The Holy Spirit: Does What We Know About Him Actually Matter? (Part 3)

If you are a Christian, then you ought to call the Holy Spirit “he” rather than “it.” The Spirit is not an invisible power or force, but a person who thinks, feels, communicates and decides.

And you ought to agree that the Holy Spirit is God. On that point, Scripture is very clear. For example, in Acts 5:3, Peter said, “Ananias,… you have lied to the Holy Spirit.” One verse later, Peter adds, “You have not lied to men but to God.”

Many sincere and devout believers talk about “the secret of living a Spirit-filled life.” We want to experience the Spirit’s power. We want our pastors to deliver Spirit-filled messages. We want to have Spirit-filled worship, Spirit-filled Bible studies, Spirit-filled prayer, and so on. All of this is well and good. But overuse of this language can depersonalize and disrespect the third Person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is not a quality or condiment that enhances our efforts and activities. The Holy Spirit is God himself. Instead of looking for that secret ingredient, we ought to be asking, “Where is the Holy Spirit moving, and how can I walk in step with him? How can I relinquish control of my activities and life to him?”

How we speak of the Holy Spirit really does matter. John Wesley was an eminent preacher and theologian of the 18th century, a man who was greatly used by God during the first Great Awakening. He developed a teaching of “scriptural holiness” that was not well received during his lifetime. A century later, a small group of Christian preachers and writers latched on to this teaching and vigorously promoted it as “the secret” of the victorious Christian life. Wesley occasionally spoke of a “second blessing” that comes upon some believers. One of his successors, John Fletcher, developed this idea further and equated it with baptism by the Holy Spirit. Fletcher began to speak of conversion as a two-step process. In the first step, the person believes in Jesus Christ and receives from God the full remission of sin. In the second step – which may happen some time later or perhaps not at all – the person receives the second blessing of the Holy Spirit which brings him to a fuller and more perfect state of purity. This thinking contributed to a number of movements in Britain and the United States –the Keswick “Higher Life” movement, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism – and God used the men and women involved to bring about genuine spiritual growth and revival.

But the modern-day legacy and fruit of the Wesleyan/Fletcher teaching on the Holy Spirit is mixed. Scholars of the Reformed tradition have criticized this thinking as imprecise, sloppy and unscriptural, and it seems to me that those criticisms are valid. It is true that the apostles experienced the blessing of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, which came some time after they believed in the risen Christ. A temporal separation between faith in Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit is also mentioned in the “Samaritan Pentecost” of Acts 8:17. But these appear to be unique events that are not repeated later, and the two-stage view of conversion is not supported in the Epistles. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel, the state of belonging to Christ is equivalent to being indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ro 8:9).

I know that God sometimes pours out the Holy Spirit on disciples of Christ. He can fill them with the Holy Spirit anytime he chooses (Ac 4:31). He can send a second blessing, a third blessing, a fourth blessing and so on, but he doesn’t have to. On the other hand, Scripture is quite clear that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a general promise given to everyone who follows Jesus (Jn 7:37-39; Ac 2:39). Understanding this does have implications for your personal walk of faith. If you think of conversion as a two-stage process, then you may hunger for that “second blessing” and wonder why it doesn’t come. Two-stage thinking will inevitably set up a two-tiered hierarchy within a church in which some believers are considered to be Level-1 Christians, inferior to their brothers and sisters who have achieved the coveted Level-2 status. I find no support for this anywhere in Scripture, and the potentially harmful effects seem obvious.

Basically, this is what I think happened. John Wesley witnessed authentic outpourings of the Holy Spirit at various times and places. But he and his followers did not accurately reconcile those experiences with the teachings of Scripture; they misunderstood what was happening and generalized from those experiences in inappropriate ways.

At one time or another, I think we have all been guilty of that. Someone may experience God’s transforming work (e.g., a healing) in his own life. Because that experience is so genuine and powerful, he begins to think that this experience is normative – what “should happen” in other times and places – and wants this work to be reproduced elsewhere. So he begins to tell other Christians that they too can experience just what he did if they only believe, if they only ask God in prayer, and so on. Scriptures do promise that miraculous things will happen in the lives of believers (Mk 16:18), but nowhere does the Bible say that the Holy Spirit must do exactly what we want or expect at any given moment. To teach this is to disrespect the personhood and freedom of the Holy Spirit. To teach this is to give in to temptation to put God to the test (Mt 4:5-7).

Or suppose that a ministry experiences dramatic growth through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a particular place and time. Leaders of the movement may conclude that similar things ought to happen on a regular basis. Worse yet, they may begin to believe that they are somehow better, purer, holier, more prayerful than other churches and ministries that did not share the experience. They may take it as “proof” that their particular ministry methods (which may have been appropriate in the original setting) are inherently superior, and then press forward in uncritically applying those same methods in other cultural settings where the Spirit wants to work differently. The temptation for organizations to do this can be overwhelming. But it is not scriptural. Eventually it may become a negation of the gospel. Salvation comes to everyone by the sovereignty of God and by his grace alone, not by the inherent specialness of any evangelists’ practices, methods or style. The gospel does not need adornment. The message, the reality, of Jesus Christ and his kingdom is sufficient to bring revival whenever, wherever, through whomever, and by whatever means the Spirit chooses to work.

An honest study of the history of Christian revivals will show that every outpouring of the Holy Spirit was also accompanied by mistakes, excesses and problems in the church that needed to be addressed and corrected by future generations. The fact that this is so does not devalue the message or the work that was done. If it were not so, then it would be a contradiction of the truth that at the foot of the cross, the ground is level. All of us, without exception, stand on the same plane. We are all sinners before God, and salvation comes to all by grace alone, not by grace plus some special, secret ingredient.

The paths and circumstances by which people come to faith in Christ and grow in Christ are truly varied. The Holy Spirit works differently in different people and in the life of a person at different times. He works differently across churches, cultures and generations. Whenever we try to put him in a box and say that this is how he must work, he seems to go out of his way to prove us wrong. We ought to recognize, welcome and applaud the genuine work of the Holy Spirit whenever and wherever we see it. But we should also be extra careful before we claim that any particular work of the Spirit is how it’s always supposed to be.

In the next article, I will describe some other ways that our beliefs and assumptions about the Holy Spirit will profoundly impact our lives of faith. Stay tuned…


  1. I used to think that the Spirit was only “moving” or “working” when my heart was moved by the gospel, or when I was able to answer a tough question or objection to Christianity, or if some brilliant insight occurred whilst reading the Bible.  Perhaps the Spirit did grant me extra help during these times, but I’ve learned I don’t know what the Spirit has in store for me day to day, and I don’t know what I’ll be doing when he reveals something to me.  As you’ve pointed out Joe, the Spirit does not act according to our whims and fancies.  The Spirit is in love with Jesus and convicts us of sin.  How and when and what that looks like is up to Him.

  2. GerardoR

    It can certantly be dangerous to attribute certain human motives to the motives of the Holy Spirit. This is especially true when it deals with matters that are not discussed in the bible. But Jesus promised that the Spirit would reveal to us greater things – things I presume are not discussed in the bible. The problem is ofcourse, if the bible doesnt talk on a particular point it makes us hesitant to know whether it is the will of the spirit. So I feel we are stuck in a catch 22. We want to be led to all  knowledge  but a lack of biblical support might prevent us from seeing certain truths.  

    I think this line of  thinking  represents an argument from silence. The bible has nothing to say about X, therefore X must not be true. But again, Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would reveal to us more of the truth so we might expect the will of the Spirit not to contradict the bible but shouldnt  necessarily  expect the will of the Spirit to find support IN THE BIBLE. It can, but it doesnt have to.

  3. Gerardo, thanks for this observation. I think there is a great deal in the Bible of which we are not aware until the Spirit illuminates. There have been many times in my life when, after God worked in my life to teach me a lesson through circumstances or people, I later found that it is already in the Bible, but I never saw it or realized its significance. This morning I read from John 2 about how Jesus cleared the temple. Though the inspiration of the Spirit, the apostles were able to associate it with Psalm 69. The Bible is so rich that we will never, ever come close to exhausting its wealth of meaning and material. So I would be very, very cautious before saying that a particular thing is not discussed in the Bible. Chances are that it is discussed in the Bible, but we haven’t yet seen it. If the Bible was just a book of facts, principles, rules, regulations, etc. then I could agree with you and say, “Yes, you are right, that thing just isn’t covered in the Bible, we need additional revelation from the Spirit.” But the beauty of the Bible is that it is largely a a narrative, a story, about how God has worked in history and continues to work. There are many, many ways to read great stories, and we will never exhaust their meaning. (And when I say “story”, I am not implying that it is fictional.)

    • GerardoR

      I agree with you that the bible is deep and rich on multiple layers. But again, why should we limit the work of the Holy Spirit to only that which is discussed in the Bible? Jesus didnt say, “there are more truths which you will know about me just read the scriptures and all truth will be found there through the help of the Holy Spirit.”  

      I am not here trying to advocate that the Bible is old and outdated and tapped out for spiritual truth. I am not saying this at all. If all we had was the bible, we should know how to live a good life that is pleasing to God. Nevertheless, I am saying that we should not hold the Holy Spirit hostage to only that which is presented in the Bible. The Holy Spirit will not contradict the Bible but that doesnt mean that the Holy Spirit wont go further than what is revealed in the Bible.

      I can see the hesitation in  endorsing  this view as it opens up a door of potentially “new revelations” (i.e., Mormonism). So I make this statement with the caveat that we have an infallible teaching authority from which the Holy Spirit speaks. Ofcourse, if I didnt believe there was such a thing, I too would be weary of thinking that the Holy Spirit would reveal to us more. But in the end, the Bible itself tells us that Jesus promised us all of this. If this additional truth was to be found in the Bible then why didnt Jesus tell his  disciples, “guys write this stuff down and turn it into a book as it is sufficient for knowing all truth.”  2 Timothy 3:15 tells us scripture is useful for these things but not sufficient. But I guess I then have to answer why that passage ends with, “…for every good work.”  

      But even in this trap I set for myself, I think it highlights the neccesasity of the Holy Spirit in helping us to know truth when we have two diffrent interpretations of scriptures that both cant be true. So even if I though everything that the Holy Spirit has to reveal to us can be found in scripture, at the very least, we can agree that we need the Holy Spirit to work through a *visible authority* to settle matters on scriptural interpretations and doctrinal  differences  no?  

    • Gerardo, I agree with you that the written text of the Bible is not a complete, sufficient revelation for us. And I think the Bible itself supports that view.

      The ultimate revelation about God  is the person of Jesus Christ, who is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being (Heb 1:1-3).

      And there is a great deal we can learn about this created world, about human beings as a whole, about one another, and about ourselves  through personal experience, shared experience, empirical observation (science), human reason, art, music, culture, etc. Those things that we learn from “extrabiblical” sources should inform and deepen our study of Scripture, and the study of Scripture should inform our learning from those “extrabiblical” sources.

      It is dangerous  and wrong when  religious groups (Mormons, Christian Scientists, etc.) treat other texts as being divinely inspired and on equal par with the Bible. That undermines the authority of the Bible for sure. But the even greater problem, in my opinion, is that these groups  undermine the centrality and sufficiency of Jesus Christ as the focus of all human spirituality.   I fear that well-meaning evangelicals spend such a great deal of time and energy trying to uphold the supremacy of the Bible  that they are not as  concerned as they ought to be about worshiping and following Jesus. God doesn’t call  Christians to  a Bible-centered life; he calls us to a Jesus-centered life (Jn 14:6).

  4. “I do not need to defend the Bible. Defending the Bible is like defending a Lion…” -Charles Spurgeon

  5. This post didn’t get a lot of action, but I think the topic of who the Holy Spirit is and his role is of utmost importance to consider. The triune God is three Persons: Father, Son, Spirit.

    “This thinking contributed to a number of movements in Britain and the United States –the Keswick “Higher Life” movement, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism – and God used the men and women involved to bring about genuine spiritual growth and revival.”

    I did some research on a very good church here in Detroit. I found that it has pentecostal roots. I further found there is a movement among some pentecostal and charismatic churches to add mission, structure and Bible study to their ministries. The result is a wonderful approach to mission that is appealing to this generation. The pentecostal church becomes a magnet, drawing people in who wouldn’t otherwise even think about church.

    It seems so very difficult to add the Spirit’s work to a rigid, structured ministry. But it seems God is working the opposite way greatly: adding some structure to Spirit-based ministries.

    This is just an observation. I’m not sure what it means…but I want to find out.

    • Abraham Nial
      Abraham Nial

      you made a very important observation regarding accomodation of biblestudy and mission among the charismatic and pentecostals. My further observation in this matter is there is also a movement among the evangelicals to learn and experience the person of the Holy Spirit firsthand beyond bookish understanding.

      I love to call myself an “evangelical charismatic”! I teach the Bible, preach Jesus and also pray for the sick and ask for supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit in practical life issues. I also sincerly wish to receive the gift of tongues for my personal edifications. Jesus in the Bible preached the gospel and also performed signs and miracles. When the early disciples laid hands on someone who repented, they said, “recieve the Holy Spirit” contrary to what we say today “receive Jesus.” And the converts were filled with the Spirit with His manifest presence. I think after 2K years, christian history is moving toward correct understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit and also toward bringing closer the evangelicals and the charismatics/pentecostals.

    • Abraham, perhaps God’s message to the world is: meet me at the Spirit! I say we throw out the gnostic idea that Christianity is about the Father and the Son. It’s about the kingdom of the triune God.

      Christians try to have unity by religiously enforcing their brand of uniformity. What we really need to do is look at God and see the perfect unity of three distinct, harmonious Persons.

    • Now that I read this again, saying to meet “at” the Spirit isn’t really the right word. I’m not sure how to say it in a way to demonstrate the Spirit is a being to meet, not an energy to control.

  6. Abraham Nial
    Abraham Nial

    Brian, here is a message on youtube on the coming together of the evangelicals and charismatics by David Pawson, one of my favorite Bible teacher.

    • Cool, thx. I’ll check it out later tonight. You mentioned being an “evangelical charismatic”. That’s probably a good term, though many people might not believe it possible. I like it. I don’t know what to call myself though, and haven’t for a long time. I grew up Roman Catholic, spent many years in UBF and am now participating in a evangelical/pentacostal/charismatic/Bible study church…

      In the end I think we all need to lose these denomination type labels. I am simply a man with a testimony trying to live according to the Bible, and a believer in the Father, Son and Spirit.

    • “Not by compromise, but by correction.” Wow, thanks for sharing this video, Abraham. God is truly doing an amazing work. Yes, this video describes much more eloquently what I was trying to say. May the Spirit-centered believers and the Scripture-centered believers come together, not by compromise, but by correction. I think I would have to say I am a “charismatic evangelical”.

    • Abraham Nial
      Abraham Nial

      Glad you liked it. Did you see the second part as well? Anyway, we both belong to the overlap!

    • Yes, Abraham I did watch the second video too. May two sticks become one! If your words are true (I think they are), then you and I may have to talk a lot more. If you are “evangelical charismatic” and I am “charismatic evangelical”, then we are close to the epicenter of God’s worldwide vision!

      GCC claims to be a “Revelation 5” church. I see that they indeed are such a church, which is said by some to be impossible. But it is possible, though may require God’s “smashing work” to destroy old traditions and build a new church and replace hurt with joy.

      I believe a Revelation chapter 5 church needs to have “evangelical charismatics” join together with “charismatic evangelicals”!

    • Abraham Nial
      Abraham Nial

      Brian, what do you mean by “Revelation 5” church? I did go back and read Rev chapter 5. But I want to know from you. If you think that discussion does not relate to Joe’s above article, you can e-mail me your response.

    • Abraham, the term “revelation 5 church” appeared in the history document about Grace Coummunity. It is the first time I heard that term. I am not qualified to accurately define this label (and I don’t even like labels).

      But from what I understand the term comes from Revelation 5:9-10: “9 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. 10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

      In essence a Revelation 5 church is one that embraces people from every tribe, language, people and nation. It is a church of priests who serve God and advance God’s kingdom. (Sound familiar)?

      You can’t do those things if you hold to your own tradition, cast out anyone with a differing opinion or try to silence your critics. You need to be a man of the Spirit and of the Scripture, both passions, in order to pastor and lead this kind of church.

      Dr.Samuel Lee’s prayer topic for a kingdom of priests and a holy nation was correct and full of God’s vision for the end times churches. Sadly, his prayer was mostly misunderstood.