What Difference Does It Make If the Holy Spirit Is Impersonal?

What Difference Does It Make If the Holy Spirit Is Impersonal? November 12, 2017

A mosaic representing Pentecost on the ceiling of the cathedral; By Pete unseth - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
A mosaic representing Pentecost on the ceiling of the cathedral; By Pete unseth –  Wikipedia;

Sometimes I hear people talking about the Holy Spirit as if the Spirit is impersonal. How does that view line up with the Bible, and what difference does the answer make? First, let’s take a look at Scripture.

While some may find it difficult to think of God’s Spirit as a distinct person in the Godhead in relation to the Father and Jesus who are also divine persons, it is difficult to envision the Spirit as impersonal given how the Scriptures refer to the Spirit and the Spirit’s activity. For example, how could someone lie to the Holy Spirit if the Spirit is impersonal? According to Acts 5:3, Ananias and Saphira do just that—lie to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Acts 5:4 signifies that the Spirit is God. Luke’s account records the Apostle Peter declaring, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:3-4; ESV).

There are other texts that also suggest that the Holy Spirit is personal. Ephesians 4:30 speaks against grieving the Spirit: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30; ESV). How can one grieve the Holy Spirit if the Spirit is impersonal?

Moreover, the Lord Jesus informs his disciples in the Farewell Discourse recorded in John’s Gospel that he will send his disciples another Counselor (one who is like himself, specifically, another Counselor of the same kind), the Spirit of truth. Jesus says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper [Advocate, Counselor], to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17; ESV). How can this Counselor be parallel to Jesus, that is another Counselor of the same kind, if the Spirit is not personal like Jesus? On an even more basic level, how could an impersonal spirit or Spirit serve as any kind of counselor, even as one who will teach and remind the disciples of everything Jesus said? And yet, the Spirit does just that. The Lord’s comfort to his disciples entails that this same Spirit, who is aligned with him in every way, will teach and remind them of what Jesus has shared with them: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; ESV).

Furthermore, although the word for the Spirit is neuter in Greek, and takes a neuter definite article (in Greek, pronouns agree with their antecedents in gender, number, and case), personal rather than neuter pronouns are used at times in reference to the Spirit (Reference John 16:13-14 {ekeionos} and Ephesians 1:14 {hos}).

Lastly, one must account for the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20: the Spirit shares the divine name with the Father and Son. Jesus proclaims, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19; ESV). The Spirit who comes upon Jesus’ followers at Pentecost (Acts 2) mediates his presence to them: Jesus is with them always (Matthew 28:20).

These passages present the Holy Spirit as personal. But what difference does it really make for our salvation and growth in the Christian life that the Spirit is personal rather than impersonal? On my account, if the Spirit is impersonal, the salvation that the Spirit mediates would also be impersonal and lead us down the path toward sin management.

Those who simply seek to manage relationships are never truly in relationship, especially when what they seek to manage is their sin. The interesting thing about trying to manage sin is that it never really works, but appears to get more embedded in our lives. Change has to come from within, and not by some impersonal means, but by a change in our hearts through the Spirit of God’s outpouring of love. More on that in a bit.

For those like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 and those immersed in a world of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, where sin is not so traumatic, sin management is not viewed as such a significant problem.[1] But for those like myself who believe we are in need of transformation from the inside out, the subject is critically important. After all, as Jesus tells his disciples following the encounter with the rich young ruler, salvation is possible only through God. Even the rich person, who is supposedly blessed in amazing ways by God, cannot be saved apart from God’s intervention (See Matthew 19). As Ezekiel 36 and John 3 reveal, the Spirit is indispensable. The Bible reveals that the Spirit alone is able to turn us from our selfish, individual and less than humane desires upward toward God and outward toward others. Only as God intervenes in our lives by God’s Spirit do we become truly personal and relational.

According to Jesus, the flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:6; see the background context of Ezekiel 36). It is the Spirit who mediates God’s love (Romans 5:5). The Spirit gives us spiritual gifts (See 1 Corinthians 12 and 14) of which the ultimate gift is love (1 Corinthians 13). The Spirit fills us with the divine fruit rather than the fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-21). The fruit of the Spirit makes it possible to live well interpersonally: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23; ESV). It is no coincidence that given such qualities, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove on Jesus (Matthew 3:16), and not as a bird of prey. The Spirit brings hope and peace and life, not death and despair.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29). Apart from the gracious working of the Spirit in our lives, we cannot be saved. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6; ESV). Paul puts it this way: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5; ESV).

Jonathan Edwards claims that the Spirit of God is God’s grace and love. The Spirit of God who is God’s love is poured out into our hearts, leading to a change of nature and affections. This change in nature and the heart’s affections depends wholly upon the divine Spirit of love who dwells in our hearts, not upon the enablement or determination of the human will. In no way is the Spirit’s operation inherent to our human nature. The divine Spirit, not a created quality inhering in the soul, is God’s grace.

As Edwards notes, God is essentially pure love. Moreover, the three persons of the Godhead share all the divine perfections. And yet, for Edwards, the Spirit, who is the third person of the Trinity, is identified specifically with God’s love, as noted above. For Edwards, the Spirit mediates the love between the Father and Son as well as mediates that love to the creature.[2]

In the development of his argument, Edwards draws attention to 1 John’s account of God as love and the Spirit’s unique identification with God’s love. God’s being is essentially love: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8; ESV). We know we abide in God and God in us because God has given us the Spirit: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13; ESV). God is love. Those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16; ESV).

If love and grace are essentially divine and personal, our salvation is personal. Such personal salvation is the immediate working of God’s personal Spirit through whom God’s gracious love is poured out into our hearts (Romans 5:5). This divine outpouring of gracious love creates faith and leads to lives of obedient gratitude (See Galatians 2:20). The Spirit, then, does not enable us to manage sin and keep it at bay, but casts out sin by penetrating our souls and every area of our lives so that the triune God of holy love might dwell fully in us by faith.


[1]Refer here to the account of the Spirit in MTD:  Christian Smith, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith,” for The 2005 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture, page 50. According to MTD, God does not fill and transform people through the Spirit. One young person said in an interview that God or the Spirit is important because God creates us and gives us what we want: “Cause God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn’t let me down yet. [So what is God like?] God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad.”

[2]Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace, in Treatise on Grace and other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1971). Refer here as well to an online source for the treatise.

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