Last time we discussed who the Holy Spirit is. In the words of the catechism: What do you believe concerning the Holy Spirit? First, he is, together with the Father and the Son, true and eternal God. Now we will talk about the work he does, and especially how he is involved with Christian believers, with us who believe in Jesus Christ.
The most important thing is the miracle that he (the Holy Spirit) is given to me. The Spirit, God himself is given directly to us. To us as the church of Jesus. To each of us, as believers in Jesus and loved child of God.
That is what Jesus had promised before he left for heaven: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth … You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:17) Jesus kept his promise. That was clear on Pentecost, ten days after he had gone to heaven. The Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus’ disciples, symbolized in the sound of wind and visible flames, and the disciples spoke powerfully about their Lord, and thousands of people believed in Jesus. That was the Spirit at work.
What does it mean that the Holy Spirit is given to you? What does it mean that God dwells in you and in the church? Many things; the catechism lists only a few.
The gift of the Holy Spirit
1. He unites us with Christ in faith
2. He comforts us with hope
3. He guides us in a life of love
He unites us with Christ in faith
The first gift of the Holy Spirit is faith. The truth of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came to the earth to bring salvation. But we must embrace that truth; we must be profoundly connected to Jesus to receive that salvation. The Bible not only talks about “sharing” in Christ, but even about “being in Christ”. Jesus used the picture of the vine and the branches: like the branches of a vine (or any plant) we must be connected to it, part of the whole plant; otherwise we cannot live. But if we are “in Christ”, if we art part of him, we share in his life and everything else he offers.
To make that connection, to unite us to Jesus Christ—that is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism says: he is given to me to make me by true faith share in Christ and all his benefits. The Holy Spirit can do this work because, just like Jesus, he is God himself. He is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If we have are given the same Spirit as our Lord, how intimately does that connect us to him!
What are these benefits of Christ that the catechism talks about? In the Reformed form for baptism, it says: “The Holy Spirit assures us that he will dwell in us and make us living members of Christ, imparting what we have in Christ, namely, the cleansing from our sins and the daily renewal of our lives.” The Lord Jesus, through his death and resurrection, earned for us the forgiveness of sin and eternal life; but the Holy Spirit takes these things and makes them reality in our personal lives.
Wherever people come to faith, wherever sins are forgiven in the name of Christ, wherever there is spiritual growth—there the Holy Spirit is at work. Without the work of God’s Spirit, we could not even believe. The most profound and radical work of the Holy Spirit in a person is the work of regeneration. It is like being born again as a spiritual person, whose heart has been opened to receive God’s grace. Jesus told Nicodemus: “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again,” and then he spoke about people who were “born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3, 8) Regeneration is the beginning of Christian life. Then, throughout our life, the Spirit grows our faith, and applies to us the forgiveness of sin, and makes us able and willing to live a godly life. This is his work of sanctification, of making us more holy.
Any changes that take place in our life because we belong to Jesus, are the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible summarizes this change as: being renewed in the image of God (Col. 3:10). “We are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:18)
The Bible says that the Holy Spirit “dwells” in believers. He doesn’t just brush past our lives every now and then; he is with us throughout our lives. Sometimes, because of our weak faith and sinful attitudes, it may seem that the Holy Spirit isn’t there, and his effect in our lives is small. But if you believe in Jesus, you may be sure that the Spirit is with you; you may always pray for him to be more active in your life. Later, in LD 45, the Catechism teaches that “God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who ask him for these gifts;” but he never keeps his Holy Spirit back if you sincerely ask.
There is much to be said about the practical results of the Holy Spirit’s work in us. The catechism will do this later, when we talk about conversion (LD 33) and about the law of God (LD 34-44). As the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and minds, we learn to do truly good works, to worship and honour the Lord in everything we do. A beautiful summary is found in Gal. 5:22: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are called the “fruit” or “harvest” of the Spirit, because in every person where the Holy Spirit dwells and is at work, you can expect these good attitudes to show in the life of everyday.
He comforts us with hope
The Holy Spirit also comforts me, says the Catechism. When life is difficult, when I lose heart, when there is doubt and temptation, the Holy Spirit is there to give hope. Especially when we must suffer because we are Christians, like the martyrs of the ancient church, the Holy Spirit gives everything that we need. “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Pet. 4:14) Jesus said: “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” (Luke 21:15)
The Holy Spirit comforts believers by giving them assurance. That means that we are certain of God’s love for us. That God’s promises are not only true in general, but true for me, and that I can rely on him perfectly. In Romans 8, Paul talks especially about the assurance we have of being children of God. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry: Abba, Father! The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Rom. 8:14-17)
Whenever you wonder if God loves you, listen to the Holy Spirit as he speaks to your heart. Whatever sins you may have committed, if you put your hope in Jesus, you are no less than a son or daughter of God, and therefore greatly loved, and you will inherit the glory and treasure of heaven. This is true because of all that Jesus has done for you; but it is his Spirit who declares, over and over, that it is true for you.
Another great comfort, also discussed in Romans 8, is that the Holy Spirit prays for us. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Here we see the Spirit in action as our Paraclete. We may not have the confidence or the words to plead our case before God, but the Holy Spirit does. He makes sure that our prayers are holy, and that they are heard. This is a great comfort, especially if you deal with so much trouble that you cannot pray for yourself.
So the Holy Spirit is the spirit of comfort and hope. Christians never have to live without hope, because the Holy Spirit is always there. He remains with me forever, says the Catechism. As long as we live, God is very nearby, because the very Spirit of God has made a home in us.
He guides us in a life of love
The catechism leaves it at this: the Holy Spirit gives me faith to unite me with Christ, and comforts me forever. But there are many other aspects to the work of the Spirit; some of them will be discussed in later lessons.
I would like to point out one important area where we see the Spirit at work. That is in the life of the church. In his letters, Paul often talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the community of Christian believers. These gifts make the church what it is: not a social club, but a sacred assembly, a holy congregation, even “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). Each of us receive gifts of the Holy Spirit that we don’t keep for ourselves, but use to help and encourage one another, to build each other up in faith; in the first place within the church, but also in our relationship to people outside of the church. It is the Holy Spirit who promotes unity in the church; it is the Holy Spirit who makes the church a witness about Jesus to the world.
A key chapter in the Bible on this topic is 1 Corinthians 12. Paul writes: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (1 Cor. 12:4) Some of these gifts are skills that equip people to have a special role in the church: apostles, prophets, teachers (12:28). We should be alert to these gifts in our own life, and wonder how God would use us to serve his church. We should recognize gifts in others, and encourage them to develop them for the sake of the Kingdom. This may be the most obvious when we prepare men to become elders or ministers in the church; but there are many other tasks in God’s church for which the Holy Spirit gives men and women special abilities and skills. You could say that the Holy Spirit provides for us in the church by giving us to each other.
Some of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians are quite extraordinary. Miraculous healing, special prophecies, speaking in tongues. These are not commonly found in the church today, and wherever they seem to be, you can often wonder how genuine and helpful they are. These special gifts are called charismata; this is the Greek world Paul uses, and it means “gifts of grace”. There is a strong focus on charismata in the so-called charismatic movement, which you can find in Pentecostal churches. In these churches, people look for the work of the Spirit in extraordinary happenings, and the church services can become quite a show.
But the case can be made that charismata are mostly unnecessary today. In the first church, they were meant to prove the presence of God in the church, a powerful sign for unbelievers. They still occasionally happen on the mission field. But typically, the Holy Spirit grows the church through more mundane gifts: through church members who know how to lead, through people who can explain the teachings of Jesus, through men and women who live godly lives and encourage others to do the same.
At the end of 1 Cor. 12, Paul encourages believers to pursue whatever gifts the Holy Spirit may have for them. But then he says: “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” (1 Cor. 12:31) That most excellent way is Christian love. Of all the fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit in the church, the most basic yet most profound and miraculous one is love. If we have love, we can really care for others in an unselfish way. If we have love, we will use all our other gifts for the sake of the church as the body of Christ. “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:5).
The Holy Spirit is the power of God, and he himself is God. It is a miraculous truth that this Spirit dwells in believers and in the church. If you believe in Jesus, you may apply this very personally: He is also given to me, to make me by true faith share in Christ and all his benefits. The Spirit made you born again; he applies to your life the forgiveness of sins; he sanctifies your life, so you become more and more like Jesus Christ, living the holy life in the very image of God. He is given to comfort me, and to remain with me forever, so that I never need to doubt that God loves me like his own child; the Holy Spirit even prays for me when I don’t know how to pray. The Holy Spirit gives me love for God, and love for others; and he unites the church of Jesus Christ, so that we use the many gifts of the Spirits that are given to us for the benefit of each other.
In short, the Holy Spirit is God at work in this world, in our lives, in the church. Wherever he goes, the Kingdom of God becomes more and more visible. Let us recognize and receive the Spirit and not, as the Bible warns us, “grief the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30) or “quench the Spirit” (1 Thes. 5:19) like you might quench the flame of a candle. If the Holy Spirit of Jesus guides you, you will be strong in faith, hope, and love, as you become more and more like the Lord Jesus himself.
- The catechism says that the Holy Spirit makes us “share in Christ’s benefits”. List some of these benefits.
- In what way does the Holy Spirit renew you?
- What comfort does the Holy Spirit give you?
- What are charismata?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||John 7:37-39. What does v. 39 teach about people who believe in Jesus?|
|Tuesday||Acts 10. What happened to Cornelius and his family when they heard the gospel preached to them?|
|Wednesday||1 Thessalonians 1. What gifts of the Holy Spirit are listed here?|
|Thursday||Romans 8:1-17. What does the Holy Spirit teach us about our relationship with God?|
|Friday||Galatians 5:16-26. How does Paul characterize the Christian life here? (v. 17, 18, 25)|
|Saturday||1 Corinthians 12:27-31. Explore the spiritual gifts listed here. What gift is the “more excellent way”? (Hint: Read on in ch. 13-14.)|