7 Characteristics of the Spirit

Discussions regarding the Holy Spirit tend to make people either really nervous or really excited. There are some who rarely mention him, as if he was the black sheep of the Trinity. To others, it is as if he was the only person of the Trinity. Though these are ridiculous extremes, many churches have actually divided because of them. Which is ironic considering that one of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to unite believers to Christ and to each other. We are all guilty of allowing our opinions or feelings to continue on unchecked by Scripture. Historically, this is how theological extremes occur. We should not hold too tightly to our theology, experiences, or church tradition as if it were impossible for them to be guilty of some kind of error. We also cannot allow bad experiences or bad-practice force us into one camp or the other. If we were to only use our experiences as the barometer of truth, then we would have very difficult time finding it.

As Christians, we must make a habit of continually returning to the authoritative source of all belief. We must go to the fountain of Scripture and search out what it says concerning the nature and activity of the Spirit. Nor I or the other teachers at VGF claim to have all of the answers, but we strive to constantly be reformed by the Word of God. We must approach topics such as these patiently and humbly because there is a good chance that many of us or others don't see the full picture. So we should open the Word of God to gently make our case and to also allow ourselves to be corrected by it.

1. The Spirit is not an "it", he is a divine person.

The Spirit is not an "it" or an impersonal force, rather He is divine person. The authors of the New Testament consistently use the masculine pronoun “he”, which reveals His personality (John 14:17). In the Old Testament, He is also said to be God’s wisdom (Isa. 11:2), and wisdom cannot be impersonal (how can an impersonal force make decisions, reason, and teach?). Likewise, in Romans 8:27 Paul says that the Holy Spirit has a mind and speaks: “27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” The Spirit also speaks in the first person and performs personal actions such as creating, judging, and interceding.

2. The Spirit is fully God.

The Holy Spirit is co-equal with the Father and the Son. He is not a “lesser” God. This means he shares in all of the same essential attributes that distinguish God from the created order. We can see in Acts 5:4 that he is explicitly called “God”. Also, Scripture states that He has divine attributes of eternity (Heb.9:14), omniscience (Isa. 40:13), wisdom (Isa. 11:2), omnipresence (Ps. 1:39:7-10), and incomprehensibility (Isa. 40:13).

In his Systematic Theology, John Frame observes that the Spirit performs actions that only God himself can do: creation (Gen. 1:2), judgement (John 16:8-11), giving of both physical and spiritual life (Job 33:4; Rom. 8:11). He applies salvation by washing, sanctifying, and justifying the people of God (1Cor. 6:11). And He is also the teacher of the church (Matt. 10:20; 2 Tim. 3:16; 1 John 2:27).

So the Spirit is equally worthy of the same praise as Father and Son.

3. The Spirit is active in the OT.

The Spirit did not not come into existence at Pentecost. As established above, He is eternal God. Likewise, his activity in the world did not begin in the New Testament. He was present in the creation of heaven and earth and in the history of Israel. His operations in the OT include: empowering people for special tasks by giving wisdom or leadership skills (Num. 27:18; Deut. 34:9). He gave others seriously unusual strength to deliver Israel from their enemies (Judg. 3:10; 1 Sam. 11:16; Isa. 63:11-12). There are also a few instances where some people were said to have the Spirit indwell them (Num. 27:18; Ezek. 2:2; Dan. 4:8-9). The Holy Spirit also revealed God’s word to the OT prophets (Num. 24:2; Ezek. 11:5) and was predicted to be the one who would anoint the Messiah for his ministry (Isa. 11:2-3).

Even though the Spirit was active in the OT, it is true that Scripture predicted that the Holy Spirit would come in greater fullness when God made a new covenant with his people (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 36:26-27; 37:14). 

4. The Spirit dwells in Christians and manifests God’s presence in the world.

Jesus did not stop his work when he returned to heaven. Rather He is continuing His work and manifesting His presence through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the world. Wayne Grudem points out that this presence of God is felt as the Spirit brings conviction of sin (John 16:8-11), pours love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5), overcomes our troubled soul with peace (Rom. 14:17). He also manifests God’s presence by creating an atmosphere of joy and worship (Acts 13:52; 1 Thess. 1:6). There are other aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work such as the impartation of truth (John 14:17), comfort (Acts 9:31), freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), and hope (Rom. 15:13) that makes his presence known.

Christians receive the Spirit through regeneration, which is also referred to as the new birth. This is a supernatural work of the Spirit that awakens our spiritual deadness and enables us to repent and confess that Christ is our God and Savior. Titus 3:5 says, “5 [Christ] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” Scripture also refers to this as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” as described in 1 Cor. 12:13 which says, “3 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

The Spirit of God indwells all believers at conversion as the sign and assurance that we truly belong to Christ and that he will keep us till the end. Paul says in Ephesians 1:13-14 that “3 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

We see this in Ephesians 5:18 that we should not, “18...get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,” We take this as a command in the sense that being filled is something that we are to actively pursue. We may be struggling to share our faith confidently with our co-workers because we are lacking strength that comes from the Spirit. This does not mean that the Spirit has left us, rather, it means that our behavior has some bearing on how active the He is in our lives.

Still, we believe that the Spirit is sovereign in that he is able to overcome and fill us whenever he desires, but we are also responsible for cooperating with him so as to not grieve him. We should also be careful not to expect this filling to happen without first devoting ourselves to daily Scripture reading and prayer so the Spirit would overcome our flesh and fill us anew.

5. The Spirit bears witness to Christ. 

If you separate the work of the Spirit from the objective work of the Son, then it is easy to travel down a path of wrong belief and bad practice. The Spirit does not and cannot contradict the Son. All three persons of the Trinity are not only unified in deity but in mission. In regards to the work of salvation, it is understood that the Father is the one who plans, the Son who accomplishes, and the Spirit who applies. The Son’s work follows the work of the Father and the Spirit follows the work of the Son. All three Persons work in harmony to execute their work of redemption.

The Spirit glorifies Jesus (John 16:13-14), reveals Jesus (John 16:14-15), enables us to confess Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3), equips us to live like Jesus (Romans 8:11), brings the teachings of Jesus to our mind (John 14:26), gives gifts to us to do ministry like Jesus (John 14:12-17), and empowers us to be witnesses for Jesus (Acts 1:8).

6. The Spirit inspired and illuminates Scripture.

In the OT, the Spirit put the words of God in the mind and on the tongue of the prophets. 2 Peter 1:21 says, “21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The OT Scriptures would not exist without this operation. Likewise, it is also the Spirit who inspired and guided the Apostle's words penned in the NT, just as Jesus promised in John 16:13.

The Holy Spirit leads believers into a more accurate and deeper understanding of the truth of Christ. 1 Cor. 2:14 says, “14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Without the Spirit’s supernatural work of illumination, a person can read the same passage over and over, memorize it, and still walk away without any idea of its true meaning. That is how unbelieving Jews are able to read passages like Isaiah 53 and walk away still missing the Christ that is so clearly proclaimed.

Christ promised believers that the Spirit would “guide [us] into all truth” (John 14:26). Likewise Paul says that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (2 Cor. 12-13). Before we sit down to read, study, and teach the Bible, we should ask the Spirit to help us understand Scripture in its proper historical significance as well as its application for our lives today.

7. The Spirit gives gifts to the church.  

Scripture lists the following as spiritual gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues, helping, administration, teaching, evangelism, apostleship, serving, encouraging, contributing, leadership, and mercy (1 Corinthians 12:6-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11; Romans 12:6-8).

It’s unfortunate that we tend to miss the point that these gifts are given to edify the church and ultimately point to Christ. Instead, we fall guilty of using our gifts to build ourselves up and tear each other down. We need to learn that our giftings are not for us, but for the joy of others and glory of Christ. If we are using our spiritual gifts inappropriately, we should be quick to repent and seek to use them for their proper intent.

Spiritual gifts equip the church to carry out the ministry of Christ until he comes back to consummate his Kingdom. Gifts are also given to provide a foretaste of what is to come. When the perfect comes, that is Christ himself, the gifts will become useless to us (1 Cor. 13:10). Gifts like healing, tongues, discernment and prophecy won’t be needed because we will be able to hold the One whom they point to.

I pray that our thinking and relationship to the Holy Spirit will continue to be refined by Scripture and that we will therefore become well-balanced in our approach to this sensitive subject. May He continue to keep and sanctify us to the end. 

I highly recommend the resources used in this article:

1. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology “An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine” pgs. 603-649 and 1016-1046

2. John Frame’s Systematic Theology “An Introduction to Christian Belief.” pgs. 923-932

3. Jeremy Treat’s Reality LA Equip Teaching Series: http://realityla.com/teachings/doctrine-8-the-holy-spirit/