The Spirit's Ministry (Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, part 5)

This post continues a series presenting "The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit" by Dr. Gary Deddo, President of Grace Communion Seminary. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3, 4, 67.

In this post, we'll explore the Holy Spirit's ministry viewed corporately (in the church) and personally (in individual lives). Let's start with a question: Why does any group or individual repent instead of hanging on to their self-justifying pride? The answer is that the Holy Spirit is at work in them, though that work is often unseen. Let me explain.

The Descent of the Holy Ghost (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Spirit's often unseen work

We typically do not see the Holy Spirit working in a direct way -- most of his ministry among us is deep and internal, working directly with our human spirits (1 Cor. 2: 9-11). Thus, we don't see the Holy Spirit acting. However, we do see the results. When we're repenting, when we're hearing God speak his Word, when we're seeing the face of the Father in the face of the Son, when we're grasping the Word of God, when we're interpreting Scripture as God intends -- in all these instances, we’re experiencing the effects (results, outcome) of the Spirit's work. But we're not seeing the gears turning -- we don't watch the machine running. It seems the Holy Spirit does not draw attention to himself. You might say he is the shy one, the humble one, the retiring one. TF Torrance calls the Spirit the "self-effacing" one. He does not  show us his own face -- The Spirit is not worried about that.

Has the Spirit been short-changed?

When we compare the names of the three divine Persons, we find a certain asymmetry. Father and Son are more concrete terms, and are obviously mutually referential. Thus, the Father-Son relationship is easier to think about using creaturely terms. The name of Holy Spirit is different -- it does not lend itself as easily to being described using creaturely terms. Father and Son sound much more familiar to us than Spirit. So, has the Holy Spirit been short-changed? Maybe not, though perhaps that's how it's supposed to be. Maybe being given that identifying name is not a mistake.

Maybe the name Holy Spirit is given to prevent us from trying to nail down the Spirit's identity in the same way we might the identity of the Father and the Son. Perhaps this “inequality” is meant to lead us to identify with and pay primary attention to the Father and Son. Perhaps by being named Holy Spirit, we are kept from merely reducing the Father and Son to creaturely definitions, thinking God is Father and Son in the way human beings are. After all, Scripture can refer to the whole Triune God as Spirit. Thus we understand that the name Holy Spirit reminds us of the transcendence and sovereignty of God and the fact that God cannot be reduced to an idol -- one made by human hands or minds.

Given the pattern and content of what is said in the Bible concerning the Holy Spirit, we should not expect to be able to have as much to say, or be able to say it in as much detail as we can say about the Father and the Son. Though we expect some disproportion, we understand it does not indicate any inequality of importance among the divine Persons. But why not correct this disproportion by giving greater individual emphasis to the Spirit? The answer is that giving the Spirit individual, independent emphasis would tend to place his ministry in isolation from the ministry of the Father and the Son. Why would that be a problem? Because, as we will see, the Holy Spirit does not have an independent ministry. 

The Spirit's ministry -- a summary

In summary, we can say that the Holy Spirit's ministry is to deliver to us all the benefits of the work of Christ -- the benefits Christ accomplished as the Son of the Father the one sent who was sent from the Father and returned to the Father so that we might know the Father. The work of the Spirit can’t be grasped apart from this work of the Father and the Son. Of course, if we are to understand and fully appreciate the work of the Father and the Son, we must understand the “behind the scenes” work of the Spirit. Thus to fully understand the Spirit's ministry, we must understand the coordinated ministry of all three divine Persons.

How does the Spirit work? Well, speaking a bit facetiously, it's not as though the Spirit says, “Jesus, you did that awesome work on the cross. You took your turn and accomplished that great task. I know everyone will praise you for all you’ve done. But now it’s my time to get to work -- I'm going to go off and take my turn to accomplish my own mission, and so make my own addition to what you’ve done.” That misguided thinking regards the triune God as dividing up his work and will into a division of labor, each relatively separate from the others. But that is not the case -- the will and working of God can’t be sliced up that way. Doing so splits God into parts and roles as creatures would. That misguided approach obscures the oneness of God in being and in action. A simple way to point to the unity of the working of God -- while allowing for distinction of contribution to the one whole work -- is to say this: what Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit does in us.

Now when we say that the Spirit takes all of what Christ has done for us in his humanity and delivers it to us, does that amount to little or nothing? No! From the Spirit’s point of view, that is everything! The Holy Spirit cannot accomplish his deepest work except on the basis of what Jesus accomplished for us in the name of the Father. They (Father, Son, Spirit) are one God -- they are all together Savior. The Father sends the Son. The Son sends the Spirit. And this was all done so we might have the life of the whole God over us, with us and in us.

As T.F. Torrance has expressed it, it seems that rebellious human beings can share in God’s kind of life, eternal life, only after it’s been worked out in such a way that it can fit us fallen creatures. That means that we first need to be reconciled to God and have our human nature regenerated, sanctified, made new. That’s what God accomplished in the incarnate Son who assumed our human nature. Jesus reconciled and transformed that nature, perfecting it so that the Holy Spirit could indwell us and make us share in Jesus’ sanctified humanity. The Spirit could not come and take up residence in us (“indwell” is the New Testament word) until the Son has completed his incarnate work in our fallen humanity.

No, the Holy Spirit is not being left out or diminished when we say that he takes what the Son has done and delivers and builds it into us. It would be senseless for the Spirit to say, “I need my own ministry apart from the Son.” They are one in being. They are one in act. They are one in mind, one in heart -- perfectly coordinated in their ministry to give us a share in God’s own eternal life. Each contributes in their own way.

Understand this: the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) is Savior. The Spirit's part is to lead in working out in us what Christ has accomplished for us in his humanity. That's a marvel. The Spirit does work in us in unique ways. This is why Jesus says it is an advantage that another Comforter come to us, to deliver to us and within us his life by the indwelling of the Spirit -- the Spirit who is the Spirit of Jesus, the One who has accomplished everything for us in his human nature.

Perhaps now we can see the problem if, wanting to give the Spirit equal time, we were to say, “Yes, Jesus did this, but the Spirit does that” and focus on "that," as if it was independent. But there is no independent mission. The three divine Persons work entirely together in an ordered and coordinated way. That insight ought to guide our thinking, our explanations, our preaching and teaching about the Holy Spirit. Describing the joint mission of the three Persons requires mutually referring to one another because the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son and the Spirit of the Father. That's who Holy Spirit is, and his ministry is to work out in us what the Son has done for us. That's an amazing, vital ministry!

Particular manifestations of the Spirit's work

There are particular manifestations of the working of the Spirit -- times and ways in which he is active, as it were at the leading edge of what the triune God is doing. The Spirit’s relationship to creation, post Christ’s incarnate ministry, is very dynamic and variable, not static or fixed or mechanical, but personal and relational. We see this at Pentecost. When the Spirit came down that day, no human agency initiated, conditioned or controlled it. Rather, Jesus had promised it in the name of the Father. That’s all that preconditioned that mighty event. And Jesus indicated that this even would be at the Father’s initiative, in accordance with the Father's timing. The church was simply to wait. That’s it.

But why at that particular time? Because Christ in his earthly form had finished his dimension of the saving work that God was accomplishing. So, of course, the Spirit is aware of Jesus’ promise. The Spirit is the one promised by the Son. So, yes, perfectly coordinated, the Spirit showed up on time. But notice what happened when the Spirit descended. The people started talking about the great and mighty things that God had done to accomplish their salvation in Jesus. They don’t just focus on the immediate amazing event they had just experienced! And they were now able to relate to each other in new amazing ways as the Spirit was now working in them in new ways. But notice they didn't just focus on the Spirit, or their experience of the Spirit. Their view was much larger, much more comprehensive of all that God had done, was doing and would yet do.

Pentecost is a primary example of a manifestation of the working of the Spirit that is dynamic, variable, not static, not fixed, not mechanical, but personal and relational. In Paul’s admonitions to not quench or grieve the Spirit, and to be continually filled with the Spirit, we see anticipation of a dynamic interaction with the Holy Spirit. Paul is not thinking of a situation in which the switch to the Holy Spirit is simply now in the “on” position, and then in the “off” position. Paul understands that the Holy Spirit is never a billion miles away -- never completely absent, having nothing to do with anything, but then is immediately near, causing everything to happen in an almost magical way. Paul knew it doesn't work like that. Instead, there is dynamic interaction between God’s people and the Spirit. The Spirit can apparently be present in a wide range of ways, or at least in a range of ways that have a wide variety of effects that we can notice.

Paul's admonition to be “continually filled with the Spirit” is a good way for us to understand those places where Paul talks about our relationship with the Spirit. The Spirit should not be approached as if he is a vending machine: put in the right coins, push the right buttons and get your soda or your candy bar or something else. No our relationship with the Spirit is not contractual or automatic; not simply a matter of being “on” or “off.” It's not a mechanical relationship. It is dynamic; like the wind blowing (John 3:8).

The gifts of the Spirit and the dynamic working of the Spirit

Let’s look at another aspect of the manifestation of the working of the Spirit in the church -- the gifts of the Spirit. These too involve dynamic interactions. So, Paul encourages churches to use these gifts in particular ways. They should let those with the gift of giving give with liberality; those who give aid, with zeal; those who do acts of mercy, with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:6-8). These gifts of the Spirit  can be used well or misused. They are received and then to be used well, rightly, faithfully. That is a dynamic process, not a magical chain of effects impersonally sparked. But it's easier to think of the working of the Spirit in mechanical terms, isn't it? Especially if we think of the Spirit as an impersonal power, energy, like electricity. Just on or off; here but not there; near or far. But God is not like that. I supposed we could say especially that the Spirit is not like that!

There is a dynamic to living in the Spirit. The Spirit is living and moving, acting as an intelligent agent; interacting with us in a deep and personal way. And it seems even acting in many ways of which we aren’t even aware. Often, by the time we’ve become aware of it, the Spirit’s probably already moved on to another thing. Yes, we’re going recognize the activity and say, “Yes! the Spirit was working, we were blessed” and rejoice in that. However, the Spirit may have already moved on to another “project” by the time we acknowledge it. The Spirit is active and moving!

Avoid wrong understandings of the Spirit's working

Because there is a variability, a dynamic ebb and flow to the activity and manifestation and interaction of the Spirit with humanity (both the Church and the world) we must avoid thinking of the Spirit as an impersonal force. We must also not think of him as a genie where we approach the Spirit thinking, “If I’m going to be blessed by the Spirit, I’ll have to do things just right. I’m going to have to rub the lamp exactly three times and say just the right words and then the power of the spirit-genie will work for me or those I love.” But note that his is a very impersonal, mechanical approach to the Spirit. One that is just as misguided is the idea that we must take the initiative or fulfill certain preconditions to please, or to obligate or cajole the Holy Spirit to act. We can think the working of the Spirit is unlocked (or not) by us. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to find teaching like this, suggesting we act towards the Holy Spirit as if “it” was a magical power much like a genie. And what we have to do to get the Spirit to work is fulfill certain conditions just exactly right -- then (like magic!) the Spirit is somehow set free (or is obligated!) to accomplish his ministry!

Of course those special techniques promoted by some for activating the Spirit don’t usually involve rubbing a lamp just the right number of times. However, other conditions are laid out, some sequence of events under our control are specified in order to “prime the pump” or “release” the Spirit to work in particular ways. And if the Spirit doesn’t show up, the explanation will be: “You didn’t get things quite right. You weren’t sincere enough. You didn’t have enough faith. You weren’t humble enough. You were stuck in your head and thinking too much. You didn’t “let go” enough to “let God.”

In essence, such explanations say the spirit-genie is not going to come out because you said “abricadabro,” not “abracadabra.” Or you said it with the wrong accent! Or …, or …, or …. Any number of conditions can be specified. And each particular ministry will likely specialize on describing and prescribing exactly which set of conditions are called for as compared to how another ministry is mistaken in the set of conditions it thinks are required. And on the basis of their understanding each ministry will prescribe the real, true, and proper set of conditions that must be met, and spell out how we can then meet those certain conditions called for.

Notice how these approaches put us in charge and make the Holy Spirit dependent upon us, with the Spirit having little say himself when put under just the right circumstances. Such approaches make our relationship with the Spirit legal, contractual, mechanical, conditional -- like a genie or mechanical power, the Spirit has no more choice in the situation than electricity does when you plug your iPhone in or turn on the lights. It is a cause-effect relationship from us to the Spirit. Only when the conditions are just right can the Holy Spirit do its work. And when they are set right, apparently "It" (the Spirit viewed impersonally) can’t decide “No, I’m not going to charge your iPhone!”

Let's avoid thinking about and approaching the Holy Spirit in ways that are impersonal, mechanistic, superstitious and magical. Rather let us see and relate to the Spirit for who he truly is -- one of the three divine Persons whose work is fully coordinated with that of the Father and the Son.