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What Do Christians Think About the Holy Spirit?

Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is the freedom of salvation, security, spiritual growth, and service.

From the editor

Tim Peck acknowledges that any discussion of the Holy Spirit has a certain mystery to it. After all, Jesus himself compared the Spirit to wind—you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. Nonetheless, there are some things we can all agree on regardless of our religious or denominational background. Using key texts from throughout the New Testament, Peck examines four truths about the Spirit and four areas of freedom we gain from the Spirit's presence in our lives.


Robert Duvall wanted to make a movie called The Apostle back in 1983, because he felt that the motion picture industry had mostly ignored the work of the Holy Spirit in American religion. According to Duvall, "Filmmakers hardly ever depict spirituality with such a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit, and when they do, it tends to be patronizing—full of charlatans and snake handlers." Duvall wanted to do something different with The Apostle. He wanted to realistically portray a preacher who was fully human, but captivated by the Holy Spirit. Duvall says, "What I really wanted to do was to try to understand what these preachers go through and what they believe, and to portray it in an accurate way. So when I first approached various studios about this movie … they wouldn't go near it, [because it didn't attack] the religious right." Duvall put off making The Apostle for nearly 15 years, until he finally financed the movie with his own money. It was enormously popular and earned him an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of preacher Sonny Dewey.

Duvall says he was raised in a Christian home, taught to believe in Jesus Christ, but never knew much about the Holy Spirit until he made The Apostle. While he was doing research for the movie, he says he tried not to pass judgment so he could understand how the Holy Spirit moves. During his research, as he sat in a church in Harlem, the Holy Spirit touched his life in a way he'll never forget. In some ways The Apostle made the Holy Spirit mainstream to the American public. In response to the enormous popularity of the film, Newsweek magazine devoted an article to the resurgence of the Holy Spirit in American churches. According to a Newsweek survey, 47 percent of Americans claim to have experienced the Holy Spirit in their lives. 

The mystery of the Holy Spirit

Today we're going to talk about what Christians believe about the Holy Spirit. A tremendous amount of confusion and controversy exists about the Holy Spirit. You can visit churches where people experience hysterical laughter that's said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, or you can go places where people fall down on the ground and even growl like animals. A. W. Tozer once wrote that when the average Christian thinks about the Holy Spirit, "he is likely to imagine a nebulous substance like a wisp of invisible smoke which is said to be present in churches and to hover over good people when they die."

Part of our problem is that the Holy Spirit seems so mystical. We can picture God the Father, because we've all seen fathers. We can picture God the Son, because he became human, and we can read about what he did and what he's like. But when we try to picture the Holy Spirit, our minds go blank. We end up thinking of symbols like a dove or wind or fire.

Different churches tend to emphasize the Holy Spirit in different ways. Charismatic and Pentecostal churches focus on his power, evangelicals tend to emphasize the Spirit's work in bringing attention to Jesus Christ, and Roman Catholics focus on the Holy Spirit working through the church hierarchy. Entire churches have split over how to understand the Holy Spirit.

I frequently hear people call the Holy Spirit an "it"—as if the Spirit is like God's laser beam. But if the Christian belief of the Trinity is true, then the Holy Spirit is a "he," not an "it." The Trinity tells us that the Holy Spirit is a divine person. He's God. Therefore he's worthy of our worship and praise. The 66 books of the Bible present God the Father as our Creator, God the Son as our savior, and God the Holy Spirit as the one who takes what Jesus did and applies it to our lives. You might think of God the Father as God for us, God the Son as God with us, and God the Holy Spirit as God in us.

Every orthodox Christian, whether Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical, or Charismatic, would agree with that last statement. The real confusion comes not in who the Holy Spirit is, but in what he does. The Holy Spirit makes God real to us. He brings us into an experience with God through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit, then, is the wellspring of all genuine Christian experience. So, it's not surprising that Christians would differ about what the Holy Spirit does, since Christians have such different personal experiences with God!

Jesus himself likened the work of the Holy Spirit to the wind. We can't see wind, but we know wind by its effects. The human eye can't perceive air molecules as they move at high speeds, but we can certainly see a tree that's been uprooted by a high wind. In a similar way, we can't see the Holy Spirit, since he is a non-physical person. We can, however, know him by his effects—by what he does. It's on this matter that Christians often differ. We as a church certainly have convictions about these issues, but my purpose is to focus on those key ideas that every genuine Christian—whether Pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical, or Roman Catholic—would agree with.

The Bible often associates the Holy Spirit with the idea of freedom. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:17: "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." I want to look at four freedoms that the Holy Spirit produces in our lives.

The Holy Spirit as the Counselor

The first freedom we'll look at relates to what the Holy Spirit does in the lives of those who don't yet have a relationship with Jesus Christ. In John 16:7–8, Jesus speaks of the Spirit as the Counselor. The Greek word translated "counselor" doesn't have an exact equivalent in the English language. The Greek word that is used is paraclete, which means "one who's called alongside of another person to offer assistance." For example, a paramedic is someone who comes alongside a person to offer medical assistance. A paraclete is someone who comes alongside another person to offer help. The word could be translated "counselor"—like it is in the NIV—or "comforter, helper, supporter, advocate, ally, friend."

Jesus tells us that part of what the Holy Spirit does as a paraclete is to convict people of their sin. People live in a state of spiritual blindness or denial about their standing before God. Our tendency is to minimize our guilt by pointing out others who are worse than we are or by making excuses. The Holy Spirit as counselor or paraclete penetrates our evasions, shatters our defenses, and silences our excuses to show us how we truly stand before God. He does this because apart from supernatural action, none of us could see how we truly stand before God.

In 1 Corinthians 12:3, Paul writes: "Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus be cursed,' and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." Our confession of Jesus Christ's lordship is tied directly to the activity of God's Holy Spirit in our lives. Apart from the work of God's Spirit, none of us would become Christians. Without the Spirit none of us would turn away from our sins and surrender our lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ. When people take their stand and publicly confess Jesus' lordship in their lives, the only reason they can do that is because the Holy Spirit as a counselor or paraclete is at work in their hearts. Our sins have made us spiritually dead, incapable of seeking God without divine intervention.

This is the first freedom that the Holy Spirit produces in our lives. As a paraclete or counselor, the Holy Spirit acts as a magnet that draws us toward Christ, and we are free to experience salvation. He doesn't force us against our will, lassoing us like a cowboy and dragging us to Christ, kicking and screaming. He quietly persuades and gently coaxes. Christians differ on the mechanics of how the Holy Spirit does this, but all agree that apart from the Spirit's work, none of us would come to know Christ. In fact, once we've come to a point of commitment to Jesus Christ, we often look back and see how God was drawing us to himself through his Spirit all along. We thought we came to Christ, but we discover that the Holy Spirit came to us and led us by the hand to that point of commitment to Jesus. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the freedom of salvation.

The Holy Spirit as a guarantee

The second freedom the Holy Spirit produces happens at the moment we entrust our lives to Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:13–14 says that the moment when we trust in Christ, God marks us with a seal. In ancient times people used a seal to make things secure. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee writes: "A seal denoted ownership and authenticity; this thereby guaranteed the protection of the owner." It's like the diploma I received when I graduated from Biola University. That diploma has an official seal on it that authenticates my diploma as genuine. The Holy Spirit is God's authentication of our Christian faith. 

The Holy Spirit is also described as a deposit. He is the first installment or down payment of God's pledge to complete what he started in our lives. The idea of a seal and a deposit show us the second freedom that the Holy Spirit produces: security in our relationship with God.

At the moment we trust our lives to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us, making himself at home in our hearts. The indwelling of God's Spirit is not a deluxe model of the spiritual life; it's the culmination of what trusting in Jesus Christ accomplishes.

Like the seal on my college diploma, the indwelling of God's Spirit authenticates us as genuine children of God. The lack of the Holy Spirit indwelling a person's life indicates that one has not yet truly received God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

The indwelling of God's Spirit is also God's seal of ownership on our lives—that we no longer belong to ourselves, but our lives have been given over to God. If anyone messes with us, they're messing with God. The indwelling of God's Spirit is God's pledge that no matter what happens, no matter how bad we fail, no matter how far we stray, he will stand with us to complete what he started in our lives. The only one who can break the seal is God himself, and he's promised not to break it, so we have the freedom of security. We no longer have to wonder where we stand with God. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is the freedom of security.

The Holy Spirit as a coach

But what does the Holy Spirit do once we've come to know Christ? In Galatians 5, Paul introduces the idea of life in the Spirit. His chief exhortation comes in Galatians 5:25: "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." The spiritual life is a process of walking. This is where the idea of the spiritual life being a journey comes from—the idea that commitment to Christ isn't a destination but the beginning of a journey or a pilgrimage. This walk is an uphill one, because there's conflict between the leftovers of our old way of life (the sinful nature) and where the Holy Spirit is leading us. Our spiritual journey is a conflict between what we want to do and where we want to go, and the only way to progress in this walk is to keep in step with the Spirit, like a marching band keeps in step with it's band leader.

This image of walking presents the Holy Spirit as a coach. Coaching is a hands on, relational process of helping a person be successful. A coach offers encouragement, resources, and whatever else is needed for the athlete to live up to his or her athletic potential. Similarly, the Holy Spirit offers us hands-on encouragement, resources, and help as we walk up the steep hill of spiritual growth and maturity. Like a good coach, the Holy Spirit won't walk for us, but he walks alongside with us, inviting us to keep in step with his promptings, follow his directions, and rely on his encouragement and strengthening.

Here we find the third freedom the Holy Spirit produces. He empowers our lives, and we are free to move forward spiritually. Like a hiker climbing up a steep trail, we often feel like quitting or going back down the hill. We easily get distracted or lost. As our coach, the Holy Spirit helps us stay on the trail, gives us water when we're thirsty, rest when we're tired, a kick in the pants when we grow lazy, and words of encouragement when we feel like quitting.

The spiritual life of following Jesus Christ is an uphill climb. It's not an easy stroll through the park, but it's a lifelong journey of transformation where we are changed into people who love God with our whole hearts and who love other people sacrificially. Sometimes the trail looks dangerous. Sometimes, when we face challenges that threaten to overwhelm us, it looks outright impossible. Sometimes we get lost or we defiantly sit down and refuse to go any further. Some people find the road too difficult and turn away and start back down the hill. Yet no matter what we encounter along this incredible life long trail, our coach is there with us, offering us everything we need to take the next step. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom to move forward spiritually.

The Holy Spirit as a giver

What does the Spirit do as we walk down this spiritual path with God? In 1 Corinthians 12:7–11, we learn that the Spirit empowers us with gifts.

The Corinthian Christians were greatly confused about the role of spiritual gifts in the spiritual life, so Paul devotes three entire chapters to discuss how they should and should not be used. Paul says that each follower of Jesus is given at least one manifestation of the Spirit. The phrase "manifestation of the Spirit" is another way to describe the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It's in using these gifts that the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit is manifested or made visible for people to see. Each person is given a manifestation of the Spirit to make visible the Holy Spirit's invisible presence. The purpose of this manifestation of the Spirit is for the common good—for the Christian community to be built up, strengthened, vibrant, alive, and spiritually healthy. If the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit isn't being experienced in a group of Christians, it's not because the Spirit hasn't given these manifestations, but because the individual Christians aren't using these manifestations for the common good.

To give some practical examples of what he's talking about, Paul lists several different kinds of spiritual gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Some Christians believe some of these gifts are no longer active today, while other Christians believe they're all active today. Paul's point is that there are gifts, and it's the Holy Spirit who gives them. The Holy Spirit is the one who gives these gifts, and they aren't determined by me, you, the church, or anyone other than the Holy Spirit. He gives gifts according to his own wisdom and judgment.

The Holy Spirit is a giver, and here we find our final freedom. Since the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts, we are free to serve God. Imagine someone giving your entire family an exotic cruise for two weeks. This gift was intended for your entire family, but you happened to be the one who received the gift. Now imagine taking that gift back to the travel agent, converting it into a six-week cruise just for you, and leaving your family behind to enjoy that vacation all alone. Would that be right? Of course it wouldn't be! But that's exactly what happens when we don't use the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has given us to build up the Christian community. The gifts aren't just given to us, but to the entire church family. We just happen to be the individual God has trusted to deliver the gift. It's up to us to unwrap the Spirit's gifts for the sake of the Body of Christ. Every follower of Jesus is on a journey of discovering his or her spiritual gifts and using them in specific areas of ministry.

I'll never forget my own experience with this reality back in 1983. My wife Chris and I were spectators here at the church, enjoying the show. Then Pastor Ray Schmautz talked about spiritual gifts, and he said something I'll never forget: "If you've been coming here for a while, and you're just sitting in your chair, unwilling to discover your spiritual gifts and use them in ministry, then I'd just assume you'd find another church." Not exactly a recipe for church growth! But when Chris and I talked about it, we knew he was right. We got involved in ministry, and the rest is history.

The spiritual health of any church is determined not by how powerful the worship service is, how effective the speaker is, or how great the facility is. The spiritual health of any church is determined by how many individual members are using their spiritual gifts in ministry. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom to serve.


There are many things Christians believe about the Holy Spirit, but all Christians agree that the Holy Spirit brings freedom—the freedom to experience salvation, find security with God, move forward spiritually, and serve.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")

Timothy J. Peck is director of the chapel and a lecturer in the school of theology at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California. He preaches regularly at Christ our King Church in Azusa.

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Sermon Outline:


In some ways The Apostle made the Holy Spirit mainstream to the American public.

I. The mystery of the Holy Spirit

II. The Holy Spirit as the Counselor

III. The Holy Spirit as a guarantee

IV. The Holy Spirit as a coach

V. The Holy Spirit as a giver


There are many things Christians believe about the Holy Spirit, but all Christians agree that the Holy Spirit brings freedom.