Christian Theology: The Holy Spirit


William Borden was heir to the Borden dairy fortune, but he abandoned immeasurable wealth to serve God as a foreign missionary.  Tragically, he contracted meningitis before reaching his destination and died.  Among his possessions was found this scribbled note, summarizing his life's passion: No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.  His story and motto captured the heart of a generation, and motivated thousands of young people to enter mission service.

How can our faith be as bold and joyous as his?  How can we serve Jesus with such passion today?  The answer lies in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  When we understand who the Spirit is and what he does, we will be in position to experience all that he wants to do in and through our lives.  All of God there is, is in the Spirit today.  He is ready to use your life for his greatest glory and purpose.  Are you willing?

Who is the Holy Spirit?

We can begin by stating who he is not.  The Spirit is not an impersonal neuter or "it."  He is not a "presence."  He is not a "ghost," holy or otherwise.  (In the days when the King James Version was translated, "ghost" had the same meaning as "spirit."  In the centuries since, it has acquired a spectral sense, so that people think of the Holy Spirit as Casper the Friendly God.  He is anything but a human, deceased spirit.)

Who is he?  First, he is a person.  The Holy Spirit possesses each of the distinctive characteristics of personality: knowledge (1 Corinthians 2:10-11), will (1 Cor. 12:11), and feeling or emotion (Romans 15:30).  He commits acts that only a person can perform: he searches (1 Cor. 2:10), speaks (Revelation 2:7), cries (Galatians 4:6), prays (Romans 8:26), testifies (John 15:26), teaches (John 14:26), and leads Christians (Acts 16:6-7).  He is treated as only a person can be treated: grieved and rebelled against (Isaiah 63:10), insulted (Hebrews 10:29), and blasphemed (Matthew 12:31, 32).  

Most of all, he is God.  He possesses each of the four distinctly divine attributes: eternity (Hebrews 9:14), omnipresence (Psalm 139:7-10), omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10-11), and omnipotence (Luke 1:35).  He participates in the three distinctly divine works: creation (Job 33:4), impartation of life (John 6:63), and authorship of prophecy (1 Peter 1:21).

The name of the Spirit is coupled with that of God (1 Cor. 12:4-6; Matt. 28:19-20; 2 Corinthians 13:14).  And the Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3, 4).

At the same time, the Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son.  He acted separately from both at Jesus' baptism (Luke 3:21-22), is named separately in the Great Commission (John 16:7), and works separately in ministry today (John 16:7).

The Spirit continues Jesus' ministry today, to the glory of the Father.  He continues Jesus' teaching ministry (John 14:26), brings salvation in Christ to us (Romans 8:9), speaks God's words to us (John 16:13), and glorifies God (John 16:14).

The Holy Spirit is the third Member of the Trinity.  He is as fully divine as the Father and the Son.  You might think of him as the Presence of God at work in the world today.  As the Father rules the universe and the Son reigns at his side, the Spirit acts in the universe to carry out the Father's will and answer the Son's prayers for us.

What did the Spirit do before Pentecost?

The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to "fill" or empower the Church (Acts 2:1-4).  From that point forward, we watch him acting in great power and significance through the expansion of the Kingdom of God.  But what did he do in the centuries prior to this event?

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is synonymous with God: "Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?" (Psalm 139:7).  He was active in forming the universe, when he "hovered" over God's creation (Genesis 1:1-2).  Note that "hovering" is the picture of a bird providing for and protecting its young (cf. Deuteronomy 32:11, "like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young" and Isaiah 31:5, "Like birds hovering overhead, the Lord Almighty will shield Jerusalem; he will shield and deliver it, he will 'pass over' and rescue it").

In the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit creates individuals (Job 33:4), and empowers people for specific tasks (Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 2 Chronicles 15:12; Zechariah 4:6).  He maintains living creatures (Psalm 104:29-30).  But he remains transient, "coming upon" people rather than dwelling permanently in their lives (1 Samuel 16;14; Psalm 51:11-12).  He would work in and through the coming Messiah (Isaiah 42:1).  And he would one day be poured out on the house of Israel (Ezekiel 39:29), and would be experienced universally (Joel 2:28-29).

The Holy Spirit was extremely active in the life and work of Jesus.  Our Lord was born physically by the power and activity of the Spirit (Luke 1:35).  He lived a sinless life by the power of the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).  He was anointed for his ministry by the Spirit (Luke 3:22; Isaiah 61:1/Luke 4:16-21; Acts 10:38).  He was led in his earthly movements by the Spirit (Luke 4:1).  He was the source of Jesus' wisdom (Isaiah 11:2-3/Matt. 12:15-21) and miraculous power (Matt. 12:28).

The Spirit raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11), and equipped the disciples (Acts 1:2).  He now bears witness to Jesus on earth (John 15:26, 27).

What happened at Pentecost?

The first Christians were in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast called Pentecost, several weeks after Jesus' crucifixion in the city.  Why were they there?  This was a dangerous place for them, following the execution of their Lord (note John 20:19, where "the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews").  Yet they remained there, together.  Why?

Pentecost was the Jewish feast day celebrating the spring harvest and marking 50 days after the Sabbath of Passover week.  It was also called the Feast of Harvest (Exodus 23:16), the day of first-fruits (Numbers 28:26), and the Feast of Weeks (Deut. 16:10).  Jews from around the world crowded into Jerusalem for Passover and stayed through Pentecost; thus the thirteen nation/people groups named in Acts 2:8-10.  It was natural for these Jewish followers of Jesus to be in the city for Pentecost.

But there was a more important reason why they were there: Jesus had told his followers to "stay in the city [of Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49).  And so they stayed in Jerusalem, at risk to themselves.  Here they "joined together constantly in prayer" (Acts 1:14).  And so they were "all together in one place" (Acts 2:1) on the day of Pentecost.

Where were they on this day?  Most likely in the Upper Room where they had been meeting: "they went upstairs to the room where they were staying" (Acts 1:13).  This may have been the home of Mary the mother of Mark (Acts 12:12).  It may also be their place of prayer: "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31).

Some think that the location of the Pentecost experience was not this Upper Room, however, since large crowds were in the vicinity: "When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language" (Acts 2:6).  So some suggest that they were meeting in proximity to the Temple, or even in one of its court.  Against this interpretation is Acts 2:2, which states that the Spirit filled "the whole house where they were sitting."

What happened?  A sound like a violent wind filled the house where they were meeting Acts 2:2).  "Tongues of fire" were visible, resting on each believer (v. 3).  The believers were "filled with the Holy Spirit" and began to speak "in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them" (v. 4).  As we will soon discover, these phrases mean that the first Christians yielded themselves to the Spirit's control, and began to speak in languages known to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem but previously unknown to themselves.  And so they began sharing their faith personally (vs. 7-11).  Peter preached the Pentecost sermon, and 3,000 came to faith in Christ (v. 41).

What does Pentecost mean to us today?  The Holy Spirit began to indwell Christians at Pentecost, and continues this ministry today.  He empowers the followers of Jesus to fulfill his missions and ministry mandate.  In fact, he empowers us for just this purpose (Acts 1:8).

After Pentecost, the Spirit gave spiritual gifts for ministry to the apostles and the church (1 Cor. 12:7; we will study these later in this essay).  He revealed God's love for the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:2-6).  As he had predicted the sufferings and glory of Christ through the Old Testament prophets (1 Peter 1:11), now he enabled preachers of the gospel to demonstrate the fulfillment of these predictions (v. 12).

He "carried along" his preachers and prophets (2 Peter 1:20-21).  He spoke through the biblical writers (Hebrews 3:7; 10:15-17).  He guided their lives and ministries (Acts 16:6-7).  And he revealed Jesus to and through them (Revelation 1:10).

What is "speaking in tongues"?

In the late 1970's, no issue was more confusing for Baptists than the "Charismatic" movement and especially the experience called "speaking in tongues."  While divisions regarding this phenomenon seem less intense today, confusion still surrounds the issue.

Should all Christians "speak in tongues"?

The question first arises at Pentecost, when early believers "were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them" (Acts 2:4).  It seems clear that the activity of speaking in "other tongues" was a direct result of the Spirit's work, and that it was experienced by every believer.

Later, the Corinthian Christians experienced an ecstatic kind of spiritual language as one of the Spirit's gifts (1 Cor. 12:30; 14:1-25).  This gift is usually called speaking in "unknown tongues."  Some suggest that every Christian should share in the Corinthian experience, since every Christian at Pentecost "spoke in tongues."  Is this so?

Let's note the contrast between Pentecost and Corinth:

  • At Pentecost all spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4); this was not true at Corinth (1 Cor. 12:30, where the Greek syntax is literally translated, "All do not speak in tongues, do they?").
  • At Pentecost these tongues were understood as languages by the crowd (Acts 2:6); at Corinth they were understood by none (1 Cor. 14:2).
  • At Pentecost the Christians spoke to men (Acts 2:6); at Corinth, they spoke to God (1 Cor. 14:2).
  • At Pentecost no interpreter was needed (Acts 2:6); at Corinth public tongue-speaking was prohibited unless an interpreter was present (1 Cor. 14:23-28).
  • At Pentecost there was perfect harmony (Acts 2:1); at Corinth there was confusion (1 Cor. 14:33).

And so the Corinthian experience was completely different from the Pentecost event.  In Jerusalem on Pentecost day, Christians were given the divine ability to share the gospel with the assembled crowds by using known languages which they had not yet learned.  At Corinth, believers were given the divine ability to speak to God in a language known only to his Spirit.  Nowhere does the Bible teach that all Christians will speak in tongues as did some in Corinth.  In fact, it is clear that they will not (1 Cor. 12:30).

What do we know about "unknown tongues"?

The Pentecost gift is found in Acts 2 and never mentioned or practiced again.  However, the "unknown tongues" practiced in Corinth have been a significant part of the Charismatic movement and Pentecostal worship in recent generations.

What can we learn from Scripture about this experience?

  • Jesus never mentioned this gift.
  • Numerous conversions occur in Acts without this accompanying sign.
  • The spiritual gifts are given to the edification of the church (Ephesians 4:12). Any gift which is used to the division of the church rather than for its edification is being abused.
  • Any person who desires to speak in an "unknown tongue" in public must first determine whether one with the gift of interpretation is present (1 Cor. 14:27-28).  If an interpreter is present, only two or three are to speak, and each in turn (1 Cor. 14:27).
  • Tongues are given last in every list where they are found (1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28-30), and are not included in lists found in Romans 12:6-8 and Ephesians 4:11.
  • But Paul rejoiced that he spoke in tongues "more than all of you" (1 Cor. 14:18).

Are "unknown tongues" still a valid gift today?

Some say no.  Paul predicted that tongues would "one day cease" (1 Cor. 13:8), and they are omitted in Ephesians 4 and Romans 12, gift lists written later in the New Testament.

However, 1 Corinthians 13:8 also states, "where there are prophecies, they will cease."  "Prophecies" means preaching; no one claims that preaching has ceased as a spiritual gift and activity.  Paul's reference in 1 Corinthians 13 relates to that time in glory "when perfection comes" (v. 10).  And nowhere does the New Testament clearly teach that this gift is temporary.

Some suggest that the reason for the gift ceased at Pentecost, since we are able to translate the gospel into hundreds of languages today.  However, such interpretation confuses the Pentecost experience with the Corinthian gift.

Paul wrote: "Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers" (1 Cor. 14:22).  And so some believe that the purpose of "unknown tongues," like other "sign gifts" of miracles and healing, is no longer valid today.  In this reasoning, these spiritual gifts existed to show the unbelieving world the truth and veracity of the Christian faith.  Now that the New Testament and its church are established, these gifts of persuasion are no longer necessary.

However, no text teaches that this is so.  Believers who consider "tongues" to be invalid still pray for God to heal bodies and work other miracles.  I can find no biblical warrant for dismissing "tongues" as a valid gift for believers today.  When this gift is used within Scriptural guidelines, it apparently draws those who practice it closer to the Father.

So we can conclude that "tongues" are still a valid spiritual gift.  But we should also note: no biblical text suggests that "tongues" is a superior spiritual gift, or that it demonstrates that the believer is more "filled" with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).  We are all to be submitted to the leading of God's Spirit each day.  Then our spiritual gifts will fulfill his purpose, to his glory and our good.

How does the Spirit work in our lives today?

The Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God in the lives of believers.  The Bible describes a number of ways that he works in and through us.  He shows us our guilt as sinners, convicting us of righteousness and judgment (Acts 2:33-37).  He imparts spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead (Titus 3:5; John 3:3-5).  He indwells believers (1 Cor. 6:19-20).  He sets us free from sin for victory in Christ (Rom. 8:2).  He forms Christ in us (Eph. 3:14-19).

He brings forth Christ-like characteristics (Galatians 5:22-23).  He guides us as God's children (Rom. 8:14-16).  He teaches us the words of Jesus (John 14:26) and the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:9-16).  He empowers the gospel as we share it (1 Cor. 2:4-5).  He guides us as we pray (Jude 20; Eph. 6:18; Rom. 8:26).  The Spirit intercedes for us right now (Rom. 8:27).  He guides our worship of God (Philippians 3:3).  And he guides our ministries (Acts 13:2-4; 8:29, 39-40; 16:6-7).

How do we live in his power?  First, receive Christ as your Savior and Lord.  When you do, you receive the Spirit (Rom. 8:9).  Once he enters your life, he never leaves (Eph. 1:13-14).

Second, decide to submit to his control.  Ephesians 5:18 commands us to "be filled with the Spirit."  Choose to yield to the Spirit every day, all day long.

Third, renounce all sin, as sin prevents the Spirit's work in your life.  Several specific sins are described in Scripture as hindering the Spirit: rebellion (Is. 63:10), refusal to accept his conviction for our sins (Matt. 12:22-32), lies (Acts 5:3), ungodly language (Eph. 4:29-30), and unwillingness to be empowered (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

Fourth, ask the Spirit to take control of your mind and life.  The command in Ephesians 5:18, "be filled with the Spirit," means to be controlled by him.  The tense is passive, "be controlled"—choose to yield.  This is an imperative in the Greek, showing the urgency of this decision.  It is a continual commitment, as Paul's grammar is in the present tense ("be being controlled by the Spirit" is a literal translation).  

Being "filled" or controlled by the Spirit results from a prayer commitment on your part.  Ask the Holy Spirit to take control of your thoughts, attitudes, words, decisions, and actions.  Begin the day by yielding it to him.  When you face a decision, ask the Spirit to guide you.  When you are tempted, ask the Spirit to help you.  When you have a chance to serve Christ, ask the Spirit to empower you.  When you sin, ask the Spirit to forgive and cleanse you, and to take control of your life again.  This is a daily, continual commitment by which you will be empowered by the Spirit of God.

What will not happen?  You may not have an emotional experience.  Nowhere does the Bible say how it "feels" to be filled with the Spirit.  You will not live in sinless perfection (1 John 1:8, 10), as you will sometimes refuse the Spirit's leadership and help.  Nor will you experience any particular spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:29-30).

What will result from being filled with the Spirit?  You will serve God in power (Acts 2:4ff).  You will experience unity in fellowship (Acts 2:42, 46), Kingdom growth (Acts 2:47; 5:14; 9:31), spiritual power (Acts 2:43; 19:11-12), sacrificial giving to the needy (Acts 2:44-45), and victory over Satan (Acts 13:6-12; 16:16-18).

Once you trust Christ as your Savior, the most important decision you can make as a believer is to be controlled every day by the Spirit.  Start today.

What are the "fruit of the Spirit"?

Galatians 5 describes the "fruit" or results of the Spirit's work in our lives.  These characteristics are not something you and I can produce for ourselves.  Rather, they result from the Spirit's transforming power within and through us.  Survey them often, and measure yourself by them.  Where you fall short, as the Spirit to cleanse and empower you.  Where you see these fruit at work in your life, be grateful to God.

The "fruit of the Spirit" are listed in Galatians 5: 22-23: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  Note that the text describes them as "fruit," not "fruits."  They are various dimensions of the one work of the Spirit in our lives.

They aremodeled best by Jesus.  The "fruit of the Spirit" are an exact portrait of the life and character of Jesus Christ.  Jesus calls us to learn to be like him (Matt. 11:29-30).  The fruit of the Spirit show us where we need to grow in Christ-likeness.  As we identify these areas, repent of sin, and invite the Spirit's control, he makes us more like our Lord.

What are "spiritual gifts"?  How can you find yours?

God's supreme gift to his people is himself.  He gave his Son for us, sending him to die in our place so our sins could be forgiven (John 3:16).  He has made us his children by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), giving us new life in his Spirit (Rom. 8:9).

Now his Spirit lives in us (1 Cor. 3:16), and wants to use us to lead others to follow Jesus.  He has given us "spiritual gifts" as a means to this end.  Spiritual gifts are to the church what organs and limbs are to the human body.  When we learn about spiritual gifts, we discover the anatomy of the church, the body of Christ.

Our gifts are God's equipment, provided to help us grow in our faith.  When we identify our God-given gifts and abilities, we know better how to serve our Father.  We are empowered by God's Spirit to accomplish God's will for our lives.  We live and share the Christian faith with joy.  And at the end of our work on earth we can say, No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.

Who has spiritual gifts?

Every believer has at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:7, 11; Eph. 4:7), given at his or her salvation.  No believer has every spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:12, 27, 29-30).  Our gifts differ from each other (Rom. 12:3-6a).  We receive our gifts according to God's will, not our own desire or experience (1 Cor. 12:11; Eph. 4:7-8).

What are the "spiritual gifts"?

The New Testament includes three lists of spiritual gifts.  In Romans 12:3-8 we encounter seven gifts: "prophecy," serving, teaching, encouraging, "contributing to the needs of others," leadership, and mercy.

In 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 we find nine gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, "distinguishing between spirits," "speaking in different kinds of tongues," and "the interpretation of tongues."

And in Ephesians 4:11 we discover four gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers (some interpreters see pastor and teacher as two separate gifts, though the Greek syntax seems to indicate that they are one function).

Combining the various lists, we discover these gifts:

  • administration: organizing people and ministries effectively
  • apostleship: adapting to a different culture to share the gospel or do ministry
  • discernment: distinguishing spiritual truth from error or heresy
  • evangelism: sharing the gospel effectively and passionately
  • exhortation: encouraging others as they follow Jesus
  • faith: seeing God's plan and following it with passion
  • giving: investing with unusual sacrifice and joy in God's Kingdom
  • healing: being used by God to bring physical health in supernatural ways
  • intercession: praying with unusual passion and effectiveness
  • interpretation of "tongues": being used by God to explain to others the message given by the Spirit through "tongues"
  • knowledge: discerning and sharing the deep truths of God's word and will
  • leadership: motivating and inspiring others to serve Jesus fully
  • mercy: showing God's grace to hurting people with unusual passion
  • miracles: being used by God in ministry which transcends natural explanation
  • prophecy: preaching the word of God with personal passion and effectiveness
  • serving: meeting practical needs with unusual sacrifice and joy
  • shepherding: helping others grow spiritually
  • speaking in "tongues": using a God-given spiritual language in prayer and worship
  • teaching: explaining God's word and truth with unusual effectiveness
  • wisdom: relating biblical truth to practical life with great effectiveness

How can you know your spiritual gifts?

Some believe that God reveals our spiritual gifts to us directly, as his Spirit speaks to us.  Others depend on the insight and opinions of godly believers.  Most theologians would add a third approach: give attention to your God-given opportunities for service, and to your interests, passions, and abilities.  The Lord typically uses us in ways consistent with our gifting.  For instance, if you are often asked into a leadership position, you may well be gifted for that role.  The Lord usually gives us a desire to become involved in those ministries for which we are gifted.  And he blesses the uses of our gifts, so that we can identify their existence by their effectiveness.

Several "spiritual gifts analysis" tools are available today.  Our ministry has developed one which our leaders and members use; it is available to you on As you utilize it or other approaches, know that the Father wants you to discover and use your gifts even more than you do.  And remember: the Lord gives his greatest joy to those who help fulfill his Great Commission.  When you find and use your spiritual gifts, you will find the passion, purpose, and peace of God.