The Holy Spirit Is the Personal Presence of God Himself
Christians believe in one God whose being is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We do not worship an undifferentiated, monad God, and we do not worship three Gods or Beings. Rather, we worship the one God who is eternally triune within himself in three eternal and co-equal Persons.1 Each of the three Persons is distinct from the other two persons of the Godhead, and each is God of God, but there are not three Gods, but only one Being called God whom Christians worship.
In respect to the Person called the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, some people believe that the Spirit is not personal in the same sense that the Father and Son are personal. In the extreme, the claim is made by a few that the Holy Spirit is no more than a power used by God that is outside of and detached from himself or his Being.
Sometimes not mentioned
One of the arguments against the Spirit’s personal nature is based on some verses in the New Testament in which God and Christ are discussed together, but they contain no reference to the Spirit. It is asked, “If the Holy Spirit is divine in the same way as the Son and the Father, and is co-eternal and co-equal with them, why is the Spirit not mentioned in such cases?”
A second argument used in an attempt to deny the equal divinity of the Holy Spirit is based on the observation that the New Testament does not present a personal “face” for the Spirit in the same way that it does for the Father and Son. The conclusion is the Holy Spirit is a power outside of the being of God, a power that God uses to carry out his will.
The first argument assumes that all three Persons of the Trinity must be mentioned together if they are equally divine. No scriptural rationale is given for such a claim. Perhaps some people think it ought to be so. But let’s ask, Why should the Spirit always be mentioned along with the Father and Son? The Father is often mentioned without the Son, and the Son is often mentioned without any mention of the Father or the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts often mentions the work of the Holy Spirit without reference to the Father or the Son.
In short, it is an unsubstantiated assumption and a quibbling over irrelevant details to claim that the Holy Spirit must always be mentioned wherever the Father and Son are discussed. We cannot assume that the absence of the Holy Spirit in some biblical passages tells us anything definitive about the relationship of the Spirit to the other Persons of the Godhead.
For example, in his introduction to 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul brings the congregation grace and peace from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3), but mentions Christ four times and “God” only twice. Are we to conclude that Jesus is twice as important as the Father? In his short conclusion to the same letter, Paul refers to “Christ Jesus” and the “Lord Jesus,” but makes no mention of the Father or the Holy Spirit (16:23-24). Must we then conclude that only Jesus is divine?
In the opening to 2 Corinthians, Paul mentions variants of “Jesus Christ” twice and God twice, but doesn’t refer to the Holy Spirit (1:1-2). However, in his conclusion, Paul says, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (13:14). Here all three divine Persons – God, Jesus and the Spirit – are mentioned together.2 We would be hard pressed regarding what conclusion to draw about the nature of God in general and the Holy Spirit in particular from Paul’s various references to God, to Jesus, to the Father and the Holy Spirit in the openings and closings of these two letters.
There are many passages in the New Testament where all three Persons of the Godhead – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are mentioned together. Here are the most prominent places: Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Peter 1:1-2; Romans 14:17-18; 15:16; 1 Corinthians 2:2-5; 6:11; 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 2:18-22; 3:14-19; Ephesians 4:4-6; Colossians 1:6-8; 1 Thessalonians 1:3-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; Titus 3:4-6. We should see these Scriptures as the controlling ones in any conclusion they may imply about the nature of God, since they mention all the relevant parties.
We will now move from these superficial arguments based on formulas and isolated references to essential considerations about the work of the Holy Spirit as true God of true God. As we do so, we will occasionally refer to the important work of Thomas Torrance in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity as he discusses it in his book The Christian Doctrine of God – One Being Three Persons.3
Not prominently featured
The second objection to accepting the Holy Spirit as a divine Person and God of God is based on the observation that the Holy Spirit is not as prominently featured as the Father and Son are in the New Testament. (For example, there are no occasions in the New Testament where we are told to worship the Holy Spirit.)
This kind of distinction vis-à-vis the Spirit is explained by the fact that the three Persons of the Godhead are distinct and they have distinct roles in the plan of salvation. We conclude from the New Testament that the Holy Spirit is not sent to draw attention to himself, that is, to take center stage or to glorify himself.
When Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth – in John 14-16, he says of him: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (15:26, italics ours throughout).
Later, Jesus says: “But when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears… He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you” (16:13-14).
We see here that the Spirit is another Counselor, Paraclete or Helper who is sent by Christ to be with the church. The Spirit performs his own distinctive work in redemption: he enlightens, transforms, guides and sanctifies the followers of Christ. “It is not the function of the Spirit, then, to bear witness to himself in his distinctive personal Being, but to bear witness to Christ and glorify him as Lord and Savior,” writes Torrance.4
Torrance explains why the Holy Spirit is not presented with a personal “face,” as are the Son and the Father:
The Holy Spirit is God himself speaking although he is not himself the Word of God. 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. The Holy Spirit has no “Face”, but it is through the Spirit that we see the Face of Christ and in the Face of Christ we see the Face of the Father. The Holy Spirit does not manifest himself or focus attention upon himself, for it is his mission from the Father to declare the Son and focus attention upon him. It is through the speaking of the Spirit that the Word of God incarnate in Christ is communicated to us in words that are Spirit and Life and not flesh.5
And again, Torrance writes about the presence of the Holy Spirit as true God of true God:
While God the Father and God the Son are revealed to us in their distinctive personal subsistences…God the Holy Spirit is not directly known in his own Person…for he remains hidden behind the very revelation of the Father and the Son which he mediates through himself. He is the invisible Spirit of Truth who is sent from the Father in the name of the Son, but not in his personal name as the Holy Spirit, and thus does not speak of himself, but declares of the Father and the Son what he receives from them, while effacing himself before them…. He is the invisible Light in whose shining we see the uncreated Light of God manifest in Jesus Christ, but he is known himself only in that he lights up for us the Face of God in the Face of Jesus Christ.6
It has not been given for us to know directly the “face” of the Holy Spirit in a personal sense. Yet, in one place Jesus does give us something of a personal “face” for the Holy Spirit. When Jesus introduced the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the night he was betrayed, he used the Greek word parakletos to refer to him (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). As a title for the Holy Spirit, parakletos is found exclusively in the above four passages, in the so-called “Paraclete sayings” of Jesus’ farewell discourse. Parakletos has been translated by such words as “Comforter,” “Advocate,” “Helper” and “Counselor.” Some versions simply transliterate the Greek word into “Paraclete.”
In Greek and Roman society, a paraclete could refer to a person called on for assistance as a legal advisor, advocate or helper in a court of law. But the technical meaning “attorney” or “lawyer” is rare. A Greek lexicon explains: “In the few places where the word is found in pre-Christian and extra-Christian literature as well it has for the most part a more general sense: one who appears in another’s behalf, mediator, intercessor, helper.”7
Thus, Jesus is telling his disciples that his physical presence will be replaced by “another Helper,” the Holy Spirit. Since the Spirit is “another” helper, we understand that Jesus himself was a helper for the disciples. In that the Holy Spirit can “replace” Jesus, we can only take this to mean that the Spirit is to be thought of as equal to Christ. Otherwise, how could the Spirit be able to come in the place of Jesus and perform saving work?
For those who insist on having a personal “face” for the Holy Spirit, Jesus has given it to us in his choice of metaphor in his reference to the Spirit as “Paraclete.” He doesn’t say, “I’m going to send a non-personal abstract power to you in my place.”
On the other hand, we have been given in the New Testament the anthropomorphic analogy of “Father” and “Son” for the other two Persons of the Godhead, through which their personal “faces” are given. But even here we should avoid any gender-like thinking in our visioning. We “must think of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ when used of God as imageless relations” and “we may not read the creaturely content of our human expressions of ‘father’ and ‘son’ analogically into what God discloses of his own inner divine relations,” cautions Torrance.8
We must use human language when we speak of the Persons of the triune God, because we have no other language to use. But we should never lose sight of the fact that our language is inadequate and can only approximate in an approximate way the reality of God to which our words point.
Only a force?
Finally, let us take up the question of whether the Holy Spirit could be simply a force detached from the Being of God. An analogy would be that of electricity. Human beings use the power of electricity to achieve their will and work in countless ways. Electricity is not internal to our human selves, but is an external power we use.
Let’s begin with an obvious point: There is no place in either the Old or New Testaments where the Holy Spirit is said to be or is regarded as an “appendage” to God rather than the presence of God himself. On that basis alone, we have no evidence to back up the assertion that the Spirit is not the presence of God, and therefore, not God of God.
To help us understand that the Holy Spirit is true God of true God, we begin by looking at the salvific work of Jesus, something that Thomas Torrance has explained. That is, Jesus as the Son must be God of God for his work to be effective in our salvation. Only God himself is our Savior. “This is to say, unless God himself were directly involved in the saving work of Christ in the depths of our human existence and in the heights of his eternal Being, what took place on the Cross would have been in vain,” says Torrance.9
Jesus could not have been simply a special human being to whom God gave a mission, in the way he did to the Old Testament prophets such as Moses or David. Our Savior had to be very God with us, though as a human being, in order to perform his saving work.
Salvation is the gift of eternal life given to creatures who do not possess such spirit life within themselves. As creatures, we are spiritually fallen and mortal beings who ultimately die. How can mortal creatures be given eternal life – something that mortal creatures by definition do not have and cannot obtain on their own? They must somehow be taken up into God so that the eternal life that only God has may be something that adheres to them as well.
John 14:5-27 explains how the life of God can adhere to us, if we are careful to see the implications of what Jesus says in the passage. His explanation demands that the Holy Spirit be true God of true God. Jesus, having finished the redemptive work through which we are reconciled to God, will send the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will be “in” the believers, and through him, the Father and Jesus will make their “home” with them (verses 17, 23). Through the Spirit, the disciples can be in Jesus and he in them (verse 21). The passage shows the unity and salvific work of the Father, of the Son as Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. All three Persons bring about the salvation of believers, and all must be true God of true God in order to do so – including the Holy Spirit.
As 1 Peter 1:3 states, we have a “new birth into a living hope” through the Holy Spirit. We are joined to God through the Spirit, and the eternal life of God becomes ours in that union. Those who are God’s “have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
The apostle Paul explains that the completion of our salvation results in the “putting on” of immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). In another place, he says: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
It is not some “power” separate from God that accomplishes this miracle, but the presence of God himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit lives in us, God lives in us. When the Holy Spirit gives us new birth, we are children of God. We are joined by the Holy Spirit to God, and through the Holy Spirit we become God’s children as this work of transformation and life-giving is accomplished (verses 15-16).
We do not become God. We are creatures, and will always remain creatures. But God in his freedom can unite himself to our creaturely state so that his eternal life can be ours in that union. God himself must be present for this union to occur, and he is present in the Person of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
In saving us, the Holy Spirit cannot be “something” outside of God himself. The Spirit must be divinity himself – God of God – working in the church and transforming human creaturely beings into the image of Christ, who is Life himself. Torrance explains this point in this way:
If the Act which God directs towards us is other than or detached from his Being, then he does not give himself to us in his activity and cannot therefore be known by us as he is in himself; but if his Act and his Being instead of being separate from one another inhere in each other, then in giving us his Spirit God actively makes himself open to us and known by us.10
In order for us to participate in the eternal life that alone belongs to God, it is necessary that the Holy Spirit – who transforms our minds and hearts from within – must be Divinity, and true God of true God. “To be ‘in the Spirit’ is to be in God, for the Spirit is not external but internal to the Godhead,” says Torrance.11
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 2004 and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
Thanks be to God, who in the Person of the Father sent Jesus Christ to reconcile us to himself by the forgiveness of sin and sinfulness. Jesus as Son of Man and Son of God overcame every enemy of God – including sin and death – on our behalf. In the Person of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent, we are transformed and united to God, and we partake of the eternal life that is God’s alone.
1 “Person” is the English word we use in place of the Greek hypostasis. The word “Person” shows that God in his Triune Being is personal and that we are dealing with the personal presence of God in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The word “Person” has its drawback in that people may wrongly apply to God, in an anthropomorphic way, our experience of persons as individual human beings.
2 We are assuming in this verse that Paul’s reference to “God” is not absolute, but that he uses the term relatively of the Person of the Father, something we cannot know for certain here.
3 Most footnoted references in this article are to Thomas Torrance’s book The Christian Doctrine of God.
4 Ibid., page 66.
5 Ibid., page 63.
6 Ibid., page 151.
7 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 4th edition, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker, page 766.
8 Torrance, pages 157-158.
9 Ibid., page 146.
10 Ibid., page 152.
11 Ibid., page 153.