The Apostles’ Creed says it simply and succinctly, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The Nicene Creed, identifies the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the prophets.” Pentecost is an appropriate time to reflect on what we believe and confess about the one whom Abraham Kuyper once observed is the “neglected” third person of the Trinity. One cannot begin to exhaust what can be said about the work of the Spirit, but in any discussion three major themes should emerge. In reading the Scriptures on this subject, one notices first of all the omnipresence of the Spirit’s work. The Scripture continually testifies of the Spirit’s presence at every point in the history of salvation. Secondly, the core of the Spirit’s work is to bear witness to Christ. Thirdly, the Spirit is a Comforter. He brings to fruition a knowledge of Christ and comforts the elect with the assurance of belonging in life and in death to a faithful Savior.
THE OMNIPRESENT SPIRIT
The word “spirit” in both Hebrew and Greek can be translated as “breath on wind.” In the very opening verse of Scripture we read that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:2). Concerning the creation of man we read that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Gen: 2:7). This is recounted in Job 33:4: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” God’s Spirit is that which gives life. It is that which constitutes us as image-bearers of God with personalities, with a sense of the divine, so that we are able to acknowledge and worship our creator.
But God’s Spirit was not only present at creation; it continues throughout history. Its omnipresence is reflected in the pointed question of the Psalmist: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7). Nehemiah recalling the wonders of God in leading His people through the wilderness notes: “Thou gavest Thy good Spirit to instruct them, and didst not withhold Thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst” (Neh. 9:20). Without water and manna Israel would have starved physically; without the presence of the Spirit to instruct them they would have starved spiritually.
In the gospels we see the Spirit active at every point in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was present at Christ’s conception. The angel of the Lord tells Joseph that he need not fear to take Mary as his wife “for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). It was present at the beginning of His ministry when the Spirit of God descended on Him like a dove after His baptism; He was led up by that same Spirit “into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil” (Matthew 4:1). When the Lord was first rejected in His home town of Nazareth, while speaking in the synagogue, He quotes from the prophesy ofIsaiah and announces: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” At the end of His earthly ministry, after announcing to His disciples His impending departure, Christ promised to send another Counselor “even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). Indeed, every time a sinner comes with joy and trembling to the foot of the cross in repentance and faith we see evidence of the work of the Spirit. What Christian cannot testify to the presence and power of the Spirit? The apostle Paul reminds us of that in Ephesians when he says that in Christ those who believe are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit and that we who were dead in trespasses and sins through the power of that Spirit are made alive (Ephesians 1 and 2). Without the work of the Spirit we could not be regenerate.
THE HOLY SPIRIT AS WITNESS
Shortly before His death on the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ promised the disciples that He would pray the Father “and He will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16, 17). That Counselor “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). That Counselor also will bear witness to Christ (John 15:26). It is the Counselor that reminds us of Christ, that teaches us of Christ and that directs us to Christ. Unlike the incarnate Christ, who was risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, that Counselor remains with us and will remain with us forever.
The implications of the work of the Spirit as a witness to Christ are indeed far reaching. It is through the work of the Spirit that we are able to identify error, and alien spirits and false prophets may be tested. In I John 4 we read: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.” At the root of every heretical movement lies this question, “What do you believe, what do you confess about the Lord Jesus Christ?”
The Spirit not only bears witness to Christ, but confirms our identity with Him. This confirmation can be seen in the fact that we believe in Christ, we love one another, and we keep His commandments and thus abide in Him. But this is reciprocal. Not only do we abide in Him, but He in us. And we know that He abides in us “by the Spirit which He has given us” (I John 3:24).
The work of the Spirit also points to the freedom and the renewal that is ours in Christ. The apostle Paul notes that the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (II Cor. 3:17). This is a freedom that becomes increasingly evident in the Christian life. Through the work of the Spirit we are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another. It will become totally apparent when we shall behold the glory of the Lord in His presence. Karl Barth once used the illustration that we are like birds in a cage flapping our wings against the side of the cage until we attain that glorious freedom that is ours in Christ. It is through the work of the Spirit that we comprehend this freedom.
The Holy Spirit is also the “Spirit of Truth.” It bears witness to the Word. In fact, the Spirit should never be divorced from the Scriptures. Sometimes we speak, rather glibly, about the leading of the Spirit as if we somehow have a direct pipeline to God separate and distinct from His Word. What is important is not what the Scriptures say, but what we think they say. Thus the church of Rome can give the same weight of inspired authority to ecclesiastical tradition as it gives to the Scriptures. This same perspective can be seen in some who think that a majority vote in an ecclesiastical assembly reflects the leading of the Spirit despite what the Scriptures may in fact say. Obviously there are issues which the Bible does not address. In such situations it is right and proper to pray for the Spirit’s leading. But when the Scripture speaks clearly to an issue and a church chooses to ignore the clear teaching of Scripture, it cannot claim to be led by the Spirit. Every spirit must be tested by the Word; that is the Spirit’s voice.
This, of course, impacts worship. There are many siren songs calling us and our children to new forms and new styles of worship which ostensibly are more “meaningful.” Some churches, in an effort to accommodate this thinking, have “alternative” worship services offering either a “traditional” or a “contemporary” format. The presupposition, of course, is that worship should be designed to please the subject rather than the object, to please the one worshiping rather than the God who commands our adoration. When we confess that we believe in the “holy catholic church,” we confess that we believe “the Son of God by his Spirit and Word … gathers, protects and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 21). A local congregation is a visible expression of that spiritual reality. At the very least, worship rightly rendered ought to reflect a common consensus as to what is pleasing to God. This community united in true faith ought to in its worship, worship in Spirit and in truth, united around the truth of God’s Word. It ought to reflect the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Instead of fostering, we fragment community in creating optional worship “experiences.” But we fail to ask the question, “Does this help or hinder the work of the Spirit?”
A children’s catechism based on the shorter Westminster asks the question, “What is prayer?” The answer is: “Prayer is asking God for everything He has promised us in His Word.” Prayer first of all is related to God’s Word. To separate prayer from God’s Word reduces it to a meaningless exercise in self-indulgence. Prayer is related to the Word which is an evidence of the Spirit’s work. The Word is God-breathed; it is inspired of God. However, prayer related to the Word only becomes effectual through the intercessory power of the Spirit. Our inarticulate, incoherent, sometimes rambling prayers are purified and made presentable through the work of the Spirit. We know the Spirit intercedes for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). Without the Spirit’s work we could not pray.
THE SPIRIT AS COMFORTER
In John 14, shortly before He would walk the last mile to the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ tells His disciples of the coming of the Spirit. He promises that He will send a “paraclete,” a Counselor, or a Comforter. This Counselor “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). This text is followed with a wonderful promise of the Lord’s peace, the Lord’s shalom. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you” (v. 27).
The word used for the Spirit in John’s gospel has many nuances in related forms in other contexts. It can mean to summon, to invite, to pray, to comfort, to be an advocate, or to be a helper. All of these nuances are encompassed in the concept of the Spirit as a Counselor or Comforter. When the Spirit was poured out on the church on Pentecost, it was poured out on a church in disarray. Christ had been crucified, risen, had appeared to the disciples and other followers, and had ascended into heaven. His disciples were filled with questions. There was no manual giving them instructions as to what to do. They did not know what was expected of them. Earlier they had been ready to return to their nets and take up fishing, the occupation with which they were most familiar. After Christ’s ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and met with the company of the brethren that in total comprised a small band of about a hundred and twenty people. They prayed, they cast lots to pick a successor to Judas, but they had no direction for the future. It was not until the day of Pentecost and that huge in-gathering of souls, that the New Testament church began to take shape so that those who were converted “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The marks of the church were beginning to be made evident. It was God who set the agenda and the direction for His church when the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost.
But something else took place, because those who received that out-poured Spirit in true faith experienced the transforming power of Christ. Their outlook on life was radically changed. By the power of the Spirit, they believed the Word of the apostles. The covenant promises made to Abraham were fulfilled in Christ. They, as well as others who were far off, would share in Christ and all His blessings. But the greatest blessing was the comfort of knowing in life and in death that we may belong to our faithful Savior. It is that unsurpassing comfort we could not possibly possess without Pentecost, without the glorious work of the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Blauw is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of South Holland, IL.