The Holy Spirit: Does What We Know About Him Actually Matter? (Part 1)

The importance, nature and work of the Holy Spirit are not well understood by many Christians today. And in that category, I definitely include myself.

Since my college days, I have belonged to a non-denominational church that emphasizes textual Bible study, prayer and evangelism. Over the years, we have constantly spoken of God and Jesus, and in passing we have often mentioned the Holy Spirit. We formally uphold the doctrine of the Trinity. But in-depth discussion of the Holy Spirit has been rare.

As far as I can tell, my experience is common among evangelical Christians, especially those of the non-Pentecostal variety. The implicit message seems to be: If you believe that Christ died for your sins, that is enough to make you a real Christian. But is it enough?

Discerning who is a real Christian is not something that I will attempt. That task is best left up to God.

However, I am now convinced that “Christ died for our sins” is an incomplete presentation of the gospel. It is a necessary part of the message for sure. It is a genuine, true message through which God has worked to bring many to faith in Christ. But it falls far short of the message proclaimed by the apostles and recorded in the New Testament. And I do not think it is not an adequate long-term basis for a healthy, growing Christian faith.

The gospel message is rooted in historical events that unfolded over a sequence of five days: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the day of Ascension, and Pentecost. Each of those days was anticipated in the Old Testament. Each of those days is necessary to understand what God has done through Jesus Christ.

Christmas Day (or, more accurately, the moment that Jesus Christ was conceived) was the day when the Word became flesh. The mystery of the Incanation, the declaration that the second person of the Trinity became a human being, is the startling news flash that opens the New Testament.

The next startling headline came on Good Friday, when this God-man died on the cross for our sins. The death of Jesus Christ is another great mystery. The cross is, quite correctly, the kernel of most modern evangelical presentations of the gospel.

But Good Friday would be meaningless without Easter Sunday. It is not nearly enough to say that Christ died for our sins. A Christian must also believe that Christ was raised from the dead. If he was not raised from the dead, our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins (1Co 15:17).

And is not enough to believe that Christ was raised from the dead. The message that energized the early Church, which spread like wildfire and transformed the lives of those who accepted it, was encapsulated in three words: Jesus is Lord. That was the punchline of the apostles’ first evangelistic message (Acts 2:36). The Lordship of Christ was sealed on Ascension Thursday, when the risen Jesus ascended to heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father (Ac 2:34-35; Ps 110:1).

And that message that Jesus is Lord would have fallen on deaf ears had it not been for the new work of the Holy Spirit that began on Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit was repeatedly promised by Jesus (Jn 7:37-39, 14:16). It is the Holy Spirit who brings our dead souls to life, who enables us to believe in Christ and be regenerated (born again) into God’s family (Jn 3:5). It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, the resurrected Jesus living within his disciples, that makes the Church the Body of Christ in the world today. If we are real Christians, then we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; if the Holy Spirit is not in us, then we do not belong to Christ (Ro 8:9-11).

We urge people, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior.” But one cannot accept Jesus as Savior without also accepting the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not an accessory to the gospel. He is a lead actor in the gospel and an essential part of who Jesus is.

The two major titles that we apply to Jesus, Christ (Greek) and Messiah (Hebrew), are equivalent; both mean “the Anointed One.” That word, anointed, refers to a ceremonial application of oil. It was the divinely commanded act by which the nation of Israel ordained her High Priest (Lev 8:12) and designated her King (1Sa 16:13). The anointing oil is an Old Testament image or picture of the Holy Spirit, whom God the Father poured out on Jesus to designate him as our High Priest and King.

The Jesus depicted in the four gospels is a human being — a truly ordinary person — who was anointed and filled with the Holy Spirit at every stage of his life and ministry. He was conceived in the womb of his mother, the virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:35). When he was baptized in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove, and that is how John the Baptist recognized him as the Messiah (Lk 3:21; Jn 1:33). When Jesus preached his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18-19). When Jesus taught, he did so by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Mt 12:18). When he healed the sick and cast our demons, he did so by the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt 12:28).

The unbreakable connection between Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is found in the earliest presentations of the gospel. When the Apostle Peter preached his first gospel message to the Gentiles, he said, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit” (Ac 13:16). When Peter preached his first message to the Jews, he said that the risen Jesus ascended into heaven, received from the Father the gift of the Holy Spirit, and poured out this gift on his disciples on the day of Pentecost (Ac 2:33).

Does any of this really matter? Is knowing about, believing in and understanding the Holy Spirit relevant to our practical lives and to our experience of God today? Or is all of this stuff just abstract theologizing that should be left to those pointy-headed scholars in their seminaries, which, as we all know, are little better than cemeteries?

Sorry, that’s a badly worn-out joke. If you understand where I am going, you will realize that I do not think that seminaries are cemeteries. On the contrary, I am becoming convinced that our theology of the Holy Spirit is critically important to our faith and practice. If it were not, then why did Peter take time to present it to non-believers and seekers in his evangelistic messages?

Surely the Holy Spirit is present among many people who do not know or understand him. But that is not a good reason to delight in ignorance. Many have believed in Jesus and experienced the authentic work of the Holy Spirit with little or no theological understanding. But without clear understanding, Christians tend to misinterpret what is happening to them. If we fail to compare our experiences to Scripture, we tend to draw incorrect conclusions and make inaccurate generalizations about the Holy Spirit which, over time, keep us from maturing and lead to unhealthy beliefs and practices. Sooner or later, the chickens of Spirit-ignorance will come home to roost.

That’s my opinion. But what do you think? Was the Holy Spirit an indispensible part of the gospel that you accepted and believed? Have you been experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in your personal life and in your church? If so, how? If not, why? On a scale of 1=total ignorance to 5=deep understanding, how well do you think you know the Holy Spirit, and is your present knowledge going to be enough to sustain your spiritual health and growth in the years ahead?


  1. A church planter friend in Chicago told me that most Christians believe in “The Father, the Son and the Holy Bible.” Sorry that I keep re-quoting what he told me.

    But the reason I like the quote is because I realize that in my first 28 years of teaching the Bible 1:1 in Chicago UBF I pretty much acknowledged the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, while predominantly emphasizing Jesus and his death for our sins (thus assuming the Holy Spirit), as I taught the Bible and “squeezed my Bible students to repent of their sins.”

    God surely has done great work through UBF since 1961 through Samuel Lee and Sarah Barry, and the original members of UBF who are still very influencial today. Surely, without a doubt the Holy Spirit has worked mightily in Korea and through out the 80 nations where our missionaries have gone. Many natives became sincere godly Christians through their prayers, Bible study, compassion, hospitality, generosity, love, prayer, example,  and sacrifice. Likely many who read UBFriends have had the Holy Spirit transform their lives supernaturally through our lovely Christ-loving missionaries.

    But I’m thinking that because the Holy Spirit is assumed, and perhaps not well studied or understood as  Joe suggests, the emphasis of man’s work necessarily is the inevitable result.

    I’m thinking that when we assume that the Holy Spirit will work, we communicate as though it is up to us, the Bible teacher or missionary, and the Bible student, for God to work. So, perhaps we communicate that it is up to the Bible teacher or missionary to “pray, prepare, teach, rebuke, disciple, exemplify, be responsible, etc.”

    Then it is also up to the Bible student to “repent, accept, humble themselves, confess their sins, write testimony, attend worship service, attend fellowship meetings and conferences, go fishing, feed sheep, take responsibility, receive training, etc”

    Of course, all of these things are taught repeatedly in the Bible. But when we neglect or assume the Holy Spirit, everything becomes up to the “shepherd” to do his job, and the “sheep” to respond well. It’s almost like the Bible teacher or leader has inadvertently assumed the role of the Holy Spirit.

    I’ve had some discussions about this with some people that has led to defensiveness and offensiveness. Sorry in advance if some are offended in reading this. But as Joe suggested, I think we need to prayerfully and seriously study the Holy Spirit as much as we study the Father and the Son and the Bible. Otherwise, our theology and Bible teaching will be “off,” or “unbalanced,” though not necessarily incorrect.

    Reading the recent issue of Christianity Today (Jan 2011), Fred Sanders, in his book “The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything,” said, “The  gospel is Trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel.” I thought that was true, and that I need to learn how to do that.  

    • Thanks, Ben, for your astute observations. Personally, I think that the lack of understanding and experience of the work of the Holy Spirit is not really a UBF thing, but a widespread  problem in  many parts of the  evangelical church. (For that reason, I didn’t specifically mention UBF in the article.)

      Recovering the mystery of the Trinty is something that can really refresh one’s faith. When I started to take the Trinity seriously and  considered  the relationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Scriptures — both Old and New Testaments — really started to come alive again. Lengthy passages from John’s gospel, passages which I  used to  skip over because I didn’t know what to make of them, became full of meaning. The epistles took on new meaning. Questions  which had  bothered me for many years — such as, “What does it really mean to have a personal relationship with Christ?” — started to get answered. I like the quote by Fred Sanders; I’ll have to check out that article and book.

  2. Thanks, Joe about the article about the Holy Spirit. This is the way I understand the Holy Spirit

    We cannot see the Holy Spirit and it is abstract, but we can see the fruit of the Holy Spirit which is not at all abstract; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22,23).

    The Holy Spirit is not independent with Jesus and the word of God. The Holy Spirit is a person. Therefore we should welcome him into our hearts and let him stay and do his work, not just one time, but over and over so that we may be transformed in the image of Jesus. “I want to know Christ” (“I want to know the Holy Spirit”). To know the Holy Spirit better should be our life goal. In order to know the Holy Spirit better we should learn to listen to him, trust in him in prayer.

    • Hi M. James, Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. I like the way that you called attention to the personal nature of the Holy Spirit, and to the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. The presence or absence of those fruits is, I think, one of the most direct ways that we can tell where the Holy Spirit is or isn’t working in us. It’s hard for me to judge other people to tell whether their behavior reflects genuine love, joy, peace, etc. because human beings are deceptive and those fruits can sometimes be faked. But if I look at myself with painful honesty, I can tell whether those fruits are present or not at any given time, and I can then begin to  identify the leading of the Spirit.

  3. david bychkov

    John Stott in his book “Evangelical Truth” wrote about Gospel in this way. He said that the Gospel is initiate by God Father and it is revealed in his word – the Bible. Further, the Gospel is about Jesus Christ and especially his Cross. And it is preached to the world by Holy Spirit, so the Gospel work have is doing by Holy Spirit. Therefore this three things – Bible, Christ’s Cross and the work of the Holy Spirit should be recognize as only necessary parts of full Evangelical Truth.

    • Hi David. John Stott is a very widely respected author and preacher. I have not yet read that book. I am a little bit surprised at the way he characterizes the Bible as the word of the Father and then  makes the work of the Holy Spirit another category. Of course, the Bible is the word of the Father. But  it is also the work of the Holy Spirit who inspired the human authors and who inspires us today as we read and study the Scriptures. Evangelical Christians place great emphasis on the Bible, and rightly so. But we cannot divorce the study of Scripture from the work of the Holy Spirit, without whom our Bible study is useless. Does Stott’s book  talk about that? I’ll bet he does.

  4. david bychkov

    No one from this as I understood Stott couldn’t be viewed separately without others. That’s why he talks about triplicity of Gospel. If there were no Bible – we couldn’t even know about the Christ Gospel. If there were no Christ’s cross – the Bible is an empty book for us. But without the work of the Holy Spirit – we couldn’t believe in Gospel inspite we read about it and sure our lives couldn’t be changed without Holy Spirit. And yes, sure Bible authors were inspirited by the Holy Spirit to write the Bible (though, Stott mentioned that Bible has two authorships – God’s and men’s), but Stott insists that it was the initiative of God Father to reavel himself to us in revelation.

  5. Thanks, James, Joe for addressing Galatians 5:22,23 on the fruit (singular) of the Spirit, though it is described/expressed in the pleural with 9 attributes of love, joy, peace, etc. Only the Spirit can produce all these, and not human effort, though, we could “fake” self-control, while inwardly we may be “blowing up” out of control.

    Also, people’s basic personalities and traits are different. Hypocrates mentions 4: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. So we might  think a sanguine person has “joy,” when that it their basic God-given personality. Another might seem to be “self-controlled” when they are phlegmatic.  So I agree with Joe’s point that it is not that easy or obvious to assess whether or not someone else or maybe even ourselves as being filled with the Holy Spirit, or that we are walking in the Spirit, since our own hearts are deceitful (Jer 17:9).

    Everyone’s “starting point” in faith is also different. One from an abusive family has scars and wounds and could easily be judged as being “unchanged,” or proud, or stubborn, or rebellious, or a mental patient, even though the Holy Spirit is working in them. On the other hand, one from a loving family might seem to be a Christian outwardly, simply because they are well-behaved.

    I think that we somewhat easily understand the Father who sent the Son, so we apply it by being missional like the Father. We might also more easily understand the Son who gave his life, so we apply it by being sacrificial like the Son. But the Spirit indwells us sinners by the grace of the Father and the Son, and it is not so easily obvious to apply it practically to our Christian lives. Thus, we surely need to study the Spirit more deliberately.

    Sorry if this sounds mystical or confusing.

    • david bychkov

      Dr. Ben, your words are very similar to “Religious Affections” of Jonathan Edwards which I’m reading now, and he sounds really mystical and confusing.

  6. If these things sound mystical  and confusing,  perhaps it’s  because we have lost touch with spiritual reality.  As modernistic Christians, our thinking and worldview have been more shaped by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution than by the Bible. We have become blind to many things of God

    When I used to read the long discourses by Jesus in John’s gospel about his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit, those passages seemed too mystical and confusing, I thought, “Jesus, why are you saying this? Why don’t you get practical with us? Stop talking about all those mysterious things, and just tell us WHAT TO DO!!!”

    But slowly it dawned on me that when Jesus was teaching about his relationship to the Father and Holy Spirit, is was not theoretical, theological mumbo-jumbo. Rather, it is the essence of Christianity.  Jesus doesn’t need us to DO anything for him. What Jesus wants is for us to BE in a relationship with him, so that we can know and experience God as he does.

    I used to think these things were unimportant. Man, was I wrong!

    Our views of everything ultimately flow from our conceptions of God. If we focus on who God is and truly come to know him, then all other questions will gradually be answered. But if our understanding of God is wrong, we open ourselves up to all kinds of false teachings.

    Perhaps this is why the early Christians took great pains to spell out the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the nature of Jesus Christ. The Triune nature of God was so important to them that the ancient creeds (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed) are essentially affirmations of the Trinity, and not much else. If we get those things right, then we are less likely to be led astray by false ideas.

  7. Hannah Love

    The Holy Spirit is not an accessory to the gospel. He is a lead actor in the gospel and an essential part of who Jesus is.
    For a good portion of my life I have been quite ignorant to who/what the Holy Spirit is. I was only exposed to God and Jesus. As you mentioned, the Holy Spirit was an obligatory accessory mentioned because this is what Christians are supposed to believe.  
    In recent years, my family has been opening up to the work of the Holy Spirit and acknowledging his existence in their lives. I didn’t know what to think of it and all I associated with the Holy Spirit was the charismatic movement, which I thought was crazy. I wanted to live my Christian life with just God and Jesus. Keep it simple. Yet, despite my rejections and resistance, the Holy Spirit found me. Last year, through a church event I encountered the living God through encountering the Holy Spirit as someone prayed and ministered over me. Slowly my heart started to hunger for something greater than what I had known for 24 years. There must be more and now I know that there is more.
    I’m still quite ignorant to who he is, but I know he is real and desperately need him. Without the Holy Spirit, we’re unable to love others and love the Lord. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re so human/worldly even when we are Christians.  

    The Holy Spirit is God, God is the Holy Spirit, Jesus was a man anointed by the Holy Spirit. Everything he did was enabled by the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
    John 3:6 – Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
    My spirit will be awakened by the Spirit.