The Spiritual Gifts: Understanding the Spirit (Part 2)

Dissecting the specific nature of the spiritual gifts today requires us to know something specific about the giver of such gifts. In order to think rightly about the spiritual gifts it behooves us to think about the Spirit himself. Last week I explored the nature of the Holy Spirit, and this week I want to take a quick survey of the works of the Holy Spirit. To begin with, however, we ought to consider a framework for thinking theologically about the Spirit. Taking from within the progressive narrative of Scripture we can see the Spirit’s work as manifesting the presence of God in the world.

It’s important to recall what has already been established regarding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is one and the same God as the Father and the Son. He is a person of the Triune Godhead, a member of the ontological Trinity. As such He is not inferior to either the Father or the Son and His work is not subordinate to their work. It has often been said within theological circles that the Spirit’s whole role consists in drawing attention to Jesus. It is, of course, true that the Holy Spirit bears witness to Christ (John 15:26; Acts 5:32; 1 Cor. 12:3; 1 John 4:2). Yet, to reduce the work of the Spirit simply to the witness about Christ is to miss so much of His work. As Michael Horton has said:

Jürgen Moltmann expresses a legitimate critique of tendencies to reduce the Spirit’s work to the inner life of the individual believer – basically to the application of redemption…Introducing the Holy Spirit too late in the story – at the application of redemption – we miss much of the action. Worse, we distort our vision of the Spirit’s work even in this important aspect of his ministry. (Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, 47-48).

Horton has in mind specifically the Spirit’s role in Creation, to which we will give attention in my next post, but this reductionism has broad implications. The regular argument made by some that the Spirit does not draw attention to Himself simply doesn’t hold up to Scriptural teaching. After all, the Bible is written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and it says a great deal about Him! He also frequently makes himself known “by phenomena that indicate his activity, in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament periods,” says Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, 641). In fact, while the Spirit points to Christ, in Scripture we find that Jesus points to the Spirit as well, and His pointing to the Spirit gives an important framework for thinking about the work of the Spirit.

The Old Testament sets an important context for this framework. The Prophets had long predicted a future age in which the Spirit of God will be uniquely among the people of God. From early on in the Biblical record there had been a promised “circumcision of the heart” (Deut. 30:6), which was a theme picked up by the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34). The prophet Ezekiel connected this theme, however, directly with the Spirit of God, whom he said would dwell within God’s people (36:26-27; 37:14). The fulfillment of the New Covenant, then, comes with a specific blessing of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Joel uniquely speaks of the coming of the Spirit and the dawning of the new age when he says:

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

28 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:27-29)

The prophet sees the future renewal of God’s presence fulfilled in the outpouring of the Spirit of God. It is to this very reality that Jesus points when He speaks of the “Helper” whom my Father will send (John 14:15-17). Yes, this Spirit will witness to Jesus, but here is Jesus witnessing to the Spirit. He points to the Spirit as an indicator of the dawning of a new age. This is the new age that Peter points to in Acts 2:14-21. In his famous Pentecost sermon, Peter indicates that Joel’s prophecy has been fulfilled! The Spirit has come. So, within the New Testament the Spirit’s work is primarily directed at giving evidence of the “presence of the future,” i.e. God’s renewed dwelling with His people (see Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God). But the New Testament is not disconnected from the Old, there is a unit to the storyline of God’s work. In light of this it is best to summarize the overall work of the Spirit as manifesting the “active presence of God in the world, and especially in the church” (Grudem, 634).

This summary of the Spirit’s work allows us to consider the specifics more carefully. The Spirit works in creation, in governing Israel, in empowering people for ministry, in the ministry of Christ, in the inspiration of Scripture, and in the enablement of the church. In each specific we can see how He manifests the presence of God in the world and the church. The individual works, then, when viewed under this umbrella give us a clearer picture of the Spirit Himself and prepare us to consider specifically the so-called Spiritual Gifts. Next week we will begin explore some of these specific works briefly.

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