Read: John 14:15-18, John 14:26, 1 Corinthians 12
“I believe in the Holy Spirit.” So Christians confess, whenever they recite the words if the Apostles’ Creed. But what do we mean by this? And do we really understand what we are claiming to believe?
“I believe in the Holy Spirit.” So Christians confess, whenever they recite the words if the Apostles’ Creed. But what do we mean by this? And do we really understand what we are claiming to believe? Or are we just repeating words that we’ve been taught to say?
Don’t Be Ignorant
“Now concerning the gifts of the Spirit,” writes Paul at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12, “I do not want you to be ignorant.”
“I would not have you to be ignorant.” It’s one of Paul’s favorite phrases, one that he uses often to introduce some especially important teaching. In this instance, in 1 Corinthians 12, he’s teaching about the Holy Spirit and his gifts. But if there’s any wish of Paul’s that has not been fulfilled it is surely this one.
Most of us remain ignorant, woefully ignorant, not only about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but about his person as well and his work in general. We know all about the Lord Jesus. We have some conception of God the Father, but the Holy Spirit remains little more than a name, a mysterious force, an impersonal “it.” Christmas is a favorite holiday, Easter thrills and excites the whole church, but how much attention do we pay to Pentecost, the day when the wind of God roared, fire fell from above, and the heavenly Dove descended upon the disciples just as he had upon their Lord?
Our ignorance of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is a grave handicap in living the Christian life because the Spirit is that Person of the Godhead with whom we are most directly involved here and now as children of God and disciples of Jesus. Here is just a brief overview of what the New Testament teaches about the ministry of the Holy Spirit relative to the Christian believer. The Spirit is the agent of the new birth, or regeneration, to use the technical term. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again. Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:7, 5).
The Spirit leads us to Christ, teaches us the truth about Christ, and indwells us as the presence of Christ (John 14:15-21, 23, 25-26, 16:12-15). The Spirit convicts people of sin and testifies of righteousness, thus producing faith in Christ (John 16:7-11). The Spirit empowers Christians to become witnesses for Jesus and to take his gospel as missionaries even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The Spirit is the agent of sanctification; that is, he is the power of God within us to help us grow in personal holiness, in Christlikeness, which is one reason why he is called the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1-13, Galatians 5:16-25). Just as no one can become a Christian without the work of the Spirit, so no Christian can grow strong apart from reliance upon him. The Spirit assures us of our salvation by testifying to us that we are God’s dear children for Jesus’ sake and by teaching us to call God “Abba,” “Father” (Romans 8:14-17).
Finally, the Spirit gives various gifts both to the church at large and to individual Christians, some of them clearly supernatural and others quite mundane, but all for the sake of ministry in and as the Body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4 are the great passages that describe the gifts of the Spirit.
So we need to replace our ignorance of the Holy Spirit with reliance upon him, obedience to him, and intimacy with him.
I Will Come to You
Let me suggest two basic faith claims that we are really making when we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit. The first thing I’m saying when I say “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is that I believe Christ is living within me. The Holy Spirit is the form in which, or better, by whom, Christ comes to live in each Christian. Paul said that, as a Christian, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). But, technically speaking, it is the Holy Spirit who comes to us as the very presence of Christ. As Jesus explained this to his disciples on the night before his death:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive . . . You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. . . . Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. (John 14:15-21)
Here Jesus promises not to leave us alone and helpless. “I will not leave you comfortless,” as the older translation says; literally, “I will not leave you as orphans” (v. 18). Jesus’ followers without their Lord would be as helpless and miserable as street children. But the Lord will never abandon those who are his own. He will dwell with us and protect and care for us.
This promise of Christ’s abiding presence with us and within us is realized through the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is the “Helper” (v. 16) of whom Christ speaks. He is the way in which Christ lives in us (v. 20). The term Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit here is a difficult one to translate. It has been rendered “counselor,” or “comforter,” or “advocate.” Literally the word is “Paraclete,” which means one who is “called alongside to help” someone who needs it. Jesus, you notice, calls the Spirit another Helper, meaning another in addition to himself. He is someone to take his place and do for his disciples what he previously did. So the Holy Spirit is Christ’s presence in a different way, another Person but the same God. Now through his Spirit Jesus can be present all the time in all those who belong to him. He’s not limited to one particular place in time or space. Here’s another promise Jesus makes in this same 14th chapter of John: “We (meaning both the Father and himself) will come to him (that is, to the one who loves him) and make our home with him” (v. 23).
John 1:14 famously says that the Word “became flesh and dwelt among us.” “Dwelt” means a temporary stay like the children of Israel who pitched their tents in different wilderness camps throughout the days of their wanderings. But here in John 14 Jesus uses a different word. When he promises that he and the Father will, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, make their home with those who love him, he is saying is that he will “abide” with them — the very same word Jesus uses for the eternal dwelling places he promises to prepare for us in his Father’s house (John 14:2). For God to abide with us means he will come and never leave. His residence in us will be permanent. This is what I believe when I believe in the Holy Spirit.
The second thing I say whenever I confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is that I believe that Christ is working in and through me. If I believe in the Holy Spirit, then I believe that God is at work in my life. It’s not just me trying hard to be a better person. No, the living God, the God of heaven and earth, is making his power available to me to help me change, to transform me, to create a new nature in me, a whole new personality. That’s what the famous fruit of the Spirit is all about — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). I don’t have to look at that list of qualities, sigh, and decide that I’m hopeless, I can never change. I don’t have to turn away from this beauty of character like a penniless child turning from a store window. No, by the power of God working in me, and by patience and faith and endurance, I can become all these things. I will become them.
Moreover, when I believe in the Holy Spirit, I also believe that God is working through me in ministry to others. That’s why the Spirit gives gifts. He’s given me gifts and you as well if you are a Christian. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul stresses the fact that every Christian has received the Holy Spirit: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given . . .” (v. 7); “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body . . . and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (v. 13). It’s not that some Christians have the Spirit and others don’t, or that one believer possesses 10% of the Spirit while another has 100%. Obviously Christians differ in gifts, abilities and levels of personal holiness. But your spiritual maturity is determined not by how much of the Holy Spirit you have but by how much of you he has. The point Paul wishes to make is that we all have received this same Spirit, and that the one Spirit gives different gifts but always for the same purpose: ministry.
The catalogue of gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 and other New Testament passages (e.g. Romans 12) seems to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. That is to say, almost any positive or helpful quality can be a gift from the Spirit, from the miraculous (healing, speaking in tongues), to the marvelous (prophecy, i.e. proclaiming the Word of God), to the mundane (administration, looking after the details, hospitality, etc.). These wonderfully varied gifts of the Spirit, says Paul, are “for the common good” (v. 7).
So if you are a Christian, you believe in the Holy Spirit too. You have received the Holy Spirit; you have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit — all for the sake of the Body.