: God the Father is the source of everything. God the Son is begotten (not made) by the Father and owes His position as the Son to the Father. God the Holy Spirit was likewise not created, but also owes His position to the Father since the Father sends Him forth to do what the Father wants. But if we say that the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Son, then the Holy Spirit is in a lesser position than the Father and the Son. As a result, all three members of the Trinity are not truly equal.
The West’s response is that having the Holy Spirit proceed from both the Father and the Son does not diminish Him. They also point to the fact that Jesus said that he would send the Holy Spirit to His followers (John 14:16; 15:26; 16:7). The East acknowledges the last point but say there is a difference in Jesus sending the Holy Spirit (who was already at work in the world) to people and having Him proceed from the Son, which implies to them that the Holy Spirit is dependent on the Son for His position.
This is a difficult problem to solve. Modern theologians from both sides agree that the position of the other side is not false enough to make them not Christians. We also don’t have a dogmatic position on this issue and would advise all believers to be careful not to make this an issue. We bring it up because, depending on where you live, you might run into one version of the Creed or even both.
Bob Caldwell, PhD, is Theologian-in-Residence at Network 211.