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What Do Christians Think About the Holy Spirit?

Four offices of the Holy Spirit
This sermon is part of the sermon series "What Do Christians Think About God?". See series.


In this sermon series we've been trying to look at the basic beliefs of the Christian faith in a way that both irreligious people and Christians can understand. So far we've looked at what Christians believe about God and Jesus. 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 were people experience hysterical laughter said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, or you can go places where people fall down on the ground, where they even growl like animals, all in the name of the Holy Spirit. A.W. Tozer 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, and we end up with 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, while evangelicals tend to emphasize the Spirit's work in bringing attention to Jesus Christ, and still Roman Catholics focus on the Holy Spirit's work through the church hierarchy. Entire churches have split over how to understand the Holy Spirit.

When we talked about what Christians believe about God, we looked briefly at the Christian idea of God as a trinity. The Trinity is simply a summary of the Bible's teaching that within the nature of the one true God, there are three eternal persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This means that the Holy Spirit is a person, not merely a force or an influence.

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" and not an "it." The Trinity also means that the Holy Spirit is a divine person; he's God and therefore 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.

Now every orthodox Christian, whether Catholic, Pentecostal, evangelical, or charismatic would agree with that statement, but the real confusion comes not in who the Holy Spirit is but in what he does. This is because it is the Holy Spirit who makes God real to us. The Holy Spirit 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. Christians have such different personal experiences with God.

Jesus himself likened the work of the Holy Spirit to being like 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 speed, 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, but we can know him by his effects—what he does. It's on this matter of what the Holy Spirit does that Christians often differ. My purpose here is to focus on those key ideas that every genuine Christian—Pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical, whatever—would agree with.

One of the things the Bible often associates the Holy Spirit with is 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 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. John 16:7-8 reads: "But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment."

The Greek word translated "counselor" doesn't have an exact equivalent in the English language. The actual word is paraclete, and it means one who's called alongside of another person to offer assistance. For instance, a paramedic is someone who comes alongside a person to offer medical assistance. The word paraclete could be translated "counselor" like it is here in the New International Version of the Bible, or "comforter, helper, supporter, advocate, ally, even friend" (Packer, Keep In Step With the Spirit).

Jesus tells us that part of what the Holy Spirit does as a paraclete is convict people of sin. The idea here is that people in our world live in a state of spiritual blindness—we might call it denial—about how they stand before God. Our tendency is to minimize our guilt before God, to point to other people who seem worse than we are, to make excuses. So the Holy Spirit as a counselor or paraclete penetrates our evasions, shatters our defenses, and silences our excuses in order to show us how we truly stand before God.

First Corinthians 12:3 reads: "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." This verse tells us that the Christian's confession of Jesus Christ's lordship in his or her life is tied directly to the activity of God's Holy Spirit. You see, apart from the work of God's Spirit, none of us would become Christians; none of us would turn away from our sins and surrender our lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Our sins have made us spiritually dead, incapable of seeking God on God's terms apart from divine intervention. This is the first freedom: since the Holy Spirit draws us into a relationship with Christ, we are free to experience salvation.

Once we've come to a point of commitment to Jesus Christ, we can look back and see how God was drawing us to himself through his Spirit all along. We thought we came to Christ, but what we discover is that the Holy Spirit came to us and led us by the hand to that point of commitment to Jesus.

This means that we can't take any credit for coming to faith in Christ—that it's not because of our good looks, or our deep spiritual openness; it's something that God initiated, God worked out, and we merely cooperated with. A. W. Tozer wrote, "The primary work of the Holy Spirit is to restore the lost soul to intimate fellowship with God." No longer do our sins alienate us from God, no longer do we live separated by God and in a state of spiritual lostness, because we've discovered the freedom of forgiveness and intimacy with God. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the freedom of salvation.

The Holy Spirit as a guarantee

The second freedom we're going to look at relates to what happens at the moment we entrust our lives to Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:13-14 reads: "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession, to the praise of his glory."

At the moment we trust in Christ, God marks us with a seal. Back then people used a seal to make things secure. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says, "A seal denoted ownership and authenticity; this thereby guaranteed the protection of the owner." For example, when I graduated from Biola University, I received a diploma. That diploma has Biola's official seal on it. It's that official seal that authenticates my diploma as genuine. The Holy Spirit is God's authentication of our Christian faith.

The Holy Spirit is also described here as a deposit. In other words, the Holy Spirit is a first installment or down payment that is God's pledge to complete what he started in our lives. Again, Gordon Fee: "The Spirit himself is the down payment … in our lives that guarantees our certain future …. The gift of the Spirit is the first part of the redemption of the whole person."

The idea of a seal and a deposit present the Holy Spirit is a guarantee, and here we find the second freedom. Since the Holy Spirit indwells us, we are free to experience security in our relationship with God. The moment we entrust our lives to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us. He makes 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. Romans 8:9 reads: "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ." 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. 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, of not wondering where we stand with God, of not worrying about him giving up on us or someone driving a wedge between us and God.

The Holy Spirit as a coach

As a counselor the Holy Spirit brings us to Christ, as a guarantee the Holy Spirit makes us secure with God, but what about after we've come to know Christ? Galatians 5:16-17 reads: "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want." And Galatians 5:25: "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit."

The word "live" in verse 16 is literally the word "walk," and the picture here is that 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 it's the beginning of a journey, of a pilgrimage from where we are today to where God wants to take us. This walk is an uphill one. There's conflict between the leftovers of our old way of life and where the Holy Spirit is leading us to go. The only way to progress in this walk is to keep in step with the Spirit, like a marching band keeps in step with its band leader.

This image of walking presents the Holy Spirit as being kind of like a coach. Coaching is a hands-on, relational process of helping a person be successful, as a coach offers encouragement, resources, and help for an 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 this sometimes steep hill of spiritual growth and maturity. Like a good coach, the Holy Spirit won't walk for us, but he walks beside us, inviting us to keep in step with his promptings, to follow his direction, to rely on his encouragement and strengthening. Here we find the third freedom: since the Holy Spirit empowers our lives, we are free to move forward spiritually.

Being filled with the Spirit is not the same thing as being indwelt by the Spirit. Every genuine Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit; it's automatic. But we're only filled by the Holy Spirit when we allow him to empower our lives on a moment by moment basis.

The spiritual life of following Jesus Christ is an uphill climb. It's not an easy stroll through the park; 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 it looks outright impossible when we face challenges that threaten to overwhelm us; 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 lifelong trail, our coach is there with us, offering us everything we need to take the next step.

Are you stuck? Is your spiritual life any different today than it was a year ago? Are you discouraged? Do you feel like quitting or turning back? Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom to move forward spiritually.

The Holy Spirit as a giver

What do we do as we're walking this spiritual path with God? First Corinthians 12:7-11 says this:

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

The Corinthian Christians were greatly confused about the role of these spiritual gifts in the spiritual life—as many Christians are today—so Paul devotes three entire chapters to discussing how they should and should not be used. Paul says that each follower of Jesus is given at least one manifestation of the Spirit. This phrase "manifestation of the Spirit" is another way to describe the gifts of the Holy Spirit, because it's in using these gifts that the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit is manifested or made visible for people to see. Each one 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 and strengthened, for the church to become 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; it's 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. Some Christians believe that some of these gifts are no longer active today, while other Christians believe that they're all still active, but Paul's point is that there are gifts and that it's the Holy Spirit who gives them. The Holy Spirit is the one who gives these gifts; they aren't determined by me, by you, by the church, or by anyone other than him. He gives gifts according to his own wisdom and judgment. Here we find our final freedom: since the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts, we are free to serve God.

The Holy Spirit gives every single follower of Jesus Christ unique gifts, and these gifts are really gifts to the entire Christian community, yet when we don't use these gifts for the common good, when we either us them for our own comfort or when we neglect them through our refusal to use them, we're guilty of a kind of spiritual fraud. You see, the Holy Spirit gives us these gifts, but it's up to us to unwrap them. This means that every follower of Jesus is on a journey of discovering what his or her spiritual gifts are and using these spiritual gifts in specific areas of ministry. The spiritual health of any church is determined not by how powerful the worship service is, not by how effective the speaker is, not by how great the facility is, but by how many individual members are using their spiritual gifts in ministry.

You see, it's the Holy Spirit's giving of these gifts that frees us to serve God. After all, what do we have to really offer God? Not much. But if we use that which he has given us to manifest his presence, to make his invisible work visible through our tangible service, then we are free to serve God.


There are many things Christians believe about the Holy Spirit. In fact, lots of Christians argue over these differences. Yet all Christians agree that the Holy Spirit brings freedom—the freedom to experience salvation, the freedom to be secure with God, the freedom to move forward spiritually, the freedom to serve God. They may disagree on exactly how that all happens, but all agree that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is salvation, security, growth, and service. This comes through the Holy Spirit's work to draw us to Christ, through his indwelling, his empowering, and his giving.

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:


I. The Holy Spirit as counselor

II. The Holy Spirit as a guarantee

III. The Holy Spirit as a coach

IV. The Holy Spirit as a giver