Who is the Holy Spirit and what does he do?

A sermon by Rod Benson

There are many misconceptions and uncertainties about our understanding of the Holy Spirit. It is not without good reason that the Holy Spirit is sometimes sadly referred to as “the Cinderella of theology” or “the displaced person of the Godhead.” Or take the old limerick:

There was an old man who cried ‘Run!
For the end of the world has begun.
The one I fear most
Is the old Holy Ghost
I can cope with the Father and Son.’

How seriously do we take the presence and the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our lives? How well do we know the Holy Spirit, and what the Spirit does in the world, in the church, and in our own lives? In what ways do we honour the Holy Spirit in our church? What are we missing out on when, in practice, we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Bible?

These are important questions. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is not a mysterious impersonal force but a person, one of the three persons of the Trinity, and we ignore him at our considerable peril.

In his book, The Message of the Holy Spirit, Keith Warrington shows that the Spirit of God is no less than the energiser of all creation, and the one who authenticates and commissions Jesus for his mission.[1]

The Holy Spirit “searches all things” (1 Cor 2:10), knows the mind of God, is closely associated with the proclamation of the gospel, and is powerfully active in the work of salvation.

The Spirit of God convicts unbelievers of sin, gives life to those who believe in Jesus, takes up his abode within those who belong to Christ, and seals and guarantees the eternal salvation of God’s people.

The Holy Spirit works wonders through seemingly weak people, provides counsel and guidance, opposes the flesh and affirms the faith and standing of believers in Christ, teaches us about Jesus, dispenses spiritual gifts for ministry, is active in the sanctification and transformation of God’s people into Christlikeness, is grieved by our sins, and strengthens us.

He provides access to God’s presence, facilitates personal prayer and church unity, intercedes with God the Father on our behalf, is always ready to “fill” us with his presence and power for godly living, and works all things together for our ultimate good.

Not only that, but the fruit of the Spirit who indwells every believer are the personal attributes of God: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The Day of Pentecost, recounted by Luke in Acts 2, was the day of the Spirit’s outpouring and the birth of the church in accordance with Old Testament prophecy. It was as significant an event, in God’s great plan of salvation, as the incarnation of the Son of God some 34 years earlier, and his atoning death, and his glorious resurrection.[2]

In his book, Taking God Seriously, J.I. Packer berates the church for failing to celebrate Pentecost with the same eagerness and attention to detail as we celebrate Christmas and Easter, and says “the ministry of the Holy Spirit does not bulk large either in our thinking or in our living. And that is something that urgently needs to change.”[3] I believe he is right.

The Bible employs many metaphors and similes to describe the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. But consider those two familiar words “holy” and “spirit.” To be “holy” is to be separated from what is evil or unclean, to be different from us in our natural condition of sin, selfishness and separation from God. And “spirit” connotes the blowing of a wind, as in a violent storm, or the soft breath exhaled in blowing out a candle.

Put them together, and add deity, as the Bible teaches, and the Holy Spirit is a divine person who possesses all the essential nature and attributes of the one eternal God, distinguished especially by his perfect purity and energetic action in the world.

As J.I. Packer says, when we speak of the Holy Spirit, we are referring to an omnipotent being “at work, creating, controlling, transforming, and moving in retributive judgment.”[4]

But today the Holy Spirit has one supreme goal or ministry above all others: to bring glory to Jesus, to magnify his name, to encourage his people to know and extol him as their perfect and preeminent prophet, priest and King.

When Jesus rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit into the world, and into our hearts, with the special mission of revealing Jesus to us in all his beauty and fullness, empowering us as witnesses to who Jesus is and what Jesus does (Jn 14:16-17; 16:14; Ac 1:8; 2:1-4). And that is perhaps why the Holy Spirit is often less prominent in Scripture, in history, in the church, and in our own minds as either God the Father or Christ the Son.

Packer compares this ministry of the Spirit to “a floodlight trained on a building of grandeur, picking out all the manifold details of its dignity and beauty.”[5] And as theologian Tom Torrance observes:

It was not of course the Spirit but the Word who became incarnate, and so the Spirit does not bring us any revelation other than or independent of the Word who became incarnate in Jesus Christ.[6]

As well as his chief ministry of pointing to Jesus, the Holy Spirit teaches us, through Scripture and godly teachers, and by way of the Spirit’s own inner voice in our minds, though never contrary to Scripture, about God, his being, his ways, his plans (past, present and future), his goodness and grace, and his will for our lives – both individually and in community as the church of Jesus Christ. It’s good to know the Holy Spirit, and to listen to the Spirit, and to obey him.

The Holy Spirit also refreshes and renews our hearts – “the inner core of each Christian’s being, the source of all the thoughts, desires, motives, purposes, creative urgings, ambitions, concerns, convictions, reactions, relational attitudes, loves, hates, hopes, fears, and whatever else contributes, in personality terms, to making us the people that we are.”[7]

In doing so, the Holy Spirit is the one primarily responsible for making real what it means, in principle, to be “in Christ,” to enjoy union with Christ not only as a concept to which we give mental assent, but as a lived reality.

The Holy Spirit enables us to grow and develop as Christians, encouraging and equipping us “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13; cf 2 Cor 3:17-18).

Part of this work of renewal and growth is the development of a stronger faith and deeper trust in God, from day to day, along with a determined effort to forsake sin (see Ps 139:23-24).

As we move with the Spirit, taking him seriously and learning to rely on him, the battle with sin slowly grows easier, our experience of true worship deepens and widens, we learn to love sound doctrine, we work hard and pray hard for the fame of Jesus to spread among our friends and family, and around the world, and we find ourselves conscientiously aiming to trust, love, adore, thank, praise and please our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ – which is what the Holy Spirit desires for us and in us more than anything else.

There is much more that could be said. Should we pray to the Holy Spirit? Yes, because he is God. Yes, because he wants us to ask for renewal and cleansing, and growth, and transformation.

How can I know that I am indwelt by the Spirit of God? If God has saved you, if you have been born again, the new life you possess is life in the Spirit (Jn 3), and any godly fruit people observe in your life as a Christian comes from God. Any concern you might have about this means you are moving in the right direction, and you should pray for enlightenment and assurance of faith (Rom 8:16; 1 Jn 4:13-15). More on this in another sermon a few weeks from now.

What are the gifts of the Spirit? Read Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4.

What is the sin against the Holy Spirit (see Mk 3:28f; cf Mt 12:31f; Lk 12:10)? This probably refers to final denial of God, proud rigid atheism, persistent resistance to God’s gracious offer of salvation. God never forsakes his children. As Jeffrey Barbeau notes, “If this or any other sin in our lives continue to cause us worry, we can be certain that God remains present, calling us to renewal and cleansing by the Spirit.”[8]

One final point: The Holy Spirit is God’s promise that he has not left us alone but will fulfil all his promises and remake the world (Rom 8:19-23). The fact that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Son and poured out at Pentecost is

the guarantee that he will one day bring creation to a new birth and flood it with his presence and glory. And we need that guarantee, because, without it, the hope of a new world is simply a chimera.[9]

And to that end we move, saved by God, redeemed by Christ, in step with the Spirit.

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
And make me love thee as I ought to love.

Hast thou not bid us love thee, God and King?
All, all thine own, soul, heart, and strength and mind.
I see thy cross – there teach my heart to cling:
O let me seek thee, and O let me find.[10]


Sermon 674 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 29 May 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Keith Warrington, The Message of the Holy Spirit (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2009), see contents pages.

[2] J.I. Packer, Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), p. 108.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 112.

[5] Ibid., p. 115.

[6] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being, Three Persons (London: T & T Clark, 1996), p. 63.

[7] Packer, Taking God Seriously, p. 116.

[8] Jeffrey W. Barbeau, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” in Gary M. Burge & David Lauber, Theology Questions Everyone Asks: Christian Faith in Plain Language (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), p. 142.

[9] Michael Lloyd, Café Theology: Exploring Love, the Universe and Everything (third edn; London: Alpha International, 2012), p. 281.

[10] George Croly, 1854.

%d bloggers like this: