Many religions teach belief in a cosmic force that gives life and purpose to everything in the world. For example, Hinduism teaches the idea of karma—the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words, and deeds.
Most Christians, however, hold that this “force” is not a vague and impersonal force at all, but rather a God who cares deeply about our lives. Historic Christianity specifically and uniquely believes that this God is one being made up of three distinct persons: the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Each member of the Trinity shares the same substance and has a unique role in the world. The relationship of love and community that is shared among the three overflows into a relationship that the triune God desires to have with every person. As a result, the Holy Spirit is an essential aspect of who God is.1
The Holy Spirit in the Bible
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity because the Bible seems to support that concept.
The Old Testament makes several references to God’s Spirit. The Spirit was present at creation and gave power and strength to people like Moses, Samson, and David.2 And the Psalms speak of the Holy Spirit’s infinite presence from which no person can hide or flee.3
The New Testament writers also elaborated on the Holy Spirit. They wrote about the Holy Spirit’s role in convicting people when they do wrong, guiding people to do what is right, and generally teaching and illuminating the truth about God to all who seek him.4 Luke, a physician and one of the Gospel writers, indicated that one’s relationship to God is the same as one’s relationship to the Holy Spirit.5
Nonetheless, understanding exactly who the Holy Spirit is can be difficult. It’s not too hard to imagine God as a creator or a father-like figure. And Jesus is a tangible person who we can read about and study. But the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is more mysterious and evasive.
A few images might help our understanding.
Describing the Holy Spirit
In the 1611 King James Version of the Bible—one of the first English translations—the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Holy Ghost.”
Ghosts are usually perceived as scary creatures. They reportedly haunt houses, graveyards, and people. Or ghosts are portrayed as nice and cute—like Casper or bed-sheet-covered three-year-olds who knock on our doors at Halloween.
But according to most Christians, the Holy Spirit is neither scary nor cute. So what is—or who is—the Holy Spirit?
One image used in the Bible comes from nature. The word often translated “spirit” from Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible, also means “breath” or “wind.”6 In this sense, the Holy Spirit is like the wind—you can feel its effects when it blows but you cannot pin it down.
Jesus described it this way: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”7
Another image for the Holy Spirit is advocate or helper. When Jesus was teaching his disciples one day, he said, “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”8
An advocate is a person who stands beside you, works with you, and supports your cause. He is a counselor who supports, defends, teaches, and helps you when you are in trouble. Think of a legal advocate who pleads your case in court. This is the role of the Holy Spirit for those who ask for his help in their lives.9
The Presence of the Holy Spirit
So sometimes the Holy Spirit is like the mysterious but powerful wind; sometimes he is like a personal helper, partner, or advocate beside us. But Christians also believe the Holy Spirit can live within us, filling our hearts and minds with freedom, joy, purpose, and grace.
In this way, the Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus in our lives.
When people first began following Jesus, his love infected them and transformed their lives. Though Jesus is no longer physically present on earth, the Holy Spirit makes his life-giving presence available to all who seek him.
The apostle Paul explained it this way: “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.”10
And so we come back to the inexplicable role of the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, working together mysteriously to reveal God and his will in our lives.11
What the Holy Spirit Does
Perhaps the best way to understand who the Holy Spirit is comes from describing what he does. For centuries, people of faith have attempted to convey the sacred feeling they experience when they pray and seek God.
For some, it’s a moment of power and ecstasy that provokes emotions that can’t really be explained. Others describe it as the voice of their conscience warning them of danger or challenging them to help someone in need. And at times, it’s the overwhelming sense that—when everyone else has let us down—we are not alone. We are still loved by a God who is both infinitely transcendent and immanently close.12
- See Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Second Edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 292-318.
- See The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Genesis 1:2, Numbers 11:16-17, Judges 14:6, and 1 Samuel 16:13.
- See The Holy Bible, Psalm 139:7-12.
- See The Holy Bible, John 16:8-13.
- See The Holy Bible, Acts 5:3-4.
- E. Kamlah, J.D.G. Dunn, and C. Brown “Spirit, Holy Spirit” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), vol. 3, 689-709.
- The Holy Bible, John 3:8.
- Ibid., John 14:25-26.
- It is worth noting that when people refer to the Holy Spirit as “he,” the masculine pronoun can be confusing. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit is male (nor is God, even though the metaphor of Father is often used.) Rather, pronouns like “he” and “him” are used by New Testament writers and others to indicate only that the Holy Spirit is personal and relational, not a vague force like gravity or karma.
- Ibid., Romans 8:10-11.
- While much of the explicit language in the Bible about the Holy Spirit is found in the New Testament, Christopher J. H. Wright explores many other images and references to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. See his excellent Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006).
- For more on the work of the Holy Spirit, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 634-653.
- Photo Credit: Balazs Kovacs / Shutterstock.com.