The Spiritual Gifts: Understanding the Spirit (Part 1)

Before we get too deep into the subject of the Spiritual Gifts it is worthwhile to take time reflecting on the one who gives such gifts. Understanding the gifts of the Spirit requires us to know something about the Spirit himself. In fact, part of the reason there is so much confusion over the gifts, is because we do not always think rightly about the person, nature, and work of the Spirit.

If we don’t understand something of the Spirit and of the way He works then we will not rightly know what to expect of life in the Spirit. The contemporary church tends to have a “truncated view of the Spirit,” says Gordon Fee. He writes:

[The early believers’] success also lay with their experienced life of the Spirit who made the work of Christ an effective reality in their lives, thus making them a radical alternative within their culture. It often seems otherwise with us.  If we have (rightly) kept our central focus on Christ Jesus, we are less sure about the Holy Spirit. Despite the affirmations in our creeds and hymns and the lip service paid to the Spirit in our occasional conversations, the Spirit has been largely marginalized both in the halls of learning and in the life of the church as a community of faith. (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, XIV).

The New Testament presents the Holy Spirit as an “experienced and empowering reality” (XV), which made all the difference in the life of the believer and the corporate work of the church. If we hope to understand what we should expect from the Spirit today we must begin with the actual person and work of the Spirit as recorded in Scripture. So, in the next few posts we will attempt to summarize something of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. First, we will explore the nature of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is God

Of all the things that we could and should say about the Holy Spirit, we must say begin by saying that He is God. “When we talk about the Spirit, we talk about God – full stop – for that is what the Spirit is: God” (Christopher Holmes, The Holy Spirit, 68). The Scriptures makes this clear in a number of cases.

The Bible makes the case for the Spirit’s divinity through “divine recognition and identification,” to borrow Williams’ terms (Renewal Theology, 148). The Holy Spirit is identified as God when Ananias and Sapphira are said to have “lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3), and thus to have “lied…to God” (v. 4). Similarly in Acts 21:11 the prophet Agabus adopts the familiar refrain “Thus says the Lord,” substituting Lord for the distinct person of the Holy Spirit. And Paul himself, when quoting the Lord in Isaiah writes, “The Holy Spirit was right in saying…” (Acts 28:25). Likewise, Jesus asserts that it is “by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons” (Matt. 12:28), and when the Pharisees doubted this, He went on to assert that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (v. 31-32). Jesus understood, then, the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Add to this weight the numerous Biblical references relating the Spirit to God, Christ, and the Lord (i.e. “The Spirit of God,” “The Spirit of Christ,” “The Spirit of the Lord,” or “God’s Holy Spirit,” etc.). The Bible attributes divinity to the nature of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible also makes the case for the Spirits equality of divinity by exploring the divine activity. The Spirit does what only God can be said to do. So, in Genesis the Spirit creates (Gen. 1:2; see also Ps. 104:30; Job 33:4). The Spirit redeems, we see this especially in the Exodus event (Isa. 63:7-14). We see also that Spirit possess the divine attributes. He is omnipresent, as Psalm 139 declares that there is no where you can go to escape Him. He is omniscient, able to “search all things” (1 Cor. 2:10) and needing knowing to inform Him (Isa. 40:13). The Spirit is, first and foremost God. He is one with the other two members of the trinity, equal in divine essence.

The Holy Spirit is Person

Here, “person” does not refer to human, but rather to the distinct hypostatic subsistence within the divine trinity. That is to say, while there is one God, this one God exists as equally distinct “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Graham Cole notes that:

Minimally a person is a being who can say “I” with self-reflexivity or, put another way, with self- awareness. In the biblical presentation God can say “I” (Ex. 3:14), an angel can say “I” (Rev. 22:8-9), and a human being can say “I” (Gal. 5:2). With regard to the Trinity we find that the Father says “I” and “my” at Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:17). Jesus says an emphatic “I” before the High Priest at his trial (Mark 14:26). The Holy Spirit says “I” and “for me” in the course of the church’s choosing of the apostle Paul and Barnabas for mission work (Acts 13:2). In philosophical terms, the Acts 13:2 text concerning the Holy Spirit exhibits “first-person perspective,” which is a sufficient condition for personhood. (He Who Gives Life, 66)

The Holy Spirit, while one and the same essence as God, is a distinct person of the one-Godhead. In the words of the ancient Athanasian creed:

And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one: the glory equal; the majesty equal…So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God…For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be Lord: we are forbidden by the catholic religion to say there be three Gods, or three Lords…So there is one Father, no three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

The Bible substantiates this language a distinct person of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures refer to the Spirit as “He,” and He is identified with personal ministry as the Paraclete – whether translated as “comforter,” “counselor,” “helper,” or “advocate.” The Spirit “forbids” in (Acts 16:6), and is “grieved” (Isa. 63:10; Eph. 4:30). The Spirit is personal, and is distinctly personal. So, that he can be referenced to in Pauline benedictions:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)

The Spirit is a personal God, and a distinct person of the one God.

Why does all this matter? It matters because when we seek to discuss the “gifts of the Spirit” we are not speaking of some abstract force which empowers us. We are not speaking of some “life essence” or “spiritual power” or “cosmic energy” or even of some general “world spirit.” We are speaking of a personal God, and a distinct person of the triune God of Scripture. It is from this person that we receive gifts, whatever those be and however they operate. The Spirit is God and yet He is uniquely God as the Spirit. When we encounter the Holy Spirit we are encounter the one God in a unique fashion, a way different from the Father and the Son. Gordon Fee’s framework for thinking about the unique role of the Spirit can be helpful here. Fee speaks of the Spirit in two ways:

First, the Spirit as person, the promised return of God’s own personal presence with his people; second, the Spirit as eschatological fulfillment, who both reconstitutes God’s people anew and empowers us to live the life of the future in our between-the-times existence (XV).

The Spirit is God and as a person of the Triune God manifests the presence of God among the church today. In addition the Spirit is part of the fulfillment of God’s plan for the new age (Acts 2:16-21). The Spirit anticipates and points us to the new age. This framework of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit becomes, then, an important and helpful lens for considering the spiritual gifts.

As we come to understand the person and the work of the Holy Spirit we may be better equipped to think about the questions related to the Spirit’s gifts. Next week I will explore in summary fashion the work of the spirit.

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