A Catechism on the Holy Spirit (2) The Work of the Holy Spirit Upon Jesus Christ

Because the Heidelberg Catechism describes the connection of the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ as being “his [Christ’s] Holy Spirit” (Q&A 1), we would expect there to be an intimate relationship between these two persons of the Godhead in their works in the Catechism. Of course we see this in Jesus’ own words when He spoke of sending His disciples “another Helper” in the Holy Spirit after His ascension (John 14:16). Jesus also spoke of the Father sending the Spirit “in my name” to “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The relationship between Son and Spirit is most succinctly expressed in Jesus’ words: “he will bear witness about me . . . he will glorify me” (John 15:26, 16:14).

In the previous article on the subject of the Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism, we saw that far from being a minute part of the Catechism’s explanation of the Christian faith, the Holy Spirit is a part of the overall structure and contents of the Catechism.1 In terms of the substance of the Catechism, the Holy Spirit is comprehensively described in relation to His work upon the Lord Jesus Christ. To describe the work of the Lord Jesus Christ from birth to current ministry from heaven is to describe the hidden work of the Holy Spirit. The anointed, Christ, is intimately united to the anointing, the Holy Spirit.

In speaking of Jesus Christ in such pneumatological terms, the Heidelberg Catechism evidences the influence of John Calvin, as was mentioned in the previous article. One author has described John Calvin’s view of this union between Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in this way: “Christ works through the spirit [sic] and the Holy Spirit works for Christ.”2 Another has said of this fascinating aspect of Calvin’s doctrines of Christ and Holy Spirit: “Calvin will not speak of the Spirit apart from Christ any more than he will speak of Christ without the Spirit.”3

This Spirit-filled doctrine is evident throughout the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the work of our Lord, as we will see below.


Question and answer 35 explains the article in the Apostles’ Creed that our Lord was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” saying,

That the eternal Son of God, who is and continues true and eternal God, took upon him the very nature of man, of the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, so that he might be the true seed of David, like unto his brethren in all things, sin excepted. (emphasis added)4

The Holy Spirit was essential in bringing the Son of God from eternity into our sin-torn world as a man, as the efficient cause of the incarnation.5 By the Spirit’s work, the eternal Son of God derived His humanity from His mother Mary alone.6 Yet, if the Spirit’s work was effectual to make the Son truly human, “the seed of David” and “like unto his brethren in all things” (Heb. 2:17), why did He not have a sin nature like all His brethren and like David? This is where the powerful operation of God the Holy Spirit was most essential in the conception and birth of our Lord, protecting the Son from the contagion of original sin.7 This means that when we confess the Creed, which simply echoes the words of Scripture in saying our Lord “was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (cf. Luke 1:35), we confess that His conception was not by the ordinary means of man.


The work of the Spirit upon the Lord did not end at the incarnation, though. In question and answer 31, the Heidelberg speaks again of the meaning of a part of the Apostles’ Creed, this time His title, “Christ.” The answer exposits its meaning, saying, “Because he is ordained of God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Ghost, to be our chief Prophet . . . our only High Priest . . . and our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit.” Jesus’ ministry was a result of all the persons of the Trinity, but especially the Holy Spirit who was the anointing. The main author of the Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus, references with approval the patristic father Irenaeus of Lyons, who described God the Father as the anointer, Jesus Christ as the anointed, and the Holy Spirit as the anointing.8

In biblical terms, our Catechism parrots Scripture, which says that the Lord was anointed “with the oil of gladness” beyond his companions (Ps. 45:7), meaning that He has the “fullness of the Holy Spirit,”9 by which He could give the Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34). This is why Ursinus could express the Spirit’s anointing Christ in no more superlative way than to say, “He alone received all the gifts of the Spirit in the highest number and degree.”10


In using the typically Reformed rubric of prophet, priest, and king for Jesus’ office as the Messiah of Israel, our Catechism roots each of these offices and functions in the work of the Spirit upon the Christ. As our “chief Prophet and Teacher,” Jesus Christ writes His teaching upon our hearts11 not merely by declaring outwardly the Word to us but by the efficacious work of the Spirit.12 As our interceding priest, the Messiah applies “the one sacrifice of his body” for our benefit by His Spirit.13 And as “our eternal King,” our Lord Christ has a kingdom of people that were created by the Spirit, and who empowers the Christ to exercise this rule by the means of the Word, sacraments, and discipline. The purpose of His kingly office is to incline our hearts to do His will by the power of the Spirit and to furnish us with all the Spirit-given weapons necessary to fight our enemies.14


Moving through the life and ministry of our Lord, the next reference to the person and work of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus Christ is in relation to His ascension into heaven, at the conclusion of His earthly work. This is done in questions and answers 47 and 49, which are a positive response to the gnesio (“true” as opposed to the followers of Philip Melanchthon) Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquitous (omnipresent) humanity of our Lord.15 Question and answer 47 follows up on the confession in the Creed that Jesus has ascended, teaching us that Jesus Christ is not now on earth according to His humanity, as the Lutherans argued:

Is not, then, Christ with us even unto the end of the world, as he has promised?

Christ is true Man and true God: according to his human nature, he is now not upon earth; but according to his Godhead, majesty, grace, and Spirit, he is at no time absent from us. (emphasis added)

Here the Catechism echoes our Lord’s Upper Room Discourse, in which He promised His disciples that He would not leave them as orphans (John 14:18), but that He would be with them by means of the other Helper—the Holy Spirit (John 14:16). This ironic statement of Christ’s absence yet presence was stated well by the other man associated with writing the Heidelberg Catechism, Caspar Olevianus, who said, “Therefore we believe both in Christ seated at the right hand of God, and we believe him to be nearer to us in power, to reign in us, than he should be with his body on the earth.”16 Olevianus scholar, R. Scott Clark, of Westminster Seminary California, has recently published his doctoral thesis in which he summarizes this Christological and pneumatological aspect of Olevianus’s theology, saying, “The ascension and outpouring of the Spirit brings Christ to the elect in a way not hitherto possible.”17 The “real presence” of Jesus is known, then, in and through the Holy Spirit.

Along with this new aspect of Christ’s presence with His people, the benefits of His ascension are explained in question and answer 49: What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?

First, that he is our Advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven. Secondly, that we have our flesh in heaven, as a sure pledge that he, as the Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Thirdly, that he sends us his Spirit, as an earnest, by whose power we seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God, and not things on the earth. (emphasis added)

The Holy Spirit is the “earnest,” that is, the down payment (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:14) of our eternal inheritance. The Catechism says along with Paul that we already have now in principle eternal life, which we will one day experience in perfection. It then connects this already and not yet aspect of Paul’s theology to our sanctification in this life. The experience now of the Holy Spirit’s work of assuring us of eternal life is connected with Paul’s imperative to seek the things of eternity now. Our heavenly life then is the impetus behind living a heavenly life now. This seeking of the things of heaven while we live on earth happens “by [the Spirit’s] power.”


Finally, the Catechism explains the work of the Spirit upon the Lord Jesus Christ by intimately linking our Lord’s ascension to the right hand of the Father and His present session there. Because our Lord is glorified, we profit:

What benefit do we receive from this glory of our Head, Christ?

First, that by his Holy Spirit he sheds forth heavenly gifts in us, his members; then, that by his power he defends and preserves us against all enemies. (Q&A 51; emphasis added)

We notice here that it is the work of Christ from heaven that brings the Holy Spirit to us. What this means is that the work of Jesus in bestowing upon us His gifts and graces is no longer executed by touching His disciples or speaking to them face to face, as in His earthly ministry, but by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely what we sing when we use the words of Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through him who with us sideth. (emphasis added)

What this means for us in an age of Pentecostalism is precisely what Jesus said: the Spirit glorifies Jesus. In speaking of “spiritual gifts” as coming from the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, we ought to be led to their heavenly source, our Lord Jesus Christ. This is no mere point to be made in Reformed-Pentecostal squabbles but a biblical point. After all, on the day of Pentecost, our Lord is pictured in Peter’s sermon as exalted at the right hand of God and pouring out from an ancient water pitcher the Spirit upon the church (Acts 2:33). This present work of the ascended Christ in His heavenly session is further explained in question and answer 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which exposits the meaning of the phrase in the Creed, “I believe a holy catholic church”:

That out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by his Spirit and Word, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself unto everlasting life, a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of the same. (emphasis added)

In one of its few references to election,18 the Catechism here speaks of the means whereby Christ gathers the elect: Spirit and Word in inseparable connection. Contrary to Eugene Heideman’s assertion,19 that the Catechism’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit is only a bare outline and insufficient because it supposedly does not address missions, here is where the Catechism evidences that Calvinistic enticement for more fervent prayer for the lost, more passionate and powerful preaching of the gospel, and holy Christian living as the salt and light of the world. We are called to this precisely because we know that Jesus Christ is gathering a church from all peoples and places through His Spirit and Word. And He enlists us as secondary means of the Spirit and of the Word! Therefore, when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” we are earnestly praying to our Lord that He would “so govern us by thy Word and Spirit that we may submit ourselves unto thee always more and more” (Q&A 123). One of the things we are seeking to submit to under the lordship of Christ is to be enlisted in His Spirit-created, Spirit-empowered army of witnesses in a dark and dying world.


In contrast, then, to so much individualistic piety in our day that invokes the person and work of the Spirit, the Heidelberg Catechism corrects this excess of the immanent. Our Reformed heritage teaches us to emphasize the Holy Spirit’s work upon Him who was anointed, our Lord Jesus Christ. In doing so, we will bring more glory and honor not only to Jesus but also to the Spirit, who desires nothing more than to shine the spotlight upon our Lord: He will glorify me (John 16:14).              1. Daniel R. Hyde, “The Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 17 (2006): 211–37). 2. Jelle Faber, “The Saving Work of the Holy Spirit in Calvin,” in Calvin and the Holy Spirit, ed. Peter De Klerk, Sixth Colloquium on Calvin and Calvin Studies (Grand Rapids: Calvin Studies Society, 1989), 3. 3. Benjamin Milner, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (Leiden: Brill, 1970), 130. 4. All references to the Heidelberg Catechism are from The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff (1931; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 3:307–55. 5. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (1852; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1985), 205. 6. Ursinus, Commentary, 206. 7. Caspar Olevianus, A Firm Foundation, trans. and ed. Lyle D. Bierma, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 49; Ursinus, Commentary, 206. 8. Ursinus, Commentary, 172. 9. Olevianus, A Firm Foundation, 36; cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 3.1.2. 10. Ursinus, Commentary, 170. 11. Olevianus, A Firm Foundation, 43–44. 12. Ursinus, Commentary, 173. 13. Ursinus, Commentary, 173. 14. Ursinus, Commentary, 176. 15. Ursinus, Commentary, 247; Lyle D. Bierma, “The Sources and Theological Orientation of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Lyle D. Bierma, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 79–80. 16. Cited and translated in R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005), 111–12. 17. Clark, Caspar Olevian, 112. 18. Cf. Bierma, “Sources and Theological Orientation,” 94–96. 19. Eugene P. Heideman, “God the Holy Spirit,” in Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: A Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Donald J. Bruggink (New York: The Half Moon Press, 1963), 112; cited by Daniel R Hyde, “A Catechism on the Holy Spirit (1),” Outlook (March-April 2015), 13–14.

Rev. Daniel Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, CA.