The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity?
Today is Pentecost Sunday. That’s our Christian celebration of the birth of the church as recounted in Acts 2. You know the story. Jesus’s disciples and others were gathered in an “upper room” in Jerusalem after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. He had told them to go there and wait to be “endued with power from on high” that would then make them witnesses to him throughout the world. As they were gathered there, celebrating the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them “like a rushing, mighty wind” and “tongues of flame” appeared over their heads. Then they spoke in tongues—foreign languages unknown to them. Apparently people from the area—gathered from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate Pentecost–flocked to see and hear this phenomenon and heard the gospel of Jesus Christ being preached in their own languages. They thought the disciples were drunk which indicates they were very excited.
So, that’s the story in a nutshell. On that day the Christian church was born; it didn’t exist before then. So what happened then, in that “upper room,” that birthed the Christian church? Christian tradition says what happened was the Holy Spirit was for the first time given to people—as an indwelling gift. The Holy Spirit, who before had been a somewhat elusive presence and power of God descending on prophets, suddenly came to dwell within Jesus’s followers.
We often talk about the church as “God’s people” and “followers of Jesus,” but we often neglect to mention that the church is also the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. Beginning on this day of Pentecost, in around 33 A.D., God’s own Spirit came to indwell, unite, energize and send forth the new people of God, the church.
Who is this “Holy Spirit?” One theologian published a book about the Holy Spirit entitled “The Shy Member of the Trinity.” His point was that the Holy Spirit does not want our attention; the Holy Spirit’s role is only to glorify Jesus Christ and to make him present to us and in us—if we believe in him and are his people. I’m not so sure about the Holy Spirit being “the Shy Member of the Trinity.” I agree that the Holy Spirit does seek to glorify Jesus, but I suspect that theologian’s tongue-in-cheek description of the Holy Spirit reflects many Christians’ hesitancy about the Holy Spirit.
I’ve taught mostly Baptist theology students for about thirty-five years now and most of them tell me they grew up in churches where the Holy Spirit was talked about, if at all, in hushed tones and with some anxiety. Whenever I have taught an elective course on the Holy Spirit it has filled up immediately; these students are hungry to know more about the Holy Spirit. When I ask them why they don’t already know much about the Holy Spirit they tell me their pastors and parents didn’t talk about the Holy Spirit much at all. When I ask why that is the case they say things like “We don’t want to be like those Pentecostals.”
I grew up Pentecostal—from birth to about age twenty-five when I “converted” to being Baptist. I won’t go into all the reasons why that happened; I will only say that to this day I consider myself a “Bapticostal”—a hybrid of Baptist and Pentecostal. I wish Pentecostals were a little more cautious about the Holy Spirit’s “manifestations” and Baptists were a little more open to them. I have often looked for the middle ground between the two groups but rarely found it.
But let’s go back to the question “Who is this Holy Spirit?”
In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is hardly distinguished from Yahweh God, the Covenant Lord of Israel. Yet, there are hints here and there, especially in the prophets, that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person of God. The Holy Spirit came and went—occasionally descending on a prophet to reveal truth or to work miracles. But no prophet before John the Baptist was “filled with the Spirit.”
The New Testament has so much to say about the Holy Spirit it’s impossible to even touch on it all in one sermon. Sometimes I wonder why anyone would think the Holy Spirit is the “Shy Member of the Trinity”—given the prominent role of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament and really throughout church history after the first century.
Jesus promised the disciples that after he left them he would send “another Comforter” or “another “Advocate” to be with them and in them—to represent himself to them and to lead them into all truth. The Greek word in the New Testament translated “Comforter” or “Advocate” is “Paraclete.” This Paraclete, the promised Holy Spirit, is mentioned often in John’s gospel—especially in chapters 14 through 17. The Holy Spirit plays a prominent role in the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul mentions the Holy Spirit often and urges God’s people to “be not drunk with wine but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” He say that the Holy Spirit helps us pray—when we don’t know how to pray. He mentions several “gifts of the Holy Spirit” and “fruit of the Spirit.” There is no shortage of “talk” of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.
And yet, for all that, somehow, for some reason, we Baptists especially have tended to shy away from talking about the Holy Spirit. And yet some of the greatest written treatises about the Holy Spirit in church history have been written by Baptists. I think we need to overcome our fear of being thought of as Pentecostals, who really are our spiritual and theological cousins, and rediscover the Holy Spirit. I’m sure that would be Jesus’s and Paul’s message to us. It’s my message to you on this Pentecost Sunday.
Bear with me as I do my “theologian’s thing” for a few minutes and teach about the Holy Spirit. Much of this many of you already know, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.
First, the Holy Spirit is God. Most of us know that, but even some good God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians are confused about who the Holy Spirit is. The Bible contains no “theology of the Holy Spirit” but when you put together all it says there’s only one reasonable conclusion to draw—the Holy Spirit is God. The Spirit does things only God can do.
Second, the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force or power like electricity. Again, when you put together all the Bible says about the Holy Spirit there’s only one reasonable conclusion to draw—the Holy Spirit is personal. I forbid my students from referring to the Holy Spirit as “it.” True, the Bible itself refers to the Holy Spirit as “it” but that’s only because in Greek the word for “spirit”—pneuma—is neuter. Our English translations should drop the neuter pronoun “it” and use “he” or even “she.” The Hebrew word for spirit is feminine. So there’s no reason, really, to only say “he” when referring to the Holy Spirit. And “it” tends to cause people to think of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force or power like electricity. Instead, the New Testament tells us the Holy Spirit speaks, comforts, convicts, and can be grieved. An impersonal force or power cannot do any of that.
Third, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead—the Trinity. Again, putting all that the Bible says about the Holy Spirit together, the only reasonable conclusion is that the Holy Spirit is the third person of God—alongside Father and Son—and has been from all eternity.
Some of my Baptist students jokingly tell me they grew up thinking the Trinity is Father, Son and Holy Bible. Yes, we Baptists, especially conservative, evangelical Baptists, have tended to elevate the Bible to that status. I suspect that’s not only because we love the Bible but also because we are a bit afraid of the Holy Spirit. We know all too well what a “rushing, mighty wind” can do—especially in Texas. And we have seen on television Pentecostal evangelists like Benny Hinn and Rod Parsley doing very strange things. We don’t want to be like them.
Let me just stop right here—with a sidebar comment—and say from personal experience that not all Pentecostals are like the Pentecostal television evangelists. We Baptists don’t want to be lumped together with the Phelps family from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas who picket funerals with hate speech, so let’s not lump all Pentecostals together with the strange televangelists, most of whom don’t belong to any organized Pentecostal group.
So the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead—equal in every way with the Father and the Son but sent to us by the Father through the Son.
Like every other biblical subject the Holy Spirit has been the topic of much controversy throughout church history—possibly another reason many Christian shy away from giving the Spirit attention. The Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church divided in 1054 A.D. over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or only from the Father. I won’t go into all that; it seems speculative to us. Pentecostals broke away from Methodists and other Protestant groups over whether the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gifts are still available to Christians today or whether they ceased when the Bible was completed.
But I don’t want to dwell on controversies about the Holy Spirit; they interest me but aren’t the subject for Pentecost Sunday. Today we should focus together on the special function of the Holy Spirit among us and in us and not on debates and controversies.
So how does the New Testament speak to us about the Holy Spirit? What are the functions of the Holy Spirit that we should know about and seek to have working in us and among us?
Backing up from Jesus’s promise of the Spirit taking his place, we see that the Hebrew prophet Joel promised that “in the last days” the Spirit would fill God’s people in a special way never experienced before. The disciple-apostle Peter interpreted the Day of Pentecost as the fulfillment of that promise.
Second the Holy Spirit is paraclete. This is the special function, role Jesus gave to the Holy Spirit. In that culture a “paraclete” was someone who went with a friend to court—to support them and plead their cause. Not exactly a lawyer, but a friendly advocate and helper. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as “another paraclete,” so that indicates the Holy Spirit is like Jesus, fulfilling the same function of mediator, friend and helper. The difference is that the Holy Spirit dwells within us if we are Jesus people, people who through faith embrace Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Third, then, the Holy Spirit is presence. Unlike in the Old Testament where the Holy Spirit “came and went,” since the Day of Pentecostal all who truly follow Jesus, who have put their trust in him and embraced him as Lord and Savior, have the Holy Spirit as their possession. Not “possession” as something we own and do with whatever we want. Instead, we possess the Holy Spirit as we are possessed by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, sent to us by Christ, takes possession of us. The Spirit is God’s personal presence within us.
Fourth, the Holy Spirit is power. Jesus promised the disciples the power they would need to be his witnesses throughout the world and they did go on to “turn the world upside down”—because they were possessed by the Holy Spirit and given the Spirit’s power to witness. Although the Spirit is a person, the Spirit is also God’s power in us and among us.
Pentecostals specialize in this dimension of the Holy Spirit. When I was growing up we often sang “The power, the power, gives victory over sin and purity within…the power they had at Pentecost.” But there is no reason why Baptists cannot experience this same power. In fact, that hymn so loved by Pentecostals was written by a Baptist! Power to do what? To live Christlike lives, to show forth the grace of God, to point people to Jesus, to be the people of God.
Fifth, the Holy Spirit is passion. Here is where we Baptists get a bit nervous about the Holy Spirit. We do not want to be emotional; we want our services and our lives to be predictable. Doing all things “decently and in order” is a good thing, but it can become deadly dull. As a Scandinavian I know that it’s possible to have passion without showing it emotionally, but I also believe, from the New Testament and from personal experience, that passion that never manifests itself outwardly is rare.
Let me tell you a story about that. When I first came here in 1999 my colleague, a wlel-known church musician and hymn writer, took my wife and me to the annual university homecoming “hymn sing” at First Baptist Church. Most of the approximately five hundred people there were older folks. I was proud to be sitting next to my friend and colleague when the song leaders had us sing his best known hymn. But I was a little disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm throughout the singing. I attributed it to the fact that most of the people were elderly. Then, however, when at the end of the hymn sing the organist struck up university’s signature song those five hundred elderly people suddenly came alive; they stood and clawed the air with their hands with enthusiasm and passion as they sang loudly. I was stunned; I thought they were all asleep.
Why do we think it is good to demonstrate passion outwardly, emotionally, at a sports event or while singing “That Good Old Baylor Line” but not when we sing hymns and gospel songs about our Savior’s love and mercy and about God’s glory?
The Holy Spirit’s presence should show, at least occasionally, in passionate excitement and enthusiasm about our God and his love and mercy.
But more importantly than emotional displays, as natural as they are when we are inwardly moved by the Spirit, is the passion the Holy Spirit brings into us for the Kingdom of God—God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. The Holy Spirit gives us passion for the lost and dying and for peace and justice.
Sixth, the Holy Spirit is productive—producing edifying works and fruit among God’s people. The New Testament lists two special things the Holy Spirit produces when the Spirit is present within us and among us. The first are gifts of the Spirit. The second are fruit of the Spirit. We Baptists tend to focus more on the fruit of the Spirit than on the gifts of the Spirit.
Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, patience, etc. These are the evidence of the Spirit’s presence. Wherever the Spirit is present these characteristics should be evident in a supernatural way. What that means is that producing the fruit of the Spirit does not happen simply by “turning over a new leaf.” The fruit of the Spirit are beyond our natural capacity to produce.
Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12: faith, prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and wisdom, etc. Like the fruit of the Spirit these are supernatural, not natural abilities. Left to ourselves, without the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, we could never have these gifts.
Now, let me be clear. There are people who do not have the Spirit who have what look like some of the fruit of the Spirit and some of the gifts of the Spirit, but without the Holy Spirit what they have is not the same as the fruit and gifts Paul mentions. These fruit and gifts come “from above,” not from our own human nature.
As Christians we hopefully want to display the fruit of the Spirit and practice at least some of the gifts of the Spirit. But we can’t have them without the Spirit’s help. As I said, we can’t become truly loving—of people not at all like us—without the Spirit’s supernatural presence and power. We can’t pray for people to be healed and have them healed without the Spirit’s supernatural presence and power.
So, if we want these evidences of the Spirit’s presence and power in our lives, in our church, what must we do?
The New Testament very prominently talks about something we Baptists tend to ignore—the “infilling of the Spirit.” On the Day of Pentecost the disciples were already “saved.” They were already people of God, followers of Jesus. What did they lack that they waited for and received on that day? According to one gospel they had already received the Holy Spirit, so it wasn’t just the presence of the Holy Spirit they received on the Day of Pentecost. Later, throughout the Acts of the Apostles, people who were already believers in Jesus Christ received something new—a “more” of the Spirit’s personal presence and power called the “infilling of the Holy Spirit.”
I believe this is an experience every Christian should have—not just once but as often as necessary and possible. The Holy Spirit indwells us when we first come to Christ in repentance and faith—what we call “conversion.” Immediately we are forgiven and born again. Immediately the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us. When we gather for worship the Holy Spirit is present. But the New Testament indicates something else that can and probably should happen. Our prayer lives and our worship should receive fresh infillings of the Spirit’s power, bringing increasing degrees of the fruit and gifts of the Spirit.
Why just settle for being “forgiven and born again?” Why not be transformed? A fair reading of the New Testament pushes us to realize that, although the Holy Spirit is already within us and among us, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit always can “fall on us” with fresh infillings—transforming our lives both individually and collectively. When that happens the fruit of the Spirit grows and the gifts of the Spirit open up. The result is holiness of life, power to witness, and mutual blessing of each other and God.
Does that make you nervous? It should. The Holy Spirit is never predictable or safe. The Holy Spirit shatters the status quo, breaking us out of complacency and lifting us up to new heights of spiritual fullness and blessing—if we are open to that.