The work of the Holy Spirit

This post is excerpted from a lecture by Michael Morrison, dean of faculty and professor at Grace Communion Seminary.

Holy Spirit rose window (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The apostle Paul's understanding of the Spirit's work is anchored in his belief that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost following Jesus' ascension fulfilled Ezekiel's prophecy concerning the ushering in of the Messianic age when God, by the Spirit, would be at work in his people in a new way (Ezek. 36:24-27). Note what Paul wrote concerning the Spirit's work:
What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. (1 Cor. 2:12-13)
In his various letters, Paul identifies four aspects of the Spirit's ongoing work. Let's look at each one.

1. The Spirit's work in preaching the gospel

The Holy Spirit enabled Paul to understand the message of the gospel and then to preach it to others:
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
What is this “demonstration of the Spirit’s power”? Note what he wrote to the church in Rome:
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. (Rom. 15:18-19)
People often assume that Paul is talking here about miracles, but Paul does not specify what the “signs and wonders” were. What did Christ accomplish through him? The only thing he specifies is that the Gentiles began to obey God. It seems to me that miracles would work contrary to Paul’s train of thought in 1 Corinthians 2. The thrust of this chapter seems to be that Paul wanted the people to believe not for external reasons, but for internal ones. The message might sound foolish. There was no obvious reason why people should accept it – and yet they did. People accepted the message not because it was entertaining, but because the Holy Spirit was at work in them. They believed the message, despite the lack of methods that would appeal to ordinary people.

An outside observer might wonder why they believed such a foolish message – and the fact that they believed is, in itself, evidence that the Holy Spirit led them to believe the message. In other words, their belief demonstrated the power of the Spirit at work in them. Even if my explanation of 1 Corinthians 2 is wrong, and Paul did perform dramatic miracles when he preached, I think the main point I am trying to make here still stands: that the Holy Spirit enables the gospel to be preached. The Spirit works not just in miracles of healing, but also in speaking, and also in the hearing. The message sounds foolish to some people and scandalous to others, but somehow comes across with an inexplicable persuasiveness for some. The Holy Spirit is at work.

2. The Spirit's work in receiving the gospel

I have already addressed a key text for my next point – that the Holy Spirit works inside of the listeners, so they are enabled to receive the message.
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:14)
In 1 Cor. 2:11 Paul says, “no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” and in 1 Cor. 2:9-10, he says, “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” Paul is not just referring to himself – he took what God revealed to him and passed it on to others, expecting them to understand it as well, by the Holy Spirit working in their minds. As one commentator notes, “the Spirit opens up dimensions of reality that rational thought cannot deal with, an enlightenment of reason that does not disparage rational thought but ennobles it.” A related verse is 1 Thess. 1:5: “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.” This could be understood as either the Holy Spirit active in the preaching, or in the listening. I suspect it is the latter, but perhaps that is a distinction that Paul would not care to make – he would say that it is both.

As the Spirit brings a person across the boundary from unbelief to belief, a couple of theological concepts are associated: the person is regenerated and adopted as a child of God. The specific terminology of regeneration is rare in Paul – the only occurrence is Titus 3:5: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing  of rebirth [palingenesia] and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” That is, we have been given a new start in life. Paul may have something similar in mind when he says that all who are in Christ are in a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). Although he does not specifically connect this with the Spirit, it would seem that his theology would, because as we will soon see, a person is “in Christ” only by the work of the Spirit. Twice, Paul connects our adoption with the Spirit:
Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him [the Spirit] we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Rom. 8:14-16)
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child. (Gal. 4:6-7)
Paul uses the Aramaic word Abba in only these two places. In both he connects it with the Spirit, and with the point at which people recognize themselves to be God’s children. In one sense, all human beings are children of God – they belong to him, and since he is omnipresent, they live and move and have their being in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. But this is not the sense in which Paul is using the idea of being a child of God here. The Spirit does something to bring about our adoption as God's children. On a related note, Paul, in Romans, draws a contrast between unbelievers and believers:
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. (Rom. 8:5-9)
Some people live according to the flesh, and have their minds governed by the flesh. They are hostile to God and cannot please God. But believers respond to the Spirit, are led by the Spirit, and set their minds on what the Spirit wants. If a person is responding to the Spirit, living in the realm of the Spirit, then the Spirit is living and active within that person. But some people are not responding to the Spirit, are not living according to the Spirit, and in that sense, the Spirit is not living in them, and the people do not belong to Christ -- they are not (yet) adopted into God’s family.

People who are led by the Spirit, and are responding to the Spirit, are children of God in a significantly different way that other humans are. The Spirit leads people to realize that they are God’s children, and they may call him by the affectionate and familiar term Abba. The Spirit initiates believers into a new level of relationship, a new life, or at least a new basis and approach to life, and a new awareness of what that life is. It is experienced as a change of category, and can be described by numerous metaphors: from dead to alive, from alienated to reconciled, from darkness to children of light, etc.

3. The Spirit's work in each Christian’s life

The Holy Spirit does not just get people started on the right path and then expect them to finish the race on their own. No, we continue to need more understanding of the things of God, and we need encouragement and strength. Some of this falls under the heading of sanctification, that God sets us apart for a holy use, and calls us to live a holy life. There are three instances where Paul specifically links sanctification with the work of the Spirit:
So that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 15:16)
God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit. (1 Thess. 4:7-8)
God chose you as firstfruits to be saved  through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thess. 2:13)
How does the Holy Spirit create in us a clean heart and lead us into a holy life, a life set apart for God’s purposes? I doubt that we will ever get a precise answer, because it touches on the interaction between God’s will and our own. This is the mystery or paradox of God’s initiative and our responsibility, and it is probably just as much out of our reach as is the mystery of why some people respond to the gospel and others do not.

Although we may never have a precise formula, I think it is safe to say that the focus of the work is in our minds: the Holy Spirit not only helps us understand the initial presentation of the gospel, the Spirit also continues to work to help us understand the ongoing implications of the message we believed. The point that Paul was making in 1 Corinthians 2 goes beyond our initial response to the gospel, to cover all of life: the Spirit is an essential component of our understanding throughout the Christian life. Our minds must be renewed, Paul says in Romans 12:2, and this renewal is done by the Spirit. The Spirit helps us keep whatever knowledge God has already given us:
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Tim. 2:13-14)
But the process of using our life for holy purposes does not come merely through us coming to a better understanding of what we should do. Yes, we need a better understanding, but there’s more to it than that, because we wrestle against spiritual forces, and we need spiritual power in our struggle against sin.

The offensive weapon in our spiritual armor is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). The word of God, brought to us by the Spirit, teaches, encourages and strengthens our resolve. Paul prayed “that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16-17).

Paul indicates that the Spirit leads people: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Rom. 8:14). The result is that people “live …according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

The Spirit helps us avoid sin: “If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Paul exhorts the Corinthians to avoid sin by reminding them, “Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God” (1 Cor. 6:19). Since the Spirit is holy, the presence of the Spirit is a reason for us to put off unholy behaviors. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). That brings us back to the mysterious intersection of God’s will and ours.

What do the results of the Spirit's work in us look like? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). The metaphor of fruit suggests three things: 1) the singular noun suggests that all these characteristics are aspects of the same reality, the character or nature of God being visible in a person’s life. 2) Fruit suggests that we cannot take credit for the results – it is the result of the Spirit working in us. And 3) Fruit requires time and growth.

We are to let God do it, and yet we are also to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” – and we do it “by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:13). In one metaphor, we are tools of the Spirit. In another, the Spirit is a tool we use to do his will. The believer acts, but only because the Spirit acts. “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Professor Udo Schnelle writes:
The ethics of the Christian life are also based on the Spirit, for the new being takes place in harmony with the Spirit, which appears as ground and norm of the new way of life (cf. Gal. 5:25; 1 Cor. 5:7; Rom. 6:2, 12; Phil. 2:12-13). Christians have entered into a life determined by the Spirit. The Spirit is the power and principle of the new life…. At the same time, it becomes clear: there is no change without a new way of living. The Spirit conferred as a gift must be accepted. Precisely because the Spirit incorporates baptized believers into the sphere of God and the realm of the church, they are not in the vacuum of a world free of any ruling powers, but instead stand under the call to new obedience make possible by the Spirit. The “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) takes place in the “new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).

4. The Spirit's work in the life of the church

God does not call people to remain as isolated individuals. He does not want us to spend eternity in isolated compartments, able to have a relationship only with him. Rather, he wants us to have an eternity of relationships with each other, a mind-boggling network of billions of relationships. In preparation for that, he calls us into relationships with one another in this age, in a community of believers. Although history shows that even converted humans are not very good at this, we are in community with people who are at least theoretically headed in the right direction, attempting to be responsive to the same Spirit. Paul argues from the fact that there is only one Spirit, to the idea that there is but one church:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all. (Eph, 4:3-5). 
We are called to participate in the same Spirit (Phil. 2:1), and as children of God we are in the same family (Eph. 3:15). We are to have the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13-14). Theologian Donald Guthrie says, “Whether the phrase means ‘participation in the Spirit’ or ‘fellowship created by the Spirit’ is not certain, but either way it suggests a linking of believers through a common bond in the Spirit.”  As Paul notes, because we share in the same Spirit, we are to share with each other as well:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17) 
Since the Spirit has formed them into one group, they are not to divide or destroy the group. In a chapter on unity, Paul writes,
We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Cor. 12:13).
Here Paul is alluding to our baptism in water as the mark of membership in the church. But as he often does, he plays with or mixes the metaphors, in this case suggesting that we drink the “fluid” that baptized us! His point is that since there is only one Spirit, and that Spirit initiates us all into the body, then we are all in the same body. All believers have been baptized by the Spirit; there is no category of people who have become believers and yet await a second experience called “baptism of the Spirit.” I do not deny that believers may have second (or multiple) transformational conversions, and I do not deny that believers may seek additional experiences of the Spirit, but I am saying that such a “second blessing” is not what Paul is talking about in this verse about being baptized by the Spirit. Paul is stressing unity in the body, not trying to delineate categories of people who are more spiritual than others. He is saying that it is not just water baptism that forms us into a community – we are unified by the Spirit of God.

Nevertheless, Paul does exhort people to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18-19). Does this mean that we need a special experience in which we are suddenly “filled with the Spirit”? No – Paul here uses the present tense, with a progressive sense, to say: "Keep on being filled with the Spirit." The Amplified Bible says, “ever be filled and stimulated with the [Holy] Spirit.”
For a series of posts on this blog addressing the work of the Spirit in sanctification, click here.