The Discreet Holy Spirit

One of the benefits of “book-by-book expository preaching” is that the preacher-teacher is more likely to present God’s balance of truth. But it is not merely a matter of teaching everything—it is also a matter of emphasis. Preaching book by book puts the emphasis upon what God’s Word emphasizes! This is especially true when the point of the text is the point of the sermon.

But the Scriptures are not evenly distributed by topic. This is particularly true when it comes to the Holy Spirit. Although the Holy Spirit is discussed in many Scriptures, He is absent from many more. This might seem odd because the Holy Spirit Himself has inspired all Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21).

In light of this seeming disparity, I would like to contemplate two issues about the Holy Spirit: His “behind the scenes” influence (His preferred discretion) and his role as the “Divine Finisher.” These issues have been discussed since the early centuries of Christianity, but do not receive much air time today.

The Spirit Behind the Scenes: Discretion

When I preached through the Book of Colossians last year, I noted that the Holy Spirit was only mentioned once within the entire book of Colossians. What is said to be the result of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 5:18-21 is said to be the result of the Word of Christ in Colossians 3:16-17. Here, Paul felt no obligation to give the Spirit credit for the Spirit’s work behind the scenes, yet elsewhere he instructs us that it is, in fact, the Spirit who is at work. We see this phenomenon throughout the Word.

God is said to have parted the waters of the Red Sea (Joshua 4:23), yet Isaiah implies that the Holy Spirit was involved: “Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses … ?” (Isa. 63:11-12).

Psalm 43:3 reads, “Send out your light and your truth, let them lead me.” Yet in Psalm 143:10, David writes, “Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground.” We could postulate that God sends “light and truth” via the leading of the Spirit.

In Psalm 16:7, David writes, “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel, in the night also my heart instructs me.” Here David characterizes the counsel he receives as being from the Lord, but—at the same time—coming from within his heart. This is a good description of our perception when the Holy Spirit leads us. Although this direction comes from God (particularly God the Spirit), we often sense this leading as a conviction or direction impressed upon our hearts. At least, that is how many of us understand the Spirit’s leading.

Jesus and the Holy Spirit

Jesus spoke about the fact that the Holy Spirit would shine the spotlight upon Jesus, not himself. In John 16:13-14 we read:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The persons of the Godhead seek to bring glory to one another. Jesus made it clear that all are to revere the Holy Spirit when He stated, “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32).

Jesus’ statement may even be an amplification of the command not to take God’s Name in vain (Exod. 20:7). Because the Spirit is discreet does not mean He is somehow lesser than the other persons of the Godhead. He is the only person of the Trinity honored in this way!

In the context of Matthew 12:32, unbelieving Jewish leaders were characterizing Jesus’ miracles—works empowered by the Holy Spirit—as being the doings of Satan. Such an attribution is the blasphemy against the Spirit.

We believe that all of Jesus’ miracles were worked with the Father’s permission and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, only rarely, do we see Jesus calling attention to the Spirit.

My way to describe this is to say that the Holy Spirit seems to prefer to be discreet. Why this is so remains a mystery, but perhaps the answer lies in personality. The One God is three persons, each of which fully possesses all the attributes of deity. Yet the persons of the Godhead are three distinct persons—three distinct personalities. Whether what appears to be personality differences are innate—or simply the result of the roles each carries out in the plan of redemption—is not something we can know.

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit received no attention or credit for His doings. On Pentecost, for example, the power of the Holy Spirit was manifest, and He was glorified. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is the one who sanctifies us and He is given quite a bit of attention in throughout Romans 8.

Even in salvation, the Holy Spirit is only partly in the limelight. We are held responsible to be born again, yet it is the Spirit who works invisibly within to make this happen (Acts 2:40, John 3:1-16). God expects us to understand his Word (Deut. 30:11-14), yet we cannot unless the Spirit opens our eyes (2 Cor. 3:13-18).

Just because the Holy Spirit is not always mentioned as part of a certain process or ministry does not mean He is not the active One behind it. He chooses to be the discreet member of the Trinity.

The Holy Spirit as Finisher

The creation account in Genesis 1 mentions—in a way—the three persons of the Trinity. God (the Father) creates the universe through speaking the Word (the Son), and the Holy Spirit hovers (1:2). The hovering Holy Spirit seems to somehow finish the initial work of creation.

This same pattern is seen in the plan of salvation. The Father sends the Son to atone for sins. After His resurrection and 40 day “proof period,” the Son ascends back to the Father. Ten days later, the Holy Spirit descends on Pentecost to finish what has been started, and the church Jesus founded becomes one empowered body (1 Cor. 12:13).

The Spirit enables us to witness (Acts 1:8) to finish the Kingdom work Jesus began. There are many references to what the Holy Spirit does for us—things like gifting, leading, strengthening, comforting, enlightening, guiding, etc. He finishes the work of Christian growth started at conversion through sanctifying us—helping us become more holy. Romans 15:16 reveals that “the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

The New Testament authors do not always give credit specifically to the Holy Spirit, but He is often understood as the active power behind God’s work in us. Thus, when Paul writes in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” we know—from other passages—that the One working is “God the Spirit.” As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Applications

1. Because the writers of Scripture recognized but did not feel obligated to constantly mention the Spirit as the power behind the Christian life—neither must we. On the other hand, at times they did point out this fact—so should we.

2. Many of the works of the Holy Spirit are generically attributed to God, not usually specifying the person of the Godhead involved. We should feel comfortable doing the same thing.

3. The mention of the Holy Spirit is concentrated within certain portions of Scripture. For example, there are over 110 references to the “Holy Spirit” (not including synonyms like “Spirit” or “Comforter) in the Bible (ESV). More than 41 of the 110 are found in the book of Acts. Thus, as I preach, you can expect an “imbalance” in addressing the Holy Spirit simply because the Scriptures are imbalanced in that sense.

4. The Spirit aims to glorify the Son, as noted above. We normally think of praying in the Spirit, not to the Spirit (Eph. 6:18). This does not mean it is wrong to worship the Spirit. In the epistles, praying and other acts of worship are typically directed to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, but this does not mean it is wrong to pray to or worship the Holy Spirit—it simply is not the emphasis of Scripture. We see something similar in regards to praying to the ascended Jesus, with only one clear precedent for doing so (Acts 7:59).

5. The Holy Spirit’s name is to be revered! We should never use the leading of the Spirit as a way to shift blame or responsibility from ourselves. Better to say, for example, “I think I need to break up with you because you are not the right one for me” rather than, “The Holy Spirit [or God] has led me to break up with you.” Although such a break up might be God’s will, we don’t want to use the Holy Spirit as a scapegoat.

The Holy Spirit is constantly and discreetly active in your life if you are a believer. He dwells within you. Make your resident guest comfortable!

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for the reminder! Because He operates so quietly most of the time, it's easy to forget that He is present and is God.

Two points I'll debate, though.

First, I get a little uneasy with speaking of the persons of the Trinity as having unique "personalities." There are so many ways to mess up the doctrine of the Trinity, and it seems like whenever we speculate beyond what is written, we begin to undermine either the "tri" part or the "une" part of "Trinue." In this case, distinct "personalities" as we think of that word, seems to me to threaten the unity of the Three Who Are One.

Second, 

God expects us to understand his Word (Deut. 30:11-14), yet we cannot unless the Spirit opens our eyes (2 Cor. 3:13-18).

The point of 2Cor3.13-18 seems to be the eventual removing of Israel's blindness, as well as our own transformation by the Spirit. As believers, we already have our eyes opened-- 1 Cor. 2:14-16. We can still overlook things and misunderstand, etc., so Ps. 119:18 is still an appropriate prayer and attitude, but it's not really a problem of basic ability to understand... isn't it more like an ability we possess but tend to neglect, or use poorly?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

First, I get a little uneasy with speaking of the persons of the Trinity as having unique "personalities." There are so many ways to mess up the doctrine of the Trinity, and it seems like whenever we speculate beyond what is written, we begin to undermine either the "tri" part or the "une" part of "Trinue." In this case, distinct "personalities" as we think of that word, seems to me to threaten the unity of the Three Who Are One.

I have asked years ago for someone to explain to me the difference between Three Persons and Three Personalities. I have had no takers thus far, but would love to have one or more.  God is one being, but He has Three Personas.  To my way of thinking, this implies Three Persons and Three Personalities.  Since He is one being, I cannot see the difference between God in Three Persons and God in Three Personalities.  I am eager for someone to show how these two are not equivalent.  In the case of humans, we have different personalities, but we are different beings. 

I also would suggest that Three Personalities makes it easier to properly weight the Unity of God.  In many minds, three Persons suggests three Beings.  Although unhealthy, we can conceive of one human with multiple personalities.  Since God is not a Body-limited creature, to my way of thinking, personality and person are equivalent. Also, God is one Spirit (John 4:24 implies this), of which the Holy Spirit is one Persona.  Please tell me why I am wrong!

If God is Three Persons with the same attributes of deity, does that mean that those Three Persons have the same Personality?  Is there no sense -- other than function -- in which the Father differs from the Son or the Spirit?  In my article, I suggest we cannot know.  I am, however, suggesting the possibility.

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron wrote: 

Second, 

God expects us to understand his Word (Deut. 30:11-14), yet we cannot unless the Spirit opens our eyes (2 Cor. 3:13-18).

The point of 2Cor3.13-18 seems to be the eventual removing of Israel's blindness, as well as our own transformation by the Spirit. As believers, we already have our eyes opened-- 1 Cor. 2:14-16. We can still overlook things and misunderstand, etc., so Ps. 119:18 is still an appropriate prayer and attitude, but it's not really a problem of basic ability to understand... isn't it more like an ability we possess but tend to neglect, or use poorly?

Maybe my proof text wasn't the best, and you have a right to debate it as the defense for my point. But I know from your comments and writings that you do agree with the point itself (perspicuity), even if the proof text I used was only proving it along the fringes. There are many instances when Jesus faulted the Pharisees or disciples for NOT understanding the Scriptures.  Wayne Grudem writes of perspicuity:

In a day when it is common for people to tell us how hard it is to interpret Scripture rightly, we would do well to remember that not once in the Gospels do we ever hear Jesus saying anything like this: “I see how your problem arose—the Scriptures are not very clear on that subject.” Instead, whether he is speaking to scholars or untrained common people, his responses always assume that the blame for misunderstanding any teaching of Scripture is not to be placed on the Scriptures themselves, but on those who misunderstand or fail to accept what is written. Again and again he answers questions with statements like, “Have you not read . . .” (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:14; 22:31), “Have you never read in the scriptures . . .” (Matt. 21:42), or even, “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29; cf. Matt. 9:13; 12:7; 15:3; 21:13; John 3:10; et al.).  (Systematic Theology, p. 106).

My point is this: God holds us all (regenerate or not) responsible to understand, yet, we know, unless the Spirit opens our eyes, we really can understand only so much.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Don't have a lot to say except would like to read a lot more on the topic.  One interesting thing to my wife and I is that here we have this Counselor in our hearts, and for whatever reason there are a lot of times where we don't see a whole lot of discernment around us.  Sometimes it would seem it's because we do not imbibe the Word that the Spirit has authored, of course, but.....there are a lot of interesting questions about this that I'm not quite sure I'm even able to ask.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Anne Sokol's picture

i was just teaching a lesson about how the Spirit is our comforter when we worry-- he can unite faith with God's truth inside of us.

Great article!!!

J. Baillet's picture

Good discussion of the Holy Spirit. I agree that we should tread lightly when contemplating the inner workings of the Trinity. Nevertheless, each person within the Godhead must have certain properties unique to that person or else we are left with some form of Modalism or Unitarianism. I have found Calvin informative on the point.

“[T]here is a Trinity of persons in one Divine essence. … By person, then, I mean a subsistence in the Divine essence, -- a subsistence which, while related to the other two, is distinguished from them by incommunicable properties. By subsistence we wish something else to be understood than essence. For if the Word were God simply, and had not some property peculiar to himself, John could not have said correctly that he had always been with God. When he adds immediately after, that the Word was God, he calls us back to the one essence. But because he could not be with God without dwelling in the Father, hence arises that subsistence, which, though connected with the essence by an indissoluble tie, being incapable of separation, yet has a special mark by which it is distinguished from it. Now, I say that each of the three subsistences while related to the others, is distinguished by its own properties. Here relation is distinctly expressed, because, when God is mentioned simply and indefinitely, the name belongs not less to the Son and Spirit than to the Father. But whenever the Father is compared with the Son, the peculiar property of each distinguishes the one from the other. Again, whatever is proper to each I affirm to be incommunicable, because nothing can apply or be transferred to the Son which is attributed to the Father as a mark of distinction. I have no objections to adopt the definition of Tertullian, provided it is properly understood, ‘that there is in God a certain arrangement or economy, which makes no change on the unity of essence.’ – Tertull. Lib. contra Praxeam.” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, Associated Publishers and Authors Inc.: Grand Rapids, Michigan, Book One, Chapter XIII, 5 & 6).

JSB

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